May 29, 2020
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A Monk's Mega Mystique

The Tibet question is alive because of one man's charisma. From 'Larry King Live' to 'Newsweek' and 'Time' to Hollywood stars, the Global Village walks the Dalai Lama's Middle Path.

A Monk's Mega Mystique

WITH Mother Teresa gone, who else? Nelson Mandela, the only other contender, had too many fights with his wife....the world needs a hero for this age. An extraordinary man who is the symbol of spirituality, peace and compassion in these violent, meaningless times. The Dalai Lama is our only hope," says 32-year-old Cathy Osborne earnestly. Many oceans away from her family in Sweden's Malmo, Cathy feels "fulfilled" in Dharamsala. "It's like being close to God." No friends of Cathy's, Toru Sakai and Akane Terami from Tokyo fumble for words to express a similar devotion. Here to study Tibetan Buddhism, young Sakai says: "He's great and godly." Fresh Buddhist convert, 27-year-old Liz Biema from America's Long Island looks up from her notepad. Tugging at a blonde curl, she sighs: "I'm learning the Tibetan language. I've been here for six months to see HIM. But every time there's a public appearance I just can't muster the's like a date with God!"

Yes, it's a story about a monk's love affair. With the world. Right now, the romance has reached feverish pitch. An enthralled West can't get enough of the 62-year-old bespectacled, genial, mild-mannered monk-in-exile—the Dalai Lama from Tibet, one of the last icons of peace, set against the satans of the world. The amour spills into reams of newsprint, hours of satellite time, celluloid sagas and fervent endorsements by celeb converts worldwide.

Recent months have seen a mind-boggling build-up of media interest in the monk. A cover in Time, in Newsweek, articles in every conceivable newsdaily in the world, on Larry King Live. Last month, John F. Kennedy Jr travelled to Dharamsala to interview the Dalai Lama for his glossy George magazine. Type "Dalai Lama Mystic" into Yahoo, an Internet search engine, and it spits back 11,286 matches!

Add to that the powerful support whipped up by recently released Hollywood films like Jean-Jaques Annaud's Seven Years in Tibet and Martin Scorsese's Kundun. Actors like Richard Gere, Brad Pitt, Harrison Ford, Oliver Stone, Steven Seagal have made Tibet chic. And trendsetting America, the first among equals in the developed world, can't help but follow its stars. Result: a new make-up called "Zen Blush", a new sitcom called Dharma and Greg, monks starring in computer commercials, a designer fruit-juice container entreating—"Please recycle, it deserves to be reincarnated too."

Prof. James C. Clad, who teaches international affairs at Georgetown University in Washington DC, explains America's fascination for the Dalai Lama. "We love the underdog, particularly if he appears to be noble and someone pushed back by overwhelming forces through no fault of his." That may be the reason which brings arch-conservative North Carolina Republican Sen. Jesse Helms and 'Limousine Liberal' Richard Gere on a common platform. Also the reason that makes Britain as fond of him. Last year saw all tickets sold out in London and Manchester for lectures on Noble Truth.

SO, it's a difficult task indeed for umpteen international TV crews, foreign and Indian scribes who are flocking to Dharamsala to make sense of the Dalai Lama's hold over the world. The piles of brochures and books churned out by his dexterous International Relations office only add to the monk's mystique. Dharamsala is rife with global citizens in awe of the Monk. Promise of a glimpse of the God-king has many travel across the globe to the Lama's refuge in the shadows of the snow-clad Dhauladhar Ranges. Most claim to have read about him in papers, seen him on chat shows and been 'inspired' to meet him.

How has the mystical monk marketed himself so well? Why this sudden surge of love for him on Planet Earth? The Dalai Lama chuckles. "It's not sudden! It's the culmination of accumulated interests over the '60s, '70s, '80s and the '90s. Better awareness of the Tibetan culture, better translations of books on Tibet have all helped."

But frankly, isn't the interest more in him than on the issue of Tibetan freedom? "Well," says the media-savvy monk, "people's interest in me has risen." The endearing laugh again, making even his poker-faced press secretary smile. "China's attitude of condemnation and accusation has helped me become an important person. And whenever people have talked about me being harassed by China, they have talked about the Dalai Lama of Tibet. So there's Tibet too!"

 Not such a joke this. In this curious religio-political embrace by the world that the monk has engineered for himself, perhaps, lies the success of his lobbying against China. For the western world, the Dalai Lama has projected himself as a mystical victim of China's iron grip—the focal point for the world's growing consternation about Chinese authoritarianism. Typically then, the recent News -week cover with the Dalai Lama staring hard at the reader is entitled Why Tibet Matters: It's the New Test of Chinese Good Intentions.

So, while he speaks of peace, punctuates thoughts with laughter, smiles playfully for the lens and wins over the media, the Dalai Lama doesn't forget mentioning the 1.2 million Tibetans who have been killed inside the country since the Chinese takeover. Leaning forward conspiratorially, he talks of Tibet's child Panchem Lama who remains incarcerated in China. "Today, the world is a global village, it's like a human body. The head can't ignore a leg that's bleeding. The world can't ignore Tibet."

Is that the political campaigner or the spiritual teacher speaking? Both really. And this unique paradox of personality is most touchingly visible when the Monk meets new arrivals from his exiled Tibetan home on a sun-soaked Dharamsala morning. An air heavy with incense and fierce devotion envelops the group of 70-odd men, women and children who have spent over a month on a treacherous journey by foot from Tibet to Dharamsala. Dodging Chinese authority by the day and braving frostbite at night, these loyalists have single-mindedly charted a path that leads them to hope and the Dalai Lama.

"You have had a difficult journey. We, your exiled Tibetan brothers, welcome you to our refuge. But the day we return to independent Tibet, it'll be your task to welcome us. I've been deprived of my home for the past 38 years," says the Dalai Lama in chaste Tibetan. And even before it is translated for the benefit of the press present, one guesses meaning through the response. Women howl their hearts out, men shake with silent sobs and robust monks have wet cheeks. Later, a middle-aged German gentleman shakes the Dalai vigorously by his hand and expresses gratitude in a choked voice: "Thank you Your Holiness for making the world a better place." The emotionalism is tangible. For the cynics, it's almost mushy.

And that's what many Tibetan youth feel. Too emotional and good for the harsh world, is how they perceive the Dalai Lama. His Middle-Path approach is considered too soft by some. "We want complete independence for Tibet. The Dalai Lama wants genuine autonomy within China. Tibet has historically been an independent country, so why should we compromise with China now?" asks an excited Tseten Norbu, president of the Tibetan Youth Congress. Fond of his young critics, the Monk mischievously retorts: "My friends talk about the past. I look forward to the future." The famous guffaw again: "My critics are emotional, my approach is practical and intellectual...some think it's silly intellectualism."

 For a Tibetan majority this "silly intellectualism" is more than acceptable. In fact, they'll have nothing else. A preliminary referendum carried out by the Tibetan government in exile, asking the exiled Tibetans the world over to make a choice between the Dalai Lama's Middle Path, Complete Independence, Self-Determination and Satyagraha, had an overwhelming 64.4 per cent saying they'd go along with whatever the Dalai Lama decides.

Perturbed by this "blind faith", the Monk-ruler broods about the vulnerability of such dependence. The system of finding a Dalai and a Panchem Lama through divine indications and rituals can be used as a political tool. And here's where the Dalai Lama, the monk who rubs shoulders with the Clintons, Majors, Mandelas and Havels; who manages refuge in India even as he blames it for being "over cautious" with China about Tibet; who lectures leading businessmen in Australia on "Ethics and the Bottom Line"; and repairs watches as a hobby discards tradition for modernity. Advocating a restructuring of the Institution of the Dalai Lama, he suggests a system like the papal elections. Also, the Monk, the vice chairman of the Tibetan Assembly-in-exile Thupten Lungrig says, persuaded the inclusion of a law in the draft constitution which allows the government to take away the Dalai Lama's powers through a majority vote. "The establishment of a sound democracy where elections are an integral part should happen within my lifetime."

 But without the mysticism in the Dalai Lama's selection the world might lose its curious interest in him and Tibet? "Maybe. But things will have to change with times," is the crisp reply. After all, the Dalai wasn't born for the role he plays today. Mingling with the hoi polloi as he does now, he'd never have spoken to them in the Tibet he was driven out of by Chinese invaders in 1959. Recalling the rare occasions when he left his official residence in the 1,000-room Potola Palace in Lhasa, the Dalai Lama's autobiography Freedom in Exile has him talking of himself ensconced in a yellow silk palanquin on his day-outs: Pulled by uniformed armymen, surrounded by hundreds of monks, musicians, sword-wielding horsemen and porters carrying his songbirds in cages and his personal belongings all wrapped in yellow silk. And the monastic police surrounding his entourage kept the commoners away with "long whips, which they would not hesitate to use".

Times have changed since then. So has the Dalai Lama. And what's more, he likes to change. To keep up with the times. To keep up with the Karmic wheels in motion. To win back Tibet. For now, though, he'll have to be satisfied with having the world.

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