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His Holiness the Dalai Lama: Role Model

July 8, 2010

Bhuchung Tsering
The Huffington Post
July 6, 2010

On July 6, 2010 His Holiness the Dalai Lama turns
75, according to the Western calendar.

This is a good time to talk about what the Dalai
Lama means to the world. Oftentimes, as part of
my work here at the International Campaign for
Tibet, I have come across people from, and
working on, conflict areas similar to Tibet who
want to know the reason why the Dalai Lama and
the Tibetans seem to strike a chord among the
American public. Part of the reason for this, I
feel, lies with the Dalai Lama's personality.

There is the traditional Tibetan perspective of
His Holiness that is shared by followers of
Tibetan Buddhism along the Himalayas, including
in Mongolia, the Russian Federation, Nepal,
Bhutan, etc. This perspective regards His
Holiness as the manifestation of Chenresig
(Avalokiteshvara), the Bodhisattva of Compassion.
He is someone who has the capacity to be fully
enlightened but has chosen to come back to this
human world for the sake of sentient beings.

Prior to 1959, an average Tibetan could only hope
to meet someone who may have been fortunate to
get a glimpse of His Holiness from a distance. At
best this glimpse may have been at a religious
teaching or when the Dalai Lama undertook his
irregular travels in Tibet. It would be rare to
meet someone who had an audience with His
Holiness. The structure of the Tibetan society in
independent Tibet was such that there was very
limited access to His Holiness. Elaborate
protocol was the rule of the game. To Tibetans,
the Dalai Lama was the focus of their daily
prayers. Nobody even dreamt of any close encounters with him.

But in the post-1959 period, following the flight
of His Holiness into exile forced by Chinese
incursion into Tibet, the institution of the
Dalai Lama underwent a dramatic transformation,
much to the delight of the young 14th
incarnation. Aided by circumstances, the
institution became less protocol-heavy, more
accessible to the public and more practical. Over
a period of time, this led to a close interaction
between His Holiness and the Tibetan people, a
historical development of sort. The most obvious
indication of this metamorphosis is the increase
in the number of Tibetans with the first name
Tenzin. Almost every other Tibetan who is born in
exile and under the age of 40 may have this first
name. Tenzin is the name that His Holiness gives
when followers of Tibetan Buddhism resort to the
convention of approaching a lama for providing a
name to their child. Prior to 1959 only a
privileged few Tibetan children may have had the
opportunity to get their names from His Holiness.

Life in exile has also led to His Holiness'
interaction with the outside world, mainly
through his visits throughout the world. This has
provided the Tibetans with a new side of the
Dalai Lama. While most of the Tibetans still hold
strong to their Buddhist faith and thus subscribe
to the traditional perspective of the Dalai Lama,
they have also been able to see his human side.
Accordingly, His Holiness has become the role model for the young Tibetans.

I belong to the generation of Tibetans who grew
up in exile, a generation which had to be the
spokesman for our people without having the
direct experience of life in Tibet. This change
in our situation, however, has given me a fresh
insight into the Dalai Lama and has provided
people like me with the opportunity unimaginable by my parent's generation.

Growing up in India, I did not dream even for a
minute that one day I would be in the same room
as the Dalai Lama, leave alone being able to
strike a conversation with him. But that day
arrived in the late 1980s and is fresh in my
memory even to this day. I was accompanying an
Indian photojournalist to the residence of His
Holiness in Dharamsala as part of my work at the
Tibetan Department of Information and
International Relations. Between photo sessions,
His Holiness looked toward me, just a newcomer to
the Tibetan civil service, and asked me from
which part of Tibet I was. That one
ordinary-sounding question altered the course of
Tibetan social history, to me at least. The Dalai
Lama had spoken to me, an ordinary Tibetan, and
had acknowledged my presence. Since then I have
been privileged to interact with His Holiness on
quite a few occasions in the course of my work.

My interaction with His Holiness is in a way
symbolic of the transformation of the institution
of the Dalai Lama that the 14th incarnation,
Tenzin Gyatso, has brought about. The
significance of the transformation can be
comprehended only when one has looked at the
history of modern Tibet, as well as that of the
14th Dalai Lama. To be objective the course of
modern Tibetan history dictated certain changes
in the institution as well as in the Tibetan society as a whole.

However, things may not have changed as rapidly
as it did had the 14th Dalai Lama not
complemented historical development with his own
liberal outlook and foresight. My fascination (if
I even dare use this term) with His Holiness is
more to do with his social activism and less with
his religious role. While His Holiness' outreach
to the international community in the field of
religion and spirituality, as well as in drawing
attention to the plight of the Tibetan people, is
acknowledged internationally, not many know much
about his influence in the social thinking of the
Tibetan people and his other followers.

The establishment of a system of universal modern
education for young Tibetans, mainly with the
assistance of the Indian government, in the wake
of his flight to India in 1959 was the most
important factor in changing the Tibetan society
in exile. That one act by the Dalai Lama not only
provided a level playing field for Tibetans at
all levels of society in terms of educational
opportunity, but the blend of modern and
traditional education that was part of the
curriculum resulted in a new generation of
Tibetans, modern in outlook and also having knowledge of our cultural heritage.

His Holiness is a social reformer and an
iconoclast. Relying on his moral authority and
the well-founded justification of Buddhism as a
rational religion, His Holiness has altered those
theological perceptions of Tibetan Buddhists that
did not conform to scientific reality. This
included asking the monk community to accept the
earth as round instead of flat, which is contrary
to Buddhist scriptures, and removing the mystery
behind the institution of the Dalai Lama, thereby
forcing the very many lama institutions to follow
suit. He has encouraged doing away with
irrelevant monastic rituals and political
protocols. He has transformed Tibetan Buddhism
from being ritualistic to being a practice
relevant to any individual interested in it.

His Holiness has been able to make effective use
of his coveted position to change the social
system not only of the Tibetans but also of
communities that share the same cultural values
as Tibetans. For example, although people living
in the Tibetan cultural environment do not have a
caste system, people following certain professions are looked down upon.

There is a story of how a simple act by His
Holiness changed the outlook of the Ladakhi
people (an ethnic Tibetan community that resides
in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir that
borders Tibet) towards the musicians in their
society. It is said that a community of musicians
is traditionally looked down upon in the Ladakhi
society. During one of his visits to Ladakh, His
Holiness interacted with one such musician, took
the drum sticks from his hand, and beat the
traditional drum himself a couple of times. This
sent a strong message to the Ladakhi people.

One issue that has personally affected me is His
Holiness' contribution to changing the dietary
habit of the Tibetan people. Tibetan Buddhists
traditionally consume meat, and the reasoning
goes that Tibet in the past did not have adequate
non-meat products. Since 1959, the Tibetan
society has changed greatly. Today, Tibetans,
whether living in exile or inside Tibet, do have
access to vegetarian food. However, meat
continues to be an integral part of the Tibetan
diet even now, much to the consternation and
confusion of outside observers who tend to equate Buddhism with vegetarianism.

Many people do not comprehend the significant
role His Holiness has been playing in promoting
vegetarianism. Through his personal example (he
became total vegetarian for some years, but then
had to resume some non-vegetarian diet on the
advice of his physicians) and consistent advocacy
using his coveted position, His Holiness has
started leading the meat-eating Tibetan society
along the path of vegetarianism. In the Tibetan
community he has encouraged food workshops
promoting vegetarianism. A meat-eating society
has overnight started taking gradual steps
towards vegetarianism. This is a significant
development. There are increasing numbers of
Tibetans like myself who have become vegetarians,
and our encouragement has come from His Holiness.

His Holiness is also a role model for a balanced
approach to life. He can adjust easily to royalty
and heads of state as well as to a simple monk in
a meditation cave. Several years back, I
overheard one Swiss tourist exclaim "Sehr
einfach!" -- very simple -- when he found that he
was traveling in the same tram car as His
Holiness. He can be very solemn in a
ritual-filled Buddhist ceremony or be jovial
among schoolchildren in a Tibetan settlement.

During the Dalai Lama's May visit to the United
States that included trips to Indiana, Minnesota,
Wisconsin, Iowa and New York, I was struck by his
categorical assertion that the world is becoming
more gentle and positive. This is quite contrary
to popular feeling of the world becoming more
violent and crisis-ridden. It has certainly
provided much food for thought to students of the developing society.

His Holiness was adamantly clear during his
lectures, his brief appearance on NBC's The Today
Show, and during his meetings with the press in
general that the world is becoming more positive.
The indicators of his world view were the broader
human concern for man-made or natural calamities
worldwide (shown in the aftermath of the Asian
tsunami and the earthquakes in Haiti, Chile and
Tibet), the existence of peace movements
throughout the world (which was visible prior to
the United States' war in Iraq, for example); the
emergence of an environmental movement (there was
no such movement in the beginning of the previous
century); and the increased interaction between
science and religion (science is showing interest
in not just external matters but also in the
study of mind). In short, through a comparison
between the 20th century and the 21st century so
far, the Dalai Lama feels the world is becoming more positive.

The Dalai Lama feels that much of the blame for
the popular view of the world becoming worse
should be placed on the media, which tends to
always highlight the negative (even though it
involves only a miniscule amount of the world's
total population) while taking the positive for granted.

The Dalai Lama has also been talking about his
three commitments in this life. In addition to
finding a solution to the Tibetan issue, he also
embraces two fundamental commitments to promoting
human values and religious harmony.

He refers to the "oneness" of all religions in
that they all convey the same messages in
attempting to make us better human beings. He
thinks that at one level there is philosophical
difference, which is a reality. At another level,
he says all religions preach the message of
compassion, love and tolerance, etc. The Dalai
Lama feels we need to prioritize by treating the
philosophical differences as secondary to the
more important common messages. This is a
worldview that would certainly make all religious
practitioners rethink their approach to spirituality.

Similarly, in terms of human values, the Dalai
Lama feels that differences in caste, creed,
color, etc. should be placed at a secondary level
to the more fundamental thinking of the sameness
of human beings, who want happiness and shun
suffering. This is a simple message, but placed
in the context of the Dalai Lama's worldview, it
certainly gets a greater resonance.

Generally, Tibetans believe in the ability of the
Dalai Lama to liberate them from the suffering of
this material world. That is a spiritual and
subjective belief that only people subscribing to
Tibetan Buddhist principles may comprehend. But
the new perspective of His Holiness as a role
model is one that may be shared by Tibetans and non-Tibetans alike.

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