<-Back to WTN Archives
Guru to the world (TA)
World Tibet Network News
Tuesday, May 25, 1999
1. Guru to the world (TA)
The Age, Australia, Tuesday 25 May 1999
By ALICE THOMSON
HIGH on a spur of the Dhauladhar range in northern India, above the village
of Dharmsala, the Dalai Lama is holding his monthly audience. A thousand
pilgrims snake down the mountainside past the yak-butter tea stalls and
prayer wheels. They stand patiently in the 40-degree heat, as a dust storm
blows around them, waiting to pay homage at the Heavenly Abode, the Dalai
First come the Westerners - sporting a bizarre assortment of black leather
trousers, Harvey Nichols plastic bags, shalwar kameez, mini skirts and
pashminas - queueing to see the inspiration for several recent Hollywood
The Dalai Lama stands under the bougainvillea, protected by a large golfing
umbrella as he clasps their hands. Some curtsy, others bow before his
maroon robes, but he shows no sign of pomp or grandeur. He smiles directly
at each in turn, and his monks hand out necklaces.
``Will you be my guru?'' a German woman pleads.
``I am what you want me to be,'' the Dalai Lama replies. He laughs at a lip
stud, fingers a Rastafarian's locks and signs a Lonely Planet guidebook,
all the time chortling to himself.
Next come the diaspora of Tibetans, from Korea to Kochin, here to pay
homage to their exiled leader. With them, the Dalai Lama seems more severe.
They recount their ailments and seek cures for their rheumatism. He blows
on them and tells them to visit their doctors.
Finally, he greets the new refugees: orphans, monks and the old. They have
limped over the Himalayas for 40 days, fleeing from the Chinese. They bring
with them stories of rape and torture, and scraps of paper from those left
behind. To them, the Dalai Lama is a god-king. They throw themselves on the
floor, and he gathers them on to his porch.
``This is India,'' he tells them. ``Here, you will be safe from the
Chinese, but you will suffer in other ways. The water is not clean, the
money may corrupt you.''
Some start to cry.
``You have moral strength. You must try to regain your physical strength
and go back to Tibet. If everyone leaves, the Chinese have won.''
I am number 1001 in the queue. ``Lunch,'' says the Dalai Lama, and
disappears. He has been up since 3.30am meditating and meeting his Cabinet
of exiled ministers. Even gods get ravenous.
An hour later, I am ushered into a reception room, dominated by a large
golden Buddha, to meet the man who calls himself ``a simple monk''. I
present him with the traditional white purity scarf, the Kharta. Still
chortling, the Dalai Lama plumps himself down on a lacquered chair,
stretches out his legs and wiggles his maroon-stockinged feet. ``So,'' he
says. ``What to discuss today?''
What do you ask the 14th reincarnation of the Dalai Lama, the earthly
manifestation of Chenresig, the Lord of Compassion - and direct descendant
of Buddha? How do you address a man who was found, aged two, in a farmyard
in north-eastern Tibet, brought to the capital of Lhasa and pronounced the
14th reincarnation after he discovered his predecessor's false teeth hidden
in the 1000-room Potala Palace?
Fortunately, the Dalai Lama doesn't look like a god. Short and stocky, with
four scars from smallpox jabs on his beefy arms, he is adorned with only a
chunky watch, a pair of tinted glasses and his extraordinary smile. It
seems incredible that he can keep laughing when 1.2million of his people
have been killed, and 5000 of his monasteries destroyed in the name of
communism. Tibetans about to be executed used to cry: ``Long live the Dalai
Lama,'' until the Chinese took to hooking their tongues out.
But today, His Holiness, who listens to the BBC World Service every
morning, is more concerned about the West. ``No matter what religion,
whether rich or poor, educated or not, of one race or another, we all
desire to be happy. It is in our nature,'' he begins.
``My impression is that those living in materially developed countries are
less satisfied and more anxious. A sense of community and belonging has
been replaced by loneliness and alienation, competitiveness, envy and a
need to keep up appearances. I want to help.''
In the newly published Ancient Wisdom, Modern World, the Dalai Lama
proposes a spiritual revolution for the new millennium. How does he think
he can make us happy, when hundreds of politicians, psychiatrists and
little books of ``calm'' have failed?
``They are interested only in the self. Now that we are no longer dependent
on our neighbors, but on our employers, we are encouraged to assume that
others are not important to our happiness. So their happiness is
unimportant to us. This is simply not true. I want people to become more
Britons have embraced yoga, aromatherapy and reiki and have their homes
feng-shuied. In America, they have abandoned their shrinks for color
therapy. Isn't that sufficiently spiritual?
``These are just physical activities. They are not wrong, but they will not
make you happier because they are so self-centred. To become happy, you
need mental training. You need to rediscover compassion, to think of
Does he think the West has the self-discipline to become more
compassionate? ``It takes practice. I sometimes forget. But love,
compassion, patience, tolerance and forgiveness are the only ways to find
happiness. Anger, pride, lust and greed can only make us unhappy.''
The Dalai Lama must be striking a chord. Thousands are prepared to go
half-way round the world to hear him speak.
He explains that he is not trying to convert the West to Buddhism. ``Glenn
Hoddle (the British football manager) caused real problems by saying that
the disabled are paying off bad karma. From the Buddhist viewpoint, he is
correct. But if you live in a Christian country, you should keep these
views to yourself. It is difficult to have a mish-mash of religions. It may
be better to remain Christian, but have an understanding of other
How will the West learn compassion? ``Through education and the family.
There is so much divorce in the West. A proper marriage with love and
respect - that is desirable. Sexual misconduct corrodes self-respect, harms
children and destroys the partner's peace of mind.
``My closest friends in America introduce me to their wives. Then, the next
time I meet them, there is a new wife. I want to say: `What has happened to
the old one? Where is she? I liked her.' But you move on so quickly.''
His Californian followers sometimes find his advice difficult. ``They want
me to condone homosexuality. But I am a Buddhist and, for a Buddhist, a
relationship between two men is wrong. Some sexual conduct in marriage is
also wrong,'' he says. ``For example, using one's mouth and the other hole.
``This too is wrong,'' he adds, shaking his hand up and down vigorously. I
look at the translator, perplexed.
``Masturbation, madam,'' he says.
The Dalai Lama laughs as I blush. ``If an individual has no faith, that is
a different matter,'' he says. ``If two men really love each other and are
not religious, then that is OK by me.''
This down-to-earth monk admits to his own shortcomings. I learn that the
Tibetan ``Ocean of Wisdom'' eats meat, hates caterpillars, prefers milk to
yak butter in his tea, and has a quick temper.
His mixture of humor and humility has intoxicated the West. His admirers
include Richard Gere and Steven Spielberg, and his autobiography has topped
The New York Times best-seller list. He has even done an interview for
Playboy, appeared on chat shows and guest-edited French Vogue. Isn't he in
danger of being trivialised?
``I am a screen saver for computers. I don't mind. People can use me as
they want. My main practice is to serve human beings.''
But he seems to be surrounded by film stars and hippies, when his own
people need him so much more ... ``I don't bother about a person's
background. Beggar, actor, rich, poor, president, hairdresser, AIDS victim,
prince, monk - all fascinate me and I must care for all equally.''
Until he fled Tibet at the age of 24, the Dalai Lama had only once driven a
car. Now, he is permanently jet-lagged, as he hops from Buenos Aires to
Amsterdam and Turkey. Why does he feel such an obligation to the West when
it has brought its woes on itself?
``I am a human being first, and preserving the future of humanity is my
primary role. If you do not care about humanity, you cannot be a happy
human being, or community or country,'' he explains. ``My second
responsibility is as a religious leader, and so I must promote religious
harmony among other faiths. My third role is as a Tibetan and, as Dalai
Lama, I have a duty to serve my nation and my people.''
The Dalai Lama's refusal to advocate warfare with the Chinese, and his
insistence on spending so much time in the West, is beginning to cause
resentment among his people. As the Chinese become increasingly
intransigent, younger exiles have resorted to hunger strikes, freedom
fighters in Tibet have planted bombs and a Tibetan set fire to himself in
Delhi. There has even been infighting among Tibetans: a theological
splinter group murdered three monks last year. It is now 40 years since the
Tibetan uprising; in Dharmsala, several Tibetans told me over meat
dumplings that time is running out.
As a young boy, the Dalai Lama loved reading about U-boats and tanks in old
picture books he found in the Potala Palace. He would melt down toy
soldiers to make into battalions of warrior monks. But now he insists: ``No
violence: that is the best way, the only way. Even the hunger strike is a
kind of violence.''
Surely it must be depressing to see NATO going to the aid of the Kosovars,
when the world stood by and let Tibet be destroyed? ``I do not think that
NATO should have gone to war in Kosovo. They should not be bombing - it is
a terrible mistake. Once you have committed violence, its nature is
unpredictable. We now have hundreds of thousands of Kosovar refugees in
camps. At least, we still have Tibetans in Tibet.''
Nor will he condemn the Serbs. ``When I was a young child and I saw two
birds or animals fighting, I always went for the losing side. But now I see
both sides have a right to survive. In Kosovo, we are destroying both sides
while the generals sit safely in their bunkers. In a few years' time, the
West will have to reconstruct what they have bombed.''
The Dalai Lama's answer is ``dialogue, negotiation, respect on each side''.
He is scathing about this being a compassionate war. ``Why do you not get
involved in Rwanda or East Timor? You're so narrow-minded in Europe.''
But has his Nobel peace prize-winning way been more effective?
``The Chinese Government may refuse to talk. But the Chinese people, the
intellectuals and writers, are beginning to support us. All we are asking
for is autonomy. If we start to kill the Chinese, the people will turn
When the 64-year-old Dalai Lama dies, it will be years before the next
reincarnation is old enough to lead the exiles. ``That is more of a problem
for the Chinese. If the Dalai Lama dies, the Tibetan struggle may die, but
it is more likely to become more violent. Unless they eliminate the entire
population, they will never eliminate all resistance.''
Tony Blair has already espoused the Buddhist ``middle way'' for British
politics. What else would the Dalai Lama like him to do? ``China is a big
and important nation. We can't isolate her completely. So, make friends
with her, but straightforwardly and clearly criticise her stand on human
rights, democracy and Tibet.''
One of the people he most admires is the Queen Mother. ``She is a
marvellous lady. When I asked her whether she was optimistic for the
future, she said that the younger generation is much more aware of others.
That gives me hope.''
The Dalai Lama wears his learning and his problems lightly. What has made
him happiest? ``When I realised that my existence was dedicated to the
welfare of all beings, not just in this life, but in a limitless number of
lives. This brings me immense strength and peace, and it makes the problems
of this lifetime seem smaller.''
He smiles. ``I would also be very happy if it rained tomorrow, because all
my delphiniums and tulips are dying. I have thirsty people and thirsty
flowers. But it is the thirsty people I must care for first.''
Articles in this Issue:
- Guru to the world (TA)
Other articles this month -
WTN Index -
Mail the WTN-Editors