The 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhists arrives for a tour of Australia and New Zealand in June. He is described by the tour organisers as “one of the world’s most recognised and revered people” and he is expected to draw big crowds.
My visits to Tibetan refugee camps in Nepal and Darjeeling, in India, not to mention a Srinagar antique shop that sold worry beads they claimed were carved from lama’s bones, encouraged enough curiosity about Tibetan Buddhism and its leader to request an interview when the Dalai Lama was previously on tour. As in the case of other world peripatetic religious leaders, it all begged the question how much was holiness and how much was man?
The 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhists, is a Nobel Prize winner for his work for peace and the environment. He has followed the well-publicised global speaking path of two previous peripatetic priests, Roman Catholic Pope John Paul II and born-again Baptist evangelist Billy Graham. In time all three made their way to Australia, which, however you look at the map, is at the bottom of the world.
Of the three, Billy Graham, however, does not seem to have ever rejoiced in the title “His Holiness”.
When Lhamo Dhondrub was chosen as a two-year-old as the next Dalai Lama, he was renamed Jetsun Jamphel Ngawang Lobsang Yeshe Tenzin Gyatso: which means Holy Lord, Gentle Glory, Compassionate, Defender of the Faith and Ocean of Wisdom. It was a lot to live up to.
A god-king and once head of the Tibetan government in Lhasa, he fled to India in 1959 after Tibet was invaded by mainland China. Tibet is bordered by Nepal and Bhutan as well as India and China.
His official biography refers to him as “His Holiness” as both the head of state and the spiritual leader of Tibet. He describes himself as “a simple Buddhist monk”. Tall and voluminous in mostly dark maroon monk robes, he is disarming and instantly impish in reply to questions. It is hard to pin down an amiable man wobbling with boyish laughter. For all that, he is obviously a knowing man.
Born into a farming family in north-eastern Tibet, he was identified as the reincarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama, after searchers undertook arduous journeys on behalf of the Tibetan regent, and taken from his family to be educated in a monastery. Dalai Lamas are believed to be manifestations of bodhisattvas, described as enlightened beings that postpone their own nirvana to take rebirth to serve humanity.
After the onset of the Chinese invasion, Tenzin Gyatso escaped to India at 24 where he and his followers settled in Dharamsala, northern India. Eighty thousand Tibetan refugees eventually joined him in exile. Of those who stayed, one sixth of Tibet's population died as a result of the Chinese invasion; thousands died during the Chinese Cultural revolution; more died later during Tibetan protests.
The Dalai Lama appealed to the United Nations to help Tibet. The UN General Assembly called on China on three occasions to respect the human rights of Tibetans. More recently he has sought greater autonomy within China rather than independence.
In the meantime exiled Tibetans in India have elected a reformed democratic parliament, based on Buddhist principles, with “The Charter of Tibetans in Exile” described as enshrining freedom of speech, belief, assembly and movement. It reflects a major shift in attitude from the feudal Tibet he was brought up in when Tibetans numbered 700,000 serfs in a population of 1.25 million.
The first Dalai Lama to visit the West, he has since travelled to more than 62 countries spanning six continents and met presidents, prime ministers and crowned rulers of major nations, as well as heads of different religions and noted scientists. He has written more than 70 books; his message, nor surprisingly, is Tibet, the principles of Tibetan Buddhism, and world environmental problems.
This article is one of Judy Cannon's stories about travellers and travelling from a work-in-progress collection.