Relentless: The Dalai Lama's Heart of Steel

Dalai Lama
The Dalai Lama was the star attraction at the Summit of Nobel Peace Prize winners in Rome last month. Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty

The Dalai Lama sat backstage at a theatre in Rome last month, waiting to come on as the star attraction at the Summit of Nobel Peace Prize winners. He was flanked by two of Italy’s most senior politicians. There was time for a little small talk. Walter Veltroni, former mayor of Rome and candidate for prime minister, asked him how he coped with jet lag. Deploying his familiar syntax-free English, the Buddhist leader replied, “Travelling the world – time difference – no problem.” Then he moved on to more intimate matters. “But bowel movement does not obey my mind. But this morning – thanks to your blessings – after 7 o’clock – full evacuation. So now I am very comfortable.”

Bowel movements apart, this final fixture of 2014 had been clogged with problems. The Nobel summit is held in a different city every year, and, for months, preparations had been under way to stage it in Cape Town, marking the first death anniversary of the most feted of all the laureates, Nelson Mandela. The Dalai Lama, with his vast global popularity, would be the star turn – but, as the date approached, it emerged that the South African government of Jacob Zuma would not grant the Tibetan a visa.

Should the show go on without him? Supporters of the exiled lama said no: how could an event intended to celebrate the courage of the Nobel peace laureates fall into line with the cowardly action of a government being squeezed by China? Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama’s old friend and himself a laureate, fumed, “I am ashamed to call this lickspittle bunch my government”.

A new political party in the Tibetan diaspora, the Tibetan National Congress, took up the cause. “They swamped laureates with mails demanding the event’s cancellation,” said Dave Steward, executive director of South Africa’s FW de Klerk Foundation. Nine laureates and 11 affiliated organisations announced they were pulling out, forcing South Africa to concede defeat. At the 11th hour, however, Rome offered to host it instead.

But even the Eternal City did not give Tenzin Gyatso, to call him by his Buddhist name rather than his title, an easy ride. Midway through the programme, 300 mostly Western Buddhists were flown out to Rome for free from their base in the north of England by the dissident organisation they belong to, the International Shugden Community (ISC).

They took up position close to Parco della Musica, where the summit was being held, and banged drums and waved placards, chanting, “False Dalai Lama – give religious freedom!”

But the Dalai Lama gave no sign of having his equanimity ruffled either by the South African rebuff or the noisy denunciations outside the hall in Rome. “These demonstrations,” he told me backstage, with a shrug, “they are like an established routine.” In the West we may think of His Holiness as a gentle old fellow, with an infectious tendency to giggle. But his affability masks a heart of steel.

International Engagement The audience members wear a 'blindfold', a symbol of darkness and ignorance, during an initiation ceremony held by the Dalai Lama in New York in 2013. Robert Nickelsberg/Getty

Canny religious leaders often affect robes of humility. Pope Francis, whose refusal to meet the Tibetan leader in Rome added another discordant note to the proceedings there, has cultivated the bearing and manner of a rather loveable old parish priest when he is addressing his millions of followers. It’s one of the reasons for his great popularity.

The Dalai Lama long ago perfected a similar performance. He invariably describes himself as a “simple Buddhist monk”. But in his saintly simplicity he has not only survived more than 50 years of exile but has done more than any other individual to establish the cause of Tibetan freedom – whether independence from China or merely autonomy – in the outside world. He has also done more than any other Buddhist to make the Buddha Dharma, the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha, accessible to non-Buddhists, trailblazing a 30-year collaboration with scientists on the effects of meditation.

Despite being increasingly restricted in the countries he can visit and the dignitaries he can meet on account of China’s growing diplomatic muscle, he has played a Moses-like role in holding his scattered people together, steering them towards a functioning democracy for the first time in their history. Tibetan Buddhists are divided between four main schools; their interludes of unity over the millennium since they were ruled by a series of great kings have been rare. If they are now more united than they have been for a millennium, despite the theft of their land and the insults of the hostile group demonstrating in Rome, the steely guidance of Tenzin Gyatso must take the lion’s share of the credit.

King of Nothing

This is all the more remarkable because the sources of the Dalai Lama’s legitimacy are pretty tenuous. With Pope Francis it’s quite simple. He is the reigning monarch of Vatican state, the bishop of Rome and the latest successor to the throne of St Peter’s. He attained that position by democratic election in the conclave of his fellow cardinals, guided, the devout believe, by the Holy Spirit.

The Dalai Lama, by contrast, is the king of nothing. He is a high monk (or ‘lama’) in the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism. He is also the acknowledged successor to the 13th Dalai Lama, who tried and failed to unify and modernise the Tibetan state and who died in 1933. Three of the Dalai Lamas, including the present one, have staked a claim to being the unifying religious kings of Tibet. But the claim has always been open to challenge because Tibet never became a fully-fledged nation-state.

The same fuzziness applies, strangely enough, in the religious sphere. The world at large might think of the Dalai Lama as the Buddhist Pope, and in terms not only of his fame but also his charisma and the popularity of his writings, the claim seems to make sense. But it’s a concept that means nothing to anyone within the Buddhist world. He has no authority over the Buddhists of Japan or Burma or Sri Lanka or Vietnam.

His mystical legitimacy – of huge importance to the faithful – stems from the belief that the Dalai Lamas are manifestations of Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, ‘the God of Love’ as one early translator rendered it, who is said to have the welfare of Tibet in his care. Yet despite this exalted claim, the Dalai Lama’s status and authority within Tibetan Buddhism are far from clear-cut.

A diagram published by the Tibetan government-in-exile places the Dalai Lama as the head both of Tibetan Buddhism and of Tibet’s non-Buddhist Bon religion. Elsewhere it refers to him as “the head of state and the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people”. Yet, going by the facts, neither claim bears examination. If he was the head of Tibetan Buddhism, how could he not be the head of the Gelug school to which he belongs? But in fact the same source identifies the head of the Gelug school as “the Gaden Throne Holder” who “lives in South India” – an eminence called Thubten Nyima Lungtok Tenzin Norbu, whom few people outside Tibetan religious circles have even heard of.

Tibetan Uprising Tibetans gather during an armed uprising against Chinese rule in 1959 in front of the Potala Palace, the Dalai Lama's former home, in Lhasa. After the Chinese invasion, the Dalai Lama fled with some 100,000 supporters to northern India. Keystone/AFP/Getty