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 conviction.

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 philosophy."

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 miracle."

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 laundry."

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 bureaucracy."

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.

 Tibetans to 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 like 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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