Join our Mailing List

"For a happier, more stable and civilized future, each of us must develop a sincere, warm-hearted feeling of brotherhood and sisterhood."

The ascent of a man

May 5, 2008

By Pico Iyer
Financial Times
May 1 2008

Last November, travelling across Japan with the 14th Dalai Lama, I soon
discovered that even dawn-to-dusk surveillance of the man meant missing
one of his important daily activities: by 7.30 each morning he had
already completed four hours of meditation, reflecting on the needs of
the people around him, on his “Chinese brothers and sisters” occupying
Tibet, and on his death.

The days got more fast-paced from there. One morning in Ise, after
meetings with Japanese monks and a shy young woman running a youth
magazine, we drove down to the nearby train station and set off for
Nagoya. Upon arrival, we were greeted by five young Tibetans studying
abroad and eager to talk to their exiled leader. After that brief
encounter, we boarded another train and met two journalists waiting to
question the Dalai Lama on the political complications associated with
his freedom struggle and the refusal of Japan’s leaders to meet him. We
lunched with a Japanese politician and then went upstairs to a suite in
a Yokohama hotel to meet a full roster of supplicants: scientists keen
to share the results of research they’d done on compassion; the heads of
a Buddhist organisation hosting the Dalai Lama at a conference with
5,000 guests the next day; emissaries from Japanese high society,
offering him a book from the Empress Michiko; and a young television
crew. Finally, he walked along a corridor at the top of the glossy
hotel, strode into a conference room and found 60 people waiting for
him. As soon as he entered, all of them began sobbing and prostrating
themselves before him. Every one of the devout was, remarkably, a Han
Chinese from the People’s Republic of China.

By the end of the day – by the end of every day of the trip, in fact – I
was exhausted. But for the 72-year-old Tibetan leader, this was the life
he has known for six decades – and the life, I think, he will be leading
on his next visit to Britain a few days from now.

Much of the world knows that Tenzin Gyatso is a “simple Buddhist monk” –
his repeated words – located as a child by a search party of older monks
and made political leader of the Tibetans little more than a decade
later. The exact dates may be less well known: the young boy was
identified as the next Dalai Lama at the age of two; he was enthroned at
the age of four; and he became Tibet’s full-time temporal leader in
1950, when he was 15 years old. This final transition occurred just
months after Mao Zedong sent his troops over the Tibetan border in late
1949, seizing the chance to take over a strategic and resource-rich
piece of land two-thirds the size of western Europe and ruled by a teenager.

Some of us remember how, after years of negotiation with Mao Zedong and
his foreign minister Zhou Enlai, and a year spent in China in 1954, the
Dalai Lama finally fled Tibet in 1959, realising that if he stayed, he
would be arrested or killed – and that Tibet would be gone forever.

Still, it is astonishing how little most of us know about a man who has
become one of the most easily recognised figures on the planet. Few
people realise that the 14th Dalai Lama is a keen amateur scientist who
delights in holding conferences with neuroscientists to see how Tibetan
notions of the mind might learn from and instruct modern empirical
studies. Even the words of the Buddha, he says, should be thrown out if
they are shown by new research to be faulty or incomplete. Nor do many
people realise that the head of Tibetan Buddhism has delivered an
extended series of lectures on the Gospels; or that he calls himself a
defender of Islam and sometimes a ”half-Marxist”, admiring Marxism’s
ideas of equality, if not the kind of dogmatism that has so ruthlessly
assaulted his own country. The figure we see on television screens is so
often smiling and loveable that we forget he is a doctor of philosophy,
the single most seasoned political leader on the planet and a man who
remembers dealing with Mao, Jawaharlal Nehru and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

While some supporters in the west see him as a messiah, and his enemies
in Beijing call him “a jackal in monk’s robes”, the Dalai Lama sees
himself always as human. He delights in gardening and his Alsatian dog;
and when, on the bullet train from Nagoya in November, one of the
journalists asked him how he would resolve the situation between Israel
and the Palestinians if he had a “magic wand”, the Dalai Lama looked at
him with friendly directness and said, “Silly question!” The whole point
of Buddhism, he might have been saying, was that the Buddha was not a
magician, a miracle worker or a superhuman. He was just a man, doing
what any one of us could do if we applied ourselves – doing, in fact,
what his most celebrated living student does from before sunrise until
after dark, almost every day of the year.

. . .

I have been talking to the Dalai Lama and visiting him in his
home-in-exile in the British-built hill station of Dharamsala, northern
India, for 33 years now. My father, a philosopher at Oxford, went to
meet him in the first year of his exile, in 1960; I followed in 1974 and
began covering him as a journalist in the mid-1980s. But even after
following the Dalai Lama from Zurich to Hiroshima, after celebrating the
Tibetan New Year with him in 1988 and marking his 54th birthday in Los
Angeles in 1989, and even after spending long afternoons in his modest
yellow cottage and watching him evolve from a strikingly bright-faced,
burly man to one more stooped and greying, I’m still taken aback at how
this modest, penetrating and brilliant political and philosophical
thinker has become a friend to so much of the world.

He was born, after all, in a cowshed, in a 20-house village in rural
Amdo province, eastern Tibet. His father was a quick-tempered farmer who
loved horses, his mother a compassionate woman who bore 16 children,
only seven of whom survived to adulthood. A boy named Lhamo Thondup was
the fifth among the latter group.

After the 13th Dalai Lama died, in 1933, monks scattered around the
country, following signs and clues to find the little boy who would be
his successor. Led to the little village of Taktser, the monks came upon
two-year-old Lhamo Thondup, to whom they administered a series of tests
(could he, for example, identify among a group of objects the ones that
had belonged to the previous Dalai Lama? He could). After the boy passed
all the tests, even greeting the monks in the dialect of faraway Lhasa,
a ransom equivalent to a million pounds today was paid to the local
warlord to win his freedom, and he was taken to the Lion Throne in Lhasa.

The little boy was put through a gruelling 18-year course of studies,
and was made to live most of the year far from his family in the cold,
dark, 1,000-roomed Potala Palace, which looms over Lhasa. He was a
mischievous child who could not resist baiting his immediate elder
brother (the only family member allowed to keep him company in the
Potala). He set up a projector so he could see footage of the outside
world, ranging from newsreels from the second world war to screenings of
Henry V. He used to watch the children of Lhasa, he later said, playing
in the streets below, and realised the full depths of his loneliness.

Loneliness aside, he was a typical schoolboy in those early years, eager
to steal away from classes and not keen to do all his studies. But when
he reached his early teens, that changed. Suddenly, the beauty and
importance of his monastic vocation hit him, and he began to give
himself intensely to his studies. He finished the full programme
required of Dalai Lamas and then went on to earn a doctoral degree,
after completing an oral exam in front of 20,000 monks in March 1959 –
the month he was forced to flee China’s advancing forces.

The story of the young leader’s flight across the world’s highest
mountain ranges captivated the world, but after his arrival in India
(soon followed by 80,000 other Tibetans), he was, to some degree,
forgotten. Turning that neglect to advantage, he set about recreating
the best of old Tibet outside its borders and adapting its traditions to
the modern world. In his first year in exile he drew up a new
constitution for Tibet, bringing his people democracy for the first time
in their history and even including a clause allowing for his own
impeachment. He set up monasteries, schools and cultural centres, while
getting rid of much in Tibetan custom that struck him as outdated. Monks
in exile now learn modern science as well as ancient philosophy; women
are allowed to study for doctoral degrees, which they could never do in
old Tibet; and children take their lessons in the Tibetan language until
the age of 10 or so and then switch to English.

What the exile experience soon showed was that the 14th Dalai Lama would
be a realist and a pragmatist, determined to incorporate into his
culture all the modern and technological wisdom it had lacked, while
also sustaining the core of Tibetan traditions. The costumes and rituals
of Tibetan culture are often no longer relevant, he told me three years
ago; but ideas of compassion and of universal responsibility are as
appropriate outside Tibet as they ever were within it. “Exile”, the word
that for most of us means disruption and severance from the past, he
decided to read as ”opportunity”, a chance to liberate his people for
the future.

In the early years of remoteness from the outside world, he also gave
himself to extended retreats and studies – something he might not have
been able to do from a throne in Lhasa. The result was that when he
first began travelling widely, with his first trip to Europe in 1973,
his charisma and ability to make contact with almost everyone he met
were undeniable. I remember seeing him on his first American tour, in
1979, at Harvard, and hearing a philosopher so erudite that few in the
audience could follow what he said (mostly in Tibetan then, and
translated into English by a scholar at his side). Realising he was
talking over the heads of most people, he began transforming these
complex principles into simple epigrams and pieces of human advice.
Kindness, he said, helps the person who gives it. Anger works against
the person who feels it.

This wisdom may be easily digestible, but its transparency and
practicality can make it seem like one truism after another – and has
led some, at times, to underestimate the Dalai Lama. Even as recently as
the early 1980s, his New York press conferences attracted barely a
handful of people. But in 1987, when the Tibetans rose up against
Chinese occupation, the world noticed how this exiled leader spoke
always and only for tolerance and dialogue. He won the Nobel Peace Prize
two years later and began coming ever more frequently to the west.

Beyond his sharp memory and attention to detail (he can recognise people
he last saw in Tibet 50 years ago, and pounces on mistranslations with a
scholar’s tenacity), the Dalai Lama soon evinced an unusual gift for
appealing to people not as ruler, monk, Tibetan or Buddhist, but as a
regular human being. He is that rare Buddhist who offers foreigners
practical guidance while also telling them to study within their own
traditions, where there’s less chance of misconception (seizing upon
Buddhism before they have fully understood it, or gauged certain
important cultural differences). He devours newspapers and
news-magazines, drawing his examples from the Korean war and what
happened in Iraq yesterday, and confessed to me once that he was
“addicted” to the BBC World Service.

We thus end up with the unlikely sight of a monk from what had been one
of the world’s most underdeveloped and isolated countries becoming a
champion of globalism, writing introductions to books about the
internet, speaking always for the importance of connectedness (Tibet’s
“greatest mistake”, he told me once, was being too cut off from the
world before 1959). It has meant that a modest, self-styled scientist is
greeted as a rock star, his speeches played on the dance floors of
London clubs.

If the Dalai Lama has failed in anything, it is, perhaps, in trying to
depose himself among his people (he urges democracy on them, and they
say they’d much rather leave all the decision-making to him), and in
trying to dethrone himself across the world. To this day, he chooses not
to take on students – he prefers to have “spiritual friends” – and takes
pains to cite the 19 or more teachers to whose wisdom he always defers.

I still remember seeing him the day after his Nobel Prize was announced,
staying (such is the curiosity of his life) in a ranch-style private
home in Newport Beach, California, attending a conference with
scientists. The minute he saw me – an intrusive journalist bothering him
on one of the busiest days of his busy life – he grabbed me by the hand,
took me into a small room nearby, spent many minutes looking for a chair
in which I could sit comfortably (as if I were the Nobel laureate). He
then asked me how he should spend the money he had won.

. . .

I had a long series of discussions with the Dalai Lama 12 years ago,
just before his life story was about to be turned into two Hollywood
films, Kundun and Seven Years in Tibet. If people were to project their
own needs or wants on to him, he said, there was little he could do to
prevent it. All he could do was keep his own motivations pure and treat
a homeless person the same way he would a movie star.

That Tibet is so often taken to be an otherworldly Shangri-La – and that
its culture and philosophy have become such a high-fashion trend among
conspicuous consumers – has not always helped Tibetans. And yet the
Dalai Lama, I suspect, has seen that as Gore Vidal pointed out years
ago, in a global community of the image, Hollywood can be more powerful
than Washington. The recurring challenge of the Dalai Lama’s life is
that political leaders almost everywhere are keen to meet him and enjoy
the glow of his presence – and yet very few are ready to stand up to China.

When Mohandas Gandhi led non-violent protests against the British
Empire, the one advantage he had was that of numbers: if half of India
chose to go on strike, it could at least dent the economy of the Raj. If
six million Tibetans were to stop working today, it would have no effect
at all on the juggernaut of 1.2 billion Chinese. Tibet lacks oil, as the
Dalai Lama points out, and is much too remote for the rest of the world
to care about in practical terms. The only thing on Tibet ’s side is
that, unlike many other freedom movements, it has not so far resorted to

This unique stance has become especially charged, of course, as protests
have broken out in recent weeks across Tibet and China. Oppressed
minorities across the People’s Republic have decided to take advantage
of the world’s focus on China in the months leading up to the August
Olympics in Beijing and are broadcasting their suffering to the world.
The Dalai Lama, in response, tells his people to speak out, but not to
lash out; to ask for basic freedoms such as freedom of thought and
speech but not to demonise the Chinese; and to forswear violence. It
will only, he says, bring more violence down on a people who have
suffered too much already.

And yet, more Tibetans in exile are saying more frequently that they
cannot wait any longer: that this is the moment for decisive action or
some defiant gesture of opposition to the Chinese. The sorrow of their
predicament is that most of them have never seen Tibet, or China. The
one exiled Tibetan who really understands China’s leadership is, in
fact, the Dalai Lama, who has been dealing with it for 59 years, who has
spent time in Beijing and who even has an elder brother who speaks
fluent Chinese, lives in Hong Kong and was married to a Chinese woman.

Circumstances have meant that the Dalai Lama has had to be as much a
political as a spiritual leader – although his politics are always an
expression of his monastic beliefs. As far back as 1996, he told me
that, yes, looked at from one point of view, his policy of maximum
concessions to China and extending the hand of friendship had borne no
visible fruit, with China cracking down on Tibet ever harder. But in the
long term, he argues, dialogue and forgiveness are the only way: any
resolution that solves the Tibetan question without taking in Chinese
individuals is no solution at all. Tibet, he reiterated last November,
has much to gain economically from remaining part of the People’s
Republic – and the world has everything to gain from keeping up contact
with its largest nation.

Thus the Dalai Lama keeps his hand extended while Chinese officials
have, as recently as March, called him “an evil spirit with a human face
and the heart of a beast”. He speaks for interdependence and the Beijing
leadership calls him a “splittist”. He calls on his people to forswear
violent protest and the Chinese accuse him of fomenting revolution. For
21 years now, while more militant Tibetans call out for independence and
a “free Tibet”, the Dalai Lama has asked only for an autonomous Tibet,
over which China could still have control in terms of defence and
foreign affairs. He asks people not to free Tibet, but simply to “save it”.

He has always placed his faith in individuals, Chinese and otherwise. He
does not expect the Chinese leadership to come to its senses overnight,
but has said for years that regular Chinese people, officially denied
religion for more than half a century, may, one by one, notice how much
they have in common with Tibet, and how they still have a rich spiritual
tradition within their borders – in Tibet. The last time I visited
Lhasa, in 2002, some of the Chinese I saw in the Tibetan capital were
indeed making offerings at the central temple, seeking out Tibetan lamas
and Buddhist texts. And as the moving encounter in the Yokahama hotel
reminded me, wherever the Dalai Lama travels, Chinese are among the
people most eager to hear his message of transformation and peace.

. . .

It is generally assumed that the Chinese government has for years been
simply waiting for this Dalai Lama to die, imagining that once he is
gone, Tibetans will be without an experienced leader and Tibet will be
theirs forever. Since the late 1960s, Tenzin Gyatso has responded by
saying that a 15th Dalai Lama will necessarily advance the programme of
the 14th Dalai Lama. Besides, he notes, with typical radicalism, the
next Dalai Lama might be a woman, or might be found outside Tibet in
some highly untraditional way. Or there may be no 15th Dalai Lama at all.

New circumstances, in short, call for new measures. It is the curiosity
– but also the fascination – of this Dalai Lama’s life that, embracing
the possibilities represented by aeroplanes, TV screens and exile, he
has called upon entirely new and previously unimagined tools to advance
his trans-Buddhist philosophy of kindness and responsibility.

I am surprised to find him much more realistic and persuasive than
almost all the politicians I’ve met, some of whom stress the future,
some of whom speak for the past. “Dream – nothing!” the Dalai Lama said
when I was with him in Hiroshima 18 months ago. Do not wait or pray for
a miracle; do something that might make your life and the lives of
others a little better right now.

The world wants, at times, to place the Dalai Lama on a mountain top,
but he has never had such a luxury and seems always in our midst, trying
to remind us that we change the world by changing how we look at it. And
to point out that suffering (the day-to-day reality of the world) is not
unhappiness (the way we choose to respond to it).

Some people marvel at how compassionate and clear-sighted the Tibetan
leader is; some assume he can’t be as good as he seems. But he comes to
Britain this month merely to suggest, as ever, that any one of us can be
more compassionate and clear-sighted, if we only put our minds to it. In
the long term, that is how the Tibetan – and Chinese – situation will be
most fruitfully resolved.

Pico Iyer’s new book, ‘The Open Road: The Global Journey of the
Fourteenth Dalai Lama’, is published by Bloomsbury this month
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665
Developed by plank