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Project Tibet: Tibetan Children's Villages

Dalai Lama: 'I could not refuse my responsibilities'

By Dr. Carolyn Hale

In the year of the Water Bird, 1933, the Great Thirteenth Dalai Lama passed away. Two years later Reting Rinpoche, the Regent, and the Tibetan government began the massive search for the next Dalai Lama.

According to Tibetan spiritual tradition, the Regent and the Tibetan government consulted oracles and lamas for signs and clues of where the next Dalai Lama would be born. Search parties combed Tibet, looking for that special child who would hold the destiny of the Tibetan people.

Finally, the Dalai Lama was discovered in Amdo in the person of a two-year-old boy called Lhamo Dhondup. He was four years old when he made the long journey to Lhasa in 1939. The 14th Dalai Lama describes his entry into the city:

"By now our party was very large, and we marched on in a long procession towards the Holy City. On both sides of our route thousands of monks lined up in rows with colored banners. The whole population of Lhasa — men and women — thronged together in their best clothes to receive and welcome me with homage. As they watched me passing, I could hear them crying, 'The day of our happiness has come.'"

Lhamo Dhondup, born on July 6, 1935, was enthroned in 1940 at the age of five as the new Dalai Lama. So began the education of His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama.

He divided his time between the Potala (winter palace) and the Norbulingka (summer palace). The Dalai Lama considered the Potala too confining and preferred the poplar-lined spacious open parks around his summer palace.

"I always enjoyed leaving the Potala and going to the summer palace, Norbulingka, at the official start of summer," said the Dali Lama.

"The season was most beautiful, all the lawns were turning green, the apricot trees flowering and the birds singing."

The 14th Dalai Lama would spend his boyhood in the company of grown-up men where he was required to concentrate on his spiritual education.

Now and again he was allowed to pursue his own interests and one of these involved playing with wristwatches. In his autobiography, My Land and My People, he wrote:

"When I was small, kind people who knew of this interest sometimes sent me mechanical toys, such as cars and boats and airplanes. But I was never content to play with them for long. I always had to taken them to pieces to see how they worked. Later on, I was given an old movie projector that was operated by turning a handle, and when I took that to pieces, I found batteries, which worked its electric light.

"That was my first introduction to electricity, and I puzzled over the connections all alone until I found the way to make it go. I had success with my wristwatch. I took it to pieces and ... put it together again."

The joys of childhood were soon over for the young Dalai Lama. Tibet's precarious status and international politics put an end to his boyhood happiness.

In 1950, when communist China was banging at the door of Tibet, a nervous Tibetan government requested the young Dalai Lama to assume full political responsibility of the country.

The Dalai Lama remembers in his autobiography Freedom in Exile: "This fined me with anxiety. I was only 16. (Note: Tibetans calculate a person's age from the time of conception and not from the birth date; hence, His Holiness adds a year to his age). I was far from having finished my religious education.

"I knew nothing about the world and had no experience of politics, and yet I was old enough to know how ignorant I was and how much I had still to learn. I saw at such a serious moment in our history, I could not refuse my responsibilities. I had to shoulder them, put my boyhood behind me, and immediately prepare myself to lead my country, as when as I was able, against the vast power of China."

China forced a reluctant but defeated Tibet to sign the 17 Point Treaty which promised that Tibet's traditional social structure, its religion and the powers and privileges of the Dalai Lama would be kept intact. In return, Tibet was forced to agree to become a part of China. In 1954, the Dalai Lama made a trip to China to meet with an the top Chinese leaders, including Mao Tse-tung who told an astonished Dalai Lama "that religion was poison" — a statement that indicated the impending tragedy, which Tibet would soon undergo. Buddhist Tibet's relations with communist China did not last long. The smoldering Tibetan resentment exploded in the open in March 1959 when the Tibetans in Lhasa rebelled against the communist yoke. The uprising was quashed and His Holiness the Dalai Lama and his government members fled to northern India, where many settled in Dharamsala.

Tibet was unfamiliar to most of the outside world in the mid-twentieth century when the Dalai Lama arrived on Indian soil. There were two hundred reporters gathered in Tezpur in Assam, who went through a frustrating period of identifying the real Dalai Lama. This game was played out between two news agency rivals, the Associated Press and the United Press.

The United Press correspondent sent to his head office what he thought was the photograph of the Dalai Lama. He received a frantic cable back: "Your Dalai Lama not Associated Press Dalai Lama stop Check."

The United Press reporter responded: "My Dalai Lama right Dalai Lama." The United Press head office replied: "Your Dalai Lama has hair stop. Check." The United Press correspondent had realized his mistake by this time and responded: "Kill my Dalai Lama stop. Mistake." Instead of the Dalai Lama, he had taken a photograph of the interpreter!

Despite this humorous situation, the story the foreign correspondents were covering was an unhappy one. While the rest of the world was destroying colonialism, these reporters were witness to the restructuring of a new kind of colonialism, though China's successful portrayal of Tibet's old political system as feudal gave this form of colonialism a ring of being a true liberation.

Whether you called it colonialism or liberation — the victims were the Tibetan people. In the aftermath of the 1959 uprising, plus the Great Leap Forward Famine and the Cultural Revolution which both engulfed Tibet and claimed the lives of approximately 1.2 million Tibetans out of a population of six million and resulted in the destruction of more than six thousand monasteries and temples.

While this was going on in Tibet, in northern India in the small village of Dharamsala, the Dalai Lama set up his Government-in-exile and nurtured a Tibetan refugee community, which continues forty-four years later. He democratized his administration by promulgating Tibet's first written constitution and set up the Tibetan Parliament with its members elected by the refugees. With the assistance of the Indian government, he created a modern Tibetan school system. After he built a vibrant Tibetan refugee community, he launched a sustained international campaign to gather support for the Tibetan cause. His efforts resulted in an international following to restore Tibet's sovereign rights.

In 1987 the Dalai Lama addressed the United States' Congress in Washington D.C., unveiling his Five Point Peace Plan for Tibet which called on China to transform Tibet in to a "Zone of Peace," respect the fundamental human rights of the Tibetan people, halt its population transfer into Tibet, respect the environmental and ecological integrity of the Tibetan plateau and negotiate on the issue of Tibet.

In 1988, at a sitting of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, the Dalai Lama presented his Strasbourg Proposal in which he conceded that Tibet would be willing to become a self-governing, democratic political entity in association with the People's Republic of China.

Both these proposals were rejected by China as being a disguised form of Tibetan independence. In exile, the response was outrage from the younger refugees who considered the second proposal a sell out.

In 1989 China went through the Tiananmen Square massacre when hundreds of Chinese students were killed simply because they demanded democracy and more accountability of the government to the Chinese people. That same year the international community gave recognition to the efforts of the Dalai Lama by awarding him the Nobel Peace Prize. He was honored with the prize for "his constructive and forward looking proposals, for the solution of international conflicts, human rights issues, and global environmental problems." But mainly he was awarded the peace prize for his "consistent opposition to the use of violence in his struggle for the liberation of Tibet."

Reacting to his being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the Dalai Lama said, "it did not add to or subtract from his true vocation of being a Buddhist monk." Further he said in his acceptance speech, "that he was happy to receive it on behalf of the six million Tibetans because this award represents worldwide recognition and support for the just cause of the Tibetan people's struggle for freedom and self-determination." Many people are curious about the personality of the present 14th Dalai Lama. Robert Kiely who writes in The Good Hean, "It has been said that the Dalai Lama is a 'simple man'. Though this may be meant as a compliment, it is difficult to associate such a label from a Western tendency to condescend to the religions and cultures of the East, treating them as exotic, but philosophically primitive traditions. Insofar as he is earthy, direct, warm and simpatico, the Dalai Lama may be called 'simple'; but in every other sense, he is subtle, quick, complex and an extraordinarily intelligent and learned man. He brings three qualities to a spiritual discourse — traits so rare in some contemporary Christian circles as to have elicited gasps of relieved gratitude from the audience — qualities of gentleness, clarity, and laughter."

Constantly asked to define his religion, the Dalai Lama says, "My religion is kindness."

Asked to describe himself, the Dalai Lama says: "I'm a simple Buddhist monk."

Asked what gives him the greatest source of inspiration, the Dalai Lama quotes this stanza from Shantideva, an Indian Buddhist mystic:

"As long as space endures,
As long as suffering remains,
May I, too, abide
To dispel the misery of the world."

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