A date with destiny 

A date with destiny

By Francisco Little in Dharamsala
ODYSSEY MAGAZINE (October 1999 Issue)
South Africa

'It is only through reason fairness and justice that the human heart can be won over' (the Dalai Lama - quote)

The quiet peace of the airy waiting room is interrupted by slapping together of hands and high urgent voices, as Tibetan monks from the adjacent Namgyal Monastery in the North India Himalayan village of Dharamsala go through their rigorous afternoon Buddhist debating sessions. It's a room whose walls are not conventionally decorated with paintings or wall hangings. What lines these walls are ornate certificates, citations, medals and awards - lots of them. Honorary doctorates, humanitarian acknowledgements, keys to cities and recognition for pursuing peace in the face of adversity are on display from almost every country in the world.

After being led down a long, red-floored verandah and ushered into the interview room, I was thinking a million thoughts, while transfixed by the huge multicoloured silk brocaded tangkas (sacred Tibetan paintings) flanking the room's alter. A large glass cabinet formed the central part of the altar, containing several gold statues depicting the various emanations of Buddha. Over the deeply carpeted floor, royal blue Tibetan rugs, with their distinctive geometric pattern, had been carefully arranged around the comfortable khaki coloured couch and easy chairs. Opened curtains revealed a well tended inner courtyard garden and bungalow style terraces. There was a colonial feel about the buildings that seemed to linger from the time that the Dharamsala area was used as a health resort for the 'sahibs' and 'memsahibs' of British India.

I had waited six months from the time of application date until the call confirming the interview had come through. Fortunately, being in Dharamsala on a year long research project meant that the waiting factor did not present a problem. It also gave me ample time to reflect on the man and the things that he stood for.

>From the corner of my eye I noticed the shuffling walk and flow of burgundy robes and felt the 'presence' sit down beside me. I turned to look into the penetrating gaze of His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama, spiritual and secular head of the Tibetan people. The private secretary asked me to formally introduce myself, before motioning that I could begin the interview. For the exiled Dalai Lama, 1998 was a very difficult year. While continuing to hold together the fabric of Tibetan society, the Nobel Peace Laureate began to feel the rumblings of many Tibetans who are becoming dissatisfied with his passive 'middle-way' approach towards the liberation of Tibet from reported ongoing Chinese oppression.

He had to hold his breath while US President Bill Clinton visited China with much speculation that he would convince the Chinese leader Jiang Zemin to meet with the Dalai Lama. It didn't happen. The Dalai Lama, who fled his Himalayan homeland in 1959 after a failed uprising against unwanted Chinese rule, was told that talks were now only possible if the exiled leader accepts that both Tibet and Taiwan are both part of China. Once again the goal posts had shifted.

But perhaps the most important moment for the Dalai Lama last year, was the self immolation of a former Tibetan army veteran. This horrific incident took place in New Delhi, after Indian police had forcibly broken up an unto-death hunger strike by six members of the Tibetan Youth Congress. These volunteers had been striking in a bid to step up action against the ongoing human rights violations of their countrymen and Chinese occupation of Tibet, calling on The United Nations to intervene. When the striker fatally set fire to himself, it was seen as the ultimate act of a nation's sheer frustration at being ignored by the rest of the world. The Dalai Lama described the unto-death strike as an "act of violence" (taking one's own life is seen as an act of violence in the Buddhist religion), yet said that he could offer the strikers "no alternative solution". The death meant that Tibet had its first martyr in exile, and although the incident drew much media attention and public outcry it achieved little else. It would appear that it is the support of nations at the UN general assembly that Tibet really needs.

I asked the Dalai Lama if he had been disappointed at the South African government's recent decision to acknowledge that Tibet is an integral part of China, especially in light of the fact that under Nelson Mandela's leadership, South Africa has an international reputation as the standard bearer of human rights.

Eyebrows leapt up above eyes that seemed to look across centuries. He took many long minutes before answering, gazing at me intently. It was a look that catches one unawares and is felt in the pit of one's stomach. Calmly, in a voice deep enough to reach the earth's centre, he said that many governments have that kind of policy, although the Indian government regard Tibet as an autonomous region of the people, from China, which he felt is more correct. "I did not pay special attention to that - but this (decision) is normal." (The implication is that all other governments have reacted in a similar way in the past, so South Africa is no different) A representative of Tibet's exile government is still permitted to stay in South Africa despite the government's decision.

The Dalai Lama's visit to South Africa in 1996 enabled him to meet, for the first time, a man he considers to be 'his father figure'. It was apparent to all those who saw the two men together that these were kindred spirits, who had a deep affinity for each other. The Dalai Lama was keen to share his impressions of Nelson Mandela and what they discussed while he was in Cape Town almost three years ago.

"He enquired about Tibet and right from the beginning he showed sympathy. I explained about Tibet's current situation - human rights violations and the danger of cultural heritage extinction. At the meeting with the press he praised and mentioned Tibet's spirituality and that means that he acknowledged the importance of Tibetan Buddhism.

He paused, speaking in rapid fire Tibetan to his secretary, to confirm some of the English phrases. The Dalai Lama often criticises his own command of the English language, yet on the evidence was more than able to converse with ease. Placing his palms together before continuing wistfully. "Like I say, Mandela is a father figure and when I conversed with him - it was like talking to my father. Although I see him like a father, what is more important is his long struggle for equality and then what is most important after he got power and became president, he really pursued reconciliation. And that is wonderful, wonderful. Sometimes I am a little concerned that he is old and (wonder if) in the future his successor can truly carry on his remarkable efforts - because although the constitution has changed, emotionally it takes time to complete the transformation (of reconciliation and healing).

So I pray and wish that this same spirit should continue till the complete transformation takes place. Then it becomes much safer. At this moment his spirit and leadership, I think, is very important."

The experience of visiting South Africa, it seems, made quite an impression on the monk, who at home or on the road gets up at 4am, takes a cup of hot water, meditates until 6am, washes and then breakfasts on tsampa (roasted Barley flour, usually mixed with butter).

Whilst in Soweto he had a "very pleasant meeting" with veteran ANC stalwart Walter Sisulu, who he refers to as Mandela's guru or teacher, discussing spirituality and the traditional spiritual practise of the Africans, whilst also interacting with people in their own environment.

"So really I feel that now not only South Africa, but Africa as a whole, in order to enjoy equal status with the rest of the world, the people should make efforts - the initiative must come from Africans themselves - with determination and self confidence. That I think is essential".

The Dalai Lama is a man who today lives in two diametrically opposed worlds simultaneously. Interacting with world leaders and Hollywood celebrities in one and as a teacher and bastion of Tibetan Buddhism in the other. Seen as the reincarnation of Chenrezig, the bodhisattva of compassion, (bodhisattva is a person intent on realising enlightenment for the well being of all sentient beings) his efforts to propagate his culture and liberate Tibetans can be regarded not only as the responsibility of his political office, but also as part of the reason that he has reincarnated as a divine being.

If Tibet was not yet free from Chinese control at the time that he passed away in exile, he says emphatically that he will reincarnate outside Tibet in order to continue his work as the 15th Dalai Lama, adding a proviso that the Tibetan people must want this to happen.

"The very reason of a coming reincarnation is to fulfil the task which started in a previous life, yet is not accomplished. So the very purpose of reincarnation is to fulfil that. For example, let's say that the 14th Dalai Lama started some work in exile - and that goal has still not been achieved, and then let's say that during that time the 14th Dalai Lama passed away - the reincarnation should come, if that is what Tibetans want.

If the reincarnation comes and disturbs the work started in the previous life - this shows it is not a true reincarnation. So therefore while we remain outside as a refugee community and I pass away , then the reincarnation will come logically outside Tibet - outside Chinese control".

The raised eyebrows give the smooth, long oval face a look of menace, offset by a wide smile followed by the famous boom of laughter. It is a laughter that is infectious. At one point he pulled my notebook across the coffee table, curious at the shorthand scribbles and asked me to read back what was written down. This was followed by chortles of irrepressible delight. Busy hands, the left adorned with an agate string of prayers beads and a well worn wristwatch, scratch, gesture and flutter while he speaks and his presence is both brooding and sanguine. There is a clarity in each word that does not translate into print.

As one of the most in demand people on earth, the Dalai Lama has become a fixation with the western world. A man who appears to have walked out of ancient mythology, his days are filled with countless media and private interviews, lectures and teachings, and his travel schedule, both within India and internationally, is awesome. Seen as a figure who represents everything inherently good in all of us, the Dalai Lama phenomenon is what many Westerners are looking to, in order to fill the ethical and moral void of the present age. Now even the Hollywood establishment are on board, with the movies ''7 Years in Tibet' and 'Kundun' turning the 63 year-old spectacled monk-in-exile into a megastar. All the attention on the Dalai Lama also means that the issue of Tibet's freedom is kept firmly in the public eye and his Department of Information generates a mountain of publicity in this regard.

Today the Dalai Lama has moved with the times. In order to bring the Tibetan people into the political equation, 1998 saw the Tibetan government-in-exile receive results of a referendum held to determine the future course of the Tibetan freedom struggle. An overwhelming vote was returned mandating the Dalai Lama to continue with his "middle way approach" an approach which has the upholding of human rights at its core.

The Dalai Lama considers the work for human rights to be a "kind of spiritual practise". His voice raised several octaves as he leaned forward excitedly to explain, the floating eyebrows like inverted commas on the mobile face.

'The concern for the work on human rights is not only the protection of the individual, but I feel usually those individuals who have greater vision about the future, they are usually critical of the existing establishment."

Therefore, says the experienced campaigner for non-violent change, these people become the first target or casualty of human rights violation, a situation that is very harmful for the development or progress of society as a whole. The protection of these individuals, is actually the protection of the whole community's right to development and progress.

"Then also human rights is about the coming future generations - so that automatically leads to serious thought about our consumerism way of life and also the environment. These three (areas) are involved. Therefore, the concept of human rights, I feel, is very wide. So I tell those people who are committed to human rights that they are doing a great service to humanity. The spirit and sense of concern for the rights of others is the act of compassion. So I consider this a kind of spiritual practise.

He paused for several minutes, before adding that both victims and perpetrators need help and compassion.

"When human rights violation takes place, we need to help the victims, but also at that moment we should not develop ill feeling/hate for the aggressor. This is because there is more reason to feel concern about the aggressor rather than the victim. So therefore while we are providing protection for the victims, we also should make an effort (long term) to help the aggressor to become more compassionate".

In a world caught in the selfish, competitive and often narrow minded relay of life, he says that we need to develop a sense of concern for one another, and understand the interconnectedness of all of us.

"Spiritually, I am here as a Buddhist, and we pray every day for the benefit of all sentient beings. But that does mean that I know every sentient being and it does not mean that I have personal relations with all of them. But because of my own experience, I know their experience. I do not want suffering - it is painful to me and therefore to others also suffering is painful. So if I do not want any pain then others must also have the same feeling. So on these grounds I can understand and develop a sense of concern for them".

Unless we have some experience through personal contact with others, we may not have the attitude to develop the sense of concern for each other, and in order to show a sense of caring for another, first we should have a sense of caring for ourselves. This, says the Dalai Lama, leads to better relationships between families, communities and ultimately nations.

Exile has meant that the Dalai Lama today lives a far different and more interactive life to the one he would have lived in Tibet. In his autobiography Freedom in Exile he recalls how he would only leave his 1000 room, gold-roofed Potala palace, (traditional residence of the Dalai Lamas) on rare occasions and this would be with great pomp and ceremony, ensconced in a yellow silk palanquin, and surrounded by hundreds of attendants. The monastic police surrounding his entourage kept the commoners at bay with "long whips which they would not hesitate to use".

Today the exiled leader who repairs watches as a hobby, communes with the Mandelas, Clintons, Havels and Richard Geres of the world, yet lives in comparatively modest surroundings. He regularly meets with Tibetans who traverse the Himalayas to escape the oppression in Tibet and he takes time talk to those from all walks of life. In the process his followers continue to multiply.

The secretary motioned that the time was up and I ventured a last question. I had always wanted to know if he still had the telescope that he is always shown looking through as a boy, in the movies '7 Years' and 'Kundun'. He shrieked with childlike laughter and clapped his hands before answering.

"No, here in India I have a much better telescope. When I was in Tibet the telescope I used was much better than that one in the movies. That's too old - too old !".

He accompanied me to the verandah, after having placed the long white khata (traditional Tibetan greeting scarf) around my neck and with a last squeeze of my hand wished me well on my journey. Walking away with the sound of his laughter swimming in my ears, I watched as the CIA cloned bodyguards and heavily armed Indian security police closed the tall iron gates, set in the security wall that surrounds the official residence. The price of peace, and its arch protagonist, it seems, need to be well protected.

** The author is a Cape Town Based photojournalist who recently spent time living with the exiled Tibetan community in Dharamsala Northern India

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