The Private Dalai Lama
Away from the public glare, Tibet's spiritual leader and guardian, the
former Boy King,
talks candidly-- and entertainingly -- about his long life in exile
By Ron Gluckman / Dharamsala
THE MORNING TV NEWS provides an alarming wake-up call.
Chinese missiles are hurtling across the Taiwan Strait. Ships are being rocketed. One
mistake, and it looks like it might be war. "We must understand China," my
companion says calmly. "It is very concerned about stability. Stability must come
from inner-satisfaction. But, at the moment, China's method is to use force. Sooner or
later, though, it will have to find another way to solve these problems -- towards Taiwan,
towards Hong Kong or towards Tibet."
There is no
resentment, no anger in the voice of the Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of the Tibetan
people. Still, the 60-year-old god king who fled Tibet on the back of a yak nearly four
decades ago seems noticeably troubled by the TV news, beamed in by satellite to his
home-in-exile, in Dharamsala, high in the mountains of India.
His signature smile leaves
his face as he takes off his glasses and rubs his dark brow.
"Of course, I pray for my people and for the return of Tibet," he says, in
his deep, resonate voice. "I pray for Tibet every day. But, also, I pray for China.
I'm optimistic." He pauses for a few seconds, his eyes twinkle and a mischievous grin
appears. "Of course, I've been optimistic for 37 years now!" Clearly, the Dalai
Lama's keen sense of humor has survived intact. His booming laughter echoes from behind
closed doors and down corridors. It is a genuine, bewitching laugh -- one that I was to
hear often during the two weeks we spoke in his home, monastery and government hall. Our
conversations took place during his annual public teachings for thousands of devotees in a
period of immense pageantry between Losar, the Tibetan New Year, and the anniversary of
the March 10 uprising of 1959.
Thousands of Tibetan refugees, wearing ratty fur hats and twirling prayer wheels, line
the steep mountain slopes to wave whenever the Dalai Lama drives by. Everyone seems caught
up in the spell. Even hardened reporters are easily swept away; so many stories talk about
his presence in the same breathless tones. "Don't be taken in by his charm,"
warned a seasoned British journalist who had followed the Dalai Lama for nearly half a
century. I was on my guard.
But there is no doubt about it -- the Dalai Lama is a charmer. The world's most famous
monk looks like a cross between Gandhi and Groucho Marx, with the cocky confidence and
world-class wit of both. Yet beyond the abundant humor and humility is the rarest of
individuals. Even skeptics would have to concede that this is a man of unparalleled
Among the many books about his life is his 1990 autobiography, the best-selling Freedom
in Exile. The book ends with a simple prayer, his favorite source of inspiration:
"For as long as space endures, and for as long as living beings remain, until then
may I, too, abide to dispel the misery of the world." He says: "That verse gives
me inner-strength. Of course, when I hear of torture, of discrimination inside Tibet, then
for a short time I feel some irritation, some anger. But that comes and goes. True
happiness, genuine happiness, comes when you see some usefulness in your life. That's my
That philosophy contributed to his winning the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize, and,
if anything, appears to have been only strengthened since Chinese troops invaded
the Rooftop of the World in 1950. Nine years later, the Dalai Lama slipped out
of his homeland during a failed uprising in which, by official Chinese accounts,
nearly 90,000 Tibetans were killed. The Dalai Lama maintains that 1.2 million
have perished under the Chinese rule, and more than 6,000 temples and religious
sites have been razed.
The one-time boy king has become the most celebrated man in robes since Mahatma
Gandhi, whom he says is his major role model, along with American civil rights advocate
Martin Luther King Jr. Yet he insists he never sought the limelight. Others may worship
him as a living god, but the Dalai Lama says he's "just a simple monk" with no
exceptional wisdom to impart. "Others are always making too much of my words,"
he says. "People are too serious. All the time, too serious."
He says he dreams of the day when he can leave all the protocol and politics behind and
disappear into the hills on a religious retreat. But retirement doesn't come easily to
someone who many believe is Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion -- among a group
of enlightened beings who accept rebirth over release, returning to Earth for eternity to
help ease the suffering of humanity. "There is no choice," he says, rocking with
laughter. "Whether I like it or not, I have to come back. I have no say in the
matter. Ha, ha, ha! Ho, ho, ho!" He chuckles: "Sometimes, though, I do feel,
like on Saturday or Sunday, that the Dalai Lama, too, should have a Sunday."
But he doesn't get many days off. Dignitaries from around the globe come to consult
him, while a dizzying array of religious ceremonies and ordinations require the guidance
of the Ocean of Wisdom, Protector of the Land of Snows, the Holder of the White Lotus, the
Mighty of Speech, Tibet's Living Buddha and its Wish-Fulfilling Gem.
His life is governed by simple routines. He rises before dawn, a time of complete
silence and calm that is perfect for meditation. "If the weather is fine, I go into
the garden," he says. "The stars provide a special feeling -- of my
insignificance in the cosmos, the realization of what we Buddhists call impermanence. It's
very relaxing." In the garden, he keeps a caged parrot that aides found injured in
the nearby forests. He also used to have a pair of cats, but says he long ago swore off
pets. "Too much attachment," he explains.
After the morning meditation comes breakfast, which is nearly always the same: tsampa,
a combination of roasted barley flour and porridge. "It's a little of the East mixed
with a little of the West," he says. Afterwards, if the schedule allows, he may hide
away at his work bench to fiddle with some broken gadget. His youngest brother, Tendzin
Choegyal, says one of the Dalai Lama's greatest finds of recent years was super-glue --
second, in fact, only to the more recent discovery of super-glue remover. "He was
overjoyed when I gave him some," the brother says. "He thought it was a
Since childhood, the Dalai Lama has been an incorrigible tinkerer. He still has a Rolex
watch given to him by U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt -- a credit to his do-it-yourself
skills. As a youngster, he amazed and annoyed elders by repairing Tibet's three cars, the
legacy of a previous incarnation, and then secretly taking one for a spin. That day, the
boy king learned the hard way about the need for reliable brakes. He also once took apart
and repaired an old film projector, all without any instructions.
His tutor was an Austrian adventurer named Heinrich Harrer, who escaped a World War II
prison camp in India by climbing over the Himalayas to Tibet. Harrer built a modest
cinema, where a teenage Dalai Lama used to clap with glee at Western movies -- much to the
chagrin of his regent. John Wayne was among his favorites. Nowadays, he prefers nature
programs. But there simply isn't much time to view them. Instead, he budgets 10 to 15
minutes a day for the BBC's world television news. He watches it while seated on a
meditation cushion in the large living room of what few, except his devoted followers,
would call a palace.
-------- (below: The Potala Palace,
home of the Dalai Lama line in Lhasa, Tibet)
The white stucco house in McLeod Ganj, an old British hill station overlooking
Dharamsala, in Himachal Pradesh state, is sparsely and simply furnished, more resembling a
mountain cottage than the residence of royalty. However, it does have spectacular views of
the snow-capped peaks that rise dramatically above the balcony -- a reminder of the home he hasn't seen
for nearly 40 years. Except for the view, everything else is modest. A desk displays
sentimental gifts from friends and a tacky, yellow pen-holder in the shape of a bug.
This must be the only government house without a single glint of gold. Not that the
occupant seems to notice. Imelda Marcos can monopolize the world supply of shoes; he is
happy with his sandals and a pair of well-worn leather Oxfords. He also has a couple of
robes. "I have to have two," he jokes. "Even the Dalai Lama does
The most out-of-the-ordinary item is a walking machine, which stands beside an exercise
cycle. The former, popularized by cross-country skiers, is obviously a recent addition.
The Dalai Lama makes good-natured, but clumsy, attempts to show it off, but is much better
on the bike. Physically, he seems in good shape, if a bit chunky. "I think I might be
pregnant," he jokes, rubbing his round belly. Previous problems with digestion were
long ago corrected by dietary adjustments. "But I still have thunderstorms in my
belly," he laughs. "My doctor says I have good blood pressure, baby blood
pressure. I'm feeling very strong."
Before our first meeting, his assistants offer advice. "Sometimes, the Dalai Lama
likes to talk about different things," explains a senior aide. "You must be
severe and keep asking him a question until you are satisfied. Do not be afraid of his
stature. He is a very personable figure, very human. You can ask him anything." They
were right. He is easily -- or, more accurately, eagerly -- distracted. And he is a lively
speaker, with a curious appetite for any topic. Nor does he worry too much about
convention. Walking from his house to the monastery, he grabs a fully-loaded automatic
weapon from an Indian guard, who maintains his stiff posture but must be a bundle of
nerves. A dead Dalai Lama probably wouldn't do much for his promotion chances.
Security has been tightened since late last year, when several Tibetans were arrested
for alleged spying activities that remain murky to this day. The Dalai Lama has two
security teams, Tibetan and Indian, and some of the most rigorous search procedures
imaginable. Pens are taken apart, and the pages of notepads scanned, as if for some secret
poison. Body searches are thorough. And yet locals say that, until not long ago, the man
the Chinese would dearly love to see out of the way used to walk unescorted in the hills.
Since winning the Nobel Peace Prize, the Dalai Lama has spent more and more time on
international engagements. And that has meant conquering his fear of flying. "I used
to be scared of airplanes," he confides. Now, he spends his air time meditating. He
has plenty of opportunities to do so. This summer, he is expected to make a tour of a
number of continental European countries en route to Britain. He will also visit the U.S.,
Australia and New Zealand. There has been talk of a first visit to Taiwan, but this is
denied by his office.
Seeing the Dalai Lama so often in the news -- he also has his own Web site on the
Internet -- it's easy to forget that this balding monk hasn't always been a household
name. Through the 1960s and 1970s, he struggled in isolation, futilely trying to attract
world attention to the plight of his people. One of the legacies of the 1959 exodus is the
continued existence of 50 refugee settlements scattered through India, Nepal and Bhutan.
Those were grim times. Yet he says he never suffered a lapse of faith. "When I
look back at the last 44 or 45 years, and I think about the major decisions, I have no
regrets," he says. "And I don't remember a time when my faith or the spirit was
completely gone, or shaken." As to his worldwide popularity these days, he attributes
that to the Chinese government, which recently added a new name to his long list of titles
-- "serpent's head." He quakes with laughter. "Ha, ha, ha! Ho, ho, ho!
That's good. Really, if the Chinese had treated the Tibetans like real brothers, then the
Dalai Lama might not be so popular. All the credit goes to the Chinese."
Critics of the exiled government say it is throttled by red tape and mired in
corruption -- and that the democratic mechanisms are all a sham, to convince the world
that Tibet's once-repressive rulers have reformed. Besides the Kashag (Council of
Ministers), there is the democratically elected Assembly of Tibetan People's Deputies and
the independent Tibetan Supreme Justice Commission. These feudal lords and farmers have
adjusted only too well to their new home. "For 40 years they have been in
India," explains one Western activist. "They've learned too much about
The Dalai Lama's government also stands accused of never having been tested by such
real-life problems as economic and political development, nepotism and corruption. But it
is still possible to measure his rule. His people are well- fed, decently housed and have
access to exceptional education. By comparison with much of India, Dharamsala is
spit-clean. Remarkably, too, there is no sign of prostitution, no matter how camouflaged.
the core seem to revere their leader. Whether by birth or step by human step, he has
become a Living Buddha for them. That's the feeling, too, of millions of followers,
including Hollywood star Richard Gere. He met the Dalai Lama in the early 1980s, and has
attended 10 of the last dozen annual teachings in Dharamsala.
"It's not often that
you meet a truly great man," Gere tells me. "He's the real thing; no one else
comes close. The Dalai Lama has an enormous, amazing impact. It's rare to be in the
presence of someone who wants nothing more than your happiness."
The March teachings also attract the usual enlightenment-seekers on the salvation
circuit -- stringy-haired backpackers who arrive by long-haul buses from Goa, Kathmandu
and hippie capitals further afield. Among them is Dutch-born Zaurkawglkah Martin, who for
the past four years has been living in Colombia, at the Sakro Akuarius monastery, high in
the Andes. He believes Tibetan Buddhism should move there. "China will never, ever
give back Tibet," he says. "The Dalai Lama should come to Colombia." Martin
is one of many monks at Sakro Akuarius who are married.
"No, no, no. This is absolutely wrong," the Dalai Lama says, growing
animated. "Nowadays, unfortunately, we have a new vocabulary -- a monk with a wife.
This is wrong. A monk is celibate. Those who dress like a monk, with a wife, they are not
monks. Of course, it's the individual's right. You can always give up a monk's vows, and
then change your dress."
The Dalai Lama warns Westerners against seeking "instant enlightenment"
through Buddhism. "In the beginning, you should be open," he says. "In some
cases, it's better to be skeptical. Some Westerners follow Tibetan Buddhism and adopt the
dress -- this is too extreme. The important thing is to take the spiritual aspects and not
the cultural side."
And then the big question. Will the Dalai Lama ever be able to go back to an
independent Tibet? "Certainly," he replies without hesitation. "I will
return to a free Tibet, and my people also. Yes, I have strong feelings on that."
Others are not so sure. His death would unquestionably be a big, perhaps
insurmountable, blow to the Tibetan cause. "I don't think China will negotiate. I
think they are waiting for the Dalai Lama to die," his brother Tendzin Choegyal says.
"The Chinese government feels he symbolizes the entire independence movement, and
when he is gone, it will go away."
Tendzin Choegyal also worries that the Middle Way approach of non-violence has been a
mistake. "It worked for Gandhi, but Gandhi was dealing with the British," he
says. "At least they had a conscience. The Chinese have only contempt."
As to reincarnation, the Dalai Lama's attitude seems to be that he'll take that walk
when the time comes. "While I am alive, I should utilize my energy, my existence, for
good, for the benefit of others. That's important. Then I'm finished. Whether people say
good things or bad things doesn't matter." He pauses. "When I reach nirvana,
then I will tell everything! Ha, ha, ha! Ho, ho, ho!"
Ron Gluckman is a reporter who spent
three weeks with the Dalai Lama in 1996, during that magical time between his annual public
teachings and the anniversary of the March 10 uprising. People from around the world come
to hear the Dalai Lama expound about Buddhism; included in the crowd are luminaries
Richard Gere, as well as hundreds of simple Tibetans, who scurry across the Himalayas in
the midst of winter, often in rags or barefoot, twirling prayer wheels and murmuring his
name the entire way: Dalai Lama, Dalai Lama, Dalai Lama. Ron followed the Dalai Lama
everywhere, through special religious ceremonies, ordinations, around the house, at
meetings with his advisers, and during public addresses. He reports: "He's got the
best job on Earth, which is to be kind, supportive and above all, to always have faith in
the purpose of life, even amidst all the futility. That he handles this job with such
conviction is remarkable. That he exudes such joy, such pure and unbridled goodness
becomes a source of inspiration even for the most unbelieving, this reporter among them.
Bless the Dalai Lama.
For a transcript of Ron Gluckman's series of interviews with the Dalai Lama,
conducted over a three week period in his house, palace and in the midst of various
religious and governmental duties in February-March 1996, please click here.
All pictures by Ron Gluckman
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