The Dalai Lama making traditional offerings at the start of his 77th birthday celebrations in McLeod Ganj, India, on July 6. (Photo: Tenzin Choejor/OHHDL)
As the Dalai Lama turns 77 today, a fact that matters much less to him than his millions of followers and admirers, I thought it might not be a bad idea to carry an excerpt from my 2007 biography ‘Man Monk Mystic.”
During my seven years working on the biography I spent considerable time watching the Dalai Lama from close quarters in many different situations. From giving discourses on metaphysics to presiding over initiation ceremonies, from visiting Tibetan settlements to granting his morning audiences, from conducting exclusive teaching sessions for the chosen few to offering a word of advice to a fresh batch of refugees, and from participating in Tibetan new year festivities to instructing novice monks, everything I saw had some common themes.
The Dalai Lama remained remarkably free from striking a single discordant note. If he were a singer he would never be off-key. If he were juggler he would never drop a ball. If he were a funambulist, he would never take a wrong step. He never looks anything but calm. He never fails to laugh at least once, even while talking to a fresh batch of despairing Tibetan refugees. He always appears restfully aware and never shows any degree of anxiety either on his face or in his body language. He is always curious without being prying and demonstrative without being overbearing. He is always in complete control of his surroundings no matter where he is. Most important, he has a sense of detachment about everything he does without appearing to be indifferent to even the smallest of detail.
One instance that brought to the fore all his attributes was a lecture the Dalai Lama gave at a popular college in New Delhi. The lecture was yet again about shunyata or nothingness. To most people this is esoteric nonsense but it is really quite profound and has sound intellectual foundation. The hall was overflowing with students and others. The Dalai Lama sat unobtrusively against a black backdrop. The ochre in his robes contrasted stunningly against the black backdrop and made him look like a dancing flame from a distance. The effect was cinematic because of the way he swayed back and forth. He knew the people in the audience were waiting for him to begin his discourse. He suddenly looked up at the corrugated tin roof. “When I last came here there was a family of pigeons. I wonder whether it is still here,” he said and laughed. Right on cue a pigeon fluttered across the hall. I could see that his opening remark had the audience completely under his spell for the next hour and a half during which he dwelt upon metaphysical aspects of Buddhism. The discourse’s brilliance was not lost in the translation from Tibetan to English.
This memory has stayed with me for many reasons. In a sense the Dalai Lama’s entire life played out in front of me that evening. Here was someone born in a nondescript village in one of the world’s most inaccessible regions in a family of no significant standing, both materially and in terms of learning. He is a person who has no trappings of power or material success that might draw people to him. The subject of his choice and the language of his communication were not such that they would captivate an audience. Yet he was capturing an eclectic audience with such consummate ease about a subject as abstract as nothingness in a language that few understood without the aid of a translator. That he began his discourse reminiscing about a flock of pigeons merely added to his effectiveness. Distill this down and one is left with a simple explanation—some people are inexplicably gifted.
Another incident that brilliantly illustrates what the Dalai Lama is all about took place during my travels with him to Bylakuppe, the largest Tibetan refugee settlement on the edge of the famous coffee gardens of Karnataka state in South India, where close to 40,000 Tibetan refugees live. The Dalai Lama’s visits to Tibetan settlements are always full of pomp and pageantry no matter how frequently they take place. The Tibetans never seem to get enough of him.
The nearly five-mile stretch leading up to the Sera Je monastery, where the Dalai Lama was offering Kalchakra teachings, was lined with thousands of Tibetans and others. The cool air of the region seemed still as not a single one of them made any sound while the Dalai Lama’s entourage drove past. Many of them waited with white silk scarves in the hope they might get personally blessed by him.
The convoy of cars was traveling at a deliberately slow speed, giving the faithful a chance to see the Dalai Lama. Then suddenly the Dalai Lama asked to stop his car. He seemed to have spotted something. He got out of the car, much to the anxiety of his security detail, and walked toward a throng of people. For a moment everybody thought he had recognized someone he knew. There was a Tibetan child, who was probably 4 or 5 years old, playing with a dog, which was about 2 years old. As the Dalai Lama approached the throng, many thought he had come to bless them. Instead he reached out to the child and the puppy, stroked them both, laughed out loud and said, “Both look so happy. They don’t care that the Dalai Lama is nearby, you see,” he said and returned to his vehicle.
A few hours later the Dalai Lama was sitting atop an ornate throne in front of a few thousand people taking them through the maze of Buddhist teachings. The contrast between a man who has not lost touch with the simple joys of life, a monk who is always aware of his religious obligations, and a mystic who seldom reveals what lies behind the obvious is quite telling in the Dalai Lama.
The burden of expectations that he will say something enchantingly clever or stunningly profound every time he opens his mouth has steadily grown on the Dalai Lama over the past 20 years. In a sense he is a like an enormously successful stand-up comic who has to update his material constantly, lest in his next show his jokes bombed. However, the Dalai Lama has steadfastly avoided positioning himself to please the gallery.
His biggest success has been to refashion and reinvent the relevancy of his institution during a period of human history most regard as the most scientifically, technologically, and rationally driven. He has made his message nondenominational and nonreligious without compromising the enduring mystique of his life. He has successfully presented a version of Buddhism that is palatable to the modern and increasingly secularized Western mind.