The Dalai Lama

A river of orange water is tumbling hysterically down the steep sidestreets of Dharamsala, cleansing them of manure left by the sacred cows that roam free here. It’s also carrying off the empty drink cans and food wrappers discarded by the thousands of ‘spiritual tourists’ who trail up here each summer in the hope of ticking the exiled Dalai Lama off their lists of things to see.

Though this ramshackle town is perched on a spur high in the foothills of the Himalayas, and though it overlooks a plunging, verdant valley, its buildings – mostly small hotels topped with satellite dishes and souvenir shops selling Dalai Lama memorabilia – are fetid and ugly, especially during a late July deluge. Sodden monkeys, hairy young Western backpackers, and maroon-robed Tibetan monks alike shelter miserably under corrugated tin roofs and café awnings. The ferocious speed of the river, coloured by topsoil as it funnels down from the surrounding Dhauladar mountains, is confounding and hypnotic. The scene could be Biblical. An ominous purgation of a corrupt town.

Sitting in a low, elaborately carved wooden chair at one end of a long audience room is one of the 100,000 refugees to have settled in India since the Tibetan diaspora began 40 years ago. His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, Bodhisattva of Compassion, and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, hasn’t given up hope that one day he will return to his homeland, or, at least, that one of his reincarnations will. Tibetan Buddhists tend to take the long view on these things. Over those years of exile, he says with a giggle so inappropriate it must be a nervous one, his mind has become hardened to stories of torture. ‘Every week I am meeting an increased number of Tibet refugee,’ he says in halting, guttural English. ‘In the past when innocent people, ragged and destitute, come and explain their own horrible experience to me, sometimes they crying, crying, crying, and I also feel very sad and tear comes. But I have become too familiar with these horrible stories and I feel less.’ He pats his heart. ‘I think it is like these generals who kill thousands, thousands, thousands, until they no longer have human feeling.’ He laughs again perhaps realising how off-beam his analogy sounds. ‘What I mean is, I think the Buddhist practice is very helpful in this. It also concerned with the nature of suffering. Our aim is salvation and liberation from negative emotion.’

The Dalai Lama has a doctorate in Buddhist philosophy. And, by rising at 3.30am, he fits in at least six hours of meditation during the day (in between studying scriptures, giving audiences, listening to the BBC World Service and attending to the daily business of his government-in-exile). But even the most complicated people have defining characteristics. His is this infectious, coruscating laugh. It is high-pitched and strangely incompatible with the deep and resonant timbre of his speaking voice. Given that he was taken away from his parents at the age of three, brought up in a monastery and then, at the age of seven, enthroned in a 1,000-room palace where he was worshipped as a god-king for 17 years before being forced to escape from his country disguised as a soldier, it would be understandable if the Dalai Lama’s laugh reflected a heightened awareness of the fundamental absurdity of life, the universe and everything.

Equally, because the laugh (hu, hu, hu!) emerges when he speaks of subjects that are painful to him, it could also be a sign of arrested development. After all, his abiding memories of what little childhood he experienced in his ‘golden cage’ were of loneliness and austerity. He found ways to amuse himself but, without other children to play with, it can’t have been easy for him to acquire those nuances of emotional expression which the rest of us learn by imitation and take for granted. It would be natural if he suffered from Peter Pan syndrome. And perhaps this is what lies behind the beguiling aura of cheerfulness for which he is known and adored around the world – private jokes arising from the internal conversations of one used to playing on his own.

The simplistic theme that runs through all his teachings – that human happiness is born of compassion, kindness and tolerance – compounds this impression of childlike innocence. So does his boyish grin and the dimples it forms in his cheeks. At 63 the Dalai Lama may now have heavy lines on his brow that, with his constantly raised eyebrows, make him look like he’s in a permanent state of surprise, and the stubble on the head he shaves once a week may be going grey, but he has the sprightly bearing of a man half his age. He doesn’t walk everywhere so much as bustle – nodding, bowing, gathering the folds of his much darned and patched maroon robes about him, adjusting its saffron-coloured facings over his right shoulder. And his stocky 5ft 9in frame, kept in shape by daily workouts on an exercise bike, is still animated when he sits down to talk – slapping his thigh, folding his bare, vaccination-scarred arms, and making sweeping gestures that rattle the beads on his left wrist.

In the face of distressing testimony from his fellow refugees, perhaps his laughter is as good a defence as any against tears. The Dalai Lama listens because he recognises how important it is for torture victims to bear witness. Being believed is part of the healing process, especially when the crimes committed against you are unbelievable. Those who survived the Holocaust knew this. And while more than six million Jews were killed by the Nazis, more than a million Tibetans have suffered a similar fate since the Chinese invasion in 1950. The Dalai Lama pauses for a long time when he is asked how the genocide committed against his people compares to that against the Jews. ‘It is difficult,’ he says, searching for the right words. ‘In the Tibetan case, in late Fifties and early Sixties, entire communities of nomads would be destroyed. In 1959, in Lhasa, the Chinese shot Tibetan families from aeroplane with machine-guns. Systematic destruction in the name of liberation against the tyranny of the Dalai Lama! Hu, hu, hu! In Hitler’s case he was more honest. In concentration camps he made it clear he intended to exterminate the Jews. With the Chinese they called us their brothers! Big brother bullying little brother! Hu, hu, hu! Is less honest, I think.’

The cruelty and humiliation the Tibetans suffered at the hands of their Chinese liberators also bears comparison with that suffered by the Jews under the Nazis. Such is the reverence with which Tibetan Buddhists regard all living things, they will not even kill the mosquitoes which bite them – yet in the early years of Chinese occupation, Tibetan children would be forced to shoot their parents. Celibate monks and nuns would be made at gunpoint to have sex in public and use sacred scriptures as lavatory paper. According to an International Commission of Jurists report in 1959, dissenters were disembowelled, crucified or buried alive. To prevent them from shouting out ‘Long live the Dalai Lama’ on their way to execution they would have their tongues torn out with meat hooks. All but 13 of the country’s 6,000 monasteries were destroyed and in some cases slaughterhouses were sited in their place. More recently, eight million Chinese citizens have been relocated to Tibet. The six million Tibetans they now outnumber are discriminated against in jobs, housing and education.

It is illegal to speak Tibetan at public meetings and possession of a picture of the Dalai Lama is an imprisonable offence. Lhasa, the once sacred capital, now has 1,806 brothels as well as numerous gambling dens. The Tibetans who have remained there have been compared to American Indians left to get drunk on the reservations, quaint tourist attractions in a spiritual Disneyland.

‘Not much use to discuss these things now,’ the Dalai Lama says, distractedly blinking and scratching his nose. ‘Past is past. I don’t want them to be sitting in Peking and saying, “What is that Dalai Lama saying now? Causing trouble again!” No use. No use to antagonise. I am thinking of the future of Tibet. And with the Chinese population influx and their programme of Sinocisation, time is running out.’ In the past he has been denounced by the Chinese press variously as a thief, a murderer, a ‘wolf in monk’s clothing’, and a rapist who once provided sexual services for Mrs Gandhi and wore a rosary made from the bones of Tibetan serfs.

‘I am happy to reassure my Chinese brothers that we do not ask for separation,’ the Dalai Lama now says, leaning back and throwing his hands up in mock surrender. ‘I seek meaningful autonomy within China rather than independence for Tibet. We accept there are things the Chinese can handle better than us [such as foreign policy and the economy, explains his assistant], but they should accept there are things we are better at handling [education and the environment]. If they provide some of our basic requirements, we will remain with them. We know our spirituality does not feed our stomachs. We know we need material development. So the closer relation is very necessary. That way more trust can be built. And then, with the friendly atmosphere, certain point such as the human right issue, and issue of democracy and liberty,can be made firmly.’

Although he keeps reiterating that ‘past is past’, the sticking point for negotiation as far as the Dalai Lama is concerned seems to be his insistence that Tibet was once free. This isolated country was first ‘discovered’ by the British in 1904 when Colonel Younghusband led a peaceful expeditionary force. The British subsequently recognised Tibet as a fully sovereign state. When the Chinese invaded in 1950, they based their claim to the country on the marriage of the Chinese princess Wen-Ch’eng Kung-chu to the Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo in 641. The invasion occurred two years after Indian independence was declared, and the British, having lost influence and interest in the region, were not inclined to dispute China’s claim. Insult was added to the injury when, on an official visit to Britain in 1990, a year after he won the Nobel Peace Prize, the Dalai Lama was refused an audience with Margaret Thatcher, then Prime Minister. And two years ago, John Major declined to meet him in an official capacity for fear of offending the Chinese in the run-up to the handover of Hong Kong.

The ‘simple monk’, as the Dalai Lama describes himself with a slightly unbecoming hint of self-satisfaction, laughs when asked what line he thinks our Prime Minister should take with President Jiang on Tibet. ‘I think if I have message, I will write to him personally! It’s not something I should convey to a newspaper! But I’m quite sure the British Prime Minister will raise the issue of autonomy of Tibet and the issue of human rights in general. I think we have many supporters and sympathy among people of Britain but I appreciate that sometime it is difficult for a country’s leader to meet me. Britain is the only nation which really knows Tibet. Sometime I feel the British and the Western nations in general could have done more. But then. Mmm. Today’s unhappy experience not happen just suddenly. It had many causes. No point in blaming this nation or that nation. Ultimately we Tibetans must blame ourselves.’

If he seems forgiving to the British, it is as nothing to the understanding he shows toward the Chinese. When in the Fifties he had meetings with Chairman Mao he said he found the tyrant to be ‘spellbinding’, ‘sincere’ and ‘not deceitful’. For this charitable view, and for his recent adoption of a more moderate and conciliatory approach to the question of Tibetan independence, he has been criticised by certain extremist elements within the Tibetan community who find it hard to disguise their loathing of the Chinese and think that aggression should be met with aggression. When I ask the Dalai Lama if, just for a second, he has ever felt even so much as a twinge of hatred for his savage oppressors himself, he says: ‘Sometimes I have bad temper but true ill feeling almost never. If I want to work effectively for freedom and justice, it is best to do so without malice in my heart. Buddhist training of mind really helps in this. There are undoubtedly many good Chinese people who are aware of the true situation in Tibet. The Tibetans and Chinese have to live side by side. In order to live in harmony we have to practise non-violence and compassion. One Tibetan using gun would be more excuse for atrocities by Chinese. In the 1987 crisis when Chinese opened fire on Tibetans in Lhasa one Chinese soldier dropped his weapon and a Tibetan picked it up but instead of using it on the soldier he broke it in front of him. Smashed it on the ground. Isn’t that wonderful?’

He is keen to point out that all Tibetan monks feel this way, not just him. He has a friend, a monk, who spent 20 years in Chinese prisons and labour camps. When he was eventually able to join the Dalai Lama in exile he told him that there were only a few occasions when he really faced danger and those were when he was in danger of losing compassion for the Chinese. ‘Nice!’ the Dalai Lama chuckles. ‘A good monk who faced real danger. At least I did not have to face any real risk or danger of losing my life.’ He makes a chopping motion with his hand against the side of his neck. It’s not quite true. Improbably, the Chinese once tried to coerce the Dalai Lama’s eldest brother, also a monk, into assassinating him.

And he still has to be careful that what he eats isn’t poisoned. The Dalai Lama’s daily diet consists of hot water, porridge and tsampa (roasted barley flower) for breakfast and thupka (soup with noodles) and skabakleb (meat wrapped in bread) for lunch. Monks do not eat dinner. But, he says, he sometimes sneaks a snack while watching television in the evening. And then does a few extra prostrations to Buddha by way of absolution before going to bed. The Dalai Lama’s father died of poisoning in 1947 and was given a traditional Tibetan sky burial in which the body is left as carrion for the vultures. His mother, to whom he was very close towards the end of her life, died of a stroke in 1981. But, with his belief in reincarnation, he says he does not fear death or even dying.

‘In my Tibetan practice, there are eight different stages of dissolution of mind and body,’ he says. ‘I intend to practise altruism in life, dying and death. For example, if death comes today, I shall try to control it.’ He compares death to changing your clothes when they are old and torn. ‘How would I like to die? Hu, hu, hu! I do not want to die in crash. Not sudden death, because no time to practise. When time come I want to be able to wrap myself in yellow robe over like this and then sit and meditate.’ He demonstrates the position, eyes closed, hands resting in lap. ‘Some of my old friend here they do this. One or two hours before their death – even when they cannot sit by themselves they ask to have cushion put behind them to support themselves.’

When asked if he ever has any doubts that he will be reincarnated as the 15th Dalai Lama, and whether he really believes he is the reincarnation of each of the previous 13 Dalai Lamas, he says the answer is not simple. But given his experiences in this present life – and his Buddhist beliefs – he has no difficulty in accepting that he is spiritually connected to the 13 previous Dalai Lamas.

Before meeting the Dalai Lama I had been briefed on protocol by one of his personal assistants. Speak slowly and do not use complicated sentences, he said. He doesn’t particularly like talking in English to Englishmen because he feels embarrassed about his own ungrammatical usage. There’s no need to present him with a kata, the white silk offering scarf that Tibetans traditionally give each other, he prefers to just shake hands with Westerners. And do not bother with any of the other formalities that applied at the Tibetan court – always having to sit lower than him, never making eye contact or touching him, never leading the conversation or turning your back on him. He can’t be doing with all that nonsense.

Finally, please don’t ask him to explain how he was discovered to be the 14th reincarnation of the Dalai Lama. He finds it boring to have to go over the story again and again but if you ask, he will feel obliged to give you every detail and his answer will take up most of the time you have with him. There was no need. I had mugged up on it already. When one Dalai Lama dies, his soul enters the body of a newborn boy. A regent Lama rules for a few years, then the search for a new Dalai Lama begins. All boys born from 49 days to two years after a Dalai Lama’s death are candidates for his reincarnation. The 14th Dalai Lama was born in Taktser, a small village in north-eastern Tibet on 6 July 1935, two years after the 13th died. Two crows came to perch on the windowsill as he was born – a traditional sign. His parents were peasants and he was one of 16 children, of whom seven survived. In Lhasa, the regent had a vision – of a small house with strangely shaped guttering near to a three-storey monastery with a gold and turquoise roof and a path running from it to a hill – and went in search of it. When they found the boy living there they mingled the 13th Dalai Lama’s personal possessions with an array of similar objects, laid them all out on a table and asked him to pick any objects he recognised. He unerringly selected the 13th Dalai Lama’s eating bowl, spectacles, pencil, walking stick and drum. He was also found to have the physical signs of a Dalai Lama: large tiger-stripe birthmarks on the legs; big ears.

He has never doubted that he is the Dalai Lama but as a teenager, he admits, he entertained misgivings about his vocation as a monk. ‘When I was young, especially in winter time when I was sitting with my tutor in meditation, in a cold dark room with rats, I would hear people returning from the fields at sunset singing happily and it would leave me with a sad feeling. Sometimes I had feeling I would be much happier if I was one of them. But I know I was meant to be a monk because in my dream sometimes I see a fight or a woman and I immediately think, ‘I am monk, I must not indulge.’ I never dream I am Dalai Lama, though.’

He is never troubled by sleepless nights, getting in a sound six hours. And generally he describes himself as being ‘definitely happy’ except on the odd occasions when he catches himself brooding upon the events of his earlier life in the Land of Snows, as Tibet is known.  ‘But do I ever feel depressed? No. Sometimes frustration. Sometimes feelings of hopelessness. That I have been a failure. But I say my favourite prayer and it always brings me fresh hope and fresh impetus.’ Has the Dalai Lama ever fallen in love? ‘With my close friends I feel a love which is not a genuine compassion,’ he says. ‘It is attachment. A sense of concern. It is biased. The genuine sense of compassion is unbiased. Have I ever felt sexual love? In my childhood before I was a fully trained monk I was often curious, I wonder what happened. But then I think by age of 15 or 16 I started more serious meditation practice, exploring the nature of suffering. For those who would normally seek to have children at that stage in their life would come worry and distraction. Life as a single person means liberty. Lay person may have more pleasure in short term but in long term monk has a mental state more steady.’

He believes sexual desire is like an itch. If you have one, it’s nice to scratch it. But it’s better to have no itch at all. If it is possible to be without that feeling, there is much peace. One of the great pleasures in the Dalai Lama’s life is mending broken watches and mechanical gadgets in general. Indeed, the one material indulgence he allows himself is the Rolex he always wears with the face on the underside of his wrist and which he is given to taking apart with a screwdriver every so often in order to tinker around with its mechanism. He describes himself wryly as ‘half-Marxist’ – the belief in equality side rather than the atheist side – and, like all monks, he obeys a vow of poverty. Like all the previous Dalai Lamas, he never handles money. This, he says, is just as well as he suspects he has a free-spending nature – ‘although I can be very stingy over small amounts’.

The self-deprecation does not seem to be affected and, for one who is held by his followers to be a living god, the human failings he admits to are surprisingly ordinary. He is prone to a bad temper. He would never harm a living creature, but has an irrational fear and loathing of caterpillars. He is aware of the faults others occasionally see in him: that he can be naive as a politician and that as a spiritual leader he sometimes lacks gravitas and trivialises his status (because he does things such as agree to be guest editor of the Christmas edition of French Vogue, appear as a guest on Wogan and attend frivolous Hollywood parties hosted by his film star friends Richard Gere and Harrison Ford).

He accepts these criticisms with humility, as you would expect. But he seems to be genuinely perplexed by the fuss people make over him. He says he cannot really understand the esteem in which he is held in the West. ‘I have done little to merit it, despite what some people might say. On a few occasions I have been publicly commended for my efforts on behalf of world peace. But I have done nothing, really nothing for world peace. The only thing I do for peace is talk about it a great deal.’ Also the fact that this year Hollywood has released two big-budget films – Martin Scorsese’s sumptuous epic Kundun and Seven Years in Tibet, which stars Brad Pitt – about his life does not, he says, mean much to him. He finds it amusing that he is the cause de jour in Hollywood but adds that he doesn’t make distinctions as to where support for Tibet might come from.

He has seen and liked it and is grateful for the international attention it has drawn to the plight of Tibet. But he has not yet got round to seeing and tells the story of the Dalai Lama’s friendship with Heinrich Harrer, the Austrian mountaineer who became a teacher to the young god-king. He says he did not know Harrer was an SS member at the time, the subject never arose, and now he says there is no point in his old friend trying to hide the truth because ‘past is past’.

The Dalai Lama collaborated on the script for both films and, to the chagrin of the producers, somehow gave the impression to each that they had exclusivity. At the moment he seems to be spreading his favours just as thinly in the world of publishing. He has written extensively on Buddhism and Eastern philosophy but this October Hodder & Stoughton will publish his first book on ethics for the general reader. Unfortunately it contains much of the same material as a book he is having published by Little, Brown next year. Little, Brown is now planning to sue the Dalai Lama over breach of contract.

In the airy audience room overlooking the valley the Dalai Lama blinks several times, gathers the folds of his robe together and stands up. He clicks his fingers and his protocol officer steps forward and hands him a white silk kata which the Dalai Lama then raises over my hands, brought together to form the namaste prayer sign, and drapes on my wrists. When I tell him I feel embarrassed now because I’d been told not to bother to bring a white offering scarf to present to him, he slaps me on the back and lets out a roar of laughter.

There is a golden Buddha at the other end of the room, in between two large scroll paintings. The Dalai Lama has almost reached it on his way out when he stops, turns on his heel, and bustles back toward me with a distracted look on his face. Patting my hand he says: ‘There is something very important I need to convey to you. Very important. Whether you a believer or non-believer. All human beings have same potential to increase compassion. This is where happiness lies.’

With this he grins, slaps me on the back again and bustles out. He crosses the large courtyard where he gives his public addresses, pauses briefly to inspect a delphinium in a tin pot and disappears from view along a path that leads beyond a row of bamboo and pine trees. The thin Himalayan air is pricked with the smell of incense, jasmine and honeysuckle. The rain has now stopped outside and the mist is lifting. Breathing deeply, I look up and inspect the skies for a rainbow – but there isn’t one yet. It is still oppressively humid and a roll of thunder, as melancholy as the growl of the Tibetan long horn, echoes around the mountains.