In 1989, Lodi Gyari was the foreign minister for the Tibetan government-in-exile. The Chinese government had agreed to meet with the Tibetan government that year for preliminary discussions in Hong Kong, and the Tibetans hoped it would open up further negotiations for their autonomy from the Chinese.
After decades of stalled efforts, it looked like there might be a glimmer of hope for the Tibetan people to regain their freedom, and for the Fourteenth Dalai Lama to return home.
On April 15th, Hu Yaobang, a member of the Chinese Communist Party, suddenly died of a heart attack. Yaobang had been a liberal supporter of political reforms, and CCP leader Deng Xiaoping had once referred to him as one of his “left and right hands.”
But Yaobang’s liberal policies and frank manner had made him many enemies. The CCP forced him to resign in 1986, and made him issue a humiliating ‘self-criticism’ of his mistakes. However, this only increased Yaobang’s popularity among Chinese intellectuals.
His death sparked a wave of student demonstrations across China; which gathered support from local residents. Students and demonstrators alike occupied Tiananmen Square, in the heart of Beijing. They demanded, among other things, for freedom of the press and freedom of speech.
After two months of protests, the situation took a marked turn for the worse. On June 3rd, units from China’s People’s Liberation Army, including armoured divisions, marched into Beijing, with orders from the government to clear Tiananmen Square. They did this by opening fire on unarmed civilians, massacring their own people, young and old.
In Dharamsala, India, Gyari was urgently summoned to the Fourteenth Dalai Lama’s private residence. When he arrived, Tenzin Geyche Tethong, one of the Dalai Lama’s closest advisers, was already waiting for them. Together, they went straight into the Dalai Lama’s room.
Inside, the Dalai Lama was standing like a rock, with hands clasped behind his back. For the first time in his life, Gyari felt waves of agitation coming from the Dalai Lama. Without turning around, the Dalai Lama dispensed with the usual greetings and asked, “Did you see? Did you see?”
Yes, they had seen. Tiananmen Square was all that was showing on TV.
“You two get to work on a statement I want to issue: the strongest condemnation of the Chinese government and their policy of brutalising their own people, my unconditional support for the youngsters in the Square.”
Gyari’s heart dropped. If the Dalai Lama issued such a statement, the Chinese government would surely cancel their meeting in Hong Kong. All chances of negotiations would slam shut in the wake. The Dalai Lama must have sensed Gyari’s reluctance, and asked curtly, “What is it?”
“Your Holiness,” Gyari replied, “Of course you realise this will derail our efforts at negotiations, maybe for a very long time.”
The Dalai Lama turned around, and an intense energy filled the room. Gyari felt as if a tiger was looking straight at him.
“Yes, it’s true, you have a point. But if I do not speak out now, I have no moral right to ever speak out for freedom and democracy. Those young people are asking for nothing more, nothing less than what I have been asking for. And if I can’t speak for them, I’ll be ashamed to ever talk about freedom and democracy.”
What happened in Beijing on June the 3rd and 4th of 1989 became known as the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Due to the suppression of information within China, the exact death toll remains unknown, with estimates ranging from hundreds to thousands killed. The Chinese government was condemned internationally for the use of force against its own people.
Three months after the events in Beijing, the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize to the Dalai Lama. To this day, Tibet remains annexed by China, and the Fourteenth Dalai Lama has not yet returned home.
The 24-year old Dalai Lama walked into the Deer Park at Sarnath, India, where the Buddha had given his first sermon 2,500 years ago. The Dalai Lama had escaped into exile just months before, and the year 1959 was about to end.
Nearly 2,000 destitute Tibetans had gathered at the Deer Park. Many had just crossed through Nepal weeks earlier, and they had come to hear the Dalai Lama teach. They were in poor shape; most had lost relatives during the harsh trek, some were badly frostbitten. All they had, they carried with them on their backs.
When the Dalai Lama saw the crowd, the immensity of all that had happened in the past few months broke forth on him, and he wept openly, as he had never wept before.
It was 1959, and Tibet had been under Chinese rule for the past eight years. General Chiang Chin-wu had been appointed the Governor-General of Tibet, and the relationship between the Chinese and the Dalai Lama’s governments hung on a knife’s edge.
But the tenuous balancing act could not last for long. The knife would fall that year, and Tibet would never be the same again.
Just after the New Year, the Dalai Lama received an invitation from the General, asking if he would like to watch a new dance troupe from China perform. Since there was a proper stage at the Chinese military headquarters, might it be better if the Dalai Lama went there for the performance? Out of politeness, the Dalai Lama agreed.
On March 9th, a day before the performance, the commander of the Dalai Lama’s bodyguards was summoned to Brigadier Fu’s headquarters. The Brigadier told him that the Dalai Lama should not be accompanied by his traditional armed escort, and there should be no more than three bodyguards at most. The visit, the Brigadier insisted, must be kept as secret as possible, without the customary procession that accompanied the Dalai Lama.
These unusual requests alarmed Tibetan government officials, and word of these requests spread like wildfire among the Tibetan people. They poured into Lhasa the next day, surrounding the Norbulingka, the Dalai Lama’s summer palace. By noon, tens of thousands had gathered to surround the Jewelled Park and protect the Dalai Lama. They began to arm themselves, demanded for the end of the occupation and for the Chinese to return Tibet to the Tibetans.
Realising that the situation was hanging by a thread, the Dalai Lama sent word to the crowd that he would no longer be visiting the Chinese military headquarters, but it changed little. The Chinese General Tan Kuan-sen was furious; he accused the Tibetan government of staging the demonstration as an uprising against the Chinese. As a result, the Tibetans could now expect the Chinese to take drastic actions to crush the insurgence.
The balance was sliding.
The Dalai Lama appealed once more to the crowd, warning them there was a great danger the Chinese would send in the military to dispel them. But while some left, most of the people remained surrounding the Norbulingka.
On March 16th, the Dalai Lama received a letter from the General, together with an enclosure from Ngabo Ngawang Jigme, Governor of Chamdo. General Tan’s letter suggested that the Dalai Lama should move to his headquarters, for safety’s sake. Ngabo’s letter, however, told him that the Chinese were planning to attack the crowd and shell the Norbulingka. He asked the Dalai Lama to relay his location, so that artillery could avoid firing there.
The balance had been lost, and the knife was about to fall. But on whom?
Not for the first time since the Chinese occupation, the Dalai Lama debated if he should stay or escape Tibet. The following day, he sought the counsel of the Nechung Oracle, who shouted immediately at him, “Go! Go! Tonight!”, and staggered forward to write the specific route to slip out of the Norbulingka, out of Tibet, and into India. Just as the medium collapsed in a faint, two mortar shells exploded in the marsh outside the Jewelled Park.
That night, the Dalai Lama entered the shrine dedicated to Mahakala, his personal protector divinity, for the last time. He stepped forward and presented a kata, a traditional Tibetan gesture on departure, as well as an intention of return.
A few minutes before ten o’clock on the 17th of March, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama slipped out of the Norbulingka in disguise. 48 hours later, the Chinese shelled the Norbulingka and opened fire on the crowd. The fighting lasted three days, and the rebellion, outnumbered and outgunned, was massacred.
Three weeks later, the Dalai Lama and his group of eighty passed through the border into India.
One night, in the summer of 1950, an earthquake shook Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. Lhamo Thondup, renamed Jamphel Ngawang Lobsang Yeshe Tenzin Gyatso at his induction, was then 15, and enthroned as the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, but not yet established as the temporal leader of Tibet.
Thirty to forty loud crashes were heard across the capital, and a strange red glow was seen in the skies. Whether it had been a military exercise or an odd natural phenomenon, the event became an ill portent of things to come.
Two months later, 80,000 soldiers from the Chinese People Liberation Army marched into Tibet, and began what the Communists declared the “peaceful liberation” of Tibet.
Facing overwhelming numbers and superior weaponry with no substantial military of their own, the Tibetans knew it was only a matter of time before their country was overwhelmed. As the Chinese army marched closer and closer to Lhasa, the Tibetans called on their government to give the Dalai Lama full temporal powers, two years ahead of time.
The decision was given over to the State Oracles of Tibet. The kuten, or medium, danced in a trance, under layers of elaborate clothing, topped with a massive ceremonial head-dress, and bridged the divide between the physical and spiritual. At the end of the ceremony, the Oracle, man and spirit, placed a kata, a white silk offering scarf, on the Dalai Lama’s lap, with the words ‘Thu-la bap,’ ‘His time has come.’
On November 17th, 1950, the teenaged Tenzin Gyatso became both the spiritual and political leader of Tibet. And soon, Tibet, with its six million citizens, fell under the Chinese invasion.
In far north-eastern Tibet, in the province of Amdo, stood a small village named Takster; ‘Roaring Tiger’. The village stood on a hill, overlooking a broad valley. In this village stood a house, made of stone and mud. The house had a flat roof, and an unusual gutter, made up of gnarled juniper branches.
Inside this house stayed a small boy, not yet three years old. One day, a monk stepped into this house. The boy had never seen this monk before, yet he recognised the monk, calling him, “Sera Lama, Sera Lama.”
This monk, Kewtsang Rinpoche, was indeed the abbot of Sera monastery. He was also the leader of a search party, which had been dispatched to find the reincarnation of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama. He was in this house, because he and his party had been led there by a series of signs.
Four years ago, in 1933, the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, Thupten Gyatso, had died at the age of 57. When his body was sitting in state, its head was found to have turned from facing the south to the north-east.
The Regent of Tibet had a vision shortly after, where he saw the Tibetan letters Ah, Ka and Ma in the waters of the sacred lake, Lhamoi Lhatso. The image of a three-storied monastery, with a turquoise and gold roof, and a road leading up a hill, appeared next. Lastly, he saw an image of a small house, with an unusual roof.
The letter Ah seemed to indicate the province of Amdo, in the north-east of Tibet. The letter Ka pointed to the monastery of Kumbum, which indeed had three storeys and a turquoise roof. When the party searched the nearby villages, they discovered a house with peculiar guttering, made from juniper branches. This was the house Kewtsang Rinpoche now found himself standing in, facing a boy who seemed to know him.
The party left the next day after, and returned a few days later. They brought items that had belonged to the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, mixed in with similar items which did not. The boy correctly identified each of the Dalai Lama’s belongings, claiming, “It’s mine, it’s mine.”
Not long after, the boy Lhamo Thondup, child of two farmers, was recognised as the fourteenth reincarnation of the Dalai Lama, manifestation of Avalokiteshvara, Bodhisattva of Compassion, holder of the White Lotus, and the eventual spiritual and temporal leader of Tibet.
How is the Dalai Lama Possible?
The story of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama is one where the ages meet modernity, where myth meets reality and joy meets suffering. It is a story now 80 years old, and it is still going on. But if you include the Fourteenth’s previous lives, it is a story that stretches further back — further than the fourteen Dalai Lamas, as far back as millenia, in fact, to a boy who lived in the time of the Buddha.
How is this possible?
Buddhists believe that consciousness can be reborn after death, in a new physical body. The process of rebirth has been likened to lighting a candle using the flame from another candle. When the first flame is extinguished, the second flame continues, but you can neither declare it the same flame nor a different one.
Buddhists also believe that certain beings can choose the manner of their rebirth; Tibetan Buddhism calls these beings tulkus, or incarnations. The Dalai Lama is one such being.
In Tibet, the Dalai Lama has been both a being and an office. Tibetan Buddhists believe that the Dalai Lama is a manifestation of Avalokiteshvara, or Chenrezig, Bodhisattva of Compassion.1 The Dalai Lama has also been the spiritual and temporal leader of Tibet, Dalai Lamas have served as the head of the Tibetan government from the time of the Fifth Dalai Lama.
With such fantastical origins, how does the Fourteenth Dalai Lama describe himself? In his autobiography Freedom in Exile, he writes that he is “ … just a human being, and incidentally a Tibetan, who chooses to be a Buddhist monk.” And at the same time, he has “… no difficulty accepting that I am spiritually connected both to the thirteen previous Dalai Lamas, to Chenrezig and to the Buddha himself.”
The Source of Strength in a Sea of Sorrows
The story of modern Tibet is a complicated one. The Chinese curb the flow of information in and out of Tibet, making it hard to get hard figures and facts. But the board strokes are not in question; the Chinese occupation has led to very, very bad things happening in Tibet.
There are many accounts, both from Tibetans and from others, including those from the International Commission of Jurists, Amnesty International, and Reporters without Borders, of the death, suffering, torture, humiliation, destruction and loss that has been happening in Tibet since 1959.2 There are, in fact, sadly, too many to list here.
It is enough to form a sea of sorrows. How does the Dalai Lama, facing the loss of his home, the injustices against his people, and the possible extinction of his culture, remain resilient? What has enabled him to start over again, since his exile in 1959?
After combing through books by and about the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, my conclusion surprised me: I believe that the roots of the Dalai Lama’s mental and emotional strength lie in his compassion.
Does the Dalai Lama hate the Chinese?
With all that he has faced, most of us wouldn’t be surprised if anyone in the Dalai Lama’s shoes showed anger or hatred against the Chinese. Someone else in his position might have already called for revolt and revenge against the Chinese government.
And yet, when Victor Chan first met the Dalai Lama in 1972 and asked him if he hated the Chinese, the Dalai Lama’s reply was an emphatic, “No.”
In my own case, in Tibet, all this destruction, death, all happened. Painful experiences. But revenge … this creates more unhappiness. So, think wider perspective: revenge no good, so forgive. Forgiveness does not mean you just forget about the past. No, you remember the past. Should be aware that these past sufferings happened because of narrow-mindedness on both sides. So now, time passed. We feel more wise, more developed. I think that’s the only way.HH The Dalai Lama, Victor Chan, The Wisdom of Forgiveness
30 years later, Chan had another opportunity to ask the Dalai Lama if he ever felt resentful towards the Chinese.
“That almost never,” the Dalai Lama replied. “I analyse like this: if I develop bad feelings toward those who make me suffer, this will only destroy my own peace of mind. But if I forgive, my mind becomes calm. Now, concerning our struggle for freedom, if we do it without anger, without hatred, but with true forgiveness, we can carry that struggle even more effectively. Struggle with calm mind, with compassion. Through analytical meditation, I now have full conviction that destructive emotions like hatred is no use. Nowadays, anger, hatred, they don’t come. But little irritation sometimes come.”HH The Dalai Lama, Victor Chan, The Wisdom of Forgiveness
When Chan asked if forgiving your enemies could really make a difference, the Dalai Lama replied:
“Yes, yes, there is no doubt,” he replied. “It’s crucial. It’s one of most important thing. It can change one’s life. To reduce hatred and other destructive emotions, you must develop their opposites — compassion and kindness. If you have strong compassion, strong respect for others, then forgiveness much easier. Mainly for this reason: I do not want to harm another. Forgiveness allows you to be in touch with these positive emotions. This will help with spiritual development.”HH The Dalai Lama, Victor Chan, The Wisdom of Forgiveness
How Compassion Becomes a Source of Strength
To the Dalai Lama, compassion and forgiveness are the resources he uses to reduce destructive emotions which would otherwise consume his peace of mind.
It sounds counterintuitive to link compassion with strength, but when you look at it this way, the link between compassion and resilience becomes clearer — compassion prevents negativity from taking root, and opens up a space for positive emotions to grow.
Compassion becomes a source of strength:
… We can still develop an energy that’s just as strong, but much better controlled than anger, in order to confront difficult circumstances. This controlled energy comes both from a compassionate attitude and from reason, combined with patience. These are very effective antidotes against anger. Unfortunately, many people scorn these qualities, likening them to weakness. I believe, on the contrary, that they are the true signs of inner strength. Compassion is by nature kind, peaceful, and gentle, while still being very powerful. People who easily lose their patience are uncertain and unstable. That is why in my opinion an outburst of anger is an infallible sign of weakness.HH The Dalai Lama, My Spiritual Journey
The Dalai Lama even affirms that compassion is the ultimate source of success, serenity and inner strength:
From my own limited experience, I have found that the greatest degree of inner tranquility comes from the development of love and compassion. The more we care for the happiness of others, the greater our own sense of well-being becomes. Cultivating a close, warmhearted feeling for others automatically puts the mind at ease. This helps remove whatever fears or insecurities we may have and gives us the strength to cope with any obstacles we encounter. It is the ultimate source of success in life.
As long as we live in this world, we are bound to encounter problems. If, at such times, we lose hope and become discouraged, we diminish our ability to face difficulties. If, on the other hand, we remember that it is not just ourselves but everyone who has to undergo suffering, this more realistic perspective will increase our determination and capacity to overcome troubles. Indeed, with this attitude, each new obstacle can be seen as yet another valuable opportunity to improve our mind! Thus, we can strive gradually to become more compassionate; that is, we can develop both genuine sympathy for others’ suffering and the will to help remove their pain. As a result, our own serenity and inner strength will increase.HH The Dalai Lama, In My Own Words
How Can You Develop Compassion?
So what is compassion, and how can it be developed?
Real compassion is not just an emotional response; it is firm, thought-out commitment. Therefore, an authentic attitude of compassion does not change, even when faced with another person’s negative behaviour.
Of course, it is not at all easy to develop this form of compassion. To begin, we should understand that other people are human beings just like us. They want happiness and do not want to suffer. When you acknowledge that all beings are equal in their wish for happiness and their right to obtain it, you spontaneously feel an empathy that brings you closer to them. By accustoming your mind to a universal altruism, you will develop a feeling of responsibility for others and the wish to help them overcome their suffering effectively. Such a desire is not selective but is applied impartially to everyone. As long as human beings feel pleasure and pain as you do, there is no logical basis that authorises you to establish distinctions or to diminish your solicitude for them, even when their attitude is negative.HH The Dalai Lama, My Spiritual Journey
And the most difficult people to practice compassion on are, not surprisingly, the best people to practice compassion on:
I must emphasise again that merely thinking that compassion and reason and patience are good will not be enough to develop them. We must wait for difficulties to arise and then attempt to practice them. And who creates such opportunities? Not our friends, of course, but our enemies. They are the ones who give us the most trouble. So, if we truly wish to learn, we should consider enemies to be our best teacher! For a person who cherishes compassion and love, the practice of tolerance is essential, and for that, an enemy is indispensable. So, we should feel grateful to our enemies, for it is they who can best help us develop a tranquil mind! Also, it is often the case in both personal and public life that with a change in circumstances, enemies become friends.
So, anger and hatred are always harmful, and unless we train our minds and work to reduce their negative force, they will continue to disturb us and disrupt our attempts to develop a calm mind. Anger and hatred are our real enemies. These are the forces we most need to confront and defeat, not the temporary “enemies” who appear intermittently throughout life.HH The Dalai Lama, In My Own Words
Before writing this post, I wouldn’t have linked compassion to strength. Yet, it seems that compassion isn’t just one aspect of resilience, but a crucial first step for starting over, which allows other positive emotions to flourish.
The practice of compassion gives me the greatest satisfaction. Whatever the circumstances, whatever tragedy I am faced with, I practice compassion. That reinforces my inner strength and brings me happiness by giving me the feeling that my life is useful. Up until now, I have tried to practice compassion as well as I can, and I will continue to do so until my last day, until my last breath. For in the deepest part of my being, I feel that I am a devoted servant of compassion.HH The Dalai Lama, My Spiritual Journey
Afterward: Sources and Suggested Reading
The Fourteenth Dalai Lama’s story is as remarkable as it is complicated, and mine joins the ocean of varying opinions about the Dalai Lama. While there are many who believe he is a living manifestation of a Bodhisattva, there are also those who call him “a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”3
As for myself, I see no reason to doubt the Fourteenth’s own description of himself as “a simple Buddhist monk.” If the Dalai Lama’s story interests you, I invite you to do your own reading and draw your own conclusions.
I drew mostly from the Dalai Lama’s autobiography, Freedom in Exile, for the stories in this post. I also read Escape from the Land of Snows by Stephan Talty, which recounts the Tibetan uprising in 1959 and the Dalai Lama’s escape from the clutches of the Chinese communists.
The accounts of Lodi Gyari’s meeting with the Dalai Lama in India, and the Dalai Lama’s emotional reaction to the crowd at the Deer Park in Sarnath, came from the book Victor Chan wrote with the Dalai Lama, The Wisdom of Forgiveness. The book contains a remarkable series of vignettes, drawn from the time Chan spent with the Dalai Lama, which offers a personal look into the Fourteenth’s life. I very much enjoyed reading it.
I also read My Spiritual Journey by the Dalai Lama and Sofia Stril-Rever, The Art of Happiness in a Troubled World by the Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler, MD, and In My Own Words: An Introduction to My Teachings and Philosophy by the Dalai Lama and Rajiv Mehrotra. I found In My Own Words a clear introduction to Buddhism, it gets technical in places but is otherwise a concise read.
My favourite book about the Dalai Lama remains Pico Iyer’s The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. Iyer has been a friend of the Dalai Lama for over 30 years, and he approaches his subject with the eyes of a non-Buddhist journalist and the skills of a poet.
The Open Road is respectful, yet doesn’t hold back from looking at the Dalai Lama and Tibet with a critical eye. I deeply enjoyed the book’s lyrical clarity and intimate breadth, and I’ve returned to it many times since my first reading. I highly recommend it.
In closing, and in the spirit of Buddhism, I extend my own best wishes to the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, the Tibetan government-in-exile and the country of Tibet. May they be well, and may they be happy.
The featured image in this post was taken by Christopher Michel, and is licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
- Also known as Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy, in Mahayana Buddhism
- See also the United Nations denouncement of the “ … continued violation of the fundamental rights and freedoms of the people of Tibet …” in Resolution 2079 (XX) passed on the Question of Tibet in 1965.
- Jacobs, Andrew. “China Attacks Dalai Lama in Online Burst.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 24 Mar. 2012. Web. 19 June 2015.