Dalai Lama

What was the 13th Dalai Lama’s message to the Tibetan people?

On Feb. 13, 2023 I was invited by the Tibetan Youth Congress and the Centre for Himalayan Asia Studies & Engagement to participate in an online discussion on the anniversary of the 1913 proclamation by H.H. the 13th Dalai Lama Thupten Gyatso, popularly known as the reaffirmation of Tibetan independence proclamation. You can watch the full session online here.

The 13th Dalai Lama Thupten Gyatso

I am outlining here my presentation, in which I gave my take of the proclamation saying that it should not be seen in isolation but in conjunction with two other subsequent developments during the 13th Dalai Lama’s period, namely the 1913-1914 Tibet-Britain-China tripartite convention on Tibet in Shimla and the 1932 Last Testament by the 13th Dalai Lama. Accordingly, I laid out the following:

  1. What were the issues that were raised in the proclamation?
  2. The reason why the proclamation is important?
  3. What lessons should we learn from it?

What were the issues that were raised in the proclamation?

I mentioned that we needed to look at this proclamation in the context of the 13th Dalai Lama’s experience of British India’s invasion of Tibet of 1903-1904 and the subsequent invasion by China under the Manchus. These developments made the 13th Dalai Lama realize that in order to establish Tibet as a nation-state, Tibetans needed to be internally prepared and realize the threat and challenges to their national identity.

Therefore, even though the most prominent aspect of the proclamation known internationally is the reference to the political status of Tibet, it actually has four other additional points. Points 1 and 2 deal with preservation and promotion of Tibetan religious identity and institutions, including Buddhist study. Points 3 and 5 deal with the Dalai Lama’s call on Tibetan officials to maintain proper conduct, including in looking after the socio-economic welfare of the Tibetan people. Interestingly, in Point 3 the 13th Dalai Lama calls for doing away with corporal punishments, saying, “Furthermore, citizens’ limbs have been amputated as a form of punishment. Henceforth, such severe punishments are forbidden.”

At the popular level, this proclamation has been made more well known for its Point 4, which deals with Tibet’s political status. Given that the existing translations in English do not seem to reflect fully the text, I read the relevant portion of this point in Tibetan first.

“བོད་འདི་རྒྱལ་ཁབ་གཞན་དག་ལྟ་བུའི་སྟོབས་འབྱོར་འཕྲུལ་ཆས་དང་མི་ལྡན་རུང་། ཆོས་མཐུན་ཞི་བདེར་གནས་པའི་རྒྱལ་ཁབ་རང་དབང་དང་ལྡན་པ་ཞིག་ཡིན་སྟབས་།”

My translation of this is that: “Tibet is not endowed with wealth, power, and technology like other nations. It is nonetheless a free country abiding in peace and happiness in accordance with the Dharma.”

The exact Tibetan term used relating to the political status is Rangwang, literally “freedom,” but it has also been interpreted over the years to mean independence. Be that as it may, to me Point 4 is like the other points addressed to the people of Tibet, officials and citizens, rather than to the international community, in which the 13th Dalai Lama calls on them to understand their country’s status and come together to protect it. Each of the five points of the proclamation in fact ends with “should do this,” in what could be seen as direct order. Even at the end of the proclamation, there is a directive that a copy of the proclamation should be kept in all the Tibetan offices somewhat like a standing order so that successive officials can implement it. It says,

ཁེ་ཉེན་ལ་བསམ་ཞིབ་ཀྱིས་ལྷ་ཆོས་དང་། མི་ཆོས་ཀྱི་བླངས་དོར་ཕྱིན་མ་ལོག་པ་དང་ལེན་རྒྱུན་འཁྱོངས་དགོས་རྒྱའི་རྩ་ཚིག་འདི་བཞིན་མངའ་ཁུལ་དཀར་ཆག་ཏུ་བཀོད་ངོས་། ལས་བྱེད་རིམ་འབྱོར་ནས་རྩ་འཛིན་མཇུག་གཞོན་རྒྱུན་འཁྱོངས་ཚུལ་བཞིན་སྤྱོད་པ་གྱིས་།

Bearing in mind the consequences, and without confusing between what is to be accepted and abstained from divine and human conducts, all officials should keep this declaration in the records of their offices, abide by it by properly implementing it.

The reason why this declaration is important?

The importance of the 1913 proclamation can be understood when we look at the two subsequent political developments of the Shimla Convention on Tibet of 1913-1914 and the 1932 Last Testament by the 13th Dalai Lama.

In the 1913 proclamation, the 13th Dalai Lama had hoped that his officials and the citizens of Tibet will heed his call and rise to the occasion. While acknowledging that his government has been able to banish all Manchu forces from the areas under the then Tibetan Government, he hoped to be able to recover other Tibetan territories in the Dhokham that were outside of the rule of the then Tibetan government.

Related to this is a statement made about the 13th Dalai Lama by the present 14th. In response to a question, “Are there any of your predecessors in whom you have a special interest or with whom you have a particular affinity?” the 14th Dalai Lama says, “The Thirteenth Dalai Lama. He brought a lot of improvement to the standards of study in the monastic colleges. He gave great encouragement to the real scholars. He made it impossible for people to go up in the religious hierarchy, becoming an abbot and so forth, without being totally qualified. He was very strict in this respect. He also gave tens of thousands of monks’ ordinations. There were his two main religious achievements. He didn’t give many initiations, or many lectures. Now, with respect to the country, he had great thought and consideration for statecraft. The outlying districts in particular. How they should be governed and so forth. He cared very much how to run the government more efficiently. He had great concern about our borders and that type of thing.”

During the subsequent Shimla Convention in 1913 and 1914, the 13th Dalai Lama seems to have acted on his hope expressed in the proclamation to bring back the Tibetan territories in the east under his government’s control. His envoy Lonchen Shatra made efforts to reassert control over the Tibetan areas outside of the Tibetan government’s rule. Scholar Tsering Shakya says the “Tibetans demanded the return of all Tibetan territories occupied by the Chinese in Kham and Amdo” with some saying mule loads of documents to support the claim were brought to Shimla. Eventually, it only led to the outlining of what was called outer and inner Tibet.

The third important development is the 1932 Last Testament. In fact, Shakabpa calls it, མ་འོངས་སྔོན་གཟིགས་ཀྱི་ཞལ་འདམས་, “the testament that foresaw the future.” This testament was the response by the 13th Dalai Lama to a long-life offering made to him. While outlining all the efforts he made for the welfare of the Tibetan people, he included a stark warning, including the threat of takeover by Communism (which had taken over Mongolia by then), that unless the Tibetan people came together and worked for a common cause, there would be grave consequences.

The relevant portion of the 1932 Last Testament says this:

In the future, this [communist] system will certainly be forced on this land that cherishes the joint spiritual and temporal system, either from within or without. If, in such an event, we fail to defend our land, the noble ones who are holders of the doctrine, beginning with the triumphant father and son [the Dalai Lama and Paṇchen Lama] will be eliminated without a trace.

The 13th Dalai Lama was very critical of some of the people in the Tibetan leadership then. He said,

གནས་སྐབས་རང་དོན་སྒྲུབ་ཕྱོགས་ཕྱོགས་ལྷུངས་ངོ་སྲུང་ལས། ཆབ་སྲིད་ཀྱི་བདེ་དོན་ད་མུས་བཞིན་ཡལ་ཡོལ་འབའ་ཞིག་གིས་འཁུར་དུ་མ་བླངས་ན་ཕུགས་དོན་མི་འགྲུབ་པ་མཐོང་གསལ་ལྷར་། སླར་ཅི་དྲག་གི་འགྱོད་ཀྱང་ཕན་ཆ་མི་སྲིད་པས། ངོས་ནམ་འཚོའི་རིང་ལ་བོད་ལྗོངས་བདེ་ཐབས་ད་མུས་ཀྱིས་འཁྱོལ་བར་མཐོང་། ཕུགས་རང་རང་་མྱོང་ཆོས་རྣམས་སོ་སོའི་ཐོག་ཏུ་སྨིན་པ་ནི་ངོས་རང་གི་ཉམས་མྱོང་རྒྱུ་མཚན་གསལ་པོའི་སྟེང་ནས་གཞན་ལ་འདོམས་པ་འདི་ལྷག་བསླབ་བྱ་ལྷུག་པོར་སྟོན་རྒྱུ་མེད་་་་་།

“There are people who in order to serve their own interests, involve in factionalism and placation, and if they continue their careless attitude without shouldering their responsibilities, it is evident that their long-term objectives will not be met. Even if they have regrets subsequently, it will not be of help. It can be seen that as long as I remain, the well-being of Tibet will continue. In the long run, based on my own experience and with clear reason I do not have any more advice than to say that everyone will experience the fruition of one’s action…”

What lessons should we learn from it?

First, we have to look at this proclamation holistically and in conjunction with the subsequent Shimla Convention and the Last Testament in 1932. Looking at the 1913 proclamation alone does not provide the full picture of the intent of the 13th Dalai Lama.

Secondly, through the proclamation as well as his Last Testament, the 13th Dalai Lama was advising Tibetans to be mindful of the broader understanding of Tibetan politics and calling on the people to shoulder their due responsibilities.

Thirdly, the subsequent developments in Tibet showed that our people then failed to fully comprehend the advice of the 13th Dalai Lama and did not take adequate steps to protect Tibet.

What should we be doing?

The current Dalai Lama, while talking about the reasons for the continuation of reincarnation, has said primarily it is to continue the mission of the previous incarnation. Seen from this angle, we are all familiar with this Dalai Lama’s activities and vision, which all complement that of the 13th. In the above quote about the 13th Dalai Lama, the current 14th mentions two categories of contributions, namely in the field of religious reform and strengthening of Tibetan polity. In both fronts, the current Dalai Lama has continued the mission and made it possible for Tibetan religion and people to compete on a par with modern society. The monastic reforms in the Tibetan community in exile, including the introduction of scientific knowledge in monastic education, are part of this.

Similarly, what the 13th Dalai Lama began in trying to recreate a pan-Tibetan common identity, including Tibetans from all three provinces, is now made a reality under the present Dalai Lama. On this matter, Kasur Lodi Gyari, the Special Envoy of H.H. the Dalai Lama, in his memoirs talks about this contribution by the present Dalai Lama, saying he “gave a new hope for Tibet’s cohesiveness, creating a watershed moment in Tibetan history that has led to true unification in the Tibetan people’s hearts and minds.” I would urge each and every one of you to read the memoirs, which outline this foundational initiative of His Holiness soon after he escaped to India in 1959.

Similarly, the current Dalai Lama has, in accordance with his principle for hoping for the best but preparing for the worst, taken steps to provide a pathway to a firm foundation for the Tibetan struggle through the democratic system of governance. At the same time, he has issued stark warnings to today’s Tibetan people, like his predecessor did, to act on our obligation and work in a united front.

Here is a quote from his statement on Tibetan National Uprising Day in 1976:

བོད་མི་ཚོ། རང་ཡུལ་འཕྲོག་མཁན་དགྲ་བོ་སྣང་མེད་དུ་བཞག་ནས་བོད་མི་ནང་ཁུལ་ཚིག་སྐམ་སྟོང་བཤད་ཀྱིས་འཐེན་འཁྱེར་བྱེད་པ་དང་གཅིག རང་རིགས་རྒྱ་ཆེའི་མང་ཚོགས་ཀྱི་བདེ་སྡུག་ལ་སེམས་འཁུར་བོར་ཏེ་རང་ཉིད་གཅིག་པུ་རང་མགོ་གང་ཐོན་བྱེད་པ་དང་གཉིས། ད་ལྟ་བོད་མི་རིགས་སྤྱིའི་བདེ་སྡུག་གནས་སྟངས་ཛ་དྲག་གང་འདྲ་ཞིག་ཐོག་ཡོད་པ་ངོས་མ་ཟིན་པར། འབྱོར་ལྡན་རང་དབང་ཅན་གཞན་དག་ལ་དཔར་བཀབ་རྒྱས་སྤྲོས་སྐྱིད་འདོད་བྱེད་པ་དང་གསུམ་ནི། ཤིན་ཏུ་འཁྲུལ་ཚབས་ཆེ་བས་མནོ་བསམ་ནན་ཏན་གཏོང་དགོས།

My countrymen, beware of the yawning chasms. Forgetting the enemy who invaded and wrested the country, you indulge in squabbles and factionalism. Discarding the thoughts and motives to promote the interest of the larger masses of one’s own people, you seek and work to promote your own interest only. Refusing to recognize the grave economic situation that the Tibetan people are in, you desire and emulate luxury life-style of other rich people. These are unhealthy trends and matters of serious concern. So, give a thought to these seriously.

Here I want to say that we Tibetans should not shy away from discussing issues on which we have disagreements. We are living in a democracy, and so there would be diverse views among us. But difference of opinions should be put in proper context so that they don’t create misgivings and misunderstanding. We should spend all our time and resources in confronting external challenges instead of wasting time in trying to create issues within ourselves.

The current His Holiness has also categorically called for the need to establish the fact of the historical independence of Tibet even while striving for a future for Tibet through the Middle Way Approach.

Therefore one concrete initiative that Tibetan leaders and Tibetans and Tibet supporters of today can take is to see how this can be fulfilled. In the United States, in consultation with the Tibetan leadership and supporters of Tibet in the Congress, a new legislation, the Promoting a Resolution to the Tibet-China Conflict Act, has been introduced that asserts the historical independent status of Tibet, rejecting the Chinese claim that Tibet had been part of China since ancient times or since antiquity and saying that China should resolve the conflict through negotiations.

History has shown that the Tibetan people failed in heeding the warning of the 13th Dalai Lama and acting positively on it. This generation of Tibetans now should not fail the current 14th Dalai Lama in heeding the warnings he has been issuing about the future.

Signs and symbols concerning the Dalai Lama and his reincarnation

Two important statements in recent days have brought the focus once again to the issue of the reincarnation of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

On Sept. 22, 2022, during a two-day dialogue with youth leaders from the Middle East, Africa, Southeast Asia and South America who had gathered in Dharamsala, India, His Holiness was requested to reflect on the topic of “belonging” after hearing stories from the youth leaders on the impact of war and conflict on their families. In his response, His Holiness expanded his thoughts on the oneness of humanity, from birth to death. He said that at the time of birth, we all experience mother’s affection and compassion, and so even at the time of death if one is “surrounded by people who really show you genuine warm feeling, the dying person will be much happier.” At this stage, he told them that he had spoken to Indian former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (during one of their meetings) concerning his wish when the time came for his own death. His Holiness told the gathering, “I will live for another 15 to 20 years, there is no question (on this). But at the time when I (am) dying, I prefer in India, you see, surrounded with people who really show you love, not artificial something. If I (am) dying surrounded with Chinese officials, too much artificial. So I much prefer dying (in) this country, free, democracy, open.” His Holiness continued by saying that when we are born there is no ceremony and when we die there is no need for ceremony but only to be “surrounded by trusted friends.”

On the face of it, this utterance by His Holiness does not directly refer to reincarnation, but the fact that he is talking about spending his last days outside of Chinese control has implications for a post-Dalai Lama period. Although it is a deeply personal thing, such a scenario would mean that His Holiness and his Gaden Phodrang “institution” (the closest word in English for the Tibetan term “Ladrang,” conventionally pronounced as “Labrang”) will have the freedom to decide on the procedures and implement them without any risk of interference from the Chinese government. Given the current tense situation in Tibet, I feel that His Holiness was intentionally using “trusted friends” in the above remarks to expand on his reason for preferring India to be the place where he would spend his last days. This will be critical when the time comes to begin the process of searching for the reincarnation.

Then on Sept. 26, 2022, the Central Tibetan Administration issued a statement explaining its position on the issue of His Holiness’ reincarnation. I think in order to emphasize the importance of the statement, it was issued in the name of the Kashag and not in the name of the Department of Information & International Relations, as routine public statements are done.

Concerned governments and others have been interested in understanding how the post-Dalai Lama scenario will roll out. Even His Holiness has been directly asked about this by some. By maintaining strategic ambiguity and depoliticizing the issue, I feel His Holiness is maintaining a balance between the deeply spiritual process of the reincarnation tradition and the public interest in the institution of the Dalai Lama.

In any case, the following are my takeaways from the Kashag’s statement.

From the statement, it is clear that internal discussions are already taking place among concerned people in Dharamsala on issues relating to the reincarnation of H.H. the Dalai Lama, even though there may not be any public visibility of the same. The statement even says that the Kashag is in the process of working on other timely issues that need to be addressed.

Secondly, just as His Holiness himself asserted in his 2011 statement on his reincarnation, the Tibetan leadership’s statement says that only His Holiness has sole legitimate authority over his reincarnation issue, including individuals he might entrust with the responsibility “and no other government or individual.” It even says that the Tibetan Administration will only be there to serve any role that it is called upon to play by His Holiness or the entrusted individual(s), whatever the case may be.

As for His Holiness’ statement about preferring India as the country that he would like to spend his last days in, there may be some who look for signs and symbolism or who even look for clues in his not-too-infrequent visits (prior to the coronavirus pandemic) to the Himalayan regions in India that border Tibet. Interestingly, for the first time since the pandemic, His Holiness made his travel outside of Dharamsala to Ladakh in July this year, spending 40 days there. During his remarks there, he repeatedly mentioned how he was very much touched by the devotion and reverence of the Ladakhi people. Soon thereafter, we also saw delegations from Sikkim (led by the state’s Ecclesiastical Minister) and Arunachal Pradesh (the delegation included Guru Rinpoche, the former abbot of the famed Tawang monastery), both places bordering Tibet with residents who look to Tibet as their spiritual source, visiting Dharamsala to request His Holiness the Dalai Lama to visit their places.

A delegation from Arunachal Pradesh with the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala in September.

Students of Tibetan history will know that the Sixth Dalai Lama, Tsangyang Gyatso, wrote a poem (which is now even a famous classical song called “Nangma Amale”), which went something like, “White crane, lend me your wings. I won’t fly far, but just to Lithang and back.” Subsequently, the Seventh Dalai Lama was born in Lithang in Eastern Tibet. Interestingly, the Sixth Dalai Lama was born in Tawang in present-day Arunachal Pradesh.

Then, in his memoir, “My Land & My People,” the current Dalai Lama mentions that his predecessor, the 13th Dalai Lama, had visited his hometown of Kumbum when he was fleeing to China after the British invasion of Tibet in 1904. While in Kumbum, he saw the current Dalai Lama’s house and remarked that “it was a beautiful place.” To further the symbolic connection, the 13th Dalai Lama had left behind a pair of his Tibetan boots called Jachen at the Karma Rolpai Dorje monastery in Kumbum where he stayed while there. Obviously, it all made sense when the present Dalai Lama was born in the same village subsequently.

While the present Dalai Lama has assured us that he will be here for some time, as and when the time comes for a post-Dalai Lama scenario, it is clear the spiritual process will be dominant. This means non-believers will not have any role in it. Just saying!

Click here to read the Kashag’s statement in Tibetan.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s escape to India: 63 years later

By Dekyi Sharchitsang
Dekyi Sharchitsang is an intern at the International Campaign for Tibet and a student at Emory University.

Dalai Lama in India

The Dalai Lama reaches safety in India on March 31, 1959. (Tibet Museum)

In March 1959, as he approached the Indian border after a two-week journey disguised as a common soldier, His Holiness the Dalai Lama looked back at Tibet for the very last time, leaving behind everything he had ever known and entering into a world of absolute uncertainty. He had successfully escaped Tibet as Chinese forces were violently suppressing the national uprisings unfolding in Lhasa. Unbeknownst to His Holiness, this was the beginning of a lifetime in exile.

Upon reaching India, he was swiftly received by border authorities, who led him to a town in the present-day Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. He had been granted political asylum by Prime Minister Nehru and the Indian government, as had the many thousands of Tibetans who followed him into exile with no knowledge of what would become of them.

That was 63 years ago. He was only 23 years old.

His Holiness is now 86 and has not returned to Tibet since his fateful escape. This is not by choice. He has often expressed his desire to see Tibet once again with his own eyes, yet China remains intent on denying him this homecoming. Although he is optimistic, returning to Tibet remains a distant dream.

Since his escape in 1959, His Holiness has led a remarkable life in exile. For many newly arrived Tibetan refugees, who had lost everything to Chinese occupation, their only consolation was the spirit of His Holiness. Although all else was gone, either left in Tibet or lost along the way, His Holiness’ grace and guidance remained constant. As tens of thousands of stateless Tibetans now looked to him for direction, he was confronted with an immense challenge: rebuilding a nation.

From the very beginning, he prioritized the well-being of the Tibetan people. Within his first year in India, His Holiness established various institutions that remain intact to this day, beginning with the creation of a central government consisting of several administrative departments such as Information, Education, Religious Affairs and Security, among others. Realizing the importance of a modern education, His Holiness also oversaw the creation of Tibetan schools for the thousands of refugee children who would now be brought up in exile.

On the first anniversary of the Tibetan People’s Uprising in March 1960, His Holiness made a statement to the Tibetan people, reminding them to remain hopeful even in the face of adversity:

“On this first occasion, I stressed the need for my people to take a long-term view of the situation in Tibet. For those of us in exile, I said that our priority must be resettlement and the continuity of our cultural traditions. As to the future, I stated my belief that, with truth, justice, and courage as our weapons, we Tibetans would eventually prevail.”

Bearing the weight of a wounded nation at 23 years old, His Holiness, through his selflessness, compassion and dedication to the Tibetan cause, lifted thousands of Tibetan refugees out of despair and transformed them into a thriving exiled community.

For many young Tibetans like myself who’ve grown up in the US, Tibet is a place that lives in our minds, but America is the only home we’ve ever known. My identity as a Tibetan American has always been plagued by feelings of cultural alienation and detachment, especially considering that, after six decades in exile, I am two generations removed from Tibet. This experience is hardly unique. It has instead come to define the Tibetan diaspora, as there are now entire generations of Tibetans who have not known a life other than one in exile.

Today, it is no secret that the state of Tibet remains precarious. Assaults on human rights and religious freedoms, severe censorship and surveillance, and violent suppression of dissent occur regularly with little international attention. Despite this, Tibetans are resilient, finding strength in each other and in the teachings of His Holiness, just as they have since 1959.

I am now almost the age that His Holiness was when he escaped Tibet, and just like him, I too wish for a swift homecoming. As a Tibetan American, I have been afforded the tremendous privilege of living in the free world. I can attend March 10 protests every year, speak Tibetan, express my political views and practice Buddhism, all without fear of retribution. Unlike the Tibetans living under Chinese occupation, and unlike the generations of Tibetans who came before me, I have the luxury of opportunity, and the freedom of choice. I stand on the sacrifices of these Tibetans who paved the way for my generation of Tibetan youth to be able to live freely and as our authentic selves.

Sixty-three years have passed since 1959, but the spirit of the Tibetan people remains alive. Our collective resistance to injustice and occupation persists with vigor.

A new documentary on the Dalai Lama’s escape is coming to theaters soon. “Never Forget Tibet: The Dalai Lama’s Untold Story” will premiere at 800 theaters across the United States and Canada for one night only on March 31, the 63rd anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s safe arrival in India.

Buy your tickets now. (Note: Your search results may only return theaters in the immediate zip code. Try searching nearby zip codes for more opportunities to see the film.)

Václav Havel and the 14th Dalai Lama, the story of a friendship and a message for the world

By Katerina Bursik Jacques

On Dec. 18, 2011, ten years ago, Václav Havel passed away. Czech human rights advocate Katerina Bursik Jacques writes about the extraordinary friendship between the Czech president and the Dalai Lama. Photo: Zdenek Merta.

Human rights are universal and indivisible. Human freedom is also indivisible: if it is denied to anyone in the world, it is therefore denied, indirectly, to all people. This is why we cannot remain silent in the face of evil or violence.
-Václav Havel, “Summer Meditations,” 1991

In Czechoslovakia, 1989 began with police arrests on Wenceslas Square in Prague during a low-key commemorative event, marking the death of student Jan Palach who, in January 1969, had burned himself to death, in protest against the occupation of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact troops, in an attempt to rouse a society that was descending into apathy. Among those arrested was playwright and leading Czechoslovak dissident Václav Havel, for whom this was nothing new. He had served more than four years in prison in the past. There was no indication in January that 1989 would become a year of ‘miracles’ that would bring freedom to the entire Soviet bloc and make the imprisoned dissident Havel president before the year was out.

Virtually no one knew—and not only in Czechoslovakia—that martial law had been declared in the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, in March 1989. But when, a few months later, at the beginning of June, images of the brutal crackdown in Tiananmen Square in Beijing were circulated around the world, the public was badly shaken. At the sight of tanks targeting defenseless young people, Czechoslovak citizens also felt solidarity and anxiety, as it recalled their own humiliation in 1968 when Soviet tanks had arrived on the streets of Prague.

During the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, Czechoslovaks carry their national flag past a burning tank. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

In August 1968, brute force had dashed any hopes of freer conditions in the country. In Czechoslovak cities, streets were aflame, and people were injured and died. Twenty years of so-called ’normalization’ followed, during which the Czechoslovak public (except for a small group of convinced Communist ideologues or opportunists who profited personally from Soviet influence) regarded the Soviet Union, whose regime they despised, as their greatest enemy. The topic of a remote Communist China was somehow beyond the European horizon at the time—most people, apart from insiders, were not interested.

But it was the Tiananmen Square massacre in June 1989 that shocked the world. It reminded everyone that there was another totalitarian power besides the Soviet bear —Communist China, which did not hesitate to send in the army against its own people and inflict a bloodbath on them, even in front of media cameras. The nature of the Chinese Communist regime, in all its monstrousness, was thus suddenly visible to anyone who wished to see. Tiananmen resonated in Czechoslovakia too and only served to reinforce the sense of disgust with Communism and a degree of hopelessness about the future.

A fateful encounter

The first fateful connection between Václav Havel and His Holiness the Dalai Lama was on Oct. 5, 1989, the day of Havel’s birthday, and also the date on which the annual Nobel Peace Prize was to be announced. Václav Havel was about to celebrate his birthday with friends, but he had to be on the alert. As in previous years, he was on the shortlist of candidates for the prestigious prize and had to be prepared to answer questions from foreign journalists (their Czechoslovak counterparts were certainly not interested in such a thing; they may even have been terrified at the thought of having to report on an award to a prominent opponent of the regime …). According to witnesses, the first person to inform Václav Havel that the prize had been awarded to the Tibetan Dalai Lama was a journalist from Reuters. Havel’s response in English was brief and typical for him: ‘He deserves it!’ Later, the Dalai Lama made the same remark about Havel.

Although there were plenty of reasons in 1989 why Havel should finally have been awarded the most important human rights prize of all, the situation of the Tibetans was more arduous than that of the Czechoslovaks, and the massacre in Beijing certainly contributed to the choice of the Dalai Lama, who was both a symbolic victim of Chinese Communist subversion and an embodiment of its antithesis, the policy of nonviolence.

Moreover, nonviolence was also what Havel symbolized. Both were prominent representatives of their occupied nations, one a dissident and prisoner of conscience, the other a political exile who had lost his homeland. For their compatriots, they were moral authorities who kept alive the hope of freedom and a life of dignity, however unimaginable it was on that October day. Without being acquainted with each other or knowing much about each other, they were already linked by the similarity of their personal fate and the parallels between their peoples.

The Czechoslovaks and Tibetans both experienced firsthand subjugation and military occupation, coupled with the loss of fundamental freedoms—the elimination not only of political and civil rights, but also of culture and religion, combined with censorship and a pervasive state ideology. In both Czechoslovakia and Tibet, the occupying regimes imposed a harsh materialist doctrine that deprived individuals of their creative potential and their religious and spiritual dimension. The Communist ideal of the human being was—and is—in stark contrast to what the monk Dalai Lama and citizen Václav Havel represented.

Czechoslovaks and Tibetans mirrored each other’s experiences not only of foreign occupation but also of government-in-exile. The Dalai Lama created his shortly after escaping to India, the Czechoslovaks created theirs in London during the Second World War. And both in Czechoslovakia and among Tibetans there were individuals who shouldered the burden of the moral dilemma and made themselves individually the loudest voice of conscience of their people, the so-called burning torch.

In October, neither Havel nor the Dalai Lama could have foreseen the changes that would take place in a few weeks’ time. However, events gathered momentum quickly, and the fall of East Germany’s Berlin Wall in November was followed by demonstrations in Czechoslovakia and the so-called Velvet Revolution, which, apart from the initial violent clash between armed security forces and students on Nov. 17 in Prague, took an unexpectedly smooth course, inadvertently materializing Havel’s ideal of nonviolence.

When His Holiness the Dalai Lama received the Nobel Peace Prize at a ceremony in Oslo on Dec. 10, Human Rights Day, the Velvet Revolution was already in full swing. Havel was at the center of the action and was somehow naturally heading for the presidency.

One of those who participated in nominating the Dalai Lama for the Nobel Prize and who also attended the award ceremony in Norway was a former Indian diplomat in Prague, a supporter of the democratization process in Czechoslovakia and a supporter of the Tibetan cause, Mr. Manohar Lal Sondhi. He decided to connect his idols, the Dalai Lama and Havel. Before returning to India from Oslo, he stopped in revolutionary Prague, where he visited the Civic Forum office to convey the Dalai Lama’s wish “that Czechoslovakia become a centre of peace in Europe” together with a personal message to Václav Havel. In return, Mr. Sondhi then took to India a greeting from Mr. and Mrs. Havel to the Dalai Lama. He thus became one of the driving forces behind the events surrounding the Dalai Lama’s historic visit to Prague.

First time in Czechoslovakia

On Dec. 29, 1989, six weeks after the outbreak of the Velvet Revolution, Václav Havel was elected president amid general euphoria. A few days later, millions of Czechoslovak households were watching his New Year’s message on television screens. Havel began his speech by stating that the citizens had been lied to for decades, and that he had not been elected president in order to lie to them too. According to Havel, truth and love were supposed to triumph over lies and hatred. Empty Communist platitudes about class struggle and happy tomorrows were replaced by truthful words from President Havel about the poor state of society and a proposal for the direction a free country should take together with the policies it should pursue. In his speech, Havel formulated the values on which the new democracy was to be based.

Václav Havel welcomes the Dalai Lama in Prague. Photo: OHHDL.

And surprisingly for some, Havel concluded his television appearance by expressing his wish that Czechoslovakia be visited as soon as possible by two important spiritual authorities, the Catholic Pope John Paul II and the Tibetan Dalai Lama. As a man not firmly anchored in religion, but deeply grounded philosophically and spiritually, Havel understood the value of “interreligious dialogue,” which he publicly encouraged and later fully developed at the FORUM 2000 conferences, of which the Dalai Lama later became a regular guest and an integral part.

In his speech, Havel said verbatim that he would be “happy” if they both came, even if only for a single day. It’s obvious what he meant: restoring spirituality in a society which had been distorted by “historical materialism” and was spiritually arid. Later, when Havel recalled the Dalai Lama’s first invitation to Prague, he spoke about how the Dalai Lama had brought a little bit of light into our midst for a time. And witnesses confirm that this was indeed the case.

Apart from the spiritual motivation for both invitations, there was also a political aspect, of course. John Paul II was known for his opposition to Communism and his sense of human rights, and his arrival signaled not only the return of religious liberties to Czechoslovakia, but also the end of the Communist ideology in Central Europe. Likewise, the Dalai Lama, as the spiritual leader of Tibet, was also the foremost representative of a hard-pressed nation, who carried the hopes of his people on his shoulders. The Dalai Lama and the Pope arrived in Prague on Feb. 3 and April 21, 1990, respectively.

In retrospect, the Dalai Lama’s entire visit to Prague seems like a small miracle, when one considers that it took place only a month after Havel introduced the idea. On the Czechoslovak side, there was no experience of diplomatic protocol, and those who were present recall that everything happened somewhat chaotically. At a time when there were no mobile phones or the internet, and it was not possible to buy a ticket with just a couple of clicks on a computer as it is today, it was also an extraordinary organizational feat on the part of the Tibetans. Havel’s office prepared a three-day program, which in practice was modified in various ways and consisted of a series of public appearances, impromptu meditations and meetings with the general public, who turned up at various points to see and greet the distinguished guest. The most important of these meetings was the initial audience of the Dalai Lama with Cardinal František Tomášek in the Archbishop’s Palace at Prague Castle, and especially the meeting with Václav Havel himself at Lány Castle.

Few people in Czechoslovakia had any clear idea about the Dalai Lama, rather just a vague notion of what and whom he represented and that he was a recent Nobel Peace Prize winner. Apparently, not even Václav Havel knew exactly what to expect. In this connection, he later remarked that at that time his “knowledge of Tibet and its brave inhabitants was almost entirely from books.”

As both men recall, and as eyewitnesses testify, their first meeting was warm and, in a sense, surprisingly informal from the very outset. People described the intimacy that developed between the two men almost immediately. Both had a pleasantly detached approach to their functions and roles, both were informal and both liked to laugh. The Dalai Lama appreciated Havel’s sense of humor, humanity and naturalness. Havel, too, was pleasantly surprised by the warmth and directness of the holy man, who had a ready wit and a broadminded assessment of worldly transgressions. He told Havel, a heavy smoker, that he looked forward to “a second revolution when the country will stop smoking at the dinner table.”

What drew Havel to the Dalai Lama was his desire for spirituality, and many agree that he was fascinated by him on a human level. But it was also Havel the politician who felt the need to support the Dalai Lama in his legitimate efforts to preserve Tibetan autonomy against Chinese Communist oppression. Even as a president and statesman, he did not change his priorities and was actively concerned about human rights everywhere, so that his attitude toward Tibet and the presence of the Dalai Lama were a logical outcome of that attitude.

As soon as the plane touched down, sympathizers gathered at the airport with improvised banners welcoming the “exotic visitor.” Video footage shows His Holiness’ beaming face as he steps off the plane and sets foot for the first time in his life on the soil of a former Communist bloc country (apart from a brief visit to East Berlin on his way to receive the Nobel Prize).

The Dalai Lama’s visit seemed to be telling the people of Czechoslovakia and the whole world: This is the new us, these are the values we profess; Communism is gone and will never return. We stand for the oppressed elsewhere in the world; Tibet has our support, it too deserves its freedom.

The Chinese embassy protested, but nobody was too worried about it. As president of a now-free country, Havel, who had always been guided less by interests than by principles, had simply extended an invitation to the Tibetan leader.

The Dalai Lama’s first visit to Prague was a political and cultural milestone for hosts and visitors alike. For the Czechoslovaks, the arrival of the Tibetan leader marked one of the new regime’s first significant acts of foreign policy, a clear symbol of the rejection of the old order in the newly liberated country. For the Tibetans, they were able to see their spiritual and political leader walking side by side with one of the most important representatives of the democratic movement in the world. This gave them great hope that they too would one day rid themselves of authoritarian rule in a similar fashion. Since then, the Dalai Lama has visited the Czech Republic 10 times—twice since the death of Václav Havel—as a participant in conferences and ecumenical meetings within the framework of FORUM 2000.

The Dalai Lama had traveled abroad prior to his first visit to Prague, but not nearly as much as after his meeting with Václav Havel. He toured Europe in 1973 and at the end of that decade he visited the United States for the first time, including Congress, and around the same time he also addressed the European Parliament. The Nobel Prize has contributed to his prestige and his universal renown, and fostered the interest of the world public in the Tibetan issue. However, it may be said that Václav Havel was the one who, with his unexpected invitation, really broke a longstanding taboo, because until then no head of state had honored the Dalai Lama in such a way.

The voice of Czechoslovakia in the World

If people in the world knew about Czechoslovakia, it was mainly thanks to Václav Havel. He quickly became a globally recognized moral icon and authority, and not only politicians but people from all walks of life, including business and show business, not to mention rock stars like the Rolling Stones, were interested in meeting him. What Havel did or said attracted unprecedented media interest, and choosing to meet the Dalai Lama worked like a spell, opening other important doors, from the White House to the Élysée Palace and the Bundestag.

That there was something mystical in Václav Havel’s relationship with the Dalai Lama is confirmed by their last meeting. In the summer of 2011, Havel’s health deteriorated, and the Dalai Lama was informed of the fact. That October, Václav Havel celebrated his 75th birthday, but he gradually withdrew from public life. In November, Czech television broadcast his last ever public interview—with his former cellmate who had deepened his relationship with faith and spirituality while in prison, the current Cardinal Dominik Duka.

On Saturday, Dec. 10, 2011, again symbolically on Human Rights Day and on the anniversary of the awarding of the Nobel Prize to the Dalai Lama, the two men met for what we now know was the last time. The two of them first spent some time alone and then made a joint appearance before the press. Václav Havel was visibly frail and obviously very ill, but he was smiling and pleased to meet his precious friend. A week later, on Dec. 18, Václav Havel breathed his last and, as described by Sister Boromejka, the nun who cared for him in his last moments, it was as if he had blown out a candle. The flame of a fulfilled life had gone out, and His Holiness the Dalai Lama was the last guest and friend to say goodbye to him in person just before his death. In a way, it was otherworldly and completed the circle.

The Dalai Lama has returned to Prague twice since Havel’s death. Each time he stressed how strong their relationship was, but most importantly he appealed to us to carry on fulfilling Havel’s legacy. What the Dalai Lama has in mind are Havel’s universal principles and moral fortitude, his lifelong concern for human rights and the environment, and his belief in the meaningfulness of dialogue and bringing nations together, as is happening, for example, in the European Union, which received the strong support of both Havel and the Dalai Lama.

But we should also feel a commitment because of Havel’s attitude to Tibet, a country to which he offered moral support uncompromisingly from the time he took office until the end of his life. He remained firm in his view that human rights take precedence over economic interests. Once, while still in office, he wrote to His Holiness that if the Beijing government ever invited him to China, he would insist on visiting Tibet and Taiwan as part of the trip. Needless to say, the Chinese never invited him.

On the occasion of the important 4th International Meeting of Tibet Support Groups hosted by the Czech Senate in 2003, Havel gave a speech that clearly illustrates his retrospective view of the decision he had taken over a decade earlier and that shows that he stood by it and would not act differently in the future:

“When in 1990, at the very beginning of my first presidential term, I welcomed the supreme spiritual leader of the Tibetan nation to Prague, I caused some confusion; allegedly the invitation to His Holiness was due to my lack of political and diplomatic experience. To risk worsening relations between Czechoslovakia and mighty China seemed to many to be an act of sheer recklessness. Since then, however, His Holiness has visited our country several times and Beijing has not yet declared war on us.

“However, we keep hearing that we should not interfere in matters that are none of our business, that we do not understand the problem at all and that the Czech Republic and Tibet have nothing in common. This is the same attitude for which the Czech nation has already paid dearly for the loss of freedom on more than one occasion. Will we never learn? Unlike some of my critics, I believe that if the Czech Republic was unable to export some of its goods to China, it would only be because we have been overtaken by our competitors, not because of our friendly relations with the government-in-exile in Tibet or because we put respect for human rights ahead of momentary commercial interests.

“Why should the greatest power in Asia be afraid of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who commands no troops? I can personally testify (although it never ceases to fascinate me) that autocratic politicians, backed by the entire state apparatus, including the military, are always annoyed when someone stands up to them, even though that person is armed with nothing more than a belief in truth and non-violence.

“I am convinced that the desire for freedom is one of the fundamental traits of human nature. No politician in the world can ignore this fact. The struggle for freedom by non-violent means may be temporarily halted, but never destroyed.”

Not to fear meeting

The politicians who have succeeded Havel in the Czech Republic and elsewhere have not been so principled. This has also contributed to the current situation in which China has unprecedented influence and, with the help of state-of-the-art technology, is undermining and subverting Western democratic countries and their values, as well as manipulating the media and practicing censorship at home, while seeking to exercise it abroad.

The current geopolitical situation seems to be extremely complex, and world politics is once again lapsing into the taboos of the pre-Havel era, when meeting the Dalai Lama was something unacceptable, something that top leaders were reluctant to do for reasons of so-called realpolitik, lest they provoke some kind of imaginary retaliation from China.

We must ask ourselves why liberal democracies are succumbing so readily to this pressure and abandoning their own values and principles in the name of so-called economic interests. Let us ask ourselves what would happen if the entire free world were to say at the same moment a clear “no” to Chinese intimidation and blackmail. What would happen if Western leaders were to say to China with one voice that they stood behind Tibet and the Dalai Lama, that they stood behind the right of the people to freedom of religion and the development of their own culture. That, like Havel, they placed human dignity and human rights above narrow utilitarian interests and behaved in a way that was right. The answer is banally simple: “nothing” would happen at all. China would not stop doing business with the world, its threats would be empty saber-rattling with no real impact.

If the world will be commemorating the outstanding figure of Václav Havel on the 10th anniversary of his death, and if statesmen will be lauding with due emotion his merits and the ideas he promoted, it might be a good idea for them to examine their consciences and emulate Havel with practical actions.

They should send a clear signal to China that they will not be intimidated or blackmailed, that they will meet with whomever they want, whether it be Tibetan emigrants or Uyghurs, that they will support dissidents and prisoners of conscience in China, the way that Havel stood up publicly and with complete commitment for the signatories of the 2008 “Charter 08,” inspired by the Czechoslovak “Charter 77.” The best-known of them, Liu Xiaobo, who lost first his freedom and then his life as a result of the Communist regime, was not allowed to personally accept the Nobel Peace Prize, which he was awarded shortly before his death. It was precisely for him that Havel drew up a petition calling for his release from prison, which he personally placed in the mailbox of the Chinese Embassy in Prague in 2008, in the presence of the media.

Photo: Ondrej Besperat.

We can all follow the advice of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and fulfil the legacy of Václav Havel: by being truthful, by seeing environmental and climate protection issues as absolutely fundamental, by supporting and protecting the European Union, and by not forgetting Tibet and its people. Because, as Václav Havel wrote: if human freedom is denied to anyone in the world, it is therefore denied, indirectly, to all people. Long live Havel, long live the Dalai Lama!

Katerina Bursik Jaques served as Head of the Human Rights Department in the Government of the Czech Republic. She was also Director of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Government Commissioner for Human Rights. She is a former Member of the Parliament of the Czech Republic, Chairperson of the Parliamentary Committee on European Affairs and a Member of the Foreign Affairs Committee. She founded and chaired the Tibet Support Group in the Czech Parliament and organized His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s official visit in the Parliament of the Czech Republic. Katerina is Co-founder of the NGO “Czechs Support Tibet.” She is a member of ICT Germany, Secretary of the Tibet Support Group in the Czech Parliament and Member of the Steering Committee of the International Tibet Network.

My take on Dalai Lama’s call for a paradigm shift in thinking on study of Tibetan in Tibet

His Holiness the Dalai Lama delivers teachings in February, 2021.

Oftentimes, when His Holiness the Dalai Lama gives public teachings, he takes the opportunity to provide advice on specific issues, in addition to explaining the subject matter itself. Given the strong bond between the Tibetan people and the Dalai Lama, his advice then reverberates in the community. For example, in January 2006, on the final day of the sacred Kalachakra empowerment in Amravati in South India, he had a message for the Tibetans, “When you go back to your respective places, remember what I had said earlier and never use, sell, or buy wild animals, their products or derivatives.” His call was followed in subsequent months with Tibetans in Tibet giving up the skins of animals in their possession and organizing their public burning, much to the chagrin of Chinese authorities who were then being accused of lack of enforcement over poaching and selling of endangered animal pelts in Tibetan areas.

This past weekend, during his annual teaching on the holy 15th day of the first month in the Tibetan calendar (which fell on Feb. 27, 2021), the issue he addressed was the Tibetan language.

His Holiness understands the power of his platform. He began his teachings on Saturday saying that although the unfortunate pandemic situation has made him have to adapt to a new teaching format, it has also enabled these teachings to be seen and heard by people worldwide, including Tibetans living all over Tibet.

His Holiness then made a special appeal to Tibetans in Tibet, specifically the younger generation, to study the Tibetan language. He did this by virtually challenging them to make a paradigm shift in their thinking on the reasons for doing so.

It is commonly assumed that Tibetans should study the Tibetan language because we are Tibetan. Learning and using pure “father tongue” (Tibetans are among the few communities that use this term rather than the commonly seen “mother tongue”) is included as part of the broader movement to protect Tibetan identity. This can be seen in the Lhakar (“White Wednesday”) movement, which Tibetans in Tibet initiated informally many years back (and the Tibetan community in exile replicated, most visibly through performing circle dances on the day).

His Holiness first applauded a new interest in the Tibetan language that he was seeing in different parts of Tibet, giving the example of developments in Siling (Chinese: Xining) area. He said he saw some videos of Tibetan children there studying the Tibetan language, which wasn’t the case in the past.

His Holiness then said Tibetans, particularly the younger generation, should study the Tibetan language not from a sense of Tibetan nationalism, but because of its ability to impart knowledge about the profound Buddhist philosophy of the Nalanda tradition. His exact words, translated into English, were, “This is not a matter of attachment to one’s own nationality.”

He expanded on this saying (with reference to Tibetans in Tibet) that on subjects like science and politics, Chinese might be the dominant language in the short run. But on subjects of religion, culture and Buddhist philosophy, which enjoy worldwide interest, knowledge can only be gained through the Tibetan language. He referred to the two Tibetan Buddhist canons of Kagyur (with 100 volumes) and Tengyur (with nearly 200 volumes) and said that it will be almost impossible to translate them into Chinese. To me, this reference to the drawback in the Chinese language on matters of Tibetan Buddhism makes me feel the Dalai Lama is cognizant of the reports of efforts by the Chinese authorities to Sinicize Tibetan Buddhism. I guess he is implying that the Chinese plan cannot succeed.

Secondly, His Holiness made the interesting point that studying Tibetan Buddhist culture does not necessarily mean one has to be a “believer.” This seems to me to be a direct message to those many Tibetans in Tibet who are members of the Chinese Communist Party and thus consider themselves to be non-believers. In recent times, the Chinese authorities have been restricting party cadres, government officials and their children from participating in religious activities. His Holiness explained his call by referring to several scientists who are his friends who study Buddhism as an academic subject, getting benefit in the process, but who are not necessarily Buddhist practitioners. This is because Buddhism is not only about faith, but also about knowledge, he said.

His Holiness also presented his call for studying the Tibetan language in the context of his now well-known emphasis on studying the Buddhist scriptures rather than merely having a superficial understanding. He urged the younger Tibetans to do deeper study of subjects like logic and perfection of wisdom. He made the case that this was necessary particularly in light of the “situation created currently by those narrow-minded Chinese Communist leaders bent on wiping out the Tibetan language.”

His Holiness’ call is topical, considering the way the Chinese authorities have been using their authority to undermine the Tibetan language, whether in changing the medium of instruction from Tibetan to Chinese or discouraging people through persecuting language rights advocates like Tashi Wangchuk.

One can only wait to see what the impact of His Holiness’ call to the Tibetans this time will be.

80 years of the Dalai Lama: An appreciation

The four-year-old Dalai Lama glances at the camera during his enthronement ceremony in Lhasa, Tibet on Feb. 22, 1940

It’s no exaggeration to say that when I was growing up, the Dalai Lama was one of the most visible and popular figures in the United States. And though I’m loathe to pat myself on the back, I often think that if I could travel back in time and tell my adolescent self that someday I’d work in service of the Dalai Lama and his people, the younger me would break into a big smile.

In fact, when I took my job with the International Campaign for Tibet two summers ago, my first thought was that after about a decade as a professional, I’d finally made it in the world. That had nothing to do with money (the public sector is not exactly a goldmine) or reputation (I had been working for the Pew Charitable Trusts, a household name among nonprofits) or even the type of work I do here (which is pretty much the same as what I’ve done in past jobs). Instead, it had everything to do with His Holiness the Dalai Lama and what he represents.

Tomorrow, the world will celebrate 80 years since the enthronement of this icon from Tibet. On Feb. 22, 1940, the four-year-old Dalai Lama officially took the throne in a glorious ceremony at the Potala Palace in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa. The photo above provides an extraordinary glimpse at the child who—according to Tibetan Buddhist beliefs—is an incarnation of Avalokiteśvara, a Bodhisattva of compassion, and who, unlike his 13 predecessors, would go on to bridge the gap between Tibet’s unique culture and the outer world while leading his people and their supporters in an epochal moral and political struggle against the Chinese Communist Party.

I am not the most qualified person to deliver a biography of His Holiness, nor am I in a position to offer a rigorous study of his religious and philosophical ideas. Instead, I plan to use this post to share some personal reflections on what the Dalai Lama has done for me, a non-Tibetan living in the West whose almost entire life has been limned by the gentle glow of his wisdom and beneficence.

Little Dalai Lama

I cannot say when I first learned of the Dalai Lama, but my earliest intact memories of him date back to when we were both kids—sort of. In 1997, two major films came out that focused on the early life of His Holiness: “Seven Years in Tibet,” starring Brad Pitt as the Austrian mountain climber Heinrich Harrer, and “Kundun,” directed by Martin Scorsese. (This was back before China managed to almost completely censor any mention of Tibet in Hollywood.) Watching those movies with my father helped familiarize me with Tibet and the ongoing human rights crisis there.

I can recall having two distinct emotional reactions to “Seven Years in Tibet” and especially “Kundun.” The first was that I felt sorry for the little boy Dalai Lama, because I was a kid too, and I thought it must have been so boring for him to spend all his time indoors meditating, rather than going outside to play. To me, it was like having to go to church every day.

My other reaction was pride in knowing that His Holiness eventually took refuge in India. Although I had no real memories of India, I knew that I was born there and that I was Indian, so I thought it was pretty cool that this revered world leader lived in my homeland. Today, that immature sense of ethnic self-satisfaction has been replaced by my appreciation for His Holiness’ role as a spokesperson for ancient Indian philosophy. The Dalai Lama often now talks about his commitment to reviving India’s traditional knowledge, especially the teachings of the Nalanda Buddhist academy and the Indian masters’ understanding of psychology and mental training—things I too think are urgently needed for curing the modern world’s spiritual and psychic maladies.


It’s no surprise, then, that my next vital memory of the Dalai Lama’s influence in my life involves another Indian sage. When I was a freshman in college and trying to sort out my political views, my roommate had me take a political compass test that placed my beliefs along X and Y coordinates on a plot graph that also charted the ideology of famous figures. If I recall correctly, my roommate ended up in the quadrant of the graph that had Karl Marx and Che Guevara, but that didn’t seem quite right for me. Thankfully, the quadrant my beliefs landed me in was home to His Holiness and to Mahatma Gandhi—two great avatars of nonviolence and moral resistance.

A few months ago, I wrote another post for this blog touching on His Holiness’ affinity for the Mahatma and drawing comparisons between the movements these two wise men have led. Most significant to me was the fact that neither Gandhi nor the Dalai Lama are revolutionaries or freedom fighters in the most commonly understood meanings of those terms. Gandhi never wanted India to become a contemporary nation like its colonial ruler, Great Britain. Rather, he dreamed of an India that would repudiate modern civilization and embrace traditional notions of simplicity, neighborliness, local self-rule and nonviolence. Similarly, the Dalai Lama has even been willing to accept less than total independence for Tibet in favor of a Middle Way Approach of genuine autonomy and mutual benefit with the Chinese. He has also, to my immense satisfaction, guided Tibetans in exile to adopt democracy and relinquished his own political authority.

No need to worry

My youthful sense of identification with the Dalai Lama was a source of background comfort through the first quarter-century of my life, but it was not until just under a decade ago that I really began to look more closely at his beliefs. At the time, I was going through the kind of existential confusion common to people in that age group. I had drifted away from my childhood religion (Christianity), I had struggled to find my place in the world in my first few years out of college, and I felt profound anxiety and uncertainty over my future.

During that period, I began to gravitate toward Buddhism, which presented me with a radically different understanding of the world and the self than the one I had been raised with. Of course, the Dalai Lama is likely the world’s most famous Buddhist, so he quickly emerged as my go-to source of guidance, as well as my biggest hero. Through my fervent consumption of his YouTube clips (my favorite was this one where he laughs uncontrollably at an Australian reporter’s unsuccessful attempt to tell a joke; I challenge any of you to watch it without giggling) and his pithy sayings, His Holiness quickly became the most prophetic voice in this world reminding me that life is actually good. I even went so far as to tape a small postcard of the Dalai Lama to the side of my dresser, so that when I was getting ready in the morning, I could see his beaming smile and remember to embody his teachings as I went about my day.

That summer, 2011, I saw—for the only time so far in my life—the Dalai Lama in person when he spoke outside the US Capitol here in Washington, DC. I will never forget that I went there that day with a slightly older friend of mine who tragically died just a few years later from an unexpected health issue. Thus my memories of this friend, who was a person of deep compassion, will forever be intertwined with my memories of seeing the Dalai Lama, which seems fitting.

A couple years after that day at the Capitol, when the brilliance of the Dalai Lama’s beliefs had begun to take root in my mind, I shared with another close friend of mine my favorite quote from His Holiness, which by then had become my words to live by:

“If you have fear of some pain or suffering, you should examine whether there is anything you can do about it. If you can, there is no need to worry about it; if you cannot do anything, then there is also no need to worry.”

Today and tomorrow

Today, I feel blessed to be part of the Tibet movement, because I always knew I wanted to try to do something good for the world, but I never could have guessed I would get to do something as good as serve the vision of His Holiness.

As China pursues its wicked plans to appoint the Dalai Lama’s eventual successor, it is more important than ever for all of us to take action to protect the legacy and the teachings of this great man.

I hope you will join me tomorrow in celebrating the 80th anniversary of His Holiness’ enthronement. And, if you have not already done so, please write to your Senators to ask them to support the Tibetan Policy and Support Act, which will make it official US policy that only Tibetan Buddhists can decide the Dalai Lama’s succession—and will sanction any Chinese officials who attempt to name their own Dalai Lama in the future.

Tell your Senators to pass the TPSA!

The Dalai Lama on China becoming a ‘Compassionate Nation’ under the Communist Party

I have just watched a fascinating interview with His Holiness the Dalai Lama by Qin Weiping, a US-based Chinese blogger, who visited Dharamsala in October 2016. The interview (conducted in Tibetan and Chinese) is interesting not only because His Holiness shares his thoughts on how China could become a compassionate nation, but more so because he says that such a transformation should be, and can be, led by the Chinese Communist Party. His Holiness believes that through such a transformation China has the opportunity to alter the current negative perception of Communism in the world.

In the interview, the Dalai Lama (speaking in Tibetan) says he has been calling for the world to become more compassionate and says that scientists maintain that mankind is inherently compassionate. So, when he is calling for the world to be compassionate, he feels that China, a traditionally Buddhist nation, has the possibility and the opportunity to do so.

The Dalai Lama says when he addresses Western audiences on the need for compassion, there is some slight discomfort on his part as he is basing himself on an inherently Buddhist approach (although he has never thought of proselytization). But in China the situation is different as almost all Chinese have a closer relationship with Buddhism, he says.

He feels it will be good if the Chinese Communist Party can take the lead on this. His Holiness gives a theoretical reason why this should be done. He says it is a known fact that in terms of his socio-economic belief, he calls himself a Marxist. When Marx is talking about the rights of the working class, there is the talk of kindness. The Dalai Lama opines that Karl Marx’s theory was, however, ruined by Lenin. Therefore, he says while he believes in Marxism, he is against Leninism.

The Dalai Lama feels many of the problems that China has faced in the past may have been due to the influence of Leninism and Stalinism. He refers to an opinion of the former Israeli President and Nobel Laureate Shimon Peres, who, as a socialist, had positive feelings towards China. However, when he had asked Mr. Peres some years back whether China is a socialist nation or not, the response was negative, with Mr. Peres saying that China is a capitalist nation. However, in Western capitalism there are rule of law and free media, which are absent in China, the Dalai Lama adds alluding to these as serving as checks and balances.

The Dalai Lama refers to Deng Xiaoping, who had, with great courage, changed the economic system through his open door policy, which benefited China greatly. Now if Xi Jinping can bring about a bit of a change in the political system, the Dalai Lama thinks it will be beneficial. He says by change in the political system, he is not referring to changing from Communist Party rule. He says Deng Xiaoping changed the economic system under the leadership of the Communist Party. Therefore, it is possible that under the leadership of the Communist Party, there can be efforts at spreading compassion in China.

The Dalai Lama thinks it would be interesting if there was a new Cultural Revolution in China, based on kindness this time, as the earlier Cultural Revolution was based on hatred.

The Dalai Lama refers to Communism as being organized and says that if it can be liberal as well it will be good. He said today Communism is considered something negative in the world. But a situation can be created so that the world can start looking at China saying its form of Communism is something special. The Dalai Lama adds that maybe he is dreaming.

The Dalai Lama feels he could make a contribution, if there is such an opportunity, toward spreading compassion in China, and that he could do so in earnest. As a follower of Buddhism who has been talking about the issue in Western countries, he says he could do so in China, a Buddhist country. He clarifies that he has no desire for any privileges or position, adding that in 2011 he had completely ended the historical tradition of the Dalai Lamas serving as both spiritual and temporal leader.

In order for that to happen and for China to be a powerful and effective nation, His Holiness feels it is essential that it earns trust and respect, particularly of its neighbors. Taking it to a personal level, His Holiness refers to Chinese leadership’s attitude of castigating him and asks how China was benefiting by doing so. He says that only makes the possibility of his visiting China become more remote. He says under the current situation, he wonders how much use he can be if he were to go to China. Therefore, he thinks that it is better that he be in a place where he can be of benefit.

The Dalai Lama concludes (switching to English) saying he is an 81-year-old Buddhist monk and might have another 10-15-20 years. “My life should be something useful to humanity,” he says, adding that this was his commitment.

So there you have it, a possibility of a compassionate China with Dalai Lama characteristics, if I may!

On the Great Significance of the Dalai Lama’s latest visit to Mongolia

Mongolian Buddhists

Mongolian Buddhists waiting to welcome the Dalai Lama in the capital UlaanBaatar on November 19, 2016. (Photo: Tenzin Taklha, OHHDL)

One of the outcomes regarding the Dalai Lama in the post-1959 period is the clarity that has emerged about the nature of his followers. The conventional thinking about the Dalai Lama being merely the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people has changed. He has not only gained thousands of followers in both the Eastern and Western world, but more importantly the traditional followers of Tibetan Buddhism outside of Tibet, along the Himalayan region as well as in Mongolia and present-day Russian Federation, have become more visible.

This can be clearly seen at the very many teachings that the Dalai Lama has been giving in India and elsewhere, particularly in Bodh Gaya, where we see an intermingling of Bhutanese, Monpas, Sherpas, Sikkimese, Ladakhis, Mongols, and more.

His Holiness has spent the past several decades spreading his message urging traditional Buddhists to become modern; to devote more of their attention to the all-round study of Buddhism and not merely be consumed by the ritualistic aspect of it. He also feels modern Buddhists should be able to utilize the knowledge of Buddhist science to interact with modern science.

Ladakhi Buddhists

Ladakhi Buddhists in northern India waiting to welcome the Dalai Lama in the regional capital Leh in July 2016. (Photo: Tenzin Choejor, OHHDL)

His Holiness had the same messages during his four day visit to Mongolia.

In adding to giving Buddhist teachings, the Dalai Lama also participated in a Buddhist and Science conference in Ulaan Baatar, the capital of Mongolia. During this conference, he said: “Buddhist scholars and practitioners have benefited from learning about physics, while modern scientists have shown a keen interest in learning more about what Buddhism has to say about the workings of the mind and emotions.”

His Holiness also mentioned his pleasure in the conference being held for the benefit of the Mongolian Buddhist community. Among speakers at the conference were Helen Y. Wang, a neuroscientist and a clinical psychologist at the University of California, San Francisco, spoke about Contemplative Neuroscience and Socially Engaged Buddhism; B. Boldsaikhan from the Mongolian University of Science and Technology who spoke about medicine and logic; K. Namsrai, a senior scholar in physics, who talked about relations between Quantum Physics and Buddhist philosophy; and Dr. Fadel Zeidan, Associate Director of Neuroscience at Wake Forest School of Medicine in North Carolina, spoke about the Neuroscience of Mindfulness, Meditation and Pain.

In general the Dalai Lama visiting Mongolia should not be a surprise, considering the nature of country and its people. The Mongolian people have had a special historical connection with the Dalai Lama. Many are followers of Tibetan Buddhism, and their devotion to His Holiness was clearly visible during this visit. Some people traveled hundreds of miles in the current harsh wintry climate merely to have a glimpse of a spiritual leader they revere. In fact, there were even Buddhists from neighboring Russian Federation, who after hearing about His Holiness’ visit at short notice, made arrangements to be able to participate in the teachings. A New York Times report on November 19 described two such individuals: Daritseren, 73, an ethnic Mongolian from Russian Siberia, who had heard only on Friday (November 18) that the Dalai Lama was visiting Mongolia. “She traveled with 40 other people for 15 hours overnight to make it just in time for the sermon,” it said. Another individual, Boldbaatar, 75, a herder, had traveled 125 miles. “I’m an old man,” the New York Times quotes him as saying. “Maybe I’m seeing His Holiness, the incarnation of Lord Buddha, for the last time,” he added.

However, China has for long been misunderstanding the person of the Dalai Lama, considering him a problem rather than a solution, and has been using economic clout to prevent countries from welcoming him. In fact, many countries far bigger than Mongolia have succumbed to Chinese pressure. The fact that Mongolia did not do so is a testimony to its leaders’ ability to uphold their principles and traditional values. The Mongolian government did not let this undue pressures from China get in the way of enabling Mongolian Buddhists to receive His Holiness’ teachings. Reactions in the Mongolian media that I monitored clearly regard this development positively. I hope such developments will even lead to a time when Chinese Buddhists in China, too, can avail themselves of the wisdom imparted by His Holiness, just as the Mongolians were able to do this time.