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Lions Roar : May 2011
SHAMBHALA SUN MAY 2011 48 he was protesting what tibet had become: isolated and inward. as much as he loved tibet, the dalai lama by 1959 had come to realize that it was also a cage. when he fled with a small group of relatives across the moonscape of the southern provinces, the da- lai lama was not only fleeing the increasing oppression and bru- tality under the Chinese, he was fleeing the ancient court of lhasa. this was the final thing tibet taught me: if the dalai lama hadn’t escaped, he would be a very different man today. being ejected into the wider world allowed him to remake himself ac- cording to his own ideas. which is just what he did. and he began immediately. i found a long-forgotten interview with his holiness right after his escape. he was being housed in a hotel in india when a poet was sent by Harper’s Magazine to in- terview the exotic “god-king” (a term the tibetans hated). before the meeting, the poet was told by the dalai lama’s stern minders what he could and couldn’t do in the presence of the Precious Protector. all the old rituals of the lhasa court were invoked, in- cluding the stipulation that, at the end of the interview, the poet couldn’t turn his back on his holiness and walk out. he had to shuffle backward, ridiculously. as soon as he entered the room, the poet was frightened to re- alize he was with an ebullient and childlike person who had no intention of observing his minder’s strict rules. the dalai lama patted the poet on the leg to make a point; he laughed like a young boy; he pursued his interviewer across the room. the poet was ter- rified that the meeting in fact was one long heresy. when he began to shuffle backward toward the door, the young monk laughed, grabbed him by the shoulders and gave him a small push. this is the first real sighting of the man we would come to know as the Fourteenth dalai lama. a free, ordinary man. Free not only from the Chinese and from worldly illusions, but from his own past. i believe escaping tibet gave him the chance to manifest buddhism in his own nature—open, joyful, empa- thetic. as his own people had thrown over their own lives in an instant to save the dharma, so he had begun to peel away every- thing that restricted him from pursuing it. his holiness was the fourteenth reincarnation of a line of lamas and rulers, but his predecessors would hardly have rec- ognized themselves in this compassionate and wonderfully ap- proachable man. he shed the more absurd traditions as one would slip out of a badly fitting coat, and that process began in those high himalayan passes on the trail from lhasa. if you ask the dalai lama, he will tell you that leaving tibet forced him to think differently. and it did. he had to contend with issues and situations he would never have had to in tibet. he came to the world not as a guru whose word was quite literally law. he came as a political supplicant. and only then as a teacher. the real benefit of all this to the world is in how his holiness practices his faith. the core of the dalai lama’s faith wasn’t changed by leaving lhasa. if you attend one of his lectures, you will find him delving deeply into the traditional texts; i’m sure in doing this he disappoints many of the people who come to see him. hoping to find a more authentic deepak Chopra or a more exotic dr. Phil, they find instead a serious student of the classical texts. but how he applies his beliefs was clearly affected by his ex- perience as a refugee. he thinks like a man who is guaranteed nothing. he strives to make buddhism modern—his work with the mind & life institute, for example, shows his near obses- sion with proving that some of the faith’s tenets are scientifically sound. the very instability of tibetans’ place in the world has given his message to the global community a flexibility and ad- venturousness it wouldn’t have had back in lhasa. the result is a buddhism that is forward-looking, one might even say unafraid—even of looking ridiculous. the dalai lama skirts that border occasionally, because there is nothing he con- siders off-topic. you need to attend just one of his press confer- ences to get a taste of the kooky questions tossed his way, and how genuinely he answers. he finds no question embarrass- ing. there’s nothing that’s beneath him, and that fact alone has changed how people view their own small tragedies. it’s his holiness’ openness that has attracted so many people to his view of buddhism. he isn’t a martin luther; he hasn’t re- formed the dharma. but he’s helped many thousands of people simply by making it relatable. PerhaPs i’m westernizing buddhism by looking for real world events to view it through. Perhaps i need this idea of a faith tested in action to begin to understand what buddhism truly is. but i find its role in the spring of 1959 thrilling and instructive. or maybe i’m Christianizing it—the testing of the dalai lama during the uprising was, in a way, his gethsemane. and the blood spilled in an uprising against oppressive rulers, well, that is the story of the first Catholics. some tibetans cooperated with the Chinese army; one of the dalai lama’s closest advisers called him a traitor and a dog on Peking radio. (one can only think of Peter denying Jesus.) but the human circumstances of tibet’s tragedy made buddhism more meaningful for me. today, half a century after the escape, the dalai lama is a spiritual celebrity. his twitter account and his daily lessons on Facebook reach many thousands of people. (to literally become a follower of the dalai lama nowadays, one need only click a button.) but his words often emerge out of the ether, sayings from a smiling man in a robe. i worry that, to many people, he is a nice man who says gentle things, and nothing else. if people knew how much he went through to see buddhism clearly, and how tibetans suffered to keep the dharma alive, i think those words would feel heavier. they certainly do to me. ♦