Inside the high-security cloisters, the bravado gives way to a more sombre scene as selected devotees wait in line for the man they regard as their living god. These include local teachers waiting to be blessed for their devotion; a wealthy looking white-haired Western man in a black Tibetan robe; and a glamorous young Australian woman in a tight cheongsam and high wedges. As Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, passes down the line, the emotion is too much for some. One young woman starts weeping and locks her fingers into his, holding his fist to her cheek.
At the end of the line, the Dalai Lama stoops to meet the gaze of 81-year-old Lhakchung, a wheelchair-bound tailor now dying of cancer. He looks intently into his eyes. There are tears running down the old man’s lined cheeks – he knows this will be the last blessing before he dies and he is looking for comfort, perhaps even hope. Instead, the man regarded by Tibetans as a living incarnation of the Buddha of Compassion, places a traditional white scarf around his shoulders and urges him to come to terms with his fate. It is at once moving and hard, religious and scientific. “I have nothing to give. I told him to pray. We all have to die,” he explains afterwards, matter-of-factly.
Over the past 53 years, the Dalai Lama has been able to offer little more in the way of hope to Tibetans. Exiled since 1959, he watched helplessly as China imposed its totalitarian rule on Tibet. Today, Tibet is no closer to freedom but, without him, the Tibetans might have been forgotten, simply another group of exiles clinging on to a fragmented culture.
Despite Beijing’s countless efforts to discredit him, the Dalai Lama has become one of the world’s most revered leaders, praised for the non-violent way he has led his people, and has a rockstar-like following (tickets to next month’s lecture tour of Scotland, for instance, sold out within hours). Along with his close friend Archbishop Desmond Tutu, he remains one of the last great surviving 20th‑century icons of peace.
Tomorrow he will be in London to receive the Templeton Prize at St Paul’s Cathedral. The honour is awarded annually to someone who has encouraged common ground between science and religion – Mother Teresa was its first recipient – and, with its £1.1 million purse, is by some measure the world’s largest prize. The Dalai Lama will announce how he is to spend the money during the ceremony. The award follows the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize for his commitment to non-violence, and highlights his championing of science as a vital element in religious life.
It is hard not to be in awe of a man billed as a living divinity, and his charisma is undeniable. But when I met him in Dharamsala last week, I discovered a less godly and more human leader than I was expecting; one who spoke of his achievements and regrets, his strengths and weaknesses, and his eventual demise, which poses the problem of a successor.
This is an interesting time for the Dalai Lama. Last year he passed the political leadership of exiled Tibetans on to an elected prime minister. He remains their spiritual leader – and the future Dalai Lama will be an exclusively spiritual figure. “So after my death I have no worries about the leader of the spiritual tradition,” he says. “I’ve made a significant contribution regarding the preservation of Tibetan Buddhist culture and also forming a Tibetan refugee community outside Tibet. It is now one of the most successful refugee communities in the world.”
However, his succession is unlikely to be an easy transition. The Karmapa Lama has been touted as Tibet’s next spiritual leader, and in Tibetan spiritual hierarchy he ranks only behind the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama. But the current Panchen Lama was chosen by Beijing, and followers of the Dalai Lama do not recognise him. The Dalai Lama’s own choice was rejected by China; that particular boy then mysteriously vanished and has not been seen since.
The same could happen with the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation. Indeed, such is his fear of Chinese attempts to impose a pro-Beijing successor that he says the Tibetan people could choose not to have another Dalai Lama at all. “If, at the time I pass away, or even before, the majority of the people feel the Dalai Lama institution is no longer relevant, the institution will automatically cease,” he says, adding, “I am not worried about that.”
The Dalai Lama was born Lhamo Thondup. His family were farmers in the Tibetan region of Amdo, then already part of the Chinese province of Qinghai. He was selected as the “rebirth” of the 13th Dalai Lama at the age of two, by a search party sent to look for the new incarnation. There had been a series of strange omens. For instance, the head of the embalmed 13th Dalai Lama, which was originally facing south-east, suddenly turned to face north-east, so the party headed in that direction. When Thondup was eventually found, he was presented with various items, some of which had belonged to the 13th Dalai Lama. He correctly identified his possessions, crying: “That’s mine! That’s mine!”
At four, Thondup was taken in a procession of lamas (spiritual masters) to the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, and renamed Tenzin Gyatso. His monastic education started at the age of six, but he was still allowed some fun. He describes a childhood in which he loved images of military hardware, marching soldiers and war – in particular Royal Navy gunships from the First World War.
“The war picture books kept by the 13th Dalai Lama, those pictures of the British Navy at the time – their guns, their battleship guns – I found very attractive,” he tells me. It is an unexpected confession for an icon of peace, but he waves away its significance.
“Every child loves a uniform,” he says, recalling children marching behind his Tibetan army parades in Lhasa before his exile.
Indeed, when he met Chairman Mao Tse-tung and Premier Chou En-lai in “Peking” – as he still calls the Chinese capital – for the 1954 talks following China’s invasion of Tibet, Mao himself told him he had a “scientific mind”.
He soon developed a close relationship with both men, despite them having unleashed the might of the People’s Liberation Army on his country. Mao served him with his own chopsticks, and Chou played him at ping-pong. “Chairman Mao gave me food in the Chinese tradition. I felt great honour but also fear. He was a chain smoker, too, lots of coughing, so I thought I might get a virus from his chopsticks,” he says with his trademark naughty giggle.
Mao had initially praised Lord Buddha as a “revolutionary”, but later told the Dalai Lama that “religion is poison”. Despite their closeness, five years later the Dalai Lama was forced to lead his Tibetan government into exile in Nehru’s India. The Dalai Lama made the north Indian hill town of Dharamsala his spiritual centre as well as his home, establishing a “government in exile”. Since then, several thousand Tibetan exiles have settled there.
The Dalai Lama has not had an opportunity to discuss religion – or play table tennis – with today’s Chinese leaders, and to outsiders the prospects do not look good. A series of anti-Chinese protests by monks throughout Tibet in 2008 was brutally put down by armed police, and children were among the estimated 160 killed.
China accused the Dalai Lama of organising the uprising – a charge he denies – and has since charged him with encouraging the self-immolations of Tibetan monks and nuns (there have been more than 30) in protest against government attempts to marginalise the Tibetan language and culture.
The Dalai Lama has so far remained silent, offering them neither support nor condemnation. “If I say anything negative, then their families will feel very sad,” he says. “Of course, I cannot say this is good. So I remain silent. I can only pray and share their determination, their willpower. Nobody normally sacrifices their own life without reasons – they’re concerned about Tibetan culture, Tibetan Buddhist faith.”
He still hopes that China will change its approach to Tibet and will initiate democratic reforms within his lifetime. “My lifetime means if I remain another 10, 20 years, then definitely we’ll see it. If I die next year, I don’t know.”
He believes that the Arab Spring has had a deep impact on China’s thinking, and that Buddhist logic could offer its leaders a way out of totalitarianism. “If they face the reality, then there is no reason for fear or distrust” – which he believes are the product of China’s rule. “A lack of transparency results in distrust and a deep sense of insecurity.”
To some, this might seem naive. China furiously protested when President Obama held talks with the Dalai Lama, for instance. And last October, he was denied a visa to South Africa to attend Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s 80th birthday celebrations (he was due to deliver a lecture). The Archbishop accused the South African government of bowing to pressure from China.
The Dalai Lama’s high profile may also account for reports of an assassination plot. Last year he was warned that Chinese agents had trained Tibetan women to kill him using scarves laced with poison. “They would have said they were sick, to receive a blessing from me, and my hand would have touched them.”
He believes his popularity worldwide is due to his focus on common human desires for happiness and contentment. “Human beings – we are all physically, emotionally, the same. And importantly, everybody wants a happy life. We need money, it’s useful, but if we put all our hopes on these things, it’s wrong. We must look at our inner values, that’s the main thing to bring inner strength, self-confidence and inner peace. The ultimate source of happiness is within ourselves.”
He cites Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu (“a very close friend; always joking”), Mahatma Gandhi and Albert Einstein as people who inspire him, but says he has been most heavily influenced by the second-century Indian Buddhist monk Nagarjuna. “He said that there is a huge gap between appearances and reality. Appearance is something absolute, but reality is not that way – everything is interdependent, not absolute. So that view is very helpful to maintain a peace of mind because the main destroyer of a peaceful mind is anger.”
But he hasn’t quite mastered this himself, he concedes. He gets angry “quite often” with “advisers, secretaries, other people around me when they make some little, little mistake, then sometimes I burst. Oh yes! Anger, and I shout! And some harsh words. But that remains for a few minutes, then it’s finished.”
At 76, he doesn’t have time to allow his rage to linger. He wakes at 3.30 every morning, meditates for four hours, pounds the treadmill, and then uses Buddhist prostrations to relax. He hasn’t watched television for two years, doesn’t read novels or poetry, but stays up to date with Newsweek and Time and is a BBC radio “addict”. He stops work just after three in the afternoon and is tucked up in bed by 7pm.
He wishes he had been more studious and less playful as a young boy, and regrets not learning to swim. His great fear, though, is of flying and of sharks. “Long flights, those I really feared, but now I’m used to them,” he says. “The fear now is that I never learnt to swim so if the plane crashes on water, I would immediately go deep under the sea and be enjoyed by a shark. That I really fear.”
The greatest single thing in life, he says, is the intelligence of human beings. “With the help of human intelligence, we have the ability to develop infinite love and infinite compassion.”
It is what drives his dedication to others, and inspires his favourite prayer from an eighth‑century Indian Buddhist master. “So long as space remains and suffering of sentient beings is there, I will remain to serve,” he recites. “That prayer really gives me inner strength.”
By Dean Nelson, The Telegraph, May 13, 2012