The Dalai Lama: The lost horizons  

The Guardian Profile

At four he became leader of his people. Twenty years later he fled the Chinese occupation of his country, Tibet. After 40 years in exile, the west sees him as the embodiment of the Buddhist values of compassion and tolerance. But is his goodness a weakness?
Ed Douglas reports

Saturday May 8, 1999

In the luxuriant garden shaded by tall pines and overlooked by mountains that rear starkly behind the small Indian hill station of McLeod Ganj, lines of pilgrims have formed to catch a glimpse of the god-king Tenzin Gyatso, fourteenth Dalai Lama, bodhisattva of compassion, spiritual and temporal head of Tibetans.

Preparations are underway for one of the 10 or so public audiences shoehorned each year into his holiness's tight schedule. Scores of western spiritual tourists are among the first to be led before him.
Round-shouldered and gripping his robes, the Dalai Lama bustles out to shake their hands under the bougainvillea as they bow and smile. One shaven-headed girl, overcome with emotion, prostrates herself at his feet; one man asks advice about curing his stutter with Tibetan medicine.

When the westerners have gone, longstanding exiled Tibetans or their children and grandchildren born in India file past. Some ask his advice over family problems or illnesses. So far the audience has been reverential but hardly dramatic. While the Dalai Lama takes a short break from pressing the flesh, refugees recently arrived from Tibet are seated on his veranda by secretaries and attendant monks. Some have dressings on their faces from frostbite they suffered on the long march over the Himalayas into Nepal and the UNHCR centre at Kathmandu. Others are young monks or nuns formerly jailed by the Chinese, guilty of nothing but their continuing support for the man they have come to see.

One nun later described how she prayed to the Dalai Lama and sang songs in her cell as she endured solitary confinement, her body bruised from the latest beating, her blood infected from an illness that was left untreated. "One day I knew I would be free," she said. "Then I would come here." She came in part, she said, for her friend and former prison-mate, who was beaten then released to die soon after, thus sparing the Chinese authorities in Lhasa the embarrassment of a dead political prisoner.

When the Dalai Lama appears there is an audible gasp, as though the group has been physically struck. Monks in the front row crouch lower, their heads almost touching the concrete floor as they crane their necks to watch him. Several older women and men, who lived through the early brutality of the Chinese occupation and the deliberate erosion of their culture and religion, begin weeping.

It was 40 years ago, at the start of the Earth Dog Year, 3,600 metres up in the mountains of Tibet, that rumours began to spread in the forbidden city of Lhasa that his holiness was in danger. The Chinese people's liberation army were planning to kidnap him, to take him to China or to kill him outright. Thousands of pilgrims, in the capital for the new year celebrations, flocked to the Norbulingka summer palace, anxious to protect their god-king.

Inside, the 24-year-old Dalai Lama and his cabinet, the Kashag, hesitated. There was a plan already in place for his escape across the Kyi Chu river and into the mountains, but had the time come? Despite nine years of brutal killing and broken promises at the hands of the Chinese, he was still reluctant to leave. The protecting spirits of Tibet were in no doubt. "Go! Go! Tonight!" the Nechung oracle hissed. Quietly, the Dalai Lama slipped out of the palace with a couple of guards and was ferried across the river in a coracle, certain that at any moment a patrol would discover them.

When the Chinese realised he had fled, they shelled the summer palace with heavy artillery, killing thousands and imprisoning thousands more. In the 18 months following his flight, according to a triumphant Chinese report, 87,000 'of the enemy' had been 'wiped out'. But Mao Zedong, when told of the Dalai Lama's escape, replied: "In that case we have lost the battle." Forty years later, at this public audience in his place of exile in India, it is clear why every Tibetan, including his family, addresses the Dalai Lama as Kundun, meaning 'presence'. He does not raise his arms, or modulate his voice. He just talks, for more than 20 minutes, and all the Tibetans listen as though his words could be held or collected. He speaks more forcefully and seriously in his native language than he does in English, telling them how important those Tibetans who have stayed behind are to the future of their nation. He urges them to learn about the democratisation of the government-in-exile. He also exhorts them to study the philosophy behind Tibetan Buddhism and not just learn prayers and mantras by rote. He gives his audience complete attention, even though he has made this same speech over the years to tens of thousands of refugees who have joined him in exile.

"The connection of every Tibetan with the Dalai Lama is a deep and inexpressible thing," wrote the freedom fighter Aten in the 1970s. "To us, the Dalai Lama symbolises the whole of Tibet: the beauty of the land, the purity of its rivers and lakes, the sanctity of its skies, the solidity of its mountains and the strength of its people. But even more, he is the living embodiment of the eternal principles of Buddhism, and also the epitome of what every Tibetan, from the most debauched harlot in Lhasa to the saintly ascetic, is striving for - freedom, the total freedom of Nirvana." The Dalai lama seems unaffected by the emotional intensity of the audience but then he has heard so many stories of suffering and oppression that it is hardly surprising if their impact has lessened over the years. And, as he explains, part of his mental training as a monk has focused on keeping his mood stable.

In his abrupt but expressive English, he says: 'If you are too sensitive, then negative things happen. Nowadays, I realise how important it is to keep your mental state calm.' He stresses that he is involved in the personal difficulties of his people and, given that his family has a reputation for a quick temper, he has had to work hard to achieve mental equilibrium.

His English is self-taught, typical of a man with a voracious interest in the world and its affairs, and while he lacks a detailed vocabulary, he makes up for it with enthusiasm, willing listeners to understand from his vigorous eyebrows and compelling gaze what he cannot express in words. Punctuating his remarks is his boisterous laugh, an octave higher that his rumbling speaking voice. It's hard to imagine the Pope being quite so tactile or so funny, and this warmth and accessibility, coupled with his friendships with Hollywood stars like Richard Gere, has created an impression that both his religion and his political struggle lack gravitas, allowing cynics to dismiss the Tibetan struggle as the latest cause of the day for liberals with too much time on their hands.

He was born Lhamo Dhondup in July 1935, the fourth son and fifth child to survive of Choekyong Tsering, a farmer from a small village called Takster in north-eastern Tibet. Agriculture was largely feudal but the family worked for themselves, leasing a small parcel of land and growing barley, potatoes and buckwheat as well as keeping a herd of yaks, sheep and goats. In the hills were junipers and poplars, peach and plum trees. The boy's mother, Dekyi Tsering, ran the household and helped her husband with the farm; after each child was born, she would tie it on her back, and carry on with her work. The family remember it as a time of contentment despite the hardships, and the Dalai Lama believes that his obscure birth gave him an empathy with ordinary Tibetans.

"Fortunately all of us had a very good sense of humour," he says. "My mother was very kind, calm, but of course she was illiterate. Later, she learned to read so she could study the scriptures. When we came to Lhasa, I lived separately, but that does not mean I was completely cut off. Whenever she came to see me, she brought me the bread she baked." In Tibet, the ruling succession is maintained by the discovery of a child born soon after the death of a Dalai (oceanwide) Lama (priest of tibetan buddhism), into whom the spirit of the deceased is believed to have entered. Lhamo Dhondup was discovered as fourteenth Dalai Lama in 1939. Two more of Dekyi Tsering's boys were recognised as important reincarnate lamas, making the family especially blessed in the eyes of Tibetans. When the Dalai Lama was recognised in Takster, his mother became Amala, the great mother of the nation, and many saw her as the reincarnation of the protective deity Tara. One of her friends, Dolma Taring, described her as unique: "She had no anger, no hatred, no greed, no jealousy towards anyone." Asked if he inherited his compassion from his mother, the Dalai Lama says he thinks his training as a monk was more influential, but he speaks often about the role of mothers in society, describing them in a speech to the Tibetan Women's Association as "the first lamas, or gurus of compassion. Our spiritual lamas came later in life. Our mothers teach us the power and value of compassion right from our birth." The Dalai Lama's first 'guru' bore 16 children, of whom only seven survived beyond infancy.

The 1930s were a lost decade for Tibet. Since 1913 the Chinese - for centuries allies or enemies, but always coveting the territory - had not been allowed a presence inside the country, after they withdrew from a treaty with Tibet and Britain that guaranteed Tibetan autonomy. Thubten Gyatso, the thirteenth Dalai Lama, had been a great reformer, recognising an urgent need to modernise his country's medieval political and social structure. He reorganised the army with British help, and tried to cement a relationship with the empire, a relationship the British would quietly forget when the Tibetans searched for allies to resist the Chinese.

"It will not be long before we find the red onslaught at our own front door," Thubten Gyatso warned as civil war gripped Tibet's massive neighbour. "And when that happens we must be ready to defend ourselves. Otherwise our spiritual and cultural conditions will be completely eradicated." But soon after his grim prediction, in 1933, the thirteenth Dalai Lama died. His people were plunged into grief and confusion and the impetus for reform was squandered in a power struggle over the discovery of his new incarnation.

The process of discovery is obscure and complex, a mixture of political realism and deep mysticism. First, the general location was divined. The previous Dalai Lama had given some clues including, post-mortem, a movement of his head towards the north-east. The three state oracles, monks possessed by spirits, gave the same opinion, lamas peered into sacred lakes looking for a sign, dreams were picked over, even a mushroom, sprouting on the east wall of the Dalai Lama's palace, was thought auspicious. Finally, the rough location of the fourteenth Dalai Lama was surmised - disturbingly for the Tibetans - in an area under Chinese control.

Lhamo Dhondup's name was one of 12 on a list of likely young candidates. The group of monks sent from Lhasa were searching for a boy with tiger-striped legs, big, shell-like ears, and the imprint of a conch shell on the palm of his hand. Now 63, Kundun shows little evidence of these distinguishing features, just deep vaccination scars on the shoulder of his right arm revealed from beneath his maroon robes. Children judged candidates for reincarnations of senior lamas have to recognise objects from their previous lives. Lhamo Dhondup was shown two rosaries and two drinking bowls, one of each belonging to the thirteenth Dalai Lama, and he chose correctly. So, at the age of four, he became the temporal and spiritual leader of Tibet.

In 1940 the new Dalai Lama was installed in an elaborate ritual, surrounded by thousands of monks, and went to live as a novitiate monk in the Potala Palace, a gloomy, massive structure which overlooks Lhasa and holds the jewel-encrusted tombs of previous Dalai Lamas, along with vast libraries of rare books, illuminated by inks of powdered gold and turquoise. In winter, bowls of water left on the steps of the tombs would remain frozen, even at midday.

If he was often lonely, then the young Dalai Lama occupied himself well. He had a small boy's passion for mechanical toys, like the Meccano set given to him on his installation by the British agent, Sir Basil Gould, a shrewder gift to a child than the bolts of silk sent by the Chinese. Later this mechanical aptitude developed into a passion for fiddling with the mechanism of clocks, a habit he still indulges.

While many Tibetans, who delight in slapstick humour, laughed themselves hoarse at Charlie Chaplin movies, the Dalai Lama preferred more serious subjects, watching documentaries on the material progress being made in other countries, and in Shakespearean dramas like Henry V. He would listen to the BBC at dictation speed to develop his English, and still listens to the world service, a debt he repaid in his recent television endorsement, along with a chirpy rendition of its theme.

While he was buried in his studies, the political situation was spiralling out of control. Far from being a world of tolerance and peace, Tibetan political life was often Machiavellian. Dalai Lamas in the past had been poisoned before reaching their majority, and one of the current Dalai Lama's regents, Reting Rinpoche - who ruled during the regency, which lasted from 1935-1950 - was thrown out of office for his overbearing greed. Kundun's father, who had a passion for horses, fully exploited his social status in his material demands. When he died after experiencing stomach pains at only 47, assassination by poison was widely suspected. The Dalai Lama's struggle has not just been to recover his country from the Chinese, but to recover it from the self-serving morass of Tibetan politics before they arrived.

Tibet remained neutral during the second world war, but in 1950 China invaded in order to 'liberate' it. 'Liberate from whom?' was the response of India's prime minister Jawarharlal Nehru. Hopelessly outnumbered, the Tibetan army was quickly defeated and the government forced to agree terms.

In 1954, the Dalai Lama travelled to Beijing to meet Chairman Mao and was impressed at the material progress being made by the communists. He himself had strong Marxist leanings and saw Mao as a charismatic leader who had much to teach the Tibetans. Perhaps, he reflected, a synthesis between Marxist ideology and Buddhist philosophy could be the answer. But on the eve of his return to Lhasa, he had one last meeting with the Great Helmsman during which Mao utterly crushed the Dalai Lama's ideal: "Religion is poison," he told him. "Firstly, it reduces the population, because monks and nuns stay celibate, and secondly, it neglects material progress." In his autobiography, Freedom In Exile, the Dalai Lama recalls: "How could he have thought I was not religious to the core of my being?" Religion remains at the centre of his life despite his impatience with the ritual and conservatism that had stifled progress within Tibet before the Chinese invasion. He teaches every December at Bodh Gaya, in northern India, where the Buddha achieved enlightment, and this week another book of his teachings, Ancient Wisdom, Modern World, is published. This and previous works go some way to explaining the complexity and depth of Buddhist philosophy, with its tenet of 'non-attachment' and belief that the conscious mind makes choices to gain a better rebirth.

He travels widely, not just to promote Tibet's cause, but to attend conferences on a wide range of subjects, including the relationship between religion and science. His interest in the technical, his acknowledgement of western advances and his deep spirituality put him at an interesting crossroads. His ideas about compassion strike a chord in the west, where self-interest seems over-bearing, but he is equally forthright on the damage consumerism and sexual freedom can inflict on individuals - views which might not appeal quite so widely. He feels strongly about the environment and the damage inflicted on it. "An environment that is full of life is much better, much more attractive. Forests without animals or birds, bad. Without trees, even worse." Behind the simplicity of his remark is his Buddhist sense of how everything interconnects, and how those who don't practice ideas of tolerance and compassion are the ones who lose, not those they harm. It is an idea that he applies to politics, and is the root of the peaceful resistance to Chinese rule that he has promoted for four decades and for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. This philosophy has withstood not just the agonies Tibetans have suffered and the indifference of the west for so much of the past 40 years, but opposition from within the Tibetan diaspora itself.

The period immediately following his exile was a time of profound personal depression for the Dalai Lama and a crisis for his people. With the leader they had wooed so energetically gone, the Chinese wasted no time in taking an iron grip on Tibet, and the thousands of refugees who followed their leader over the mountains in the following months brought stories of forced collectivisation, of political indoctrination and torture, executions, imprisonment and religious intolerance. Alexander Solzhenitsyn described the Chinese control of Tibet as "more brutal and inhumane than any other communist regime in the world." More than one million Tibetans died, a sixth of the population.

The Dalai Lama pressed his nation's case to an international committee of jurists but the cause foundered on the rock of cold-war politics, the Soviet Union vetoing the notion that Tibet was anything but an internal problem for China. Three resolutions were passed in the United Nations expressing 'grave concern' but in practice a demonstrable instance of genocide was allowed to drift on with no response from the west.

While Nehru refused to recognise Tibet's government-in-exile, he responded to huge popular support for the Dalai Lama by granting him political asylum. In 1960, the Dalai Lama was moved to McLeod Ganj, a former Raj hill station that had become a half-ruined ghost town in the aftermath of a major earthquake.

The Tibetans made the best of it. The village, on the fringes of the Himalayas, was cool, much more like the country they had left and they focused on easing the torment of refugees at camps further south on the plains. Under the Dalai Lama's direction, schools and monasteries were established to preserve Tibetan culture, just as it withered in Tibet itself, and Tibetans went to work on road gangs. McLeod Ganj has allowed him to indulge his passion for gardening, which he shared with his mother, and the grounds around his home are an oasis of fruit trees and flowers.

The Dalai Lama, in a sense removed from political infighting, is proud of his influence in democratising the Tibetan diaspora. There were early political struggles as those formerly in control struggled with younger, reform-minded Tibetans who saw the Dalai Lama's exile as a way to overhaul a hopelessly outmoded system.

But exile brought shock and disorientation, a process still visible in the attitudes of those older Tibetans who still have not fully adjusted to their new situation. His two brothers who had been recognised as reincarnate lamas abandoned their vows and married. Most of his siblings lived outside India, his brother Lobsang Samten working for a while as a school janitor in New Jersey until the newspapers discovered him and splashed the story. His younger brother, Tendzin Choegyal, has expressed doubts about the system of reincarnate lamas, or tulkus, a belief peculiar to Tibetan Buddhists.

His elder sister, Tsering Dolma, who ran an orphanage at McLeod Ganj, died of cancer in 1964, his mother died in 1981. Old, and racked with pneumonia, she waited for death sitting up, meditating on a religious painting. Those who were with her at the end describe her leaving as a lesson in how to die.

Amala did not live to witness the slight thaw in relations between the Dalai Lama and Beijing that allowed delegations into Tibet during the 1980s. Led initially by Lobsang Samten, these visits showed how deeply ingrained resistance to the Chinese remained. After watching the Dalai Lama's representative swamped by crowds in Lhasa, one senior Chinese official remarked: "The efforts of the last 20 years have been undone in a single day." Lobsang Samten died soon after he returned from Tibet, his spirit broken by what he had seen, according to the Dalai Lama.

The easing of pressure on Tibetan opposition ended with the imposition of martial law after riots in Lhasa 10 years ago this month. Since then a succession of Chinese initiatives, with names like 'strike hard,' have attempted to drive a wedge between the Dalai Lama and Tibetans, disabling the few monasteries that remain, and denying Tibetans the chance to learn how to write their own language. The Dalai Lama's portrait is now banned, the 'clique' that surrounds him is regularly attacked in the press.

The lack of progress has caused real frustration among younger Tibetans and the Dalai Lama acknowledges that his concessions on the sovereignty of Tibet have achieved little "except world support is much increased. And many Chinese know about Tibet. We have made maximum concessions and yet, no result." Tseten Norbu, leader of the Tibetan youth congress, articulates the growing frustration that many of those born in exile and brought up on quicker, western agendas, feel at the slow progress: "He's too compassionate. Every time his holiness speaks, he is being more and more accommodating. Every time the Chinese speak, they add one more precondition." While acknowledging that there are young Tibetans frustrated by the concessions, Tenzin Geyche Tethong, foreign minister of the government in exile, believes some of them see that his holiness's approach "has achieved positive results". It has certainly left him with the moral high ground.

The Dalai Lama and the Tibetan youth congress both agree that any change in Tibet's status is unlikely to happen through pressure from the west. It is more likely to come from changes within China itself as it grapples with its economic growing pains and with demands for democratic freedom from dissidents who are only now beginning to comprehend what has happened in Tibet.

"The Tibetan issue is very much connected to development in China proper," the Dalai Lama says, "and things are changing in China. Freedom of speech is comparatively much better. Some Chinese writers and intellectuals now speak very favourably about the Tibetan issue. Tibet has been presented as part of China for the last 50 years, but some writers have views which are very different from the government. So these are positive changes." If and when these changes affect the status of Tibet is in the balance. The genocide may be over, but the Chinese have discovered a more useful method of suppressing Tibetan independence, by offering financial inducements to Han Chinese immigrants who are flooding the country, and denying the Tibetans access to their culture or religion. The Dalai Lama is the link that binds Tibetans everywhere together. Should he die soon, the struggle for freedom could be fatally damaged.

Kundun himself, however, is optimistic. "My horoscope says I will live until I am more than 120, my dreams suggest more than 100. I myself believe that I will live into my nineties. As I get older I find my physical health getting better, I think, because of Tibetan medicine, holistic medicine." There is a story that the Dalai Lama has told regularly, about a monk he met in 1980 who had escaped to McLeod Ganj after 20 years in a Chinese jail. In all that time, he told the Dalai Lama, the greatest danger he faced was losing his compassion for the Chinese. Looking at the ruin of his country, it is easy to dismiss such ideas as dangerously naive, the very reason that the Tibetans are in such difficulties now.

But ultimately, the Dalai Lama's cause and that of the Tibetan people, may succeed not because liberal democracies have intervened, but because justice and tolerance have more stamina than hatred and oppression. On one wall of his bungalow in McLeod Ganj, there is a poem printed on a poster. It starts and ends with three words: 'Never give up.' oAncient Wisdom, Modern World, ethics for a new millennium, by his holiness the Dalai Lama, is published this week by Little Brown, price 14.99. oThe Dalai Lama will be giving a three-day course, Training Of The Mind, at the Wembley Conference Centre (0181 902 0902) starting today(10.30am) and a public lecture at the Royal Albert Hall (0171 589 8212) on Monday (6.30pm).

Life at a glance

Born: Lhamo Dhondup, July 6 1935, Takster, Tibet.

Education: Dr of Buddhist philosophy, 1959 (monasteries of Sera, Drepung and Gaden, Lhasa).

Career in Tibet: Enthroned Tenzin Gyatso, 14th Dalai Lama, at Lhasa, 1940; assumed political power 1950; hon. chair, Chinese Buddhist association 1953-59; delegate to national people's congress 1954-59; preparatory committee for the 'autonomous region of Tibet' 1955-59.

Escapes into exile: Flees to India after Chinese suppression of Tibetan national uprising, 1959; supreme head of all Buddhist sects in Tibet.

Awards: US congressional human rights award, 1989; Nobel Peace Prize, 1989.

Some publications: My Land And People, 1962; Freedom In Exile (autobiog) 1990; The Good Heart, 1996; Ancient Wisdom, Modern World, 1999.

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