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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

A Primer to Get You up to Speed on the Dalai Lama

May 4, 2009

By BRIAN ETTKIN, Staff writer
May 3, 2009

The 14th Dalai Lama cuts a familiar figure, with
his shorn head, hedgerow-thick eyebrows, tinted
eyeglasses, smiling visage and loose-fitting
maroon and saffron robes. "I am just a simple
Buddhist monk — no more, nor less," he has said.

But likening the Dalai Lama to "a simple Buddhist
monk" is akin to saying the Pope is just another priest.

The Dalai Lama is the political and spiritual
leader of Tibet-in-exile, in Dharamsala, India --
and a pop-culture icon whose cause is championed
by U.S. celebrities such as Richard Gere. Tenzin
Gyatso (the name he assumed after he was
installed as Tibet's spiritual leader in 1940),
has written best-selling books, and even appeared
in an advertisement for Apple.

Many of us would recognize him on the street, and
yet many of us know little about him.

"For the most part within American pop culture he
stands for a symbol of this holy man above
regular human existence, this extremely peaceful
character," said Bob Thompson, the founding
director of the Bleier Center for Television and
Popular Culture at Syracuse University.

"But my guess is if you asked actual Americans
who he is, by what authority he is named, what
the whole notion of what the Dalai Lama is and
how it's arrived at and theology associated with
it, my guess is that very few people would do
well in a pop quiz of that nature."

With that in mind, here's a primer on the Dalai
Lama before his first appearance in Albany, which
will be Wednesday at the Palace Theatre.

Born again

His Holiness is considered to be reincarnations
of each of the previous 13 Dalai Lamas (the first
was born in 1351), who are regarded as
manifestations of Avalokiteshvara (his Indian
name), or Chenrezig, the Bodhisattva of
Compassion. A Bodhisattva is a being who leads
people on the path toward enlightenment.

How was this Dalai Lama identified?

It is said to have begun when the embalmed head
of Thupten Gyatso, the 13th Dalai Lama, turned
and pointed toward northeastern Tibet, the omen
foretelling the direction in which the search
party for the next Dalai Lama should travel.

Then, according to lore, a regent gazed into a
sacred lake and had a vision: He saw the Tibetan
letters Ah, Ka and Ma, a three-story monastery
with a gold- and-turquoise roof, a path from the
monastery that led to a hill, and a small house
with oddly shaped gutters. Those signs led the
delegation of monks to the Tibetan village of
Taktser, where they found a three-story,
turquoise-roofed monastery and a house with
unusual guttering, where the search party members
asked the peasant family living there if they could stay the night.

They didn't reveal their purpose.

The leader of the party, Kewsang Rinpoche,
pretended to be a servant and played with the
youngest child, who is said to have called out
"Sera lama, Sera lama." Sera was Kewsang Rinpoche's monastery.

Soon, the search party returned with items that
had belonged to the 13th Dalai Lama and several
items that had not. They showed those items,
which included eyeglasses and staffs, to the
2-year-old, who correctly identified those that
had belonged to the Dalai Lama by saying they were his.

And so, it was determined, after a two-year
search, they had found the 14th Dalai Lama.

What does the Dalai Lama teach?

The short answer: compassion and Buddhism (the
Dalai Lama is head of one of the four Tibetan
Buddhist sects, the Gelugpa school, and
considered the spiritual leader of Tibet).

Buddhism is practiced by 0.7 percent of U.S.
adults, according to a 2007 survey conducted by
the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

Buddhism, unlike other major religions such as
Christianity and Islam, isn't God-based. "It
doesn't necessarily deny or affirm God," said
Gander Thurman, executive director of Tibet
House. "It's not even a central issue."

Buddhism focuses on training the mind and spirit,
Thurman said, and meditation is an integral part
of that training. One can practice or dabble in
Buddhism, however, and belong to another faith.

According to the Web site,
Buddhists believe "our problems and suffering
arise from confused and negative states of mind,
and that all our happiness and good fortune arise
from peaceful and positive states of mind." By
overcoming negative states of mind such as
"anger, jealousy and ignorance and developing
positive states of mind such as love, compassion
and wisdom," one can experience peace and happiness.

According to the Dalai Lama's official Web site,, he promotes human values such
as "compassion, forgiveness, tolerance,
contentment and self-discipline" and "religious
harmony and understanding among the world's major
religious traditions. Despite philosophical
differences, all major world religions have the
same potential to create good human beings. It is
therefore important for all religious traditions
to respect one another and recognize the value of
each other's respective traditions."

China-Tibet conflict

In November 1950, one month after 80,000 Chinese
soldiers invaded Tibet, 15-year-old Tenzin Gyatso
assumed leadership of his country, three years
ahead of schedule. From 1949-51, China "annexed
Tibet after splitting it into 12 parts, destroyed
its religion and culture, plundered its
accumulated wealth, ravaged its natural
resources, and killed or enslaved its
population," writes Robert Thurman, professor of
Indo-Tibetan Buddhist studies in the department
of religion at Columbia University, in his book "Why the Dalai Lama Matters."

China has a history of torturing and imprisoning
Tibetans who voice dissent, according to Human Rights Watch.

The Dalai Lama has accused China of killing
hundreds of thousands of Tibetans. "It would be
nice to get an accurate (death count), but doing
so would require a transparency and willingness
to confront a variety of perspectives on history
that China has not been known to condone," said
Sophie Richardson, the Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.

China's official position is that it liberated
Tibet from its feudal state, that it has never
had independence and that the Dalai Lama monopolized power as its ruler.

The Dalai Lama has accused China of committing
cultural genocide. Robert Barnett, the director
of the modern Tibetan studies program at Columbia
University, doesn't consider China guilty of this.

China is "doing terrible things to the religion
and they are mangling the culture," Barnett said,
but he likens China's efforts to modernize Tibet
and invest billions of dollars there to England's efforts to colonize India.

England "didn't try to wipe out these cultures;
they thought they were doing a wonderful job,"
said Barnett, who lived in China for two years.
"They thought they were just more advanced than the Indians."

Though there have been clashes, protests and
uprisings through the years, the Dalai Lama has
consistently championed a nonviolent approach to
resolving Tibet's conflict with China, and for
his efforts in this quest, he was awarded the
1989 Nobel Peace Prize. His Holiness, as he is
sometimes called, has come to represent "a
refusal to accept defeat in the face of difficult
circumstances," Tibet House's Gander Thurman said.

This explains in part his fame.

"The Dalai Lama represents a different ideal,"
Gander Thurman said. "Nonviolence is a refusal to
descend to the level of your abuser. Martin
Luther King beat the government and the
authorities and a lot of vested interests because
he and his people who were walking down the
street in their Sunday best looked more civil
than the barbaric dudes in blue whacking them
with sticks, hoses and their dogs."

The Dalai Lama advocates autonomy for Tibet, but not secession from China.

More radical Tibetans urge him to support
outright independence and believe "they should
move to more violent forms of protest, or perhaps
revolution or civil war," said Jim Dalton, a
retired professor of religious studies at Siena
College. "Although the majority of Tibetans are
taking their cue from the Dalai Lama, there are some tensions."

At home in the States

In 1979, the Dalai Lama first visited the United
States, where the demand for his appearances is
great -- and it's not just Buddhists who desire
to see him. He receives "requests from almost
every university in the United States, maybe North America," Barnett said.

Some of his appearances are lucrative fundraising
and political-capital opportunities in the West,
Dalton said. (The Dalai Lama donates proceeds
from speaking appearances to charities of his choosing.)

"The support for him is very generous in the
United States," Dalton said. "And he needs the
large amounts of money to run the Dharamsala
campaign, but also to continue his efforts in
Tibet. The political influence … is enormous."

Brian Ettkin can be reached at 454-5457 or by e-mail at

Quotes by Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama

"All the problems of the world -- child labor,
corruption -- are symptoms of a spiritual disease: lack of compassion."

"Afflictive emotions -- our jealousy, anger,
hatred, fear -- can be put to an end. When you
realize that these emotions are only temporary,
that they always pass on like clouds in the sky,
you also realize they can ultimately be abandoned."

"The essence of Buddhism is if you can, help
others. If not, then at least refrain from hurting others."

"The true antidote to greed is contentment. If
you have a strong sense of contentment, it
doesn't matter whether you obtain the object of
your desire or not. Either way, you are still content."

"From a certain point of view, our real enemy,
the true troublemaker, is inside."

"If others are happy, we will be happy. If others
suffer, ultimately we all suffer."

"Some consider me as a living Buddha. That's
nonsense. That's silly. That's wrong. If they
consider me a simple Buddhist monk, however, that's probably OK."

-- Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama
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