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The human side of the Ocean of Wisdom
Tibetan Bulletin[Wednesday, February 02, 2005 01:31]
Reviewed by Thubten Samphel

Understanding the Dalai Lama

Edited by Rajiv Mehrotra
Viking/Penguin
296 pages, Rs. 395

All whose lives have been touched by the His Holiness the or by his presence like to point out the many uplifting traits of his personality. But invariably they are moved by the humanity and the very human aspects of what the Tibetan people believe as the manifestation of the Buddha of Compassion. Understanding the Dalai Lama,a book of riveting essays by well-known writers, diplomats, translators, scholars and practitioners, brings this out brilliantly.It also reveals the many dimensions of a global figure who is regarded as the teacher to our modern world.

Perhaps this aspect of His Holiness the Dalai Lama fascinates the world. This could be one of the reasons that provoked this volume. Showered by adulation throughout the world and regarded as the soul of Tibet by his own people, why does His Holiness the Dalai Lama come out as compellingly human with no human pretence? This ability of a human being to call forth the best in us and to fully live our human potential prompted Deepak Chopra in a CNN interview with Larry King to remark that the Dalai Lama makes everyone want to be like him. This is the issue examined in the book. A wealth of details, snippets, anecdotes and chance encounters brings all this vividly and memorably to life.

Tibetans refer to His Holiness the Dalai Lama as Kundun. Kundun means the Presence. Indeed, he is a constant and consoling presence during a harrowing time in the Tibetan people’s history. At other times in a moment of great emotion or touched by the depth of his concern or by the warmth of his personality, they say, "He is a parent to all of us". No other Dalai Lama has reached out to his people like the present one. Giving words of encouragement and hope, His Holiness the 14thDalai Lama of Tibet continues to shepherd his flock over treacherous terrain and across unending grasslands. In the process he has inspired the Tibetan exiles to create a functioning community that continues to give education, pride and hope to their children and bring a certain measure of dignity in their refugee existence.

All the writers of these essays delve into different aspects of the Tibetan leader’s character. Pico Iyer, in his usual sharp probing into human lives inhabiting different cultural situations in our interactive global village, says His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s sovereign quality is his alertness.

Watch the Dalai Lama enter a crowded auditorium, or sit through a long monastic ceremony that has many others nodding off, and you will notice him looking around keenly, for what he can pick up-a friend to whom he can unselfconsciously wave, some little detail that will bring a smile to his face.

"One reason why His Holiness the Dalai Lama is so deeply respected is that he lives his teachings. And he lives by example. Robert Thurman comments on the Tibetan leader’s conviction of living and teaching by example. He writes, This refusal to give in to despair has an even greater power of example, when we remember that it comes from the leader of Tibet, a nation and a people that has suffered so much".

And then there is his sense of humour, which all remark upon. Matthieu Ricard, who tossed away a brilliant scientific career to don the robes of a Buddhist monk and who himself enjoys a formidable reputation as a Buddhist master, writes,

When Danielle Mitterand, wife of the erstwhile French president, came to visit the Dalai Lama, he took her around Dharamsala. In front of a big statue of the Buddha which is in the temple of the monastery the Dalai Lama respectfully pointed to it and said:‘My boss.’

For the majority of the young generation of Tibetan refugees, His Holiness is, foremost, their political leader who maintains the cohesion of the exile community and acts as an articulate spokesperson for the concerns of the Tibetan people. For Bhuchung Tsering the access of the Tibetans to their leader and his interaction with them has contributed to introducing a quiet revolution of irreversible egalitarianism in the exile community that stands in sharp contrast to the rigid hierarchy of the old Tibetan social system. This, Bhuchung Tsering writes in his essay, "has altered the course of Tibetan social history." He accompanied an Indian photojournalist for a session with His Holiness the Dalai Lama many years ago.

Between photo sessions, His Holiness looked towards me, just a newcomer to the Tibetan civil service and asked me from which part of Tibet I was. That one ordinary-sounding question altered the course of Tibetan social history, for me at least.

This quiet revolution from above altered the course of Tibetan social history. It has also fundamentally changed the way the Tibetan people would like to be governed. This insistence on broadening the revolution from above will have repercussions beyond the exile community and perhaps is a sticking point with the Chinese government. This is because there is a sneaking suspicion in some quarters of the world that communist China prefers that ideas, and people with ideas, should begin their Long March from China and move elsewhere and not the other way round.

In his seminal analysis of His Holiness as a political strategist, Senthil Ram comments, although not too accurately,

While still at the height of his authority as the political and temporal (sic) leader of Tibetans, the appointment of Kalon Tripa "the Tibetan equivalent of prime minister "has at least theoretically placed him on the back seat of the democratic vehicle of the Tibetan Government in Exile"

The current kalon tripa was directly elected in 2001. This is another first in Tibetan history. As for his theoretical backseat position, His Holiness has repeated many times that it is now for the Tibetan people to take responsibility for their affairs. He has declared his semi-retirement many times and one memorably in Prague in 2003 during a conference of Tibet Support Groups and before the presence of Vaclav Havel, the former president of the Czech Republic and the leader of the Velvet Revolution that saw the smooth transition of that part of the world from communism to democracy and freedom.

One of the essays also explores a little known aspect of His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s life. That is it is little known to the non-Tibetan world. This is the influence of a monastic training on the intellectual development of His Holiness. Thupten Jinpa comments,

It is this kind of rigorous intellectual training that the Dalai Lama received in his student years "appears to have left a lasting impact both on his personality and his thought. Despite his extensive exposure to modernity and contemporary western thought, his appreciation of the scholastic tradition of Tibet remains deeply rooted in the ancient teachings of the Buddha.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama believes that the survival of the Tibetan culture is dependent on the continuity and the continued integrity of the Tibetan monastic tradition. For this reason he has made an extra effort to supervise the education of the young monks. Tibet’s highest cultural and spiritual attainments and the ones the Tibetans are most proud of were realised and nurtured in the lonely and desolate caves and hermitages of Tibet and in its bustling monastic universities. Traditional Tibet lived and continues to live in its monasteries, whether in exile or in Tibet. In our global village if Tibetans are able to maintain the integrity of the monastic community, the standard of its education, and its ability to produce the same quality of monk-scholars as before, as long as human beings yearn to be like the Dalai Lamas of Tibet, the real Tibet will continue to live and inspire.

The volume under review could have been enriched by contributions from Chinese writers and scholars. A growing number of Chinese are warming to the teachings of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and his political solution to the issue of Tibet. The book could have benefited from a Chinese perspective on the Tibetan leader.

Otherwise,Understanding the Dalai Lama is an invaluable contribution to the growing body of literature on the 14thDalai Lama of Tibet. It is a handy reference to both serious scholars and those merely curious on the personality of a leader and a teacher who has given so much to his people and the world. From his thoughts on non-violence, the protection of the environment, fighting for democracy and greater transparency and accountability in governance, inter-faith dialogue and many other challenges the world faces, the message His Holiness the Dalai Lama and this volume on him gives is that an individual can make a difference.
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