The Dalai Lama, since 1950, has inspired worldwide devotion as the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism and as a political ruler of uncompromising integrity. Dan Reed and Bob Guccione, Jr., journey to India to talk to the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize winner.
Photo Editor: Shana Sobel
When Tibet's 13th Dalai Lama died in 1933, the Buddhist High Priests, the lamas, went into seclusion to meditate for guidance to find his reincarnated successor. Alongside a great lake outside of Lhasa, Tibet's capital, a vision came to them of a farmhouse with a blue awning. The lamas scoured the countryside for 18 months and finally, in the eastern village of Amdo, found the place they were looking for. A woman holding a two-year-old child greeted the monk who came to the door, and the child suddenly reached for a string of beads hidden inside the monk's robes, saying "mine." The beads had belonged to the 13th Dalai Lama.
To confirm they had found the authentic reincarnation of their spiritual and governmental leader, the head lamas subjected the child to a barrage of tests. The child was shown artifacts that were the Dalai Lama's along with exact replicas. An adult would have found it impossible to choose the correct one; the child never once failed to. At four, Tenzin Gyatso, son of peasants, became Tibet's absolute, and absolutely worshiped, spiritual ruler.
Tibet is a country as large as Europe, a vast, high plateaued, virtually unspoiled land that sits in the clouds of the Himalayas like a way station to heaven. Historically it has bordered China, Mongolia (when that was a separate empire), Russia, India, and Nepal; and over the centuries, Tibet kept the Chinese at bay, often only tentatively. But China has always wanted Tibet and in 1950 they took it for good, occupying it by force, suppressing resistance and renaming it as some faceless, meaningless district of China. The rest of the world couldn't have cared less. The absorption of not only an entire self-governing nation but one of the oldest, intactly preserved traditional cultures was accomplished without a meaningful murmur of protest internationally.
At first, the Tibetans tried to at least cause the Chinese some indigestion, but rebellion was repeatedly put down bloodily. In 1959, a massive popular uprising was quelled and at least 87,000 Tibetans were killed in Lhasa alone. Realizing that the Chinese were interested in not only keeping the land but completely dissolving the Tibetan culture and religion, the Dalai Lama, then 24, and 100,000 Tibetan fled. They eventually settled about 1,900 miles from Lhasa in Dharamsala, India where the Indian government has allowed them to establish a government in exile.
That's where, 35 years later, your intrepid reporters come in. Dan Reed, rock musician and student of Buddhism, and I made the torturous journey to Dharamsala from Delhi, a 15-hour drive which breaks down to 14 hours 30 minutes of pure, unrelieved, and constantly inventive terror on the Indian roads and 30 minutes of unabashed groveling and toe-kissing of our Indian driver Rattan for getting us there safely-to interview His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama. We wanted to talk to him about the ongoing resistance to the Chinese occupation and his hopes to return to a liberated Tibet, and about the role of spirituality and compassion in an increasingly spiritualless and compassionless world. We also wanted to ask him what he thought of Nirvana but respectfully never posed the trick question.
We met him on the morning of January 7, a brilliantly sunlit but cold winter day. We had been promised 45 minutes but were granted two hours, as he spoke, in English, in a patient, measured, deep voice. Constantly referring to his interpreter for a key word, he spoke in simple language.
I've never spent so little time with a human being and felt the experience deeply. I know the effect he has gently had on me will stick with me for the rest of my life. Dan said he felt the same way. I think the reason is not just his wisdom, or the uniqueness of who he is and what he represents, mystically and traditionally, but his goodness. He is simply a very good person, unpolluted by hatred or ambition, except to see his country and people free again, and Tibet established as a zone of peace, as he puts it, with that zone spread across Asia and the world.
There is the very strong likelihood that he will be the last Dalai Lama, that the institution of a theocratic ruler will die with him, either in exile or if he's returned. He is not daunted by that, in fact postulates the view that that might be for the best, a necessary evolution, a sign of progress. A completion of his, and maybe all of his predecessors lives' mission.