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The Dalai Lama is one of the world's most remarkable men

By any standards, the Dalai Lama is one of the most remarkable men on the planet. Consider the background.

He is the religious and political head of the Tibetan people, residents of a small country that almost nobody in the world had heard of till it was over-run by the Chinese around 50 years ago.


When the young Dalai Lama fled from the Chinese invaders and their brutal destruction of monasteries, he was offered refuge in India by Pandit Nehru. But though New Delhi was hospitable enough, it refused to accept the Tibetan claim that theirs was a sovereign nation which had been annexed by the Chinese. Even today, there is almost no nation in the world that disputes China's claim that it has always had sovereignty over Tibet.


   Given the lack of political support for his movement and Tibet's relative obscurity, the Dalai Lama should simply have faded away. His branch of Buddhism is not even the dominant version: No non-Tibetan Buddhists accept him as their spiritual leader and Tibetan Buddhists form a tiny proportion of the world's total Buddhist population.


   And yet, by sheer force of personality, the Dalai Lama has refused to fade away. It is entirely as a result of his efforts that more people in the West have heard of Tibet today than at any other point in history. Despite the numerically small nature of his following, he is universally respected as a great spiritual leader, regarded with an admiration that no other Asian religious leader (let alone a Hindu godman) has ever received.


   Much of the respect and regard is secular, rather than religious, in nature. When the US was about to invade Iraq, it was to the Dalai Lama (along with the likes of Nelson Mandela) that global peace campaigners turned, seeking his moral intervention. Hollywood remains fascinated by him. Martin Scorsese made Kundun (the Dalai Lama's real name) about his early life. A young Dalai Lama was one of the central characters in Seven Years In Tibet starring Brad Pitt. Bernardo Bertolucci's version of the Buddha legend, Little Buddha, was based on Tibetan Buddhism's take on the story, complete with a contemporary sub-plot about the search for a reincarnated Lama.


   I am to meet the Dalai Lama at Delhi's Radisson Hotel on Sunday morning. As a measure of abundant caution. I arrive ten minutes early and expect to wait. Instead, I am immediately shown to the living room of a fairly basic suite. Hardly have I sat down when the Dalai Lama emerges from the bed room. He walks over, shakes my hand and settles into an arm chair.


   He has just returned from a European tour and is on his way back to Dharamsala. He engaged in dialogues with the Archbishop of Sweden and a cognitive psychotherapist about spiritual values and modernity. The Archbishop, he says, was very modern. During the dialogues, it was almost as though the Lama was the Christian and the Archbishop, the Buddhist. The Dalai Lama laughs. It is the open, good-natured laugh of a man who is at peace with himself.


   The conversation turns to the late Pope John Paul II. The Dalai Lama says he knew him and liked him a lot. Surely, I say, he cannot have approved of the last Pope's reactionary brand of Catholicism and his constant interference in the private morality of his followers?


   Well, says the Dalai Lama, the Pope believed that morality flowed from religion. "But I believe that morality and ethics must be secular and they must be universal," he explains. "So my views on morality differ from Buddhist religious practice."


   This is interesting. Does the religious leader of Tibetan Buddhism reject his religion's view of morality?




   "Moral ethics are universal," he says. "So, Buddhism is against homosexuality. But I am not. I believe that if there is love, compassion and consent, then it is all right."


   The conversation has suddenly taken an unusual turn. I push further. What about pre-marital sex?


   The Dalai Lama is totally unfazed. "In Buddhism and in many other religions, they see sex only as a means of procreation, of reproduction. I don't believe that."


   I pause but he goes on. "One American has asked me `is it all right to do it with the mouth, with the hand, in the wrong hole...' I always say the same thing. If it involves compassion, if it is safe, and if there is mutual consent, then there is nothing wrong."


   Ten minutes into the interview, we are talking about oral sex and masturbation. To say I am stunned would be an understatement.


"The first surprise is that he is actually filled with admiration for China's economic achievements. Tibet, he says, needs to benefit from this prosperity."

   The embarrassment, I soon discover, is in my own mind. The Dalai Lama brings the same cheerful clarity of thought to all subjects. Whether he is talking about sex, samsara, reincarnation, or the Chinese government's allergy to him, he is as cool and clear. He never shies away from answering a question, he is never embarrassed and even when he sometimes struggles to find the right English word, he knows exactly what he wants to say.


   I ask about the concept of Holy Wars. Does he regret that so many people have died in the name of God? Yes, he says, he does. Violence is not part of the Buddhist dharma though, to be honest, there have been religious wars in Tibet and some monks were even called warrior-monks.


   To some extent, he can understand monks resorting to violence for self-defence. But he cannot condone wars conducted in the name of Islam, Christianity or Buddhism.


   What about Osama bin Laden? What about his jehad? He's thought about this one before so the answer is smooth. "Many of my Muslim friends say that bin Laden is not a true Muslim. What he is doing is against the tenets of Islam. And bin Laden has a clear political motive. He is opposed to the Saudi royal family which is backed by the US. So his anti-Americanism is not based on religion but on political considerations."


   I remind him of the Chinese allegation that he too uses religion for political ends. The Dalai Lama sighs. Before the Iraq war, he says, many people had wanted him to join a global effort for peace. But he knew that the moment he got involved, the Chinese would oppose the effort, such is their antipathy to him.


   The Dalai Lama's own views on China, however, are considerably more complex than Beijing's single-minded abuse of him. The first surprise is that he is actually filled with admiration for China's economic achievements. Tibet, he says, needs to benefit from this prosperity.


   The second surprise is that his position on Tibetan sovereignty is subtler than most Indians realise. He says that Narasimha Rao told him that Tibet was `an autonomous region' of China, and he found this quite acceptable. Over a decade ago, the then British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd told him that even during the Raj, the British had always accepted Chinese sovereignty over Tibet.


   But, he asks, can anybody deny that Tibet has a unique culture? That its religion is different from China's? That Tibetans have always been treated with dignity and compassion?


   All he asks, he says, is that Tibet be granted a measure of democratic self-government (in which case the political leadership of the Dalai Lama should be abolished) and that its culture be preserved. If the Chinese want to claim sovereignty; if the world regards Tibet as a part of China; well, all that is fine with him. His concern is not with sovereignty but with culture, democracy and compassion.


   This is a complex position but he draws parallels with Quebec and Scotland, both regions with distinct cultural identities that do not want to secede from existing political entities. Surely, says the Dalai Lama, there is nothing in this demand that Beijing should find objectionable?


   (Of course, there are layers of subtlety. When I do a news story in the Hindustan Times based on our conversation, I write that the Dalai Lama had no problems with India's position that Tibet was an integral part of China. By the afternoon, his Delhi office has sent me a fax saying that India's position is that Tibet is a `territorial' part of China. "His Holiness," the fax reads, "did not use the word integral." No, I suppose, he didn't. But the distinction was too subtle for me.)


   Does the Dalai Lama think that Beijing will eventually come around to this view?


   He is optimistic. Tibetan Buddhism, he says, has now become trendy in China. There are Tibetan Buddhist centres in many cities. Many of these centres are, he concedes, run by frauds but at least the Chinese are recognising the unique nature of Tibetan culture. So perhaps a new generation of leaders will give the Tibetans the autonomy they want.


   Does the Dalai Lama like the way he has been portrayed in the movies? He smiles and says he hasn't seen all of them.


   He did see Kundun, he says, and found it accurate for the most part though some exaggerations were probably inevitable. He's only seen parts of Seven Years In Tibet on aeroplanes so he won't comment.


   But as much as he liked Brad Pitt, Heinrich Harrer was never really a father-figure to him.


   Does he have a favourite Buddhist movie? Probably Little Buddha, he says, because it gave Westerners a chance to understand Buddha's message. He wasn't that keen on the actor who played Buddha (Keanu Reeves) but then, which ordinary man could ever manage to play Buddha? Oh yes, he adds, he saw Shahrukh Khan's Asoka as well and enjoyed it.


   How does it feel to be so feted by Hollywood, to have Richard Gere as a lieutenant and to be courted by the international jet set?


   It doesn't bother him, he says. It is not important how others regard you. What is important is how you regard yourself. Each day he meditates to root himself and as long as he knows that he is true to his values and his tradition, it doesn't matter how famous his followers are.


   It is the sort of answer you would expect him to give but somehow, with the Dalai Lama, you feel he is being sincere. Unlike Indian godmen or global gurus, there is no artifice or arrogance about him. There is no protective entourage, there is no attempt to project a self-consciously spiritual aura, and he never ever talks down to you, suggesting that the world can benefit from his wisdom.


   The extraordinary thing about meeting him is that after I had got over my initial awe (about ten minutes), the next hour or so passed so quickly that I forgot about his global eminence and his stature. It was as though I was conducting a conversation with any intelligent and quick-witted individual.


   It was only afterwards as I thought about his answers and replayed the encounter in my mind that I reflected on his wisdom and subtlety. While I was in that small living room, however, he had done so much to put me at ease that I almost forgot I was interviewing the Dalai Lama.


   I can see now why so many people regard him as one of the world's most remarkable men.


This article first appeared in the Hindustan Times in 2005.


Posted On: 03 Feb 2021 01:38 PM
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