Tuesday, May 22, 2012

What Scares the Dalai Lama?

Outside the Dalai Lama's temple complex in Dharamsala, hundreds of young monks in crimson robes are locked in animated combat.

Against a Himalayan backdrop of jagged white peaks and a bright iris sky, the next generation are debating, clapping their hands triumphantly when they score a point over their opponent.

Inside the high-security cloisters, the bravado gives way to a more sombre scene as selected devotees wait in line for the Dalai Lama. 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 rock-star-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. This week 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 pounds 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."

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 on 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.

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". 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.

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.

— The Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2012