Few of us can claim not to know Tenzin Gyatso, a.k.a the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet. The elderly maroon-robed monk with a warm smile and ready handshake is one of the most photographed people in the world. And yet, who is he, really? On his 79th birthday today, it is a worthwhile question to ask.
We know the facts about him – that he is the fourteenth reincarnation of the monk-rulers of Tibet, an emanation of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, his name is Tenzin Gyatso though he is addressed by honorifics like Kundun (‘the presence’) and Yeshe Norbu (‘wish-fulfilling jewel’). That he had to flee Tibet in 1959 and has lived in India ever since.
He is spiritual master and politician, ambassador for Tibet and lovable guru-philosopher-hopegiver to the world, practitioner of the 2,500-year-old teachings of Buddhism, a modern mind interested in science, and winner of the 1989 Nobel Prize for Peace. He is able to balance, even integrate, all these roles, while making it seem effortless and a lot of fun!
Actually, ‘fun’, ‘the happiest man alive’, ‘intensely human’, are words people most commonly use to describe their experience of the Dalai Lama. On examining his life, one realises what little cause for happiness he actually has.
He has lost home, country, much of his immediate family and many from the larger family of Tibetans, and has seen what was the most sacred to him – monasteries, temples, culture and religion in Tibet – reduced to rubble. Yet, his smile is never strained, his mind is sharp and clear, and he exudes a genuine concern for everyone he comes across.
One of the reasons for the Dalai Lama’s widespread impact is this instant connection he can form with just about anyone. He responds to each individual at an intensely human level, without the baggage of expectations and preconceived notions that usually come into play in dealing with others. There seems to be no ‘otherness’ as far as he is concerned; we are all parts of an interconnected whole.
Though claims of enlightenment, transcendence, even miracles, are made for him, the Dalai Lama is quick to shoot these down as irrelevant. He is firm in prioritising logic and reasoning over unquestioning belief. In doing so, he is really following the Buddha’s injunction to accept only what has been proven after rigorous testing. The Dalai Lama has used this as a torch to guide him into explorations beyond his tradition, which have resulted in a groundbreaking dialogue between Buddhism and modern science in the form of the Mind and Life Conferences.
Such a dialogue requires a great flexibility of mind, for it delves into theories and methodologies that are the fruits of modern science. It also presents a challenge to the Dalai Lama, for it may prove that some of his own long-held beliefs are not true. He has embraced science and the dare it represents without feeling threatened by it. To do so requires letting go sufficiently of attachment to his own religion and the tendency to regard it as the supreme truth. He is quick to discard any religious dogma that is disqualified by evidence, an example being his discovery during aeroplane travel that Mount Meru actually doesn’t hold up the centre of the earth as claimed in certain scriptures.
At the Mind and Life Conferences, the Dalai Lama quickly comprehends the essence of what is being said, and is able to look at it both from the scientist’s perspective and that of his own tradition. He has famously remarked, “I would have been an engineer, if I had not been a monk!” This scientific temperament is evident when he uses his knowledge of Buddhist mind-training, and his interest in science, to form bridges that enable one to understand the other.
Compassion in action
On most public forums, the Dalai Lama emphasises the universal human values of compassion, a “warm heart”, and a responsibility towards the earth. These he places above religiosity of any kind. When approached by people who want to convert to Buddhism, he is quick to point out that there is no sense becoming a Buddhist. Far more important is to be a good, kind human being.
The reason why the Dalai Lama’s words on compassion are so compelling is because they carry the weight of experience. We know he isn’t just saying it, he has done it too. What he is asking of us is what he has perfected in his own self, and continues to practise every moment in the most difficult of circumstances.
As the leader of Tibet, he refuses to classify the Chinese as ‘the enemy’ and has stood by a non-violent path of dialogue, diplomatic initiatives, and peaceful demonstrations to obtain justice. The equipoise and compassion that are a result of his spiritual practice flow into his political role and enrich it. As a political figure, his example is extremely valuable in these times of self-serving politics. He has shown that it is possible to use values like non-violence, honesty and compassion in statecraft.
Perhaps it is because he places the greatest emphasis on his inner spiritual practice, on the core rather than the accoutrements of his life, that he has been able to deepen in his simplicity and clarity, despite the chaos he has often been plunged in.
As to the question asked at the beginning of this article, it is best answered by the Dalai Lama himself – “I am a simple monk.”