Dalai Lama at 80: Praying for the cause

Vijay Kranti

Vijay Kranti

By Vijay Kranti

ON THE WEB, 4 July 2015

The life journey of the present Dalai Lama, who celebrates his 80th birthday on 6th July, has been unique in so many ways. He was only four year old in 1939 when a search party of Tibetan monks from Lhasa arrived in his remote village and identified him as the new reincarnate ruler and supreme religious leader of Tibet. Their tests showed that Lhamo Thondup was the reincarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama who had passed away in 1935 just before this little boy was born in a poor farmer’s family of Taktser in the North-Eastern Amdo province of Tibet.

Renamed “Tenzin Gyatso” and enthroned as the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet by his sixth birthday, this little boy of Taktser has today grown into one of the most popular and respected men of present human history. Decorated with almost every well-known international award and honour (154 by last count) including the Nobel Peace Prize, Templeton Award, Magsaysay Award, Congressional Gold Medal of USA, and a host of Doctorates from some of the most reputed universities, he attracts a rock-star-like reception across the world. In countries like the USA, Germany, Australia, Canada, France, Spain, Japan (you just name it) his public lecture tickets are sold out months in advance, where thousands of his admirers wait outside jam-packed Olympic stadiums just to have a glimpse of him.

His popularity looks still more phenomenal when the Beijing government, his most ardent hater, calls him “a wolf in monk’s garb” to vent its helplessness over the thunderous standing ovations he receives in one after another Parliaments across the world. Or when a business tycoon of Rupert Murdoch’s reputation scoffs out personal frustration on his popularity by referring him as “… a political old monk shuffling around in Gucci shoes.” But as expected, all such sarcasm and caustic comments from such quarters only add glamour to this robed statesman’s popularity graphs. It’s different that the Dalai Lama still prefers to call himself “a humble monk”.

Not a comfortable journey

But a closer and critical look at the 80-year-long journey of this little boy from Taktser would show that it has not been so comfortable that everyone would love to opt for. Soon after he was enthroned as the supreme religious leader of his country amidst a colourful, musical and noisy ceremony, the six-year-old Tenzin Gyatso discovered that he had already outlived his childhood. He was now destined to live, grow up and study with much older monks, many of them being much older than his father. His family life too was going to be limited to weekly meetings with his parents and siblings.

It was a theocratic system which gave him as much respect and public following, if not more, as any Pope or Shankaracharya or Ayatollah would have ever received in the prime of their times in their respective countries. On attaining adulthood, he was going to wield far more political powers and authority in the national government of Tibet than a monarch like the Queen of England, a President of the USA, a Prime Minister of India, and a Pakistani dictator – all rolled into one – could have ever enjoyed.

Life in isolation

But he had to grow up in a system which neither encouraged (read “banned”) relations with the international community of nations; nor allowed any direct exposure to foreign cultures; nor permitted any modern educational institution to set foot onto Tibetan land. It was only when two fugitive Austrian prisoners of war landed into Lhasa near the end of second World War that the 12-year-old Dalai Lama could take some lessons in English and had some friendly briefing about the modern world from one of them (Heinrich Harrer). In a country where practically no wheel, other than the “Mani” prayer wheel, rotated, the young inquisitive Dalai Lama took upon himself the privilege of cannibalising one of the three vintage Dodge cars with the help of an India-returned Tibetan driver to drive it within the lawns of his summer palace Norbulingka. These cars were imported by the 13th Dalai Lama on yak backs in unassembled form from India decades ago.

Palace intrigues

And, above all, the young Dalai Lama had to be lucky enough to physically survive through a delicate web of palace intrigues which had already seen six of his predecessors dying before celebrating their 30th birthday. Three of them died as minors. The unique Tibetan system of power transfer through reincarnation has helped Tibet enormously in protecting the system from concentration of power in a single family or a group. The tradition of dual appointment of a monk and a nobleman on almost every senior position also helped in keeping the power balance in place. But a two-decade-long holiday between the death of a Dalai Lama and handing over of the political and administrative powers to his successor also leaves ample space for a perpetual power struggle to seep in among high-ranking Lamas, powerful noblemen, and a host of regional chieftains.

The buck stops here

It is no less interesting that while all privileges and powers of the Tibetan system are liberally shared and enjoyed by the religious and lay nobility, it is always the poor Dalai Lama as an individual who is practically left alone to handle the situation when things go wrong. Tibetan people’s deep faith in Dalai Lama’s spiritual powers and wisdom only helps the nobility to abdicate its responsibilities on most delicate moments.

For example, on a summer day of 1950 when the news of imminent Chinese attack on Tibet arrived Lhasa through a radio telegram from the Governor of Kham, the Regents, ministers and other seniors officials were out on an official picnic. The telegram was left on hold lest the picnic was disturbed. Later, instead of taking a clear stand to handle the national crisis the committee of Regents pushed the 15-year-old Dalai Lama to replace the Governor with Ngapo, a known pro-China young official – simply on the ground that he was suave, could speak Chinese, and hence could convince the Chinese not to attack.

A few months later in the same year, Ngapo surrendered his garrison and town to the Chinese army without a fight. When Beijing threatened to “liberate” the rest of Tibet too, the Regents called for the services of the “Kuten”, the national fortune-teller, who only advised the boy Dalai Lama to take over the political and administrative charge of Tibet. The Regents agreed despite the fact that the Dalai Lama was still a minor and three years too young to take up this responsibility. That explains how a 15-year-old boy was left to find his own way to handle one of the most powerful and a rogue enemy. What followed in the coming decade was what even a novice political scientist could have predicted.

The nobles once again pushed the Dalai Lama to depute Ngapo for a dialogue with Beijing. However, Ngapo simply signed on the dotted line what China called a “17-Point Agreement” between China and Tibet which made Tibet “return” to the “great motherland China” in 1951. Thanks to the Tibetan leaders’ policy of isolation and insulation, the world community simply watched this Himalayan game as an indifferent spectator. No government offered to intervene. The Dalai Lama’s only hope was Chaiman Mao’s assurance through the “Agreement” that China would respect its autonomy and would not disturb its culture and system.

Freedom in exile

But by March 1959 the Chinese interference and high-handedness had left no choice for the Dalai Lama but to run for his life to exile in neighbouring India. Going by the report of the International Commission of Jurists, as submitted to the UNO (1959), at least 80,000 Tibetans were massacred by the PLA and an equal number of Tibetans followed their leader as refugees to India. Interestingly, Ngapo stayed back to collaborate with the Chinese and enjoyed all comforts of life in Beijing till his last breath in 2009. It was the freedom in exile in India which offered the refugee Dalai Lama a chance to show his real capabilities as a community leader.

A guru dakshina to India

These institutions also include an impressive chain of replicas of almost every major national monastery and temple that existed in free Tibet of pre-1950 era. There are at least five UGC-ranked universities that have come up either on exclusive Tibetan initiative or with active participation of Tibetan scholars. These institutions have taken studies in Tibetology, Buddhist studies and Indology to newer heights in past decades. It is no less an achievement of the Dalai Lama and his fellow Tibetan scholars that over a hundred such major Sanskrit manuscripts which were given up as “lost forever” over past centuries, have been retranslated and revived to their original Sanskrit form in India in recent years from the surviving Tibetan translations that were taken back home by Tibetan scholars at Nalanda University many centuries ago.

From Tibet’s point of view too, yet another outstanding contribution of the present Dalai Lama is his success in unifying and organising the Tibetan refugees into one of the best-knit refugee communities of the world. It was on his initiative that the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) was established in Dharamshala soon after he was shifted there. Though no world government has officially recognised the CTA, for all practical purposes it runs like a “Government in Exile” through a democratic constitution, an elected Parliament, a cabinet, an autonomous Justice Commission, an Election Commission, and competition-based civil service. The CTA controls over a dozen Representative Offices across the globe which operate like Dalai Lama’s virtual embassies in countries like USA, UK, Switzerland, South Africa, Australia, Japan, Russia, and the European Union.

A democratic Dalai Lama

Starting with a democratic constitution in the early 1960s, the Dalai Lama has gradually evolved the CTA from a Dalai-Lama-led near-theocratic system to a democratic one which runs through a popularly elected Sikyong (Prime Minister) and a Parliament. In 2011 he officially transferred his political and administrative powers to the elected representatives through the Prime Minister, the Parliament, and the Justice Commission. Through another earlier amendment in the constitution he had already empowered the Parliament to even strip the Dalai Lama of his political powers if a majority of its elected members feel that he is guilty of dereliction of his political responsibilities.

Going by his recent statements, the Dalai Lama appears to be thinking seriously of ending the institution of Dalai Lama and be remembered as the last Dalai Lama of Tibet. However, frantic and desperate statements from Beijing show that the communist occupiers of Dalai Lama’s Tibet are dead against this idea. They have stopped hiding their eagerness to see the present Dalai Lama pass away so that they could install a puppet in his place to solve their Tibetan headache once for all.

The Baby Reincarnation of Dalai Lama

In the Tibetan system, the Dalai Lama plays the dual role of supreme spiritual head as well as the temporal ruler of the country. The succession is through reincarnation. In Buddhism it is believed that every sentient being reincarnates and those who reach higher levels of enlightenment or Nirvana or Buddhahood, have the powers to control their reincarnation. Buddhism expects these enlightened souls to keep taking rebirth as human beings to mitigate the sufferings of other sentient beings.

In Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism these reincarnates are called Tulku and are respectfully addressed as Rinpoche. There are hundreds of Tulkus from the various Mahayana sects, namely Gelug, Kagyu, Nyingma, and Sakya. Jonang is the latest addition to this list, and the old Tibetan Bon tradition also follows the same practice. In Chinese Buddhism the Tulkus are called “Living Buddhas”. The Dalai Lama by tradition belongs to the Gelug sect and is considered as the supreme among all Tulkus.

the Panchen Lama occupies the second place, but his authority is limited only to religion and spirituality. As a tradition the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama switch the role of Guru of each other’s new incarnate successor. This puts this relationship at a special level. But history has instances when this relationship was strained due to turf wars between their senior managers. In some cases this gave good reasons to some neighbouring Chinese rulers to play one against the other.

The previous Panchen Lama was taken away by Beijing rulers in his childhood, and they tried to play him against the present Dalai Lama when China occupied Tibet in 1951. However, the Panchen Lama was made to suffer in a labour camp for over a decade during the Cultural Revolution days. Later when he was rehabilitated, he openly criticised China’s role in Tibet in the presence of Deng Xiao Ping the erstwhile governor of Tibet. Strangely, the Panchen Lama died of a “heart attack” within 48 hours of his public speech in Tibet.

It is believed that every Tulku leaves behind some signs which help his followers to locate and identify his next incarnate baby. When the 13th Dalai Lama died in 1933 his body was placed in sitting posture on a throne facing south. Next day his face was found turned towards the east. Soon after the day he passed away clouds in auspicious shapes like lotus, conch, etc. appeared in the eastern sky of Lhasa. Strangely shaped and coloured fungal growth was also noticed on a pillar in the north-west corner of the room a few days later.

A team of Regents and senior lamas went to the holy lake Lhamoi Latso near capital Lhasa. During his meditation the Regent visualised three Tibetan letters ‘Aa’, ‘Ka’ and ‘Ma’ on the lake’s surface. He also saw the reflection of a beautiful monastery with turquoise and golden roofs in the water. There was also a house with a central courtyard and a funny-looking guttering on its roof. A path from the house was leading towards the hill.All these points were being recorded by a team of scholars. They also looked into writings of the previous Dalai Lama to find any hints about his rebirth. It is a tradition to wait for a couple of years so that the new incarnate baby grows up.

A strong, popular international Tibet support movement too owes a lot to the personal popularity of the present Dalai Lama. It has been to the credit of this movement across the world that many Parliaments passed resolutions in favour of Tibetan people and may Presidents and Prime Ministers were forced to change their decision of not meeting the visiting Dalai Lama for fear of Chinese government. Before the world saw Beijing Olympic torch becoming the focus of pro-Tibet movement in 2008, money superpowers like the World Bank were forced by this movement to stop funding China for its development programs in its western colonies like Tibet, East Turkestan (Xinjiang), and Inner Mongolia.

Is China Taking Over?

However, with the ever-increasing economic and political clout of Beijing, things have started changing slowly and decisively in favour of China in recent years. It speaks for China’s increasing diplomatic “terror” among the community of governments that South Africa refused visa to Dalai Lama in September 2014 as he was preparing to participate in the world conference of Nobel Laureates. When the organisers shifted the venue to Rome a few months later, the Pope refused to meet the Dalai Lama lest his negotiations with Beijing suffer any setback. In February 2014 Beijing even forced the Parliament of Spain to rewrite parts of its constitution overnight so that the Supreme Court of Spain could not implement its judgement on two cases which related to human right excesses in Tibet by China. If implemented, this judgement would have forced the Interpol to arrest five senior Chinese leaders who included Hu Jintao, Li Peng, and Jiang Jemin on their next travel to any country.

The Dalai Lama’s “Middle Way Approach” (MWA) of finding a solution to the Tibetan problem with China met a serious dead end in 2008 after a six-year-long dialogue collapsed when Beijing rejected his proposal of “genuine autonomy” for Tibet within the Chinese constitutional framework as a back-door attempt towards Tibetan freedom. Now it is being realised that Beijing leaders used this dialogue period for consolidating its clutch over its Tibetan colony by extending Chinese railway line up to Lhasa, settling millions of Han Chinese in Tibet to permanently change its demographic and cultural character, and developing a vast military and civil infrastructure in Tibet.

The Dalai Lama’s New Dilemma

No wonder that China’s increasing international power and its control over Tibet has seriously affected the morale of the Tibetan refugee community, who feel left out of the system following the Dalai Lama’s decision to give up his political powers to the elected leadership. They appear keen to sign another agreement that is acceptable to Beijing leaders and which can pave the way for the Dalai Lama’s and refugees’ “respectable” return to Tibet. The critics of the MWA policy among Tibetan community are afraid that some influential, suave leaders are keen to barter the Dalai Lama with Beijing in exchange of a secure and comfortable future for themselves.

Realising Beijing leaders’ intentions to plant a puppet Dalai Lama after his death, the Dalai Lama has publicly expressed his desire to close the tradition of Dalai Lama institution, and leave the Tibetan issue to be settled by the elected leaders and future generations of Tibet. But aggressive announcements from China have already made it clear that the Communist leaders have their own plans about the next Dalai Lama. All this brings an aging Dalai Lama face-to-face with a much more aggressive, arrogant and powerful China that is not only bent upon pulling away every platform from under his feet, but is also equally keen to take him and his institution of Dalai Lama back as a “good Chinese citizen.”


Since he left his home to gain knowledge at the age of six years, his life has been a hard-fought struggle for sustaining and defending the cause. As per the Lunar calendar, Tibetans celebrated his 80th birthday at Dharmashala on 21 June 2015, as a tribute to his Never Give Up attitude. As per the Solar calendar his birthday will be celebrated all over the world on 6 July 2015. As all Indians have always been supportive of the cause and the message of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Organiser recounts the difficult journey of this great Buddhist Monk.

About the author

Vijay Kranti is a senior journalist and a keen observer of Tibet for over four decades.

Copyright © 2015 Vijay Kranti Published in Organiser Posted in Opinions » Tags: , , , , , , , ,