Dalai Lama strikes the right chord
Tibetans revere Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama in a line that stretches back over 650 years, as their living Buddha. It is, however, his genuine humanity that has made him a leading spiritual influence in the world today, writes IVY SOON, who met him at his home in exile in Dharamsala, India.
VISITORS to the Dalai Lama?s home must show their passports, go through a security check and surrender their mobile telephones.
But all formalities end at the waiting room where his aides reminded us to not remove our shoes, or prostrate before the Dalai Lama ?to save time?.
It had taken the Vajrayana Buddhist Council Malaysia (VBCM) almost a year to arrange for the private audience with the Dalai Lama. There was also some last minute miscommunication about the appointment time, and the Malaysian delegates were so late another group of visitors were allowed to meet the Dalai Lama first.
When our turn came, His Holiness was waiting at the corridor to greet us warmly, and invite us into the sitting room. He listened attentively as VBCM president Chow Heng Soon outlined the purpose of the visit, and during the discussion on issues ranging from fostering unity among followers to Buddhist practices to vegetarianism.
The Dalai Lama shared his thoughts openly, but also cautioned against accepting his words blindly. ?Read up the material and come to your own conclusion. Do not reject the group because Dalai Lama put restrictions,? he said when talking about a fundamentalist Buddhist group.
He speaks fluent English with a Tibetan/Indian accent, and would occasionally turn to his interpreter and secretary in search of the right word.
The hour passed quickly as the Dalai Lama was an engaging conversationalist. Despite his stature as a living deity, he inspired rather than awed with his easy discourse and astute insights.
He has a quick wit with a disarming hint of mischief, and the most ready and hearty chuckle.
?I had prepared a list of questions to ask him during my first private audience with His Holiness. But when I met him, the questions did not seem important anymore. I remember coming out feeling good and peaceful,? recalled VBCM religious affairs officer Tee Siew Seet who has met the Dalai Lama six times and attended his teachings. His Holiness now introduces Tee as ?my friend from Malaysia.?
Tibetans ? from refugees living in exile to newcomers fleeing China ? deeply revere the Dalai Lama. They are drawn to make their pilgrimage to Dharamsala to seek the Dalai Lama?s blessings, and to share with him their own tales of hardship and suffering.
?Unfortunately, many have unrealistic expectations, thinking that I have healing powers or that I can give some sort of blessing. But I am only an ordinary human being.
?The best I can do is try to help them by sharing in their suffering,? the Dalai Lama wrote in Ancient Wisdom Modern World.
His Holiness calls himself ?the simple monk from faraway Tibet?, and has said that he is a comparative newcomer to the modern world as his ?formative years were spent largely cut off from the realities of the 20th century.?
Yet, his teachings have struck a chord with the rest of the world, appealing to contemporary emphasis on logic.
<< The Dalai Lama gamely answered questions from journalist Ivy Soon (seated on the floor) despite the demands on his time and attention.
Buddhism is not a path of faith, but of reason and knowledge, he stressed.
One of the most erudite scholars in Buddhism, the Dalai Lama has the gift of stripping Buddhist philosophy to its most lucid core, rendering his teachings relevant and accessible even to the non-Buddhist laymen.
His true religion, he has always said, ?is kindness.?
Tenzin Gyatso was born in a cowshed in a remote village in 1935, and was recognised as the incarnation of Tibetan Buddhism?s high priest at two. He ascended the Lion Throne at four, and has spent all his life fulfilling his destiny as Tibet?s temporal and spiritual leader.
However, China?s invasion and his subsequent flight into exile in India in 1959 have thrust him onto the world stage.
The Dalai Lama?s education was the ?same studies as any monk preparing for a doctorate in Buddhism, and in many ways totally inappropriate for the leader of a country during the late 20th century,? he wrote in his autobiography Freedom In Exile.
Still, he has led his government in exile and rallied Tibetans in and out of Tibet with an unerring conviction in the Buddhist principles of compassion and wisdom.
In a world reeling from armed conflicts, and against an emerging superpower nation most of the world is seeking to court, the Dalai Lama has been steadfast in upholding the principle of non-violence.
?Despite the fact that we have not drawn attention to our plight by means of violence, we have not been forgotten. It also means that the values we cherish, in particular our respect for all forms of life and the belief in the power of truth, are today recognised and encouraged,? said the Dalai Lama when accepting the 1989 Nobel Prize for Peace.
The Dalai Lama has always been regarded as the rallying point in the quest to free Tibet, but he is keen to shift that focus.
?Our struggle is for the Tibetan Buddhist Dharma, and for the people, not for the Dalai Lama institution or for me personally. If it is my struggle, then it must be achieved within my lifetime. But that is not the case. Our struggle is for the Tibet people, for Tibet's rich culture and the rich spirituality of the Buddhist Dharma. So, from generation to generation, they will carry this struggle.?
?So, I must say our struggle is a just struggle,? he stressed.
After 45 years under Chinese rule, the Dalai Lama has acknowledged his people's growing impatience at the lack of tangible progress be it in regaining their land, or towards an end of suppression of Tibetan rights under Chinese rule.
He continues to counsel patience, and has advised against allowing emotions to rule the Tibetan people's struggle.
Hence, unpopular as it is with some of his people and supporters, the Dalai Lama has taken the pragmatic approach of seeking meaningful autonomy rather than independence from China.
?I am seeking genuine autonomy. It's for our own interest. Tibet is materially backwards but spiritually very rich. The land is big, and population small. In the past, we have completely neglected modern development, modern education and technology.
?Therefore, if Tibet remains within the People's Republic of China, as far as material benefit is concerned, we might get greater benefit. Why doesn't the Chinese government give us meaningful autonomy ? respect Tibetan culture and recognise Tibet's environment and ecology.?
By any account, the situation in Tibet appears bleak.
The massive influx of Chinese settlers in Tibet has reduced Tibetans to an insignificant minority in their country, threatening the very survival of their rich spiritual and cultural heritage.
Human rights groups have also documented abuses, and monasteries have been destroyed.
The Dalai Lama, however, has always maintained that there is hope.
?Firstly, it is a just struggle. Secondly, there is mutual benefit. If my approach materialises, there is benefit to both Tibet and China. I feel this is a reasonable and realistic approach, and the reality is that more and more Chinese are supporting that.?
He also believes that changes in China?s political and social landscape will bode well for Tibet.
?Things are changing. There is comparatively more freedom in China now. Twenty or 30 years ago, I think no single Chinese would dare to criticise Mao Zedong. Now, there is some criticism involving Zhang Jemin. People also get information from the Internet now. Things are changing. I am optimistic.?
(The Dalai Lama?s third delegation visited China in September.)
?Up to now, our main effort is to build confidence. In the recent visit, there was a detailed explanation about the Chinese government?s suspicions of me. I think it?s very positive. They explained in detail, so we have the opportunity to give very detailed answers. We do not expect that the solution to the Tibetan problem will come easily; the problem is very, very complex.?
The Dalai Lama, who emphasised that ?I am not seeking independence?, is also optimistic about the state of the world generally.
?Despite some conflicts here and there, if you look overall at the whole world from a distance, things are improving,? he said.
?There is desire for peace, non-violence. Before the Iraq crisis, from Australia to America, how many people demonstrated ? I think all of a sudden ?for the first time? Many of these people may not know what the causes of the Iraq crisis are, but they are simply fed up with violence. These are, I think, positive signs. People everywhere have a genuine desire for peace and are against violence,? said the Dalai Lama with the wisdom of many lifetimes.