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Behind the Scenes: Amanpour 'transfixed' by Dalai Lama

August 3, 2008

By Christiane Amanpour
CNN Chief International Correspondent
August 1, 2008

Story Highlights
* Christiane Amanpour traveled to India to meet with the exiled Dalai Lama
* In 1959, the Dalai Lama fled Tibet on horseback to evade China's
communist forces
* Amanpour says the Dalai Lama's connection to his adoring flock is
* Dalai Lama says what the Chinese are doing in Tibet amounts to
"cultural genocide"

In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their
experiences in covering news and analyze the stories behind the
events. CNN's Christiane Amanpour meets the Dalai Lama and some of
his unruly flock in "Buddha's Warriors" airing Saturday and Sunday, 8
and 11 p.m. ET

DHARAMSALA, India (CNN) -- I never knew much about Buddhism, and was
not expecting much, spiritually, from covering the Dalai Lama. But
what happened just goes to show how the unlikeliest events can affect
you at the unlikeliest times.

I flew from covering the historic visit of the New York Philharmonic
Orchestra in North Korea to Dharamsala, India. This is the
home-in-exile of the Dalai Lama and his government, as well as
thousands of Tibetan monks and supporters.

Our visit coincided with the events that commemorate each March 10,
the date the Dalai Lama fled Tibet on horseback in 1959. He managed
to evade the Chinese Communist forces, disguised as a soldier and
escaping at night. The somber remembrance is a little like what the
Palestinians do every year. They call it al-Nakba, or "catastrophe,"
which marks 1948 when they lost much of their land as the state of
Israel was founded.

This year, however, the March 10 anniversary took on a more ominous
tone. It was the first time the growing split among Tibetan exiles
burst into the open. Some of the younger generation of exiles are
losing faith in the Dalai Lama's abandonment of the dream of Tibetan
independence. Some want action, even if it might mean abandoning
their peaceful Buddhist way.

I wanted to ask the Dalai Lama about this and where he thought it would lead.

The day we visited, we attended a "Long Life Ceremony" in which
thousands of Tibetans come from all over India and across the
Himalayas from Tibet to catch a glimpse of their spiritual leader, to
pray for his continued health and long life and to bestow their most
precious gifts upon him, including cubes of dried cheese wrapped in
muslin, textiles and tapestries.

It went on for more than two hours. I never thought I would sit
through the whole thing, but something about the chanting, the
incense and the vital connection between the Dalai Lama and his
adoring flock was mesmerizing. VideoWatch: Amanpour investigates new
breed of Buddhists »

As a journalist and an observer, I was transfixed.

Even though the Dalai Lama has spent nearly 60 years in exile, people
are still so faithful to him, so respectful, weeping, bowing low as
they pass him sitting high above on his throne-like dais. He towers
over them, and yet there is nothing removed or dictatorial about him.
PhotoSee behind-the-scenes photos from Buddha's Warriors »

Afterwards we prepared for our interview. He gives many, and I
wondered what we could elicit from him that would be new or
noteworthy. As our cameramen were setting up, I hung around outside
to quietly watch as he received the first of many visitors that day:
dignitaries, ordinary tourists, prayer groups and school groups.

I've found you can tell almost everything about a person by observing
the way they deal with others. He was kind, witty, warm,
laugh-out-loud funny and deeply moved by some of the personal tales
he heard from those visitors seeking his advice and blessing. I
thought about how he must do this so many hundreds of thousands of
times and yet he had time for everyone, treating each one like a VIP.

Once we sat down, I was immediately slightly thrown off by his style.
He told us very clearly that what the Chinese are doing in Tibet
amounts to "cultural genocide." And then he burst into his trademark
giggles. I couldn't fully understand why, but it is apparently the
Buddhist way to laugh off life's horrors, and thus survive. Learn
about Tibet's history of conflict »

He went on to tell us, with great earnestness, how he approves of the
Olympic Games being held in Beijing and how he is not trying to seek
full independence from China, just what he calls cultural autonomy.

This man, who is lionized for his quiet spirituality and for being a
one-man movement of conscience, who had won a Nobel Peace Prize,
calls himself a simple Buddhist monk. As we sat there, suddenly a
thunderstorm broke and all our lights went out and we were plunged
into darkness. Any other important interviewee would have swept out
to rest while we dealt with it. Not the Dalai Lama. He sat there with
us in the dark, cracking jokes and chatting, as we waited for the
generator to kick in.

The Chinese government says the Dalai Lama is lying when he says he
does not want independence from China. They call him a wolf in
sheep's clothing. So why, I wondered, would he not overtly support
the young generation of Tibetans who want a more proactive policy of
confronting China?

Over and again I asked him about the split among his ranks. He said
he would not condemn them as he believed in democracy and free
speech. But nor would he support their tactics or their goals. He
just kept asking (rhetorically) a simple question: With what are we
going to fight them? Are we 6 million Tibetans going to confront the
army of 1.2 billion people? How?

The Chinese government refused repeatedly to talk to us and accused
us of trying to "beatify" the Dalai Lama. I couldn't help wondering
why they won't talk to him or meet him halfway.

They may be trying to wait out the 74-year-old Dalai Lama. But they
must know they'll have much more trouble on their hands once he is
gone and the angry younger generation takes over.
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