"I am looking for Mr. Tenzin Teething, private secretary to His Holiness the Dalai Lama."
Under my arm I am carrying the draft manuscript of the Dalai Lama's autobiography, Freedom in Exile, on which I have been working for the past several months.
The receptionist stares at me blankly. Perhaps it is my strong English accent.
"Mr. De What?" she demands in a slow drawl.
Three decades later, such a response is unimaginable. One of the world's most instantly recognizable people, the Dalai Lama sells out sports stadiums from Sydney to Sao Paolo, from Oslo to Johannesburg. With around 20 million Twitter followers, the Dalai Lama has more than the pope, and his online presence continues to grow. He is a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Congressional Gold Medal, and the richest award of them all, the Templeton Prize for spiritual progress. He holds the freedom of cities and honorary degrees too numerous to list. His image adorns wristwatches and screensavers, while his Amazon page gives details of more than two hundred books crediting him as author. Sales of several individual titles run into the millions. Unquestionably, the Dalai Lama is one of the best-known and best-loved public figures of modern times.
Yet for all his latter-day superstardom, few know much about the Dalai Lama or about the culture he embodies. And of what is known, a great deal is misunderstood. For example, many people suppose that the Dalai Lama is a religious leader - a sort of Buddhist pope. But unlike the pope, who claims authority over every priest and prelate in Christendom, the Dalai Lama has no jurisdiction over any other lama or monk. Neither is he the head of his own particular faith tradition, nor is he the leader of any of the subgroups within that tradition. In fact, he is not even abbot of the monastery of which he is a member. So when he says, as he often does, that he is "just a simple Buddhist monk;' the Dalai Lama is not just being characteristically modest. He is straightforwardly telling the truth. The Dalai Lamas - of which the present one is the fourteenth - have only ever been simple Buddhist monks, even though the Great Fifth Dalai Lama was one of the most powerful men in Asia, and even though the Dalai Lamas have always been venerated by people far beyond the Land of Snows (as Tibetans often refer to their country).
From a political perspective, however, the Dalai Lamas have been anything but ordinary. Beginning with the Great Fifth, they have been - in theory at least - temporal leaders of a people whose country is the size of western Europe, spanning over fifteen hundred miles from a border with Pakistan in the west to China in the east, and almost a thousand miles from Mongolia in the north to India, Nepal, and Burma in the south. But it is little known that in 201I, the present Dalai Lama renounced his claim to lead his people as head of state in favor of a democratically elected layman. As a result, the office of Dalai Lama is now purely a teaching office. This makes perfect sense, however: the word lama is the Tibetan translation of the Sanskrit word guru - a spiritual guide.
Together with these misunderstandings, the Dalai Lama's image as smiling saint for all seasons fails to do justice either to the Dalai Lama as a person or to the tradition he represents. It neglects his extraordinary achievements in settling a Diaspora community now a quarter of a million strong. It neglects how he has unified a people previously sharply divided along geographical, tribal, and sectarian lines. It neglects how, in so doing, he has opened up the institution of the Dalai Lama to all Tibetans in a way that it never was before. It neglects his political reforms. It neglects his remarkable attainments as a scholar-practitioner: he is unquestionably one of the most accomplished and learned masters of Vajrayana Buddhism to have emerged within the past century. It neglects the astonishing impact the Dalai Lama has had on the shape of the modern world. Above all, it neglects one of the most extraordinary cultures ever to have evolved on the face of the earth and the complex, often turbulent history that brought it into being. In writing this book, therefore, I have sought above all to set the Dalai Lama's deeds in the context of the history and culture of the Tibetan tradition, and it is for this reason that I have shown in some detail the circumstances of how the regency that governed Tibet until the Dalai Lama was of age both came into being and came to an end. Without some understanding of what and where the Dalai Lama comes from, we are likely both to miss the scale of his accomplishments and to misconstrue the enormity of the challenges he has faced.
I hope particularly to show how the Dalai Lama's motivations have caused him to act in the way he has acted - these motivations being themselves determined by his understanding of the Tibetan tradition. I take as my starting point the fact that what has chiefly inspired him is the bodhisattva vow he took at the age of fifteen. Out of compassion, he committed himself to direct his every thought, word, and deed to the benefit of all sentient beings in their quest to overcome suffering. The Dalai Lama's life story can thus be understood as a teaching that shows, from the perspective of the tradition, what compassion really is and how this construal of compassion plays out in the everyday world.
Book's Contents and Sample Pages
Your email address will not be published *
Send as free online greeting card
Email a Friend