Magazine article Newsweek

A Lama to the Globe: The Dalai Lama Looks beyond Tibet, and Meditates on His Reincarnation as an Ambassador of Buddhism

Magazine article Newsweek

A Lama to the Globe: The Dalai Lama Looks beyond Tibet, and Meditates on His Reincarnation as an Ambassador of Buddhism

Article excerpt

In a small yellow temple off a rutted mountain road in northern India, a simple image of the Buddha gazes north, over the Himalayas, toward Tibet. It is dawn and across the courtyard of what was once a British colonial cantonment, the Dalai Lama is meditating on his eventual death and passage to rebirth. The entire compound--the temple, the concrete monastery for 200 monks and the Dalai Lama's matching yellow bungalow called The Heavenly Abode--has the provisional look of a summer camp at the end of the season. For 40 years Upper Dharmsala has been the seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile. But if the Chinese government would let him, the Dalai Lama would dissolve his "Little Lhasa" like a mandala made of sand, and return to Tibet tomorrow.

To Buddhists, of course, life itself is inherently impermanent: a brief karmic interlude between successive rebirths from which they seek final liberation. But for Tenzin Gyatso, liberation has also come to include freedom in this life from his political role as the 14th Dalai Lama. "I am already 64, have active life of maybe 15 more years," he observes in his clear but choppy English. "After that, too old. My name, my popularity are useful in other fields, like promotion of human values and of harmony among world religions. It is wise that my energy should be devoted to these things rather than remain Dalai Lama."

Indeed, 10 years after he won the Nobel Prize for Peace, Tenzin Gyatso has become unofficial lama to the world. His is the face that Buddhism wears, especially in the West. With his influence stretching far beyond his 6 million Tibetan followers, the Dalai Lama is devoting his last years to a larger community. So far in 1999 he's made pilgrimages to the holy places in Jerusalem and to major cities like London to spread the wisdom of the Buddha. This week, he will teach Buddhist meditation to sold-out crowds in New York City and give a free public lecture in the East Meadow of Central Park. One of his three dozen books, "The Art of Happiness," has been on The New York Times best-seller list for 29 weeks and his latest, "Ethics for the New Millennium," will be published next week. His encompassing smile, his devouring laugh, his engaging humility and nonjudgmental manner have made the Dalai Lama the most benign and welcome figure on the stage of world religion. Now he says he wants to address all of the world's ills directly, out of his personal knowledge and experience.

But would anyone heed the words of Tenzin Gyatso if he were no longer the Dalai Lama? Can he sever his political from his religious authority? The questions make him laugh. "You see, I am just monk," he tells me, pointing to his experience with dreams. "Sometimes in dream I have violence or am meeting women. Then in dream I remember, 'I am monk.' Never in dream do I remember I am Dalai Lama. Dalai Lama not that important."

Even in his dreams, however, the Dalai Lama would never relinquish his position as head of state as long as China controls Tibet. His government-in-exile has a Constitution that calls for a democratic self-government. If China grants Tibet political and cultural autonomy, he has told Beijing, he'll order a vote on the future of the institution of the Dalai Lama as soon as he returns. Should the Tibetans choose democracy, he would immediately become citizen Gyatso, thus ending 350 years of religious rule. "I do not want to preserve the institution of the Dalai Lama," he says, "but only the Tibetan people can abolish it."

The Chinese would rather play the politics of Buddhist death and rebirth. They have already seized the recently reincarnated Panchen Lama, Tibet's second highest religious authority, and replaced him with a boy of their own choosing. The next Dalai Lama, Chinese authorities announced earlier this year, will also be born in Tibet--and therefore will be under their control. But Tenzin Gyatso has made a countermove. "If I pass away while still in exile," he says in conversation over tea in Dharmsala, "then the next Dalai Lama will appear outside Tibet and the Tibetan community will choose him as my successor. …

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