When asked who he is the Dalai Lama will tell you he is “just a human being…who chooses to be a Buddhist monk.” But for the Tibetan people he is the 14th re-incarnation of Avalokiteshvara, the Boddhisatva of Compassion.
The exiled spiritual and political leader of Tibet (until he gave up temporal power in 2011), he is sometimes referred to as a god-king, or a living Buddha.
Whatever his title, Tenzin Gyatso, the Dalai Lama, is clearly his people’s heart and soul. One young Tibetan refugee tells of falling down an icy Himalayan slope during his 1995 escape from Tibet.
Hearing his terrified companion’s cries of “Dalai Lama…Dalai Lama” echoing behind him, he says that “My friend thought I was dying, so he was praying for me” by calling His Holiness’ name.
Before Mao Tse Tung’s Communist China occupied Tibet in 1959, the young Dalai Lama governed an independent nation the size of Western Europe.
Only 24 years old, the troubled monk fled, in disguise, into India days before the Chinese bombed his summer palace in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital.
Then Indian Prime Minister Nehru granted tracts of land for the homeless leader and the 80,000 Tibetans who had followed him into exile. Grateful for the shelter from Mao’s brutally repressive troops, the Tibetans continued, however, to suffer in India.
Thousands fell ill and died from malaria and dysentery, their bodies unable to cope with the extreme change in climate between Tibet’s cold, dry high-altitudes and India’s low-lying heat and humidity.
Under His Holiness’ guidance, the Tibetan community gradually began to thrive in India, becoming one of the world’s few “successful” refugee communities, despite the steady flow of new Tibetan escapees from Chinese-occupied Tibet, which swells their numbers and strains the fragile infrastructure of the community in exile.
Throughout the 37 years in exile the Dalai Lama has fought a David and Goliath battle for Tibetan independence against China. The incomparable dignity and grace of his untiring efforts to promote a peaceful resolution to the problem was rewarded when he won the 1989 Nobel Prize for Peace.
Remarkably, the Dalai Lama bears virtually no hard feelings for his Chinese enemies. When asked if he hates the Chinese, he inevitably responds “no, not really,” or “almost not.”
He insists that there is no point in developing hatred for the Chinese, and that it makes more sense, practically and spiritually, to develop instead respect and compassion for them.
Perhaps this seemingly superhuman generosity of spirit shouldn’t surprise us, considering that his spiritual training in altruism began while he was still an infant.
Born Lhamo Dhondrup, in a remote Tibetan village, he was a normal two year old when a search party of high officials recognized him as the re-incarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama, the highest political and spiritual authority in Tibet.
Though the boy had never before seen the leader of the party, a friend of the 13th Dalai Lama, from Sera Monastery, he recognized him, calling him “Sera lama, Sera lama.”
A few days later, he was given the traditional test of choosing objects belonging to the previous Dalai Lama from similar items belonging to others. In every case, the child correctly identified the 13th Dalai Lama’s things, saying, “It’s mine. It’s mine.”
Separated from his family a few years later to begin his training, he was taken to Lhasa and spent a disciplined and lonely youth in the vast Potala Palace in Lhasa, undergoing rigorous training in matters of both state and spirituality.
Yet for all the isolation, austerity, premature responsibilities, and suffering he has endured, the Dalai Lama is a remarkably jolly and unembittered man. As Michael Goodman reported during His Holiness’ first US visit,
head tilted back and eyes squeezed shut, he bursts into a gale of laughter…Like most Tibetans he is gifted with a keen sense of humor, and when he laughs his entire body takes part. He has a wonderful, unembarrassed laugh that begins as a deep-throated roar and fades away on a high pitch, as if all his previous thirteen incarnations were joining in with him. That he is able to laugh in the face of adversity after all he has experienced during the past three decades, suggests that he is a man who has found inner peace.
And despite the fact that his Tibetan government in exile toils unrecognized by any other nation except the Czech Republic, and that he wields no worldly power, he is revered by growing thousands around the world as that rarest of beings, a genuinely wise and good man whose “true religion,” as he sometimes says, “is kindness.”