I’d have to go back some years to a point at which my dear friend Pasang Tenzin said that it would be a worthy project to see His Holiness once a year. I’ve pretty much done that with the exception of the last couple of years. I keep thinking that I’ll be back in India and will see him in Dharamsala or around South Asia, so I’ve cheesed out since I’ve been back in the states. However, honestly, he’s never far from my thoughts and I’d like to think, in my heart.
This last part is most important. In the course of human history, at any given time, there are exceptional individuals who remind us of what we can be in this realm; who are living examples of individuals who care more for others than about themselves. They are often mocked, belittled, and vilified. We look at them fondly at a distance, and regard them admirably in posterity. But while they’re alive, despite the good they’ve rendered, there are the naysayers who speak from bases of abominable ignorance, if not outright hatred.
Tenzin Gyatso doesn’t need me to speak up for him or defend him. He doesn’t need me to go to toe to toe with people who say Tibet is part of China and always has been; or who say he’s a demon in monk’s robes; or who say he just wants to return to Tibet to subjugate it to the old order pre-"liberation"; or who say he suppresses the Shugden worshippers within his own Gelug tradition, and so on, ad nauseum.
However, I do think that the world needs reminders of why he matters, to borrow from the title of a book by Robert Thurman. He matters for the same reason Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela matter in death; he matters for the same reason his friend Arch-Bishop Desmond Tutu, Sulak Shivaraksam, and Malala Yousafzai matter in life. We need figures who, of course, promote peace and tolerance. We also need them to speak truth to power, whether it’s the power of the Taliban or the power or the Chinese Communist Party. How they speak is often as important as what they say.
In some cases, it’s fairly direct and pointed; in other cases, it’s wielding a stick of righteousness swathed in the cotton of rather gentle humor. At the end of the day, someone has to call bullshit on the wrong that humans inflict on one another through the powers of state.
There’s more to it than that, though. There’s the promise shown of what humanity can be when motivated by compassion and wisdom. For God’s (whatever that word means to you) sake, nothing seems to scare people more than when they see people whose only agenda is promoting fairness for all and not accepting the status quo or the temporal and temporary power that attempts to keep "business as usual" in place. To say that His Holiness is one such is an understatement.
I’ve seen him dozens of time in my life, particularly over the past couple of decades, on two continents and in both hemispheres. I’ve never met him, sadly, but I know people who have and their stories are wonderfully, well, enlightening. The best story I’ve heard was from a former KGB agent who worked the security detail when His Holiness came to Moscow for the first time in 1991. This was a guy who pretty much admitted to me that he had carried out some pretty extreme acts during his career; his heart and his life changed working that detail. From what I understand, His Holiness accepted him as a student during the course of a private audience. I was privileged to hold a small buddha statue had been consecrated by His Holiness and given to this rather large bear of a man.
Or there’s the woman I met in Dhasa who is in her late sixties, I think. She’s from Australia and heard him speak. Afterward, she quite literally bumped into him with his entourage on a city street (I want to say Sydney, but I’m really not sure.) She said she became the equivalent of a Deadhead and followed him around for years before settling in Dharmasala. She’s a hoot; I didn’t catch her name, but you can’t miss her if you’re there. She’s thin and fit with dreadlocks and the most wonderfully flamboyant attire. And she glows; and of course, she’s met him.
If ever there is an individual on this planet whose birthday we should celebrate, this would be one. I don’t want to spend a lot of time on the attacks he’s been subjected to by various Chinese leaders and the CCP’s propaganda machine; they’re essentially liars and guided by a misplaced sense of superiority. That His Holiness has pressed for dialogue with Beijing and tried to get his point across that he’s no longer seeking full independence for Tibet has resulted in no change or meaningful response from the occupiers of his country. That he holds them in his heart with great compassion is beyond ordinary human ken.
I remember him being asked if he ever got angry and he admitted that he did have a temper, but he continues to practice to tame it. Yet, if that’s so, I don’t recall any instance where he’s lashed out in anger against those who have seized Tibet and continued an onslaught against its people and their culture as unrelenting as the world has seen for decades.
It’s not just as a political leader that he’s exceptional; even within the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, his insistence that if there is something in the scriptures that doesn’t accord with science, then it should those teachings should be retired. In Indiana, I was struck dumb as he was quoting from an abhidharma reference during a series of teachings on Atisha that a significant aspect of Buddhist cosmology was erroneous and should be put aside. I wondered what went through the minds of the more traditional ordained and lay followers at that point.
Of course, even His Holiness still maintains views that aren’t necessarily scientific or perhaps that meet the criteria for textual criticism demanded by contemporary discipline. A few years ago when he said that he had requested some Indian Sanskrit pundits to do a textual analysis of the two Nagarjunas, they told him that the style was the same and that, yes, the great philosopher and the great mahasiddha were one and the same. Thus, Nagarjuna lived several hundred years. With the greatest respect, I would have to ask him someday if it occurred to him that those pandits would say anything to confirm this simply because he is who he is. I’d have to ask him why, knowing how important Nagarjuna is to Mahayana Buddhism both in late classical India and throughout the history of Buddhism in Tibet, that no one has called up or been able to find any contemporary records of him over the span of the period of the long-lived one’s life? In some ways, though, while this might be a big deal to me, personally, it’s probably not relevant to most practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism (Tibetans themselves or their non-Tibetan converts).
More important - most important, I mean to say - is that His Holiness embodies the spirit of compassion. It is said that the Dalai Lamas are emanations of Avalokishvara or Chenrezig in Tibetan, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. I can get behind that. Without blithering on too much, I do think that part of Buddhist tantra is to embody the principles of wisdom and compassion and if it means visualizing a figure like Chenrezig and absorbing the qualities of that being into the practitioner to realize those qualities, then I think this is a worthy practice. In His Holiness’s case, I don’t know if he even needs to practice! It seems to me he simply IS this great compassion.
It is this which trumps, also, my disagreement with his MIddle Way approach to the Tibet issue. The idea that the Chinese will allow Tibetans self-rule within the context of being part of China or perhaps simply as a separate but equal people within China as another way of putting it, seems mistaken to me. I know many Tibetans who don’t agree with the Middle Way policy but who would die before criticising His Holiness.
It is this last point that the Chinese and indeed, the rest of the world, don’t seem to understand; he isn’t just a political or religious figure. The Dalai Lamas have been part of the very DNA of Tibetans since the sixteenth century. Many met their ends early (including the Sixth Dalai Lama who is sometimes called "the People’s Dalai Lama" for his independent spirit and his excursions into Lhasa to spend time among the people; he refused full ordination, was a great poet and architect and withal, probably would have been happier to not be Dalai Lama), but all were loved deeply. Despite his part in forced conversions of Kagyu and Nyingma to the Gelug sect, the Fifth Dalai Lama is still loved as the unifier of Tibet during a particularly fractious period of Tibetan history and is honored and regarded as the Great Fifth. Similarly, despite his antipathy to the practice of Dolgyal, I’d say that even within that sect, Tibetans cannot deny their love or at least respect of the current Fourteenth Dalai Lama.
It doesn’t do any good to apply rational critical reasoning to this. The Dalai Lama isn’t just an institution, the Dalai Lama is part of the social and private fabric of every Tibetan alive. It’s not even accurate to look for equivalents in other cultures. The closest the U.S. might come would be, who? Maybe Abraham Lincoln? For Asia, perhaps the emperors of dynastic China and Japan held similar positions in the hearts and minds of the people, but I don’t always get that impression. Again, the people who come most readily to mind are Gandhi and Mandela. Then there’s a third facet to the Dalai Lama as perceived by the rest of the world.
My friend Pasang once opined that he felt that His Holiness was more of a universal man; he told me that he felt Thich Nhat Hanh had more Buddhist followers and that His Holiness appealed to more non-Buddhists because he was beyond any limited perspective. I think there’s a great deal of truth to this. Indeed, within his own sect, I understand there are doctrinal arguments about him as a Buddhist scholar (though, come on, he got his geshe degree while he was still a very young man, something that’s almost unheard of since it’s the equivalent of a Ph.D in the west and in many ways, more grueling!) but something tells me that if he was to enter a debate, his opponents would defer to him; I’m still not sure if the whole "science vs. abhidharma" stance agrees with the traditionalists (in fact, I rather doubt it.) The point is, many people who have never read a sutra are enamoured of him. And they are all over the world.
On July 6, Kundun (the Presence) will have completed 80 transits around the sun with sentient beings. If you feel so inclined, here is a long life prayer if you’d like to celebrate this journey:
GANG RI RA WE KOR WAI ZHING KHAM DIR
In this pure realm, surrounded by snow moutains,
PEN DANG DE WA MA LU JUNG WAI NE
Is the source of complete happiness and benefit.
CHEN RE ZIG WA TEN DZIN GYAM TSO YI
Avalokiteshvara, Tendzin Gyamtso,
ZHAB PE SI TAI BAR DU TEN GYUR CHIK
May you stand firm until the end of existence.
If you’d like to download the prayer with an alternative translation and the Tibetan u-chen script, it’s available here at the Tibetan Language Institute: http://www.tibetanlanguage.org/images/Free_Study_Aids/PDFs/LongLife.pdf.
You could check http://www.dalailama.com/ for a wealth of his teachings, videos and more. Best of all, you and I can put these teachings into practice.
That said, please join me in wishing a Happy Birthday and Long Life to His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama!
Kundun la ku tsering dang kyekar nyin tashi delek!