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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Getting to know the Dalai Lama

May 23, 2009

By Brian Ettkin
Albany Times Union
May 21, 2009

ALBANY, N.Y. -- 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. This year marks
the 50th year the Dalai Lama has lived in exile.

Many of us would recognize him on the street, and yet we 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, he
said, most people would fail a pop quiz if you
asked anything about the Dala Lama or his theology.

With that in mind, here’s a primer on the Dalai Lama.

THE SUCCESSION:

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.

HOW WAS HE IDENTIFIED?

It is said to have begun when the embalmed head
of the 13th Dalai Lama, turned and pointed toward
northeastern Tibet, foretelling the direction to
search for the next Dalai Lama. A vision led the
search party to the home of a peasant family in Taktser.
Without revealing their purpose, they conducted a
few tests and they determined they had found the 14th Dalai Lama.

WHAT DOES HE TEACH?

  Compassion and Buddhism. Buddhism, unlike other
major religions, isn’t God-based. Buddhism
focuses on training the mind and spirit, and
meditation is an integral part of that training.
One can practice Buddhism and belong to another faith.

In November 1950, one month after 80,000 Chinese
soldiers invaded Tibet, 15-year-old Tenzin Gyatso
assumed leadership of his country. 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 Columbia University professor
Robert Thurman in his book Why the Dalai Lama Matters.

WHAT IS THE CHINA-TIBET CONFLICT ABOUT?

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, also at Columbia, 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.

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

HOW FREQUENTLY DOES HE VISIT THE U.S.?

  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.

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 charity.)

"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."
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