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Dalai Lama sheds politics for divine

By Manya A. Brachear, Chicago Tribune, May 6, 2007; Lu Jingxian in Beijing contributed to this report

Exiled Tibetan leader will offer his first Buddhist teaching in Chicago on Sunday

Chicago, IL (USA) -- Plucked from his birthplace in northeastern Tibet as a toddler, faced with an invasion as a teen and forced into exile in his 20s, the 14th Dalai Lama has spent most of his life shouldering the leadership burdens of his beleaguered homeland.

Now observers say the Dalai Lama, 71, is inching out of the political spotlight to reclaim the role he has always wanted to play -- that of "a simple Buddhist monk."

On Sunday, the Dalai Lama will deliver his first official Buddhist teaching to a Chicago audience, a sign that the Tibetan Buddhist leader is at long last focusing on his divine role and increasingly leaving politics to his people.

Appearing at Millennium Park twice, to near-sellout crowds, he will also give a public talk before concluding his 12-day tour of the U.S. on Monday and departing for Australia.

For the first time, his office has declined all interview requests or news conferences while on tour. A majority of his time has been spent away from crowds, at a Wisconsin monastery where one of his own spiritual mentors resides.

Some believe the subtle retreat springs from a sense that his temporal mission has been accomplished. He has transformed the Tibetan government-in-exile from theocratic monarchy to democracy. And he has witnessed the Tibetan Buddhist culture thrive in diaspora.

"The time has come for the benefit of Buddhism that he be detached from government and politics," said Lodi Gyari, the Dalai Lama's envoy to China, a top adviser who spent decades trying to keep his leader focused on the plight of Tibet.

"Deep in his heart he is a practitioner, a Buddhist monk, someone who wants to spend his time and dedicate his life to cultivating traditions and universal responsibility," Gyari said.

Leader of Tibetan exiles

Unable to find a compromise with China, the Dalai Lama fled Tibet in 1959 and settled in Dharamsala, India, now the center of the Tibetan government-in-exile. When refugees followed, the Dalai Lama became the temporal leader for more than 100,000 exiles around the world.

But it wasn't until his first visit to the West in 1973 that he began to champion Tibet's independence to the rest of the world, even as he taught Tibetan Buddhism.

Gyari recalls his own zeal for the cause, and the Dalai Lama's reluctance to embrace his political calling.

"I was young, idealistic and Tibet-focused," Gyari recalled with a chuckle.

When he counseled the Dalai Lama to become a spokesman for his country, the leader said he felt he should serve the public, not make demands: "'When they come to see me, they come to share their burdens. I don't feel I should share my burden.'"

But the Chinese government at that time was demolishing monasteries and punishing Tibetans for uttering the Dalai Lama's name, pushing him to a more political message. Ultimately he followed Gyari's advice and emerged as Tibet's most eloquent proponent on the world stage.

China's crackdown on Tibet did not relent until the 1980s. Despite three decades of persecution, Tibetan Buddhism experienced a resurgence in Tibet, as it gained momentum around the world. In 1989, the Dalai Lama won the Nobel Peace Prize.

But that same year, China dealt another blow by naming a new Panchen Lama, the second highest ranking teacher of Tibetan Buddhism, who is partially responsible for finding the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama when he dies.

The Dalai Lama identified a different person as the Panchen Lama, whose location is unknown.

But the Dalai Lama has acknowledged that the Chinese maneuver could threaten the Tibetan Buddhist institution, creating the possibility of dueling Dalai Lamas after his death.

Shouldering Tibet's cause

He has also left open the possibility that the Dalai Lama as we know it could come to an end if the role is not deemed necessary by the Tibetan people.

In Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama is understood as the reincarnation of the deity of compassion -- and while that deity would continue to be reincarnated, the manifestation on earth could be much different.

Mayank Chhaya, author of "Dalai Lama: Man, Monk, Mystic," the latest authorized biography of the Dalai Lama, said the leader seems aware that the cause of Tibet can no longer rest on the shoulders of one man.

"Tibet could not have found a more arresting articulator of its plight," wrote Chhaya, of Naperville. "But therein lies the problem. Tibet is so closely identified with the Dalai Lama that sometimes the connection between the two could be counterproductive."

Chhaya believes that is why the Dalai Lama has detached himself from the political realm. It is a pragmatic and personal decision, he said.

"In the past three to five years, he has again emerged as somebody who is more of a philosopher, Chhaya said in an interview. "That's where his training as a Buddhist monk comes in."

Since winning the Nobel Prize, the Dalai Lama's stardom has been on the rise. His countenance graces the cover of hundreds of books, many of them best sellers. "The Art of Happiness" alone has sold nearly 2 million copies.

Some believe that his celebrity has aided negotiations between China and Tibet. Others believe that he has intentionally limited his global reach, for fear that it would hurt the immediate cause of Tibet.

"He has actually suppressed his ability to contribute to the world as a whole," said Robert Thurman, a professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies at Columbia University. "Because of his worry about the fate of his people under the Chinese bootheels, on purpose he has not tried to expand his role as a moral leader. Some of us wish he would. We have to respect his wisdom."

Resolution with China?

Thurman believes a resolution with China is within reach during the current Dalai Lama's lifetime. Two delegations traveled to China in 2002 and 2003, and some observers in China would like to see the Dalai Lama find an acceptable role within China.

"The Chinese government hopes he could return to China, to make a contribution to Tibet, to harmonious society, and bring to an end the past history," said Professor Wang Yao, from Research Institute of Tibetology under Central University of Nationality. "Dalai Lama is a religious leader, a scholar of Tibetan Buddhism. The other sides of him are not important."

But as long as he operates outside China's sphere of influence, relations remain tense. When the city of Madison, Wis., voted to raise the Tibetan flag over City Hall during his visit last week, the Chinese Consulate of Chicago opposed the gesture, accusing the Dalai Lama of framing the disagreement over Tibet as a moral issue rather than geopolitical.

"The purpose of Dalai Lama's visit to the United States this time, as always, is to engage in activities aimed at splitting China and undermining China-U.S. relations under the cover of religion," Zhiyuan Ji, consul of the political and press office for the Chinese Consulate General in Chicago, wrote in an e-mail to Madison's mayor.

Opposition from within

In recent years, the Dalai Lama also has faced opposition from fellow Tibetans who want complete independence for Tibet. The Dalai Lama now calls for autonomy within China.

Larry Gerstein, director of the International Tibet Independence Movement based in Bloomington, Ind., said it's not as much disagreement as a diversity of voices that are common in a democracy.

"The reality is that all the strategies are necessary to try to accomplish the goal," he said. "There's no indication from His Holiness or the Tibetan government-in-exile that we should cease with our activities."

The Tibetan community in Chicago met privately with the Dalai Lama on Saturday.

The rest of the time will be devoted to those who bought tickets. Tickets for the teaching, which ranged from $25 to $150, sold out in 20 minutes. Tickets for the public talk later that day also sold for up to $150. Last week, the city expanded capacity to 11,400, making a few $10 lawn seats still available.

Proceeds will defray the cost of the event and the construction of a facility for the Tibetan-American Center for Cross-Cultural Understanding.

Teaching broader audience

Though the Dalai Lama is the spiritual master of the sometimes arcane world of Tibetan Buddhism, as long as his celebrity draws a broader audience, he must tailor some messages to novices. On Sunday, his teaching will expound upon "Eight Verses for Training the Mind."

"It's something that he and many other Tibetan teachers prefer to teach when there are not months available to give extended lectures just to get to the essence of things in a relatively short period of time," said Matthew Kapstein, a visiting professor of Buddhist studies at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

It's also one of the Dalai Lama's favorites. "It's a very brief concise teaching that embodies what the Dalai Lama regards as the key ethical values of Buddhism," Kapstein said.



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