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Profile: Dalai Lama

With Tibetan youth teetering on the edge, the Dalai Lama enters a decisive phase, and he must calm his people and yet boost their morale, writes Gaurav Bisht.

india Updated: Mar 22, 2008 01:09 IST
Gaurav Bisht

An elephant can easily trample a mouse, goes the saying. So too can a fire-breathing Communist dragon. The Chinese dragon has spent 49 years grinding the Tibetan mouse under its feet. But far from being crushed, the mouse today is staring the dragon in the eye without flinching.

And if the mouse’s loud squeaks are still being heard, if Tibetan identity remains an international issue half a century after the country was ‘conquered’, the credit must go largely to the personal stature and influence of the Dalai Lama. No matter that some radical Tibetans are impatient with his stress on non-violence and the 'middle way approach’ (MWA) he advocates, seeking meaningful autonomy rather than outright independence. No matter that Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao has called him a “jackal in monk’s robes”. Lhamo Dhondup, aka Tenzin Gyatso, aka His Holiness the Dalai Lama is still the focal point of the Tibetan struggle. Does he really expect Tibet to be free one day? “It’s been 50 years,” he replies. “Fifty years turn an infant into a grey-haired man. But for changes in the socio-political environment, 50 years is like half an hour.”

Destined for a divine role

Born into a farming family in Taktser village of Amdo province in Tibet in 1935, Tenzin was recognised as the reincarnation of the earlier Dalai Lama when he was two years old. (The Dalai Lamas, spiritual and administrative head of the Tibetan people, are considered manifestations of Avalokiteshvara, the patron saint of Tibet. The institution dates back to 1391.) Lhamo Dhondup was 14 when the Mao Zedong took over China, and the Red Army marched into Tibet's eastern provinces of Amdo and Kham. Already the chief political representative of his people, he went to Beijing for talks with Mao and Deng Xiaoping in 1954.

The talks, seeking to preserve Tibet's independence, made little headway. In 1959, Lhasa fell to Chinese troops, and the Dalai Lama, along with 80,000 of his followers, rode 46 days on horseback to reach the Indian border at Tezpur. Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru agreed to provide him shelter and the Dalai Lama — after a year in Mussoorie — settled in Dharamshala. “His Holiness often says that the majestic snow-covered Dhauladhar range which surrounds Dharamshala reminds him of our homeland,” said Dawa Tsering, a member of Droetsok, the Tibetan parliament in exile. “That is why he chose to stay here.”

The Dalai Lama gave up the demand for total separation from China in the 1980s, after Deng Xiaoping, the then supreme Chinese leader, said he was ready to discuss anything regarding the future of Tibet — barring complete independence. The decision was ratified by the government-in-exile after a referendum, but it remains a sore point with many Tibetans, who feel that by endorsing mere autonomy the Dalai Lama has let them down. The Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 for his unvarying commitment to non-violence throughout the struggle for Tibet's self-rule. (Even after the present upsurge in Lhasa, he threatened to quit if the violence did not stop.)

Charm offensive

He has fervent admirers across the globe. Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the US House of Representatives, is the latest on a long list of US leaders who have travelled to Dharamshala to meet him. At 72, the Dalai Lama's routine in Dharamshala is fixed. He still wakes up at 3.30 every morning, even at the height of winter, and starts the day by reciting traditional Buddhist prayers. Most of the day is spent in what his aides call 'spiritual practice', and in meeting delegates who come to visit him. “He is very particular about physical fitness and stays on an exercise regimen even at this age,” said one such delegate.

If there is one personal drawback Tenzin Gyatso regrets, it is that he has not mastered Hindi yet. “Thora, thora,” is all he says, his aides reveal, whenever asked. For all his commitment to non-violence, he enjoys his meat. He also has an abiding interest in the sciences. “He is very good at fixing appliances. Till a few years back, one of his hobbies was repairing watches,” said Tenzing Takla, the Dalai Lama’s personal secretary.

But the Dalai Lama knows only too well that he is getting on in years. After him, who? The question of who will be the 15th Dalai Lama has gained an added urgency following the recent unrest in Lhasa. Many Tibetans fear that in its bid to strengthen its grip over their homeland, the Chinese government may well project its own pliable nominee for the Dalai Lama, just as it has done in the case of the Panchen Lama, the second most important Tibetan Buddhist figure. In the 1990s, when the 11th Panchen Lama had to be chosen following his predecessor’s death, the six-year-old nominee endorsed by the Dalai Lama mysteriously disappeared, after which China appointed its own candidate. The puppet Panchen Lama has already denounced the present stir.

The Dalai Lama has made cryptic observations about his likely successor — maintaining once that he need not necessarily be someone resident in Tibet, or that it could even be a woman — but he has not indicated any firm choice yet.

The actual process is long and complex, and TT Karma Choephel, speaker of Droetsok, indicated that the matter would be discussed at the next session scheduled for September.