In 1997, the Indian journalist Mayank Chhaya was authorized by the Dalai Lama to write about his life and times. The only authorized biographer
who is not a Buddhist, Chhaya conducted more than dozen personal interviews with the Dalai Lama in Mcleod Ganj in India’s Himalayan north,
home to Tibet’s government-in-exile. His numerous private audiences with, and attendance at the public appearances of the narrative and adds
weight, depth and gravitas to our popular image of the man.
Written with the full cooperation of the Dalai Lama, this fascinating up-to-date biography offers for more than just a personal portrait. Chhaya
writes about Tibet and the Buddhist tradition from which the Dalai Lama emerged, putting into perspective the context that shaped his beliefs,
politics, and ideals. He depicts the Dalai Lama in the light of his life in exile and the various roles he has had to assume for his followers. He
sheds light on the highly complex conflict between China and Tibet, and offers insights into the growing discontent among young Tibetans who
are frustrated with the nonviolent approach to Chinese occupation that the Dalai Lama advocates.
A balanced, informative view of the Dalai Lama and his work, this biography is both a compelling profile of a remarkable spiritual leader and his
mission, and an engaging look at how the current unrest in his country will affect its future.
MAYANK CHAYYA has been a journalist for the past twenty-five-years. He has extensively reported on India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and now the
United States. He is a widely read commentator on South Asian affairs for the New Delhi-based Indo –Asian News Service and also runs a news
and current site. He is based in Chicago and divides his time between Washington, D.C and New York
“In examining the life of His Holiness the Dalai Lama as an individual in the context of his different roles as man, monk, and mystic, Mayank
Chayya has succeeded in presenting an engaging portrait of one of the world’s great leaders.”
“This is an authorized biography by an Indian journalist who did his research homework and had access to the Dalai Lama. The author also brings a
familiarity with Asian politics, an essential frame of reference for understanding the complex situation of the Tibetan spiritual and political
leader who has spent close to fifty years in exile in India. The end product is balanced – neither debunking nor hagiographic, but taking a Buddhist
–style Middle Way toward its subject, even though the author is not himself a Buddhist .Particularly fascinating and demystifying is the account
of the Dalai Lama’s earliest years.”
The fourteenth Dalai Lama and Tibet were the most mysterious part of my childhood apocrypha. Everything about the man and his land was
fabulous-mystical stories of reincarnation unfolding in fog- laden valleys of frozen mountains at the height of 13,000-plus feet. Tonsured monks
on ochre roes contrasted against the white snow-covered landscape of the Himalayas appeared so stunningly picturesque to me that I did not care
if such a world could really exist. It did not matter whether the stories were pretty good chance that both Tibet and the Dalai Lama existed. But in
my Indian childhood in the early 1960s they seemed to belong more to magical folklore than reality.
In a country where the real and the magical constantly fuse and metamorphose into each other, what different did it make whether this world
actually existed? In any event seemed infinitely more engaging that real.
That view changed every time the winter came and the Dalai Lama’s existence became all too real when hundreds of his portraits and
picture adorned the sidewalks of my town along with piles of brightly colored sweaters that Tibetan refugees came to sell. At least it was true that
were Tibetan people. It appeared quite possible that after all someone called the Dalai Lama did indeed exist. I remember having asked a Tibetan
woman who the “grow-up babylike figure in the picture” was. “That is His Holiness”. He is the living Buddha.” She replied. I neither understood
“His Holiness” nor “the living Buddha”. I knew of only one Buddha, who had been dead for 2,500 years. The question that troubled me was id
Gautama Buddha had died so long ago how come he was still living? It took me another decade a half to unravel that mystery.
Since I grew up in a country where renunciates and ascetics crowd the landscape, yet another monk was unlikely to attract my
attention. This was particularly true of the one who lived some thousand miles away in the pre-Himalayan Dhauladhar mountain range in
northwest India. In the 1960s and ‘70s the Dalai Lama was features in local Indian newspapers frequently, especially after the country’s
disastrous war with China in 1962. There were some delightfully misinformed people in my neighborhood who seriously believed that India
could avenge its humiliating defeat at the hands China using the Dalai Lama’s Tantric powers, which ordinary people to mean some sort of black
magic or occult practices. In their near, if completely flawed, formulation, the Dalai Lama, forced to flee Tibet amid grave threats to his life by
the invading Chinese army barely three years earlier, would be thirsting to settle scores with them. And could there be amore potent weapons for
a reincarnate Buddhist monk than black magic?
In 1967, a full five years after the war between India and China, one of my neighbors gathered unsuspecting and impressionable
children like myself and conjured up an image of the Dalai Lama going into a deep trance and unleashing destructive energy against the People’s
Liberation Army. Since he came from the land of Mount Kailash, the putative hub of the Hindu god Shiva, the raconteur told us that the Dalai
Lama had three eyes, one right in the middle of his forehead. The third eye was where all his power of cosmic destruction resided. If he opened
that –prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, he claimed with utter certainty, had persuaded the Dalai Lama to invoke the devastating wrath that would
instantly atomize the Chinese Army. Such street side phantasms let loose by the neighborhood fantasist merely reinforced my perception that the
Dalai Lama was more apocryphal than real.
My first encounter with the real Dalai Lama came sometime in the early 1980s when he was visiting Bombay to attend a congress on
synthesis between science and religion. I did not consciously look for his third eye, but it was reassuring that he did not have one. I vaguely
remembered that my neighborhood storyteller had qualified his claim about the Dalai Lama’s third eye by saying that it became apparent only
during extraordinary times. The congress was clearly not one such extraordinary time. As a reporter assigned to cover the congress, I was
expected to produce an offbeat story of the event, one that did not necessarily have any immediate news value. I remember asking the Dalai Lama,
“Aren’t we rapidly approaching a stage in human history where the dividing line between science and religion is fast vanishing?” The Dalai Lama
laughed from the core of his being and said, “Religion is science with faith. Science is religion in search of faith.” Even as he said that I realized
that this story was not going to make that day’s or any other day’s paper. It is just as well that the remark had to hibernate for nearly two decades
because it has now found a home in the more substantial context of a book.
The Dalai Lama has grown in my consciousness over the last fifteen years. Sporadic reading about him, Tibet, China and Buddhism
marked the run-up to my first substantial meeting with him in1996. He was never in my first my professional focus till that year when I began
working on a cover story for India Abroad, a New York-based Indian American weekly newspaper. The scope of the story was very general,
covering the question of Tibet from many different angles. It was in this context that I first sought an interview with the Dalai Lama. It took place
on the sidelines of Shoton, a Lhamo festival at the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts (TIPA) in McLeod Ganj, the Dalai Lama’s place of exile
for four decades in India. Lhamo is a 580-year-old Tibetan tradition that began as a simple bridge-building project over the Kyichu River near
Lhasa by the fourteenth-century scholar Thangtong Gyalpo. Legend has it that Gyalpo, hard –pressed as he was for money to build the bridge,
turned to seven sisters in his workforce who excelled at dancing and singing. The scholar created an operatic style around the seven sisters’ talent
and traveled throughout Tibet staging performances to raise money for the bridge. The sisters’ high-pitched martial singing and vigorous dancing
earned them the sobriquet “the heavenly dancing goddesses,” or Lhamo. The bridge was built and so was the Tibetan opera.
After the interview the Dalai Lama’s aides invited my family my wife, Kesumi, and my son, Jashn, for a ceremonial blessing. Kesumi
is an Indonesian Muslim who was born in the Buddhist island nation of Sri Lanka. Having been used to Buddhist monks who do not hobnob with
the laity, my wife approach the Dalai Lama with a great deal of circumspection, even trepidation. I am narrating this incident in some detail
because I believe it influenced the Dalai Lama’s decision to authorize me to write this book. The Dalai Lama sprang from his chair, went to the
door, where my wife stood with our son, gave her an avuncular hug, massaged my son’s head, and brought them in. Stunned by the gesture wife
said spontaneously that she was a Muslim, I an agnostic, and that maybe our son would become a Buddhist. For a fraction of a second I could see
that the Dalai Lama was touched by what was being said to him.
During one of my many subsequent visits to McLeod Ganj, a very senior monk, who bound me to the oath of never revealing his name,
said, “Don’t make the mistake of thinking that you were chosen for any worldly reasons.” He left it that with a cryptic clue hanging on my head
forever. Be that as it may, I was chosen to write this ambitious book. It does not matter why.
The last four decades have seen one of the twentieth century’s most intractable standoffs, essentially between a single individual and
one of the world’s mightiest nations. On the one hard there is a nation that has historically considered itself to be not only at the center of the
world but a geopolitical entity that must keep open the option of extending its boundaries its for all times to come. It is a powerful nation that has
kept its over one billion people in a political, cultural and economic straitjacket even while consolidating its position as one of the most decisive
voices in world affairs.
On the other hand there is simple yet profoundly learned and extraordinarily evolved monk whose very presence causes millions of his
followers to be overcome with emotion. He speaks and practices tolerance of the most enlightened kind in the face of the systematic genocide
of his own people by his gigantic adversary. Even if we set aside for a moment the fact that he is regarded by his followers as the reincarnation of
one of human history’s most revered and worshipped figures, the conflict pitting the Dalai Lama against China makes for a captivating struggle.
The Dalai Lama’s highly engaging personality adds to the standoff an incredibly dramatic edge.
As a journalist I have approached this book purely as story whose characters are real and contemporary. Beyond that, during the course
of my seven years of research I have discovered facets of the Dalai Lama that extremely few have had the privilege to explore. Many of my
Tibetan friends tell me that they feel gratified for life if they manage to meet the Dalai Lama for a few seconds. “Look at your destiny that you
have had the blessing to sit with His Holiness and talk not once, twice but a number of times. Never forget that something like this does not
simply happen without a reason,” Migmar, one of thousands of Tibetan refugees on the streets of McLeod Ganj, told me during a conversation.
For me the single biggest professional challenge has been to rescue from an ocean of often conflicting works a persona that is not
only accurate but even original and to present a profile that has never been written before. Given the kind of massive media profile that the Dalai
Lama has enjoyed over the past fifteen years in the West in general and the United States in particular, it is difficult to find fresh material. Apart
from books and newspaper articles there have been feature films and documentaries on the subject. Tibet and the Dalai Lama must be among the
most extensively written about subject in the world today. All this clearly made my task even more exacting.
By his admission and according to many analysts of the subject, his long exile from Tibet has not only had a defining impact on the
Dalai Lama personally but also has significantly influenced the evolution of the institution of the Dalai Lama in modern times. Some scholar
even argue that the Dalai Lama’s exile from the land of his birth and his separation from the trappings of his enormous power within Tibet has in
fact salvaged the once sagging image of the Tibetan Buddhist clergy as a power-hungry elite that perpetuated itself in the morass of shocking
ignorance and blind religious faith among its peasant and nomadic populace. The exile has also fundamentally shaped the dynamic of the Tibet-
It is from this standpoint that I recognize that a book that takes in its sweep all the elements of this conflict over the last four decades
and presents it in a manner that is accessible to the uninitiated reader in any part of the world should have discernible merit. It is tempting to get
sucked into the mystical vortex of the subject and produce yet another gawky account of something that has been so frivolously called exotic; a
land with an average elevation of 13,000 feet and which forms an endless cold desert inhabited by people apparently frozen in a time warp,
twirling strange- looking prayer wheels and chanting even stranger sounding mantras – these all are ingredients that naturally that lend themselves
to exotic interpretation. My challenge was to quickly go past those stereotypes and attempt to present something that goes beyond the obvious.
The conflict that the Dalai Lama finds himself right at the center of is not merely about the geographical entity called Tibet.
Geographical expansion is just one aspect of it. The conflict operates on a far more profound human level. It is a conflict that has all but
destroyed a unique way of life and in the process taken, according to Tibetan estimate, close to a million lives quite remorselessly. It is a conflict
that has ruthlessly dismantled a very valuable belief system, based not on unquestioning faith but on cogent intellect. While it is true that many
elements of Tibet before the Chinese took over defined rational thinking, by and large it has been a society that has attempted to live by a system
that rationally evolved over many centuries. It is also a conflict between a people who do not take up arms because they are convinced of the utter
futility of violence at any a nation-state that has no compunctions about expanding at any cost. Most important it is a conflict between a single
individual of enormous scholarship, enlightenment, and intellectual integrity and a nation that has routinely transgressed basic human values.
I set out the present a book through which a general reader can grasp some aspects of this great conflict and reach a conclusion that
errs on the side of morality and humanness. In one’s efforts to achieve that objective one always runs the risk of producing a hagiography that is
rash in its judgment and naïve in its understanding of historical process crystallizing for the past many centuries. I have no intentions of
apportioning blame in the Tibet-versus-China debate. I merely want to understand through the life story of the Dalai Lama what it is that nation
–states find so very unacceptable about independence of individual thought.
The conflict has already entered a phase wherein a battle of attrition is being waged by China to decimate the spirit of the Tibetan’s Dr
Orville Schell, one of the foremost scholars of China and Tibet, author of fourteen highly regarded books, and dean of Berkeley School of
journalism told me; “The trouble with the system that China now has is that is very difficult to move in a deliberate and radically new way on
anything. The whole path of reform has been tiny little piecemeal experiments which have become the de facto reality. In a certain sense the
problem with Tibet its more symbolic than real, a little bit like Taiwan. So it is harder for China to move symbolically to clear major policy shifts
and easier to move on piecemeal practical question. I don’t think this leadership feels capable of making such a shift. It is one of the great
mysteries of China’s political system how resistant it is to fundamental change and less resistant to superficial change[s] which in aggregate add
up often into something major, but that’s not Tibet’s problem. So they are hoping that the Dalai Lama would simply die. What they fail to
appreciate, however, is that he is their best hope to bring about some sort of reconciliation and to keep Tibet peacefully within the sovereign
boundaries of China. They don’t fully understand the negative consequence of what they are doing to themselves.”
“It is possible that China is waiting for me to die in the hope that the cause will lose its center. But I think the Tibetan people have
enough strength to keep up their struggle in my absence,” the Dalai Lama told me in one of his many interviews.
A lot has been said about how the inherent pacifism of Buddhism, a philosophy that ordinary Tibetans considered pivotal to their lives
could in fact prove their greatest undoing. A race that was once martial and known for its conquest has steadily lost its edge because of centuries
of pacifist conditioning. And in any case the sheet numbers do not favor the Tibetan’s. Even if every single Tibetan rises in armed rebellion, the
prospects of their making any impact on China are bleak at best. “One billion Chinese, Six million Tibetans – what can anyone do? Even if the
Chinese say come cut my throat, who is going to do that? The Tibetans will get tried and the Chinese will still be there,” is how the Dalai Lama’s
eighty-four-year-old brother, Thubten Jigme Norbu, puts it with a degree of resignation.
As long as the Dalai Lama is at the helm of Tibetan affairs there is no likehood that the Tibet movement will turn itself into an armed
struggle. The whole point of Tibet is that it must retain its moral and spiritual high ground because without that the conflict it faces could
degenerate into any of the hundreds of armed insurgencies around the world.
I have attempted to tell a human story based on many fascinating anecdotes as well as the engaging mysticism surrounding the
institution of the Dalai Lama embodied by Tenzin Gyatso. The Dalai Lama’s person combines three equal and at times competing elements of
man, monk, and mystic. The very nature of the struggle he has had to wage since his childhood has forced him to let the man take primacy over
the other two. The monk in him is of course an obvious reality but generally remains understated because of his increasingly mundane
preoccupation. I have been exceedingly few times when the mystic in the Dalai Lama has surfaced in recent years. He almost never talks about
the mystique of his being. In fact, he tends to dismiss it completely. I have been witness to a couple of special teaching in McLeod Ganj where
his mystique was in evidence. I was allowed to sit through a particularly advanced teaching for some six to eight people. At one particular point
the Dalai Lama asked one of the people to choose a particular path of salvation. A symbol that emerged was indicative of wrath. At the precise
moment that the Dalai Lama interpreted that symbol lightning struck somewhere quite close to the mountain where the ritual was being
conducted. I don’t know if anyone else noticed it but I was quite amazed at its timing, however fortuitously it may have coincided with the ritual.
It may have been happenstance, but the Dalai Lama seems to have a knack for finding himself frequently amid such occurrences.
I have been many spiritual masters in my career, but there are very few who switch so effortlessly between their ordinary mortal
concerns, their renunciatory objectives, and their mystical calling as the Dalai Lama does. This book views the Dalai Lama from the three distinct
standpoints of man, monk, and mystic and brings him within the grasp of general readers. The book is in no way driven by preconceived notion
about who is right and who is wrong in the Tibet-China conflict. It would be simplistic, well-neigh foolish, to project one party as the villain and
the other as the victim, especially since the Dalai Lama himself has steadfastly refrained from such knee-jerk characterizations, Insomuch as it
means my taking a stand on the issue, I have written this book under definite promptings of my conscience in support of Tibet and the Tibetans. If
I err, then I do so on the side of individual freedom against state supremacy.
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