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Lions Roar : May 2011
SHAMBHALA SUN MAY 2011 45 Streets—not as violent, but close enough—and i grew up marinat- ing in the iconography of the Catholic Church: suffering, wounds, transcendence. i was named after the first Catholic martyr. even though i didn’t believe in it anymore, Catholicism’s intimate con- nection with the hard details of life attracted me. in contrast, buddhism seemed bloodless. until i went to tibet. Just as in rural ireland, i saw a buddhist faith that went down to the bone. these simple people bowing to an empty throne were risking imprisonment for the rest of their lives by even acknowledging his holiness. buddhism here wasn’t just a mental discipline; it was something that people were actively suffering in the service of. when i managed to sneak in a quick conversation with a young tibetan man, his voice broke at the mention of the dalai lama. “we want to see him so much,” he told me. the fact that they were prevented from seeing his holiness, made many of the tibetans i spoke to in tibet and elsewhere seem actually physically tormented—really, there is no other word. there was a restless hunger to be in the presence of the dalai lama, and touch him and hear his voice. i hadn’t expected that. it made the faith more comprehensible to me. yet that hunger is a conundrum, of course. buddhism teaches the value of detach- ment from worldly things, but here were buddhists so attached to the idea of one man that they were willing to risk jail just to hear his voice. before visiting lhasa, i’d spoken to some buddhists who felt the intense devotion to the dalai lama was in fact a bad thing. to them, his escape to the west, which had spread the word about tibetan buddhism to every corner of the earth, had freed tibetan buddhism from tibet. the worship of his holiness, the relics, the people flinging themselves to the ground in front of the Jokhang temple—all of it was a throwback to them. it needed to go. but, after seeing lhasa, i disagreed. here were buddhists whose faith was something they could touch, something that tore their heart. and that brought me closer to the faith than i’d thought possible. as i toured the sPots where the story of the dalai lama’s escape had played out, i thought back on the thing that had first made me want to write his story. it was a short passage in his holiness’s second memoir, where he talked about how, as a young teenager, he was more interested in playing soldier than reading about the buddha. when i came across that paragraph, i had to stop and read the words again. i had always thought of the dalai lama as a serene being who’d come by his faith automatically. he was, after all, the re- incarnation of a line of lamas. he’d inherited his tranquillity of mind as you or i might inherit a chest of drawers. but when i began researching the story, i realized how untrue this was. as a thirteen-year-old, the dalai lama was as unruly, godless, tenderhearted, and selfish as i’d been as a teenager. he had a ferocious temper, growing so angry at times that his body shook as he stood on the shiny floor of his winter palace in lhasa, and religious stories bored him so much that he would edit them in his head to make them more exciting. to think that for many years, his holiness wasn’t religious at all, or even spiritual, was startling to me. i spoke to people who’d been close to him and found out that his minders often worried about him. what if the Fourteenth dalai lama turned out not to care about buddhism at all? it had happened before; the sixth dalai lama became a drunkard and a womanizer, fleeing his pal- ace to get drunk in the streets of lhasa. it had never occurred to me that a dalai lama could choose whether or not to follow the dharma. and when i found out the circumstances under which the Fourteenth had made his choice, i found them revealing. when the Chinese invaded tibet in 1950, tibetans had little or no faith in the aristocrats and bureaucrats who ran the coun- try. i spoke to monks and private citizens who told me how a Chinese bureaucrat would go from door to door in the nice parts of lhasa, a bag of silver coins over his shoulder, paying off the men who worked in the government offices. many tibetan lead- ers were as corrupt as the day is long. and tibetans were divided among themselves. the easterners hated the westerners. the Khampas hated the lhasans, and vice ver- sa. the city folk looked down on the country people, and the country people returned the favor. as americans, there are so many things that bind us together: the Constitution, baseball, hamburgers, lan- guage. but in 1949 a woman from amdo province would not have The Dalai Lama arriving in India in April 1959. Photo:KeystoneParis/©1984byKeystonePress