A Life in Exile

By Clifton, Tony | Newsweek, October 13, 1997 | Go to article overview

A Life in Exile


Clifton, Tony, Newsweek


If anything good has come from the Dalai Lama's expulsion, it is his exposure to the world--and the world's love affair with him.

ONLY A FEW OF THE tibetans kneeling in front of him have ever laid eyes on the Dalai Lama before. About 300 of them are gathered on this crisp morning in September, and almost all have just made the treacherous journey out of Tibet across high, snow-covered mountain passes, through Nepal and finally to Dharmsala, a small hill town in northern India that is the Dalai Lama's home in exile. Like people seeing a vision, all have their eyes fixed on this man. To them he is the God King; to the Chinese occupying Tibet, "the serpent's head." From old monks to small children, the refugees have faces blackened by the vicious sunlight reflected from the snows they have just crossed, and some have lost fingers and toes to frostbite. Their silence is broken only by the quiet weeping of an old woman who had seen her leader once before--40 years ago in Tibet.

The Dalai Lama sits on a couch in front of his visitors. He tries to put them at ease by asking where they come from, and if any have traveled from Amdo, his own province. But the few stuttering replies show how overawed they remain. Then, he gives them what they have come for. "Tibet has survived these past 40 years of Chinese occupation because of your strength and determination," he says in his deep, resonant voice. "I know you have come here with great difficulty, and you have suffered on your journey. But by coming here you have shown not only your own but Tibet's determination. I give you my greetings, and my gratitude for what you have done."

This is not the role to which he was born. The Dalai Lama would never have spoken and mixed with ordinary people in the Tibet from which he was driven by Chinese invaders in 1959. As he says in his autobiography, "Freedom in Exile," on the rare occasions he left his official residence, the 1,000-room Potala palace in Lhasa, he moved past them on a yellow silk palanquin, pulled by 20 army officers in green cloaks and red hats and surrounded by hundreds of men: monks and musicians, sword-wielding horsemen and "porters carrying my songbirds in cages and my personal belongings all wrapped in yellow silk." To make sure the people didn't get too close, the whole entourage was surrounded by the monastic police. "In their hands they carried long whips, which they would not hesitate to use," he wrote.

"Exile has made me tougher," the Dalai Lama told NEWSWEEK. It has also, according to his younger brother Tenzin Choegyal, "enabled him to realize his full potential. In the Potala, he was secluded and isolated. If one good thing has come out of his having to leave, it was that he was exposed to his own people and the world. He was given the chance to see things as they really are." From being the century's most secluded leader, the Dalai Lama is now among the most traveled and best known. The bespectacled figure in maroon robes has become the focal point for the world's anxiety about Chinese authoritarianism, and his schedule reflects it. He will be in the Czech Republic with his friend President Vaclav Havel one week, in Hollywood, Calif., with Richard Gere and Sharon Stone the next. Then perhaps on to Australia, where on his last visit he lectured leading businessmen on "Ethics and the Bottom Line. …

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