Dalai Lama: Most-Photographed Man Prepares to Retire

Bodh Gaya, India. The 14th Dalai Lama, known to his followers for having a charismatic personality and universal values, is actually named Tenzin Gyatso.   Dalai Lamas are the most influential figures – Pope-like – in the Gelugpa line of Tibetan Buddhism.   Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, the current Dalai Lama is also well-known for his lifelong advocacy for citizens inside and outside of Tibet.

His Holiness speaking to the press at the Maha Bodhi Temple, December 31, 2011.

Photo courtesy of Norbu Wangyal (www.phayul.com).

Tibetans have traditionally believed him to be the reincarnation of his predecessors and a manifestation of the Bodhisattva of Compassion.   He is the most-photographed man in the world – and perhaps the world’s last Dalai Lama.

As portrayed in Kundun, he was formally vested as the 14th Dalai Lama in 1950 at the age of 15.   He inherited control over a government that reached over an area roughly corresponding to the Tibet Autonomous Region.   This occurred just as the newly-born People’s Republic of China began to reassert central control over it.

In 1959, China took control of Tibet and the Dalai Lama fled to India where he formed the Tibetan government in exile.   A charismatic speaker, he has since traveled the world, advocating for the welfare of Tibetans, teaching Tibetan Buddhism, and talking about the importance of compassion as the source of a ’happy life.’   He has spoken frequently on hot-button topics such as abortion, economics, and human sexuality.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India. Photo courtesy of Norbu Wangyal (www.phayul.com).

I was interested to learn on my pilgrimage to India that the Dalai Lama was born in 1935 not in Tibet but in China – on the eastern border of the former Tibetan region of Amdo, then already assimilated into the Chinese province of Qinghai.   The Dalai Lama’s first language was a Chinese dialect, Xining, as his family did not even speak the local Tibetan language.   The Dalai Lama and his family spoke this Chinese dialect as their primary language until 1939 when they relocated to Lhasa.   Who knew?

His Holiness the Dalia Lama arriving at the Mahabodhi Stupa at Bodh Gaya, India.
Photo courtesy of Tenzin Choejor, Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

The Dalai Lama’s childhood was spent between the Potala Palace and Norbulingka, his summer residence.   As seen in the movie Seven Years in Tibet, at the age of 11 the Dalai Lama met the Austrian mountaineer Heinrich Harrer, who became his videographer and tutor on the world outside of Lhasa.   Harrer effectively became one of the young Dalai Lama’s advisors, teaching him about what lay beyond the mountains and valleys of Tibet.   The two remained friends until Harrer’s death in 2006.

During 1959, at the age of 23, the Dalai Lama took his final examination in Lhasa, passed with honors, and was awarded the highest-level degree – equivalent to a Ph.D. in Buddhist philosophy.

His Holiness the Dalia Lama in prayer in front of the Buddha statue inside the Mahabodhi Stupa
in Bodh Gaya. Photo courtesy Tenzin Choejor, Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

On a trip to India to celebrate the Buddha’s birthday in 1956, the Dalai Lama asked Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru if he would allow him political asylum should he choose to stay.   India was non-aligned at the time and Nehru discouraged this as a provocation against peace.   However, it has been rumored that the CIA may have offered the Dalai Lama assistance.   At the outset of the 1959 Tibetan uprising, fearing for his life, the Dalai Lama and his retinue fled Tibet, crossing into India.   According to Wikipedia’s account, this occurred with the help of the CIA’s Special Activities Division – although my sources in Dharamsala dismiss this as complete fiction.   Soon thereafter, he set up the current exile government in Dharamsala, India.

Laying out the first lines of a mandala at the Kalachakra in Bodh Gaya last week.
Photo courtesy of Tenzin Choejor, Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

The Dalai Lama is a great believer in interfaith dialogue.   He has met with many Popes in the Vatican, visited Israel several times, and met with the Archbishop of Canterbury, as well as with Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, and Sikh officials.   What fascinates me most are the Dalai Lama’s positions on important social issues.   Who knew that he was a gay-friendly Marxist who supports women’s rights, the environment and, when necessary, abortion?   To wit:

Abortion. The Dalai Lama reminds that according to Buddhist precepts abortion is an act of killing, although he has said that there can be an exception “if the unborn child will be retarded or if the birth will create serious problems for the parent.”   That is a rather large window, which I appreciate.

Vegetarianism. In Tibet, meat being the most common food, the majority of monks have historically eaten meat.   The Dalai Lama experimented with vegetarianism once but, after getting sick, his doctors advised him to return to consuming meat.   When visiting the White House once, he was offered a vegetarian menu but rejected it and replied – in what I am sure was an unexpected response: “I’m a Tibetan monk, not a vegetarian.”

His Holiness the Dalia Lama walking under the Bodhi Tree in Bodh Gaya, India.
Photo courtesy of Tenzin Choejor, Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

Women’s Rights. On gender equality and sexism, the Dalai Lama has called himself a feminist, asking “Isn’t that what you call someone who fights for women’s rights?”

Marxism. Ask any educated professional in Dharamsala and they will tell you: the Dalia Lama is a true communist and embraces Marxist theory as morally ethical.   He believes neither Russia nor China came close to actualizing the communist ideal.

His Holiness the Dalia Lama prostrating in front of the Mahabodhi Stupa at Bodh Gaya.
Photo courtesy of Tenzin Choejor, Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

Environment. The Dalai Lama believes ecology should be part of our daily life.   He is said to take showers instead of baths and turn lights off when he leaves a room.   He supports wildlife conservation and has issued a religious ruling against wearing tiger and leopard skins as garments.   He has further urged global leaders to put aside domestic concerns and take collective action against climate change.

Sexuality. In his view, oral, manual, and anal sex (both homosexual and heterosexual) are not acceptable in Buddhism or for Buddhists; but society should tolerate gays and lesbians from a secular point of view.   He said in OUT magazine in 1994, “If someone comes to me and asks whether homosexuality is okay or not, I will ask ”˜What is your companion’s opinion?’   If you both agree, then I think I would say ”˜if two males or two females voluntarily agree to have mutual satisfaction without further implication of harming others, then it is okay.”

His Holiness the Dalia Lama being welcomed to the Tibetan Monetary Bodh Gaya.
Photo courtesy of Tenzin Choejor, Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

I have often heard from my Chinese friends that, bluntly speaking, Tibet before 1959 was not as benevolent as popularly portrayed by Hollywood stars such as Richard Gere (with us here now) and Steven Seagal.   The penal code there before 1913 included forms of judicial mutilation and capital punishment to enforce a social system that has been described as both slavery and serfdom.   The Dalai Lama has agreed that many of Tibet’s feudal practices needed reform.   He pointed out that his immediate predecessor had banned extreme punishments and also the death penalty.

The Dalai Lama speaking to his foreign audience in English at Kalachakra, Bodh Gaya.
Photographic image: author.

The Dalai Lama has said that he does not know what will follow after him: a woman as his successor, no Dalai Lama anymore, or possibly even two – his own approved successor along with China’s approved successor.   He has promised to evaluate whether the institution of the Dalai Lama should continue or not.   If it is decided that the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama should continue then there will be a Fifteenth Dalai Lama.   Or, possibly, this Dalai Lama will be the last – and I have just sat at his feet at what is rumored to be his last Kalachakra.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama at Kalachakra, Bodh Gaya, India in Jan. 2012.
Photo: author.

Jeffrey Hopkins, Ed. Kalachakra Tantra: Rite of Initiation. Wisdom Publications.
Iyer, Pico. The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. Knopf.
The Dalai Lama. My Spiritual Journey. Sofia Stril-Rever.

Pilgrimage to Buddha’s Holy Sites
Main Sites: Lumbini, Bodh Gaya, Sarnath, Kushinagar
Additional Sites: Sravasti, Rajgir, Sankissa, Vaishali, Nalanda, Varanasi
Other Sites: Patna, Gaya, Kosambi, Kapilavastu, Devadaha, Kesariya, Pava


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About Jim Luce: Thought Leaders & Global Citizens

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Jim Luce: Thought Leaders & Global Citizens
Jim Luce (www.lucefoundation.org) writes and speaks on Thought Leaders and Global Citizens. Bringing 26 years management experience within both investment banking and the non-profit sector, Jim has worked for Daiwa Bank, Merrill Lynch, a spin-off of Lazard Freres, and two not-for profit organizations and a foundation he founded. As Founder & CEO of Orphans International Worldwide (www.oiww.org), he is working with a strong network of committed professionals to build interfaith, interracial, Internet-connected orphanages in Haiti and Indonesia, and creating a new, family-care model for orphans in Sri Lanka and Tanzania.

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