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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

Kundun, Unplugged

July 8, 2010

Ramananda Sengupta
Sify (India)
June 6, 2010

The first time I ever met the Dalai Lama, if
‘met’ is the correct word, was the day after Tuesday, 9/11.

I was in Dharamshala to interview Samdhong
Rinpoche, the Prime Minister of the Tibetan government in Exile.

Moments after I reached the quiet Himalayan town,
also known as Little Lhasa, from Jammu, two
hijacked aircraft smashed into the twin towers of
the World Trade Center in New York.

Blissfully unaware, I was checking into the guest
house in Dharamshala and preparing for a long
bath when I got a frantic call from my editor.
Come back, he ordered. Right now.

There goes my interview, I thought. And my first glimpse of the Dalai Lama.

The only return ticket I could get, however, was
for Thursday, two days later. And the Rinpoche
kindly agreed to grant me the interview as
scheduled on Wednesday, despite being extremely
busy organizing a prayer meeting for the 9/11
victims led by the Dalai Lama later in the afternoon.

Some 2,000 people assembled for the elaborate,
hour-long prayers at the Tsug Lha-Khang, the main
Tibetan temple in Dharamsala. Many were American
tourists, worried about family and friends back home.

The sense of anticipation was palpable.

But when the Dalai Lama did arrive, I was left unimpressed.

If it hadn’t been for the bowing and scraping,
and the rush of the faithful and the paparazzi
trying to get a click, a touch, or a unique
frame, I would probably have missed him.

What I saw before me was a sturdy monk in
oversized glasses, barely distinguishable from
the other monks who surrounded him.

Where, I wondered, was the character, the
magnetism, the charisma that ought to radiate
from such a personality? Was this really the man who walked with Kings?

The twist came after an hour of prayer, when the
letter he had sent US President George W Bush was released to the media.

After expressing his sorrow and anguish over the
terror strike, he wrote: "It may seem
presumptuous on my part, but I personally believe
we need to think seriously whether a violent
reaction is the right thing to do and in the
greater interest of the nation and the people in
the long run. I believe violence will only increase the cycle of violence…."

At a time when most of the world was baying for
the blood of the 9/11 perpetrators, this was a
remarkable statement for a monk to make.

Dubya, of course ignored the advice, and the rest
went on to dictate much of modern history.

I ‘met’ him again a few months later, in February
2002. He had come to Mumbai for treatment of a chronic stomach problem.

The 67-year-old jovially noted that his illness
first surfaced in Tibet, after he had indulged in
some grapes, ‘possibly from India.’

Yes, there was that earthy humour, and there was
this sprightly gait that defied an obviously
debilitating ailment. There was the infectious
smile, the real humility, and the kindly twinkle in his eye.

But where, oh where, was the aura which should
surround one of the world’s most easily
recognized religious leaders? What was it about
the man that world leaders, Hollywood and
Bollywood stars, the Nobel Prize committee, and
even my mother, saw, that I was missing?

And why was this man who preached sensitivity,
love, tolerance, peace and non-violence, so feared by the Chinese?

I should have seen the answer then, but it hit me
only in 2008. As the Spiritual Leader of Tibet
oozed diplomacy, his followers chanted, fought
and campaigned across the world, marring China’s
lead-up to the event it had been planning to showcase for years.

Think ‘Beijing Olympics’ and I bet ‘Free Tibet’
is the next phrase in your head...before the
Fuwa, before Michael Phelps, before Usain Bolt.

Was the Dalai Lama only a simple monk, or a
shrewd emissary too? Did his calm voice and
amiable smile hide an intrepid mind and steely
resolve? Was his ascetic naivete a cover for political acumen?

Perhaps the answers I was looking for were the
subtext of the posters that greeted people
outside the hotel lounge where the Dalai Lama
spoke to the media after his discharge from hospital in 2002.

  Put up by outfits like "Friends of Tibet" and
the Tibetan Youth Congress, their message was
stark and clear: "China, get out of Tibet."

Inside, the Dalai Lama smiled as he searched for
the right words in his trademark childlike
manner, and wagged his finger to the
accompaniment of a delighted laugh as the
pressmen tried to get one slip, one provocative line out of him.

It was almost 5 years later that I met him again
in Mumbai, at his first official discourse in the city.

More than 3,000 people including locals,
Tibetans, followers from across India, and
tourists from places as far off as the US,
Switzerland, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bulgaria jostled for space.

In the sweltering heat, the crowd listened in
rapt attention as he spoke about how Peace
depended not on external, but on internal factors.

Little children looked up in awe as he said,
"Peace is not just the absence of violence -- it
comes from within. It is only when we have true
peace of mind that we can look for peace externally.”

The switch from peace to politics was subtle.

His Holiness lauded India’s long tradition of
inclusive multiculturalism, marred by a few
instances of bad blood and violence. It was
important, he said, to remember that there were
certain universal ethics and truths which remained unchanged down the ages.

Emotions, for instance, had not changed
fundamentally over the past 5,000 years.

"What was true thousands of years ago is still true today," he beamed.

But then, in the question and answer session that
followed, he spoke of how the Beijing-Lhasa
railroad was being used to transport thousands of
mainland Han Chinese to Tibet each day in a
dramatic attempt to change the demography of the region.

It was then that the penny finally dropped.

The Dalai Lama is critically important to us not
because of who he is, but because of what he represents.

At a time when the world is getting increasingly
intolerant and polarized, here is someone who
humbly preaches, and practices, compassion --
even as he represents Tibetan aspirations.

And this includes those who are getting restless
with his peaceful, non-violent doctrine.

But balance is something the Dalai Lama is used
to -- as the leader of the Tibetans, he straddles
the interests of his people with the suicidal
urges of the young and restless to fight the
might of the Chinese. And he has done this
admirably well for 50 years, amid shifting power
structures, rapidly evolving philosophies and neo-colonial strategies.

And more incredible, he has done so without
changing his expressions, his demeanour, his stance and his viewpoint.

He has done so without growing defensive.

He has smiled in the face of angry questions, and
soothed tempers with his equanimity.

He has frustrated a marauding regime whose
insidious tactics have failed against the determination of his people.

As the storm clouds of bigotry, lies and ethnic
and religious violence darken our world, he
lights up the sky with the hope that humanity will prevail.

To my mind, he is the embodiment of Rudyard Kipling’s If.

...If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings - nor lose the common touch.
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much,

If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And--which is more--you'll be a Man, my son!

Except his closing lines, perhaps, should have
read: "...You will be a God, my son."

In his 75 years, Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai
Lama, has grown to represent not the ideals of
one country, but the aspirations of all humanity.

And that aura will linger on long after he is gone.

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