By Shashi Tharoor
When the United Nations convened a Millennium World Peace Summit of religious leaders at its headquarters in 2000, one major religious figure was conspicuous by his absence. The Dalai Lama, the spiritual and political leader of Tibetan Buddhism, had not been asked to come. The implacable hostility of a permanent member of the UN Security Council, China, has made it impossible for him to set foot in a UN building anywhere, or to be received by any official of the UN, let alone its Secretary-General. Where millions see a revered seeker of peace and an admired advocate of love and reconciliation, the Government in Beijing sees only a "splittist," a secessionist rebel who threatens Chinese sovereignty over his homeland.
This dichotomy has always been inherent in the role of the Dalai Lama. He is simultaneously the most visible spiritual leader of a worldwide community of believers, and (till a few years ago) the political head of a government in exile. As a Buddhist, he preaches non-attachment, self-realization, inner actualization and non-violence; as a Tibetan, he is looked up to by a people fiercely attached to their homeland, most seeking its independence from China, many determined to fight for it.
The Dalai Lama has been a refugee for five decades, but is the most recognized worldwide symbol of a country he has not seen in half a century. His message of peace, love and reconciliation has found adherents amongst Hollywood movie stars and pony-tailed hippies, Irish rock musicians and Indian politicians, but he has made no headway at all with the regime that rules his homeland, and has been unable to prevent Tibet's inexorable transformation into one more Chinese province. His sermons fill football stadiums and he has won a Nobel Prize, but political leaders around the world shirk from meeting him openly for fear of causing costly offence to the Chinese.
As the Dalai Lama turns 80 today, the world sees him as a public figure, viewed, heard and admired at religious gatherings and official meetings; as a private person, usually through the accounts of others, reflecting in conversations with various prominent people on the values and concerns that animate his life; and, somewhat less, as a politician on the global stage. The last is a role the Dalai Lama has officially relinquished, by giving up the leadership of the Tibetan Government in exile and permitting the election, by the Tibetan diaspora, of Lobsang Sangay to that responsibility. But though formally the Dalai Lama is out of politics, it is impossible for him to escape the burden of symbolizing the political aspirations of the Tibetan people. These he describes now as autonomy, cultural and administrative rather than political, and within the Chinese state, rather than the independence he acknowledges to be impossible to attain.
I first met the Dalai Lama in 1979 or 1980 in Geneva, when he had come to address the Diplomatic Club there. I was a young UN official in the early years of my career - no one of any consequence whatsoever. As he came down the aisle, he shook my hand and we exchanged a few words. I was overwhelmed by the gesture: here was a man whose followers would cherish the mere grazing of the hem of his robe, and he was holding my hand and talking to me! My admiration began then, and has been reinforced by many encounters over the years, mostly on public occasions or from a distance, though I have been privileged to enjoy two private audiences with him as well. The Dalai Lama's easy grace upon entering a room, his infectiously loud laughter, his profound compassion and humanity all leap forth from his presence. So does his sense of being anchored in the present, and in "reality".
To one author, Pico Iyer, even the Dalai Lama's polishing his glasses suggests "a metaphor for what he's encouraging all of us to do" - to polish our mental glasses and see the world around us, and beyond us, more clearly.
The Dalai Lama calls himself "a simple Buddhist monk" bound by 253 different vows, but he has proven himself to be anything but simple and so much more than a monk. To most Tibetans, he incarnates their homeland, as well as their faith, and even their sense of selfhood. His fame, too, is a worldly asset. To quote Iyer again: "in a world where celebrity is ever more a global currency, the spiritual celebrity is the one who can actually change the coin of the realm into something more precious or sustaining."
The Dalai Lama does not pretend to have all the answers; but he has an astonishing talent for raising the right questions, and forcing us to interrogate ourselves in the same way. His spiritual message -- to build one's home within oneself - is all the more relevant when one can no longer rebuild the external home that one has been forced to flee. Some impatient young Tibetans want freedom in this world rather than freedom from this world, but the Dalai Lama has long realized that the only transformation that is possible for his people is within themselves. Beijing does not seem to realize that the reviled secessionist is more interested in sovereignty over the self than in the sovereignty of his now-vanished state.
One of the striking things about the Dalai Lama is that his mind is always focused on the future, which after all can be changed, rather than to the past, which cannot. The fact that, thanks to him, Tibetan Buddhists have created a global networked community to substitute for the indigenous one they are unable to sustain at home might well assure that future.
As he turns 80, one cannot but marvel at all he has done to make that future possible, and to wish him health and peace as he continues his tireless journey towards a better world for all who listen to his wisdom.
(The writer is a two-time MP from Thiruvananthapuram, the Chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs, the former Union Minister of State for External Affairs and Human Resource Development and the former UN Under-Secretary-General. He has written 15 books, including, most recently, India Shastra: Reflections On the Nation in Our Time
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