Simple monk or living Buddha?

by Hans Van Willenswaard, Bangkok Post, Originally published July 9, 2005

A collection of essays about encounters with Tibetan spiritual leader His Holiness The Dalai Lama offer an insight into his philosophy of non-violence and conflict resolution

Edited by Rajiv Mehrotra
New Delhi, Penguin 2004, 266pp, $35.00
ISBN 0670058106

Bangkok, Thailand -- Meeting with His Holiness the XIVth Dalai Lama is an experience that deeply touches many all over the world. Thousands of people attend his lectures and Buddhist teachings. Even a glimpse from afar can give life a new meaning, while personal encounters, as demonstrated in the contributions of more than 20 authors, trigger unexpected views and sparks of creativity.

These inspirational meetings with the spiritual leader are documented in a new book Understanding the Dalai Lama, edited by Rajiv Mehrotra.

Speaking to a friend, Mehrotra addresses the high, if not daunting, regard in which the Dalai Lama is held:

"'Don't be nervous,' I said. 'He's the most human person you could ever hope to meet.'

"She gave me a shocked glance. 'He's the living Buddha!' she protested.

"'Well, isn't it the same thing?' I asked her."

But is the spiritual and political leader of six million Tibetans really a "living Buddha"?

Dalai Lama: It is better to be a good Christian, Muslim or Hindu than to become a half-baked Buddhist.
In an interview with the editor, the Dalai Lama confessed that he prefers to identify himself as Tenzin Gyatso, a simple Buddhist monk. As he approached his 70th birthday _ last Wednesday _ he reflected on how he gave new meaning to his role as leader or, as some refer to him, a "god and king" of Tibet.

Tenzin Gyatso was recognised in 1939 as the incarnation of the Dalai Lama at the age of four. Twenty years later, in 1959, he left his palace in Lhasa, the Potala, for a life in exile in India. From a marginal position as asylum seeker from a country that had to be liberated from feudalism according to Chinese standards, he gradually became a world leader of moral authority far transcending the might of the occupants of his country. In 1989 he received the Nobel Peace Prize. The Nobel Committee identified three specific elements of his philosophy: Non-violence, the inter-relatedness of social and individual human rights, and the critical need in our generation to confront the threat of a global environmental disaster.

The Dalai Lama walked his talk by introducing a new, democratic but uniquely Tibetan, constitution based on the International Declaration of Human Rights. The new constitution shifted rule by his absolute power to rule governed by a majority decision-making process. He addressed universal causes and looked for answers from people of different cultures and social backgrounds. He is known to engage openly in religious dialogue and for his reluctance of religious conversion. According to the Dalai Lama, it is better to be a good Christian, Muslim or Hindu than to become a half-baked Buddhist.

Following the reception of the Nobel Peace Prize the Dalai Lama established the Foundation for Universal Responsibility.

The book _ to be available next year in Thai _ offers a diversity of views from people who each describe one or some of the many aspects of the Dalai Lama's complex manifestations in public life.

The Dalai Lama personifies the hope that the world's political conflicts can be solved, that spirituality is a genuine dimension of life, essential for overcoming conflict and that all religions and cultures are significant and should be conserved as sources of creative diversity that respond to modern problems.

Asked by Rajiv Mehrotra, editor of Understanding The Dalai Lama , whether he is still confident that the political issues concerning Tibet will be resolved within his lifetime, the Dalai Lama replied positively: "I think the new generation, the younger generation, is growing in quite a healthy way. I think the foundation of Tibetan spirit is very sound. The Tibetan spirit, both inside Tibet and outside, is very strong. We also have [had] an elected leadership for two or three years, so even if I am sort of semi-retired, the Tibetan issue [will] still remain strong. And the people in China have also started considering things with a global perspective. Things are changing in a positive way. So I am optimistic about Tibet."

Recently, after a long period of Chinese rejection, the Dalai Lama sent his envoys to the People's Republic of China to resume talks about Tibet's future. Public statements have been released expressing confidence and growing trust in the intentions of both parties to seek a solution. A crucial point is that the Dalai Lama renounces Tibet's independence and any political role for himself. He seeks autonomy within the People's Republic of China as a "zone of peace". This is not, however, without conditions: He proposes respect for fundamental human rights, an abandonment of China's population transfer and the protection of Tibet's environment.

In an era of emerging regional conflict _ that includes Thailand _ cultural identity and the historic dimensions of national belonging play a growing role. The leadership of the Dalai Lama based on compassion, non-violence and forgiveness is at least worth a thorough case study. If not a "living Buddha", as a simple Buddhist monk he represents a shining example of loving kindness; showing humanity a genuine path towards conflict resolution.

A Thai translation of 'Understanding the Dalai Lama' is due to be published next year by Suan Nguen Mee Ma Co, Ltd.