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Leader in Exile, Part 2: Dalai Lama's reputation grows

Monday, November 09, 1998

By Ann Rodgers-Melnick, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

In the spring of 1959, while Chinese artillery bombarded his summer palace, the 23-year-old god-king of Tibet made a harrowing escape over the Himalayan mountains to exile in Dharmsala, India.

 
    Leader in Exile, Part 1:

Freedom eludes Dalai Lama, Tibetans

 
 

In the decades since, the reputation of His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, now 63, has grown immeasurably. He renounced the stifling protocols of Buddhahood to live, in his words, as "a simple monk" with other refugees.

His work on behalf of Tibetan freedom and non-violence has earned the Nobel Peace Prize and worldwide admiration -- except in China, which claims Tibet has always been Chinese territory.

The Dalai Lama, speaking in Pittsburgh and Greensburg this week, is received by presidents, feted by film and rock stars and immortalized in movies.

In Western eyes, "he is the displaced person from Shangri-la," said Donald Lopez, professor of Buddhist and Tibetan studies at the University of Michigan.

Though Tibet was not the paradise of Shangri-la legend, until the Chinese occupation of 1950, it was a remote and peaceful kingdom. Buddhist rulers saw no need for a modern army. According to the Tibetan government-in-exile, more than 1.2 million of an original 7 million Tibetans perished in violence and starvation during the first 30 years of occupation. Religious repression of its Buddhist population is capped by a ban on pictures of the Dalai Lama.

For he is not merely the Tibetan head-of-state. By tradition, he is the incarnation of the Buddha of Compassion, who forsakes Nirvana to reincarnate and help others on the path to enlightenment. He is not the Tibetan pope; he is their Christ.

Geshe Lobsang Tenzin, a Tibetan scholar in Atlanta, first met the Dalai Lama in 1974.

"I cannot express it adequately in words," he said. "Just being in his presence was a very comforting and awesome experience. He is a Buddha; we worship him. He is the one person who can unite both the people of Tibet in exile and those inside Tibet."

The Web site of the People's Republic of China Embassy in the United States portrays the Dalai Lama as a fraud, claiming: "As a political tool of Western anti-China forces, the Dalai Lama's role is lamentable and fairly limited, and he will eventually be abandoned. This is the inevitable law of history."


Chosen in childhood

He was born Lhamo Dhondrub to hardscrabble farmers on July 6, 1935. They lived in a disputed region on the Chinese border, ruled by a warlord allied with China. But the people were devoted to the Dalai Lama in Tibet's capital, Lhasa.

Two years before Lhamo Dhondrub's birth, the 13th Dalai Lama died. A regent was appointed to head the government until the next Dalai Lama reached adulthood. Mystical signs led a search party to 2-year-old Lhamo Dhondrub. But the Chinese-allied governor took him hostage.

He was freed after two years when Chinese Muslims on pilgrimage to Mecca arranged his ransom. That act set an early pattern for the Buddhist leader, who was destined to be sheltered by Hindus, aided by Christians, inspired by Jews.

In February 1940, the 4-year-old was enthroned as Tibet's spiritual leader.

He freely admits that Tibet was a feudal society, with great inequities between rich and poor. It had its share of crime, cruelty and corruption.

Other writers offer more detail. The Khampa tribesmen -- later to become fearless guerrillas -- were vicious highway robbers who preyed on the gentle Tibetan nomads, Heinrich Harrer wrote in "Seven Years in Tibet." Political assassination was not unknown.

But Buddhism permeated the lives of Tibetans. Houses were decorated with prayer flags so the wind could carry their hopes to the gods. About 10 percent of the population lived as monks or nuns in 6,400 monasteries. Though the high altitude made traditional Buddhist vegetarianism impossible, animals could only be killed for food.

Harrer observed: "One cannot close one's heart to the religious fervor that radiates from everyone. ... It is a catastrophe when a fly falls into a cup of tea. It must at all costs be saved from drowning as it may be the reincarnation of one's dead grandmother."

The Dalai Lama's formal education was entirely religious. He often found it tiresome -- and considered long ceremonies to be painful exercises in bladder control. He became more devout in adolescence. And in retrospect, he was grateful for the Buddhist immersion that kept him from despair.

His best friends were the men who cleaned his rooms. They played with him and talked freely about the difficulties that ordinary people faced under feudalism. Their concerns about inherited debt and land ownership became the basis of the young Dalai Lama's short-lived attempts at economic reform.

"I know that I grew up with hardly any knowledge of worldly affairs, and it was in that state, when I was (15), that I was called upon to lead my country against the invasion of communist China," he wrote in "My Land and My People."

While still three years short of adulthood, the 15-year-old became head of state. Though the initial Chinese troops were peaceful, their sheer number caused a famine. When he dispatched negotiators to Beijing, he says, they were held prisoner until they approved the "17-point plan," which stated that Tibet was part of China.

Knowing that his antiquated army stood no chance of victory, the young leader adopted a policy of cooperation whenever possible, and passive resistance otherwise.

"Nonviolence was the only moral course. This was not only my own profound belief, it was also clearly in accordance with the teaching of the Lord Buddha," he wrote in "My Land and My People."

Although repelled by Marxist materialism, he found virtue in its economics. He dreamed of a synthesis of Buddhism and communism. In his eyes, the communists' greatest failing was their failure to live up to their own ideals.

Apparently unknown to the Dalai Lama at the time, one of his own brothers obtained CIA support for a Tibetan guerrilla movement. For 20 years they harassed the Chinese. Although the Dalai Lama could never bring himself to approve of their violence, he had deep admiration for their courage, and sympathy for their motives.

In March 1959, evidence mounted of a Chinese plot to kidnap the Dalai Lama. Thousands of Tibetans gathered outside his summer palace to protect him.

"I have no fear of death," he wrote of his decision to escape that night. "But I knew my people and the officials of my government could not share my feelings. To them, the person of the Dalai Lama was supremely precious. ... They were convinced that if my body perished at the hands of the Chinese, the life of Tibet would also come to an end."

That evening, he slipped into the shrine dedicated to his personal protector deity, where monks chanted prayers by the light of butter lamps. Silently, he placed a white silk scarf on the deity's statue. It was a Tibetan gesture of farewell that implies the intention to return.

He left the palace disguised as a soldier. Traveling by horse, mule, yak and foot, the escape party climbed for weeks through uncharted wilderness. Two days into their journey, the Chinese shelled Lhasa, killing thousands of Tibetans.

From the mountains of Tibet, the Dalai Lama denounced the 17-point agreement, all of which he said the Chinese had violated. He proclaimed a new government and completed his trek into India.

Besides seeking political support from the outside world, the Dalai Lama spent his early exile tending to the desperate needs of 80,000 refugees who had followed him.

Aid poured in from governments and Christian relief agencies. Today, the Dalai Lama considers his 130,000 exiled Tibetans the most successfully resettled refugee group in the world. His greatest concern is for the 6 million who remain in Tibet.

He wrote his 1962 autobiography to plead Tibet's case to the world:

"Tens of thousands of our people have been killed. ... Mainly and fundamentally they have been killed because they would not renounce their religion. They have not only been shot, but beaten to death, crucified, burned alive, drowned, vivisected, starved, strangled, hanged, scalded, buried alive, disemboweled and beheaded. ... Small children have even been forced to shoot their parents."

The U.S. government was prepared to make him the poster boy for anti-communism, but the Dalai Lama refused. He didn't want his people to become pawns in Cold War politics.

Above all, "he never wanted to use hate in his request for liberation of his people," said Robert Thurman, professor of Indo-Tibetan studies at Columbia University.

Meanwhile, he developed a democratic constitution based on Buddhist principles and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He intends to refuse any government post if he returns to a free Tibet.

But he has acknowledged that return may not be possible in this lifetime, and has dedicated himself to preserving Tibetan faith and culture.

At a rabbinical conference a dozen years ago in New Jersey, he wanted to learn how Jewish faith and culture survived 19 centuries without a homeland. He asked how children were taught religion, language and history when they were persecuted and scattered.

"These weren't just polite questions. He really wanted to know because there is a real parallel with his own situation," said Rabbi James Rudin, director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee.

Although it is not always apparent when he speaks English, he is a remarkable religious scholar, said Jeffrey Hopkins, professor of Tibetan and Buddhist studies at the University of Virginia, who was his interpreter. He draws from many different Buddhist traditions to explain the greater faith.

"If he could speak English the way he does Tibetan, almost the whole world would listen to him," Hopkins said.

When Westerners seek his spiritual advice, he urges them not to convert to Buddhism, but to look deeper into their own religious heritage. Because he believes each soul works its way toward enlightenment through many rebirths, any faith that promotes virtue will lead to salvation.

On his first trip to Europe in 1973, he visited Pope Paul VI. The Dalai Lama admires Catholicism, especially its monastic tradition of service to the poor.

Pope John Paul II is a kindred spirit, "a very practical sort of person, very broad-minded and open," he wrote. "Any man who can call out 'Brother' to his would-be assassin, as Pope John Paul did, must be a highly evolved spiritual practitioner."


Hopes and fears

The Dalai Lama made his first of many U.S. visits in 1979. He befriends hotel cooks and avoids limousines. In whatever car is provided, "he likes to ride in the front seat and chat with the driver. He finds it fun," Thurman said.

The Dalai Lama rises daily at 4 a.m. to meditate. An attempt to practice the Buddhist ideal of vegetarianism failed when he developed jaundice. But he follows the monastic discipline of not eating after noon.

He tries to meet with Chinese people in cities he visits and encourages exiled Tibetans to cultivate good relations with their ethnic Chinese neighbors.

He had no contact with the Chinese government until after Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao Tse-Tung's death in 1976. Then, as go-betweens talked, some political prisoners were freed, some monasteries restored and tourists were welcomed.

In a 1987 speech to the U.S. Congress Human Rights Caucus, the Dalai Lama outlined his Five-Point Plan. It did not call for independence, but for autonomy within China.

Six days later, Tibetans began demonstrating for freedom. Authorities cracked down quickly, shooting into unarmed crowds. A tourist who photographed the carnage in Lhasa, and then devoted his life to the cause of Tibetan freedom, rushed his evidence to the Dalai Lama.

"He was extremely concerned about the fate of the Tibetans. But one thing he really wanted to know was whether the Tibetans had taken to violent methods," said John Ackerly, now president of the International Campaign for Tibet in Washington, D.C.

He was relieved to hear that they had only thrown stones at soldiers who fired on them. When a soldier abandoned a wooden rifle, Ackerly told him, Tibetans broke it.

In 1989, the Dalai Lama received the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to win his people's freedom through non-violent means.

As the Soviet Union quietly relinquished its empire, the Dalai Lama's speeches were filled with hope that China might follow that example. He was in Berlin when the East German government fell and stood by the soon-to-be-dismantled Berlin Wall, holding a candle for freedom and compassion.

But by 1994, he confessed that his attempts to negotiate a solution with the Chinese had failed and that repression of Tibetan culture and religion was growing more severe.

"I am conscious of the fact that a growing number of Tibetans, both inside as well as outside Tibet, have been disheartened by my conciliatory stand not to demand complete independence for Tibet," he said.

The Dalai Lama "still has hope," said Lopez, the Michigan professor. "But indeed, since 1978, I have seen hopes be generated and then dashed. I have wondered whether it is a technique of the communist Chinese government to create such hopes and thereby win themselves some time. You have pressure for six months or a year, then a little hope and a little more pressure. And, lo, 20 years have passed."

But his image as the holy, humble victim of Marxist aggression "has really been putting China on the defensive, internally as well internationally. Tibet was a devastating loss for Beijing's policy in the 1980s," said Melvyn Goldstein, director of the Center for Research on Tibet at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and the West's foremost historian of Tibet.

The debate over whether the Dalai Lama has conceded too much or too little to the Chinese is as close to him as his own family. One of his brothers has argued that Tibetans must concede more to get the Dalai Lama back to Tibet in this incarnation.

Another brother says the Dalai Lama has conceded too much and should settle for nothing less than full independence.

Despite these pressures, those who have worked closely with the Dalai Lama say they have never seen the strain show.

"I have seen him weep when he gets particularly awful news about some atrocity, but he just does not hate his enemies. He is really trying to live up to the belief that if you hate your enemy, you have become your enemy's equal," Thurman said.

Devotion to him within Tibet remains strong. When the 1987 demonstrations broke out, an English tourist outside of Lhasa went out wearing a T-shirt with an image of the late Phil Silvers -- the bald, bespectacled American comedian whose Sgt. Bilko series was then a cult favorite on British television.

When a Chinese soldier tried to rip it off her at gunpoint, a crowd of Tibetans gathered around them, pointing at her shirt and chanting "Dalai Lama, Dalai Lama."

Today, "If you go into a little Tibetan village, the children are so poor. But instead of asking for money, they ask you for a picture of the Dalai Lama. If you show that you have pictures, you will be mobbed -- and you can't give them out in Lhasa anymore," Ackerly said.

The Dalai Lama writes of his deep desire to return to Tibet, to become a hermit at the Reting monastery. But the question of what will happen if he dies in exile is vexing.

Incarnate Buddhas are said to be able to choose the circumstances of their next birth. The Dalai Lama has said that if he dies in exile, his next incarnation will be born in exile. And that Dalai Lama "will be more competent and better than the present," he said.

But he has also left open the possibility of no more Dalai Lamas. He has given his people the right to end the institution.

In that case, he wrote in "Freedom in Exile," the Tibetans "will not bother to search for me. So I might take rebirth as an insect or an animal -- whatever would be of most value to the largest number of sentient beings."


Tomorrow: An explanation of Tibetan Buddhism.



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