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

So Tenzin Gyatso is not the head of the Tibetan state, because that state has only rarely attained visible form. He may or may not be a divine manifestation, but he is not really the head of Tibetan Buddhism because Tibetan Buddhism has no head. A senior Western lama commented carefully, "It's a precious myth that Tibet was a united society under the Dalai Lamas . . . The conception in some circles of the Dalai Lama as the head of Tibetan Buddhism is of recent coinage and involves many difficulties".

Who exactly is this man? What combination of chutzpah, charisma and tempered steel have kept him firmly and lovably in the public eye for more than 50 years?

Land of Snows

He is a product of one of the most curious cultures the world has ever seen. Tibet, "Land of Snows", was never the undiscovered Shangri-la of romantic fancy, despite its great altitude and its location behind the mighty wall of the Himalayas. On the contrary, its history was formed by its perilous proximity to three formidable powers: India, the fountain head of Buddhism; China, the Middle Kingdom with its thousands of years of history; and Mongolia, cradle of Genghis Khan and the Golden Horde.

Rarely have Tibetan armies distinguished themselves in the field. Yet down the centuries the country retained a rough and ready integrity and identity: it was never rolled over and threatened with absorption by outsiders, in the way China has so busily absorbed it since the invasion of 1959. That's because in two separate waves, separated by some 700 years, it became the repository of all the Buddhist wisdom and scholarship and ritual accumulated in India since the historical Buddha's enlightenment in the 6th century BC.

For centuries Buddhism was a major force within India, where the religion was born, but the caprice of Indian rulers, who tended to pillage the monasteries when short of cash, and the glittering attractions of Hinduism, and finally, and cataclysmically, the arrival of Muslim warlords, threatened it with extinction. Tibet saved the day, offering asylum to Buddhist teachers and their teachings, rather as Britain and the US offered a home to Jewish artists and intellectuals fleeing Nazism and enjoyed a major infusion of creativity as a result.

In its new home Buddhism sank deep roots, attaining a more dominant position than it had ever enjoyed in India. Its monasteries became the richest and most powerful institutions in the land, the equivalent of feudal estates in medieval Europe or Japan; at its height, up to one-fifth of the population were monks, and competition between the different schools and the leading monasteries produced a great corpus of teaching and generation after generation of gifted and charismatic teachers.

This fact did not go unnoticed abroad. In consequence, Tibet became a teacher-nation. It neither threatened its neighbours with war, nor – in the long run – fell subject to them. Instead, its greatest teachers entered into symbiotic relationships with mighty foreign rulers. Kublai Khan, the fifth Great Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan, who went on to become the Emperor of China, pioneered this relationship, appointing a Tibetan monk called Phagpa his imperial preceptor, his ultimate source of authority on religious matters.

The relationship was called cho-yon or "priest-patron"; it helped insulate Tibet from attack, it served to perpetuate, right down to the present, the intellectual and spiritual richness and self-confidence of its teachers and monasteries; and it provided a unique model of how to engage with, and even ideally control, mighty rulers with far greater military power at their command.

Did the young Dalai Lama, who was born in 1935, dream of forging such a relationship with Mao Xedong? He was invited to Beijing in 1954, travelling the 2,000 miles from Lhasa by mule, animal-skin coracle, jeep, train and a pre-war Dodge owned by his predecessor, at the head of a 500-strong delegation. "The prospect of the adventure that lay ahead was very thrilling to a young man of 19," he wrote in his memoirs. In Beijing, he wrote, "I began to get very enthusiastic about the possibilities of association with the People's Republic of China. The more I looked at Marxism, the more I liked . . . I expressed a wish to become a [Communist] Party member . . . I felt sure, as I still do, that it would be possible to work out a synthesis of Buddhist and pure Marxist doctrines".

He had a dozen meetings with Mao, some of them with only an interpreter present, and on at least one occasion the Great Helmsman gave the monk reason to believe that his enthusiasm was reciprocated. "He presented himself without warning at my residence," he wrote. "He wanted to speak to me privately . . . he surprised me very much by speaking favourably of the Lord Buddha. He praised him for being 'anti-caste, anti-corruption and anti-exploitation'."

Whatever Mao's reason for such effusions, the Dalai Lama's hopes were dashed at their final meeting when he told the Tibetan bluntly, "Religion is poison".

"I felt a violent burning sensation all over my face," he wrote, "and I was suddenly very afraid".

He had every reason to fear: barely five years later the People's Liberation Army fulfilled Tibetans' worst apprehensions, pouring across the Tibetan plateau and seizing control. The Dalai Lama fled for the border. All dreams of co-operation were dead. The decades of exile were under way.

The Lama At Home

The main street of McLeodganj in northern India is a narrow, twisting ribbon leading steeply down the mountainside, flanked by restaurants, souvenir stalls and hotels, and shortly after dawn on 3 December it became a swift-­moving stream of pilgrims: maroon-robed monks in parkas and woolly hats, Tibetan matrons in their brightly striped aprons, an old nun with an aluminium walking stick, a European woman with long grey dreadlocks, a gaggle of young nuns sharing a hilarious joke. All were heading to the town's main temple for the first session of the Dalai Lama's teaching of an important text.

Buddhism does not hold with evangelism in the Christian mould: lamas only teach when requested to do so, and this time the Dalai Lama was responding to requests by a Buddhist sangha or congregation in Mongolia, where the religion has enjoyed a mighty revival since the decline of the Soviet empire. And Mongolians, too, were joining the human stream rolling down the road: tall, burly figures with imposing bellies, some in long brocade coats of shocking canary yellow or blue or pink or wearing Stetson or Trilby hats. By the time it arrived at the gates of the temple, the human trickle had swollen into a flood.

More than four thousand assembled well in advance of the Dalai Lama's arrival: practically the entire Tibetan population of the town, as well as ­hundreds of Mongolians, Indians, Europeans, Japanese, Chinese and Americans. On the dot of 9am he stepped out of his car in the courtyard, accompanied by a monk in an orange hat shaped like a horse's mane and flanked front and back by more Tibetans wearing business suits.

Otherwise in excellent health for a man on the verge of his ninth decade, his knees are shot after a lifetime of sitting crosslegged, so he was helped up the steep steps to the prayer hall, which was crammed with pilgrims. At the front of the hall he gently knocked heads with two senior lamas – the polite greeting for lamas of similar rank – then seated himself on an ornate throne before a large golden Buddha statue and got down to work.

He greeted the Mongolians and thanked them for coming such a long way and then – with the help of multi-lingual interpreters – got straight to the heart of the matter, the kernel of Buddhist teaching. "What we don't want is suffering," he said. "What we want is happiness. So we must avoid the causes of suffering, and seek the causes of happiness."

The Dalai Lama tends to speak in simple, even simple-minded, terms when he addresses non-Buddhist audiences in English. But even here, tackling an ancient and abstruse Tibetan text before an assembly of believers and in his own language, the words and concepts were simple and direct. "Our negative karma comes from grasping at an illusory self," he continued. "This grasping can only be tackled by understanding selflessness and emptiness. Neither listening to or reciting mantras nor visiting temples will cure this grasping. You have to understand the teaching, and apply it in meditation."

New York
The spiritual leader's security was tightened during his visit to the U.S. in 2013. Robert Nickelsberg/Getty

Four thousand pilgrims listened in perfect silence. Here, one felt, was a man doing what he was put on earth to do – holding these four thousand in the palm of his hand; underlining key points with fluid gestures of his bare right arm, cracking the occasional gentle joke, quietly addressing the big crowd as if he was talking to a single student in his own room.

He spoke for four hours for four successive days, without notes and with no indication of strain. But halfway through the first morning, in response to a question from a Mongolian, he said something discordant and strange. "Dolgyal is a fake reincarnation, born from distorted prayers," he said. "Dolgyal practitioners are waiting for me to die," – then laughed till his shoulders shook.

False Dalai Lama

The reference was to a Buddhist sect – the same one to which the demonstrators in Rome belonged, banging drums and shouting abusive slogans – which has been doing all it can to make his life uncomfortable for many years. And judging by his frequent references to them – the subject came up on each day of the four-day teaching – they are having some success.

It is a controversy nearly 300 years in the making, but it is hotting up: since 2013 the Buddhists organised in the International Shugden Community have dogged the Dalai Lama's steps on all his trips outside India. If the object is to puncture his image of universal popularity and hijack his news coverage, they are having considerable success. Last November, for example, the Associated Press reported, "The Dalai Lama made two public appearances in the Boston area that drew protests from a group accusing him of human rights abuses and discrimination . . . Throughout the events hundreds of protesters followed, holding banners outside the hotel that said 'False Dalai Lama, Stop Lying' and 'Dalai Lama Give Religious Freedom'."

What's it all about? As the Dalai Lama spelled out on the first day of his teaching, Buddhism is focused on the insights into suffering and happiness which the Buddha articulated 2,500 years ago. The religion, uniquely among the world's great faiths, has no place for a creator god. But in its Tibetan form it has accumulated belief in a vast, baffling panoply of spirits and deities which are held to influence human life.

Among these is a particular spirit called Dorje Shugden, also known as Dolgyal, depicted wearing a broad-brimmed yellow hat and the maroon and yellow robes of the Dalai Lama's Gelug sect and brandishing a serpentine dagger, with a roaring lion at his feet. He is a wrathful deity, whom many pious Tibetans down the centuries have taken care to propitiate in their prayers, to avoid provoking him. Because otherwise, it is believed, he can do serious damage – such as killing people.

In 1973, a lama called Zemey Rinpoche published a slim volume called the Yellow Book which spelled out the damage of which Dorje Shugden was capable. "The Protector has punished those who corrupted the Gelug order . . . with various episodes of . . . untimely death," the monk wrote, and his book was a pithy and gruesome collection of stories about how other high Tibetan lamas who had "corrupted [the Gelug school] with other tenets and traditions" – who had taken teachings from the other three Tibetan schools as well as the Gelug – had got into trouble with the authorities, or embroiled in lawsuits and thrown into jail, then later died suddenly and without medical explanation. All these unlucky events, the author maintained, were products of the wrath of Dorje Shugden in his role as supernatural protector of the Gelug.

Shugden Buddhists protested against the Dalai Lama, accusing him of religious persecution, and human rights violations in December 2014 in Rome. Baris Seckin/Anadolu Agency/Getty

It is a strange little volume which conveys the impenetrable exoticism of much of Tibetan Buddhism, despite the transparent teachings of the Buddha himself. But it had a particular meaning for the Dalai Lama, then aged 40. The stories it collected all came from his own senior tutor, Trijang Rinpoche. On this teacher's advice, the Dalai Lama had himself been propitiating this dangerous spirit – along with innumerable other esoteric rituals – as part of his daily four hours of meditation and spiritual exercise. Since its foundation in the 16th century, the Gelug had become the dominant school of the four, and the Shugden practice, which required shunning the so-called "contamination" of other schools' teachings, was taught as a key method for increasing its dominance, at the expense of the others.

But it was precisely for this reason – its proud exclusivity – that the previous Dalai Lama, who died in 1933, had rejected the Shugden practice: he saw his task not as leading the Gelug to domination but to bringing the Tibetans together as a united people. And the Yellow Book's publication opened the present Dalai Lama's eyes to the perils that Dorje Shugden presented. With China now in control of all Tibet, and with the Tibetan population split between exiles and those who had stayed behind, unity was more elusive than ever – but also vital, if the diaspora were not to shatter into dozens of feuding fragments. "The Dalai Lama reacted strongly to this book," a Tibet scholar, Georges Dreyfus, wrote. "He felt personally betrayed . . . he felt that [it] was a . . . betrayal of his efforts in the struggle for Tibetan freedom." And now he showed his steel: publicly condemning the book's author, banning him from teaching, and ordering Tibet's main monasteries, all now relocated in India, to stop their Dorje Shugden practice. "He researched the history of the practice," said a scholar close to the Dalai Lama, "and realised it was inconsistent with mainstream Buddhist practice, and felt it was his responsibility to blow the whistle on the myth".

It was a brave, dangerous step: an assertion of his power which risked alienating many of the most senior people in his entourage – as well as infuriating this dangerous spirit and incurring horrible consequences. "For 400 years Dorje Shugden has been a controversial spirit," the Dalai Lama told me in Rome. "I and many Tibetan Buddhists have spirits as friends and helpers but not to worship. I myself propitiated the spirit for many years but finally I decided to drop it. The practice is very sectarian – it's like Sunni Muslims versus Shia, those who believe in it are fundamentalists. Perhaps they will attain high spiritual insight thanks to Dorje – but I don't think so."

Waiting To Die

Forty years after this public repudiation, Dorje Shugden has yet to strike the Dalai Lama dead, which explains his belly laugh about "Dolgyal practitioners waiting for me to die". But it caused a rift which shows no sign of healing, as the protests by the International Shugden Community do not allow him to forget. Claims by the Dalai Lama's camp that Shugden followers have been responsible for murders and assaults on people loyal to the Dalai Lama, and that the group has "continued its campaign at the behest of, and with substantial funding from" the Chinese authorities, are strongly rejected by ISC.

The Dalai Lama's condemnation of Dorje Shugden in the 1970s came at a decisive moment. Bamboozled and manipulated by Mao, his youthful hopes of establishing a modus vivendi with China shattered by the 1959 invasion, he turned his attention west: having the first of eight meetings with Pope John Paul II, whose bruising experience with Soviet communists gave them a common interest. And, gradually, he found a way of putting non-Buddhist westerners at ease, avoiding all complicated Buddhist terminology and speaking in simple spiritual generalities.

It wasn't always like that. "On a visit to the UK many years ago he made an appearance with Bishop John Robinson," a senior western lama who was present at the time recalled. "He's a very fine teacher and he taught on the Madhyamaka, the Middle Way philosophy, but it went down like a lead balloon. So these days instead of explaining about, say, the 10 traditional dharmas, he talks about peace and love and democracy. And he immediately holds people's hands – it's a great dating technique – and giggles."

Footage of the Dalai Lama during the early years of his exile shows a figure of poker-faced severity – all steel. But the decades of frustration and acclaim, during which he serenely rose above both Chinese abuse and Dorje Shugden's death threats, have softened him. His genial persona has turned him into one of the most improbable celebrities of the age – one of the half-dozen best known faces in the world, a cuddly oriental mascot regarded with devotion by millions who know little about his beliefs. But with his steel at the ready when required.