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Buddhism Who Is The Dalai Lama?


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
by Matteo PistonoAuthor, 'In the Shadow of the Buddha; Secret Journeys, Sacred Histories, and Spiritual Discovery in Tibet

There are 10,000 people expected to attend events with the Dalai Lama in Washington D.C. every day for the next ten days. If you were to ask each of them, "Who is the Dalai Lama?" you will likely receive different response from every individual. Most certainly deep respect and veneration would be expressed. The Dalai Lama describes himself as "a simple Buddhist monk," while in Beijing, the Chinese government regularly vilifies him to the international press as "a wolf in monk's robes." The Dalai Lama strikes many different cords.

The first time I encountered the Dalai Lama was in the mid 1990s when I traveled by road through Nepal and rail across northern India to arrive in the small town of Dharamsala. I was on a well-trodden path by Westerners, with the likes of Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg traveling there in the early 1960s, followed by philosophers and Christian mystics such as Thomas Merton, and today by politicians, neuroscientists, molecular geneticists, and movie stars. For more than forty years, beatnik poets, renowned scientists, world leaders, and global celebrities have journeyed to Dharamsala with the same motivation as mine was -- to see the XIV Dalai Lama.

When the Dalai Lama escaped a pursuing Chinese army and fled Tibet in 1959, India graciously accepted him as a guest of their country, providing him a home and a daily rupee stipend that they still honor today. Over 120,000 Tibetans journeyed on foot over the Himalayas to follow into exile their spiritual and political leader. With refugees scattered in colonies throughout the Indian subcontinent, including Nepal and Bhutan, the Dalai Lama eventually set up operations of a Tibetan government-in-exile near Dharamsala in the Himalayan foothills. More than half a century still on, the Dalai Lama continues to reside in India as a refugee, forbidden by China from returning to his homeland and to live with his six million brethren who devotedly pray to him daily.

The reason I went to the hill town of Dharamsala was to attend the Dalai Lama's teachings about compassion in action, that is, practical training to become a bodhisattva, a kind of spiritual warrior. Who better to receive such teachings from than Dalai Lama! Like so many Westerners, Chinese, and people from all around the globe, I wanted to learn from a most noble, honest, and wise individual -- a rarity in today's world.

On the morning on the first day of teachings, after the crowd of a few thousand Tibetan refugees and a couple hundred foreigners had squeezed into a large courtyard by Namgyal Monastery, a breeze of silence blew as we saw the Dalai Lama leave his residence a short distance away. Indian security guards with automatic rifles and monks carrying incense walked shoulder to shoulder clearing a path through the crowd as we were told to stay seated. Thousands of Tibetans' eyes spontaneously filled with tears upon seeing their leader, hands devotedly folded at their chests, placing the hope and aspiration of a nation onto his shoulders.

As the Dalai Lama approached, I found myself sitting at the edge of his walkway. This was the first time I had set eyes on the man whom Tibetans regard as a human manifestation of the Buddha's compassion. As he passed by, I heard two sounds that would later come to symbolize for me how the Dalai Lama works in both the political and spiritual worlds -- a soft, deeply wise chuckle, and the flapping of his ubiquitous rubber flip-flops en route to helping others.

After a week of teachings, the Dalai Lama was to give the bodhisattva vow. By taking the vow we were committing ourselves to work for the benefit of others. The Dalai Lama told us that undertaking this vow did not apply only to this life, but we were pledging ourselves to benefit others in all of our future lives, until we attained enlightenment. According to the Buddhist view, this might be a couple hundred thousand years of working for others, depending on how many lifetimes the vow took to accomplish -- for the completion of the bodhisattva's task means that everyone, every single being, is free from suffering.

"Whether we attain enlightenment today or ten lifetimes from now," the Dalai Lama said, "our job is still the same -- to work for others' happiness."

The crowd ritually repeated Buddhist verses three times. It was a brief ceremony, but the point was the deep commitment to attain enlightenment not just for ourselves, but for the benefit of all beings by diligently cultivating within ourselves qualities such as patience, generosity, and meditation. With a snap of the Dalai Lama's fingers the ceremony was complete.

Commotion began. Chanting broke over the loudspeaker. Teams of monks streamed into the monastery courtyard to serve tea to the masses. Tibetan grandmothers returned to thumbing their prayer beads. Kids from the Tibetan Children's Village were rounded up by their teachers to go back to their classrooms up the mountain. Monkeys began howling at the action below. I watched the Dalai Lama on his throne, quietly smiling. I concentrated on him as both the source and the benevolent witness to the vow I had just taken -- this is who the Dalai Lama is to me. In gratitude for his inspiring example and vast wisdom, I recited a verse he used in the ceremony and told us that he works every day to embody:

For as long as space exists
And sentient beings endure,
May I, too, remain,
To dispel the misery of the world