Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, was only 23 years old during the March 1959 Tibetan uprising and had not yet become the man we all recognise and revere today. He was a lonely and erratic young lad who frantically absconded from his empire in Tibet to seek asylum in India, haplessly thrown into a realm he didn’t quite understand. However, when he fled Tibet, he was also fleeing the ancient palace of Lhasa, which had caged his free spirit. Being ejected into the wider world, albeit forcefully, allowed him to remould himself into an embodiment of Buddhist compassion.
Today, six decades after the escape, the Dalai Lama has acquired the stature of an international spiritual celebrity and is a towering figure on the world stage. His travels are media events, his talks are sold out, and the books authored by him almost customarily land on the bestseller list, representing what is most authentic and valuable in the Buddhist tradition. The rightful recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, he was named by Time Magazine as Mahatma Gandhi’s spiritual heir to non-violence.
A leader par excellence
Over the years, the Dalai Lama has inspired many people with his speeches ranging from interfaith dialogue to cognitive neuroscience. By unabashedly endorsing the universal application of human rights and democracy and upholding the rationality of empathetic actions and the senselessness of armed clashes, he is a rarity not just among Asian leaders but in the world at large. His message of world peace, and emphasis on values of contentment and tolerance have mattered evermore in a world torn asunder by conflict and violence in which moral leadership is scarcely found.
His modernism has also led him to take fairly radical positions within the Tibetan community. On the political level, he has gradually nudged the Tibetan exile polity towards democracy and insisted that the community in exile adopt, despite the misgivings of most of its members, a constitution in which the Dalai Lama’s role is limited and submitted to democratic oversight and also liable to impeachment. His ability to dexterously conciliate the conflicting demands of tradition and modernity can be witnessed in his constant endeavour to spread modern education among both lay and monastic Tibetan people and to make science part of the monastic curriculum, often in the face of vigorous resistance from more conservative elements. He also has been attempting to eliminate the needlessly ritualistic aspects of the Tibetan system, to pave the way for women to receive advanced degrees and become abbots. He has succeeded in bringing spirituality out of the obscure cloisters of organised religion and making it exceedingly accessible, thereby encouraging an ethos of right living in the popular culture. He presented Buddhism as an empirical inner science based on reason and experience and not presupposing any blind acceptance of authority. In the West, the Dalai Lama rarely displays his enormous scholarship and extensive intellectual acumen, and instead mostly offers ordinary-seeming exhortations about being compassionate and tolerant. Normally such an urge would leave most people impassive. But when spoken by the Dalai Lama, they win enthusiastic audience response, which proves that there is more to his communication than mere words.
When expressed by a personality with such obvious authority and respectability as the Dalai Lama, this idea acquires for his listeners a new legitimacy and is beheld as an eternal truth rather than an expression of the views of the time, not just a contemporary reconfiguration of an age-old religion but the expression of its timeless essence.
His unconditional warmth towards total strangers is startlingly palpable and is defined by an undercurrent of spirituality. His very presence — accompanied by his puckish smile and cosmic insight — has a way of creeping up on and embedding itself in the consciousness of the untold millions who have come into contact with him since he set foot in India. That which makes life worthwhile has been immensely enriched by 60 years of this saffron-and-maroon robe-clad monk living in our midst.