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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

Briefing: Hard times for the Dalai Lama

April 11, 2008

The Week Daily
April 2008

With tensions in Tibet rising amid a Chinese crackdown, the Tibetan
leader is being criticized as both an instigator and an appeaser. What
role will he

play in Tibet’s future?

Who is the Dalai Lama?
He is the exiled head of state and religious leader of the 6 million
Tibetans, as well as spiritual torchbearer to 8 million Buddhists around
the world

who adhere to his branch of Buddhism. Considered the 14th reincarnation
of Chenrezig, the Buddha of Compassion, he is part of a chain that

stretches back more than 600 years. His official title is Jetsun Jamphel
Ngawang Lobsang Yeshe Tenzin Gyatso (Holy Lord, Gentle Glory, Eloquent,

Compassionate, Learned Defender of the Faith, Ocean of Wisdom). Yet he
calls himself “a simple monk.”

How did he get to be Dalai Lama?
It was an unlikely journey. He was born Lhamo Dhondup in 1935 to a
peasant family in the Tibetan village of Taktser. When he was just 2
years old,

a delegation of Tibetan spiritual leaders called lamas arrived in his
village, declaring that a prophecy had led them there. Soon, they were
drawn to

young Lhamo, whom they felt might be the living manifestation of the
recently deceased 13th Dalai Lama. They established this to their
satisfaction

by presenting him with several of their late leader’s possessions, along
with some authentic-looking replicas. The boy, the lamas said,
unhesitatingly

picked out all the genuine articles. Buddhists say he also bore eight
distinguishing physical marks, including tiger-like stripes on his legs.
The joyous

lamas soon installed him in the 1,000-room Potala Palace, in the capital
city of Lhasa, where he was schooled in many disciplines, including
medicine

and metaphysics.

How did he become a world figure?
When China invaded Tibet in 1950 and occupied two of its eastern
provinces, the Dalai Lama—though only 15—was invested with full powers as

head of state. For the next nine years, he negotiated with Beijing to
try to somehow maintain Tibet’s national integrity. But when Tibetans
launched

a major uprising in 1959, the violence gave China an excuse to complete
its takeover. The Dalai Lama and 100,000 followers fled on horseback and,

after 46 days, made it over the Himalayas and into India. Ever since,
though no government recognizes his authority, he has led an international

movement to end the brutal Chinese occupation, which over the years has
killed some 1 million Tibetans. Some human-rights activists consider him a

moral leader on a par with Mahatma Gandhi.

Why is he so popular?
In part, it’s due to his compelling message of peace, tolerance, and
love. But he also has become an international celebrity on the strength
of his

personal charm and willingness to embrace modern culture if it helps his
cause. He is no doubt the only person ever to have won the Nobel Peace

Prize and guest-edited French Vogue. Recently, he’s provided help to
Western scientists researching the effect of meditation on the brain. In

person, the Dalai Lama is disarming and humble, often greeting visitors
with a cheerful, “What would you like to talk about?” He also has a puckish

sense of humor (“I think a real precise answer is, ‘I don’t know,’” he
once told a questioner), and he revels in his own human foibles. He
admits he’s

lazy, loves such material objects as watch straps and prayer beads, and
despite his celibacy, is known to have an eye for the ladies.

Is he universally admired?
Hardly. China says he’s a “wolf in a monk’s robe, a monster with a human
face but the heart of a beast.” Beijing even accuses him of orchestrating

the recent rioting in Tibet, a charge he vehemently denies; in fact, he
has threatened to step down as Dalai Lama if his countrymen continue to

resort to violence. Nor is he unconditionally revered in the West. He
has been criticized in some quarters for his opposition to gay marriage
and for

his belief that homosexuality and masturbation are sinful. He also has
drawn fire for his cultivation of celebrity acolytes such as Richard
Gere and

Uma Thurman; critics say they serve to cast an ancient religion as just
another New Age craze. But his most important detractors may be among

the Tibetans themselves.

Why would that be?
Many younger Tibetans have embraced a more militant brand of opposition
to Chinese rule, and they are growing impatient with the Dalai Lama’s

message of nonviolence. “The reverence for him is perhaps equal to the
discontent,” said Robbie Barnett, a Tibet scholar at Columbia University,

“and the discontent is reaching a fever pitch.” The primary point of
contention is the emotionally charged question of independence. The
Dalai Lama

does not support outright independence for Tibet, calling instead for
“meaningful” self-rule. But this so-called middle way is increasingly
unpopular.

“Nobody takes the middle way seriously anymore,” said Tibetan writer
Jamyang Norbu. “This is not nonviolence. It is appeasement.”

How does the Dalai Lama respond?
He counsels patience. The Dalai Lama still believes that given time and
mutual cooperation, Tibet and China will reach an understanding. But now
72,

he has acknowledged that Tibetan self-rule may not return in his earthly
lifetime. And perhaps befitting somebody whose soul is said to have lived

through six centuries in various incarnations, he takes the long view.
“It’s been 50 years,” he said recently, reflecting on his exile. “Fifty
years turn

an infant into a gray-haired man. But for changes in the sociopolitical
environment, 50 years is like half an hour.”

A day in his life
The Dalai Lama spends several months a year traveling the world, meeting
with national leaders and addressing huge crowds. But when not globe-

trotting, he lives modestly in Dharamsala, India, in the snow-capped
foothills of the Himalayas. His operational base is the airy,
three-story Namgyal

Temple, but his actual living quarters are in a sparsely furnished white
stucco house located nearby along a bamboo-lined path. Rising most mornings

at 3:30, he prays and then rides an exercise bike. At 5 a.m., he
breakfasts on tsampa (barley porridge) and listens to the BBC. The rest
of his day is

spent meditating, receiving visitors, tending his garden, tinkering with
appliances, and feeding birds. He also likes to read, especially
encyclopedias,

picture books about World War II, and anything about neuroplasticity, or
how the brain rewires itself. (Studies have shown that frequent meditation

actually transforms the physical brain.) He’s usually asleep by 8:30
p.m. His primary aim, he explains, is to maintain emotional equilibrium.
“Ups and

downs,” he says, “are not good.”
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
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