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From Shangri-La to Angry-La

by Stuart Laidlaw, Toronto Star, Apr 5, 2008

Even as Tibet's culture becomes more popular around the world, it is struggling to survive in the China-controlled land where it began

Toronto, Canada -- The conundrum of Tibet baffles and defies not only its Chinese rulers, but the region's spiritual leader the Dalai Lama. That's not Beijing's view. It comes from Pico Iyer, author and lifelong friend of the popular Buddhist monk.

About 30 protesting Tibetan monks burst in on a Chinese government tour of Jokhang Temple arranged for foreign journalists in Lhasa on March 27, 2008.

Even as the Dalai Lama's country's culture reaches new levels of understanding and popularity around the world, it is struggling in the China-controlled land where it began and from which the Dalai Lama has been banished for nearly half a century, says Iyer.

Recent violent clashes in Tibet have been particularly difficult.

"It weighs on him," says Iyer, in Toronto recently to promote his latest book, The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. "He's watching it, but he can't always affect what's going on."

The Dalai Lama was forced to flee Tibet 49 years ago as Chinese troops crushed an uprising in the capital of Lhasa. He made his way through the mountains to India, establishing a government-in-exile at Dharamsala, with temples and schools to keep Tibetan culture alive.

"I asked him once about the saddest moment of his life," says Iyer. "His eyes began misting over and he remembered the moment when he crossed into exile in India, and the bodyguards who had risked their lives protecting him all the way on his flight turned around to go back into Tibet to their deaths."

In the years since, the army has been followed by decades of ethnic Chinese, making Tibetans minorities in their own land, displacing their traditions and beliefs and fuelling the resentments that have led to recent troubles there.

In an interview with the Star last fall, the Dalai Lama worried that Tibetans growing up under Chinese rule have become increasingly short-tempered and less generous – values he has stressed in Dharamsala.

"Those Tibetans who have grown up in India are more Tibetan" than those in their ancestral home, he said.

It is a dichotomy he struggles with, says Iyer. As the world learns more about Tibetan Buddhism, Tibetans themselves know less.

For centuries, the country remained sheltered from the world, known in the West only through explorers' tales of a mystical Shangri-La where monks performed miracles and resisted the cold through the power of meditation.

Tibet, its culture and religion have since become known to the West through the Dalai Lama's efforts and exile, gaining wider acceptance around the globe and infusing other faiths with its emphasis on empathy and the divinity within.

That acceptance has fuelled western support for the Tibetan people during the recent crackdown by China and also calls to boycott the opening ceremonies at this summer's Beijing Olympic Games. The shift from Lhasa to Dharamsala as the de facto seat of Tibetan Buddhism has brought changes to the faith, Iyer says.

On the world stage, the Dalai Lama, a deeply intellectual man who delights at intricate philosophical debates, has simplified his message, converting the complicated ideas he discusses with other monks into sound bites for western consumption.

In Dharamsala, he has had to adapt the ancient faith and culture to its new surroundings to ensure continued relevance among his people.

Traditional Tibetan dress, for instance, evolved in a much colder environment than the relatively tropical India, Iyer says.

"The coats can be pretty thick and heavy," says Iyer.

In the end, he says, evolution could be good for both the faith and the culture.

The move has forced Tibetans in general, and the Dalai Lama in particular, to focus on the essence of their brand of Buddhism: compassion, empathy, intellectual rigour and the importance of passing these values to the next generation.

"Those are relevant everywhere," Iyer says. It helps to explain the growing appeal of both the Dalai Lama and his faith.

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