Stephan Talty explores the key events of the Dalai Lama’s early life that freed him from the strictures of his traditional role, deepened his devotion to the dharma, and made him the world spiritual leader we know today.
I traveled to Tibet in the spring of 2009 to see places: rivers, palaces, obscure corners of old Lhasa. I was writing a book about the occupation of Tibet and the Dalai Lama’s escape, and when I’m writing nonfiction about a country I’ve never seen, it can seem like I’m describing an imaginary place. To make it real, I went to Lhasa to see the landmarks where the story had played out fifty years before. Places like the ice-cold river Kyichu that so many Lhasans had fled across during the 1959 uprising, and the cobblestone street where a monk saw a dead Tibetan man, shot in the back, a leash in his hand still clipped to the collar of his dog.
If I was on a pilgrimage, it wasn’t a religious one. I was a journalist, a lapsed Catholic, writing a book about a nationalistic event. One can’t go to Tibet and not encounter Buddhism, of course, but it wasn’t in the front of my mind.
As for the people of Tibet, I didn’t expect to talk to them much. One Tibetan activist told me to imagine that, as a Westerner in Tibet, I had a fatal disease, and anyone I spoke to would catch it. That gruesome exercise, he felt, would give me the necessary discipline to keep Tibetans out of jail for talking to a journalist.
Tibet was tense as I touched down, and understandably so. That spring was the fiftieth anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s escape to India and the birth of the Free Tibet movement. Protests had erupted on previous anniversaries of the escape, and I knew the Chinese bureaucrats in Lhasa were braced for more. I was prepared to see a tightly controlled city.
Lhasa is surrounded by space—miles and miles of empty, arid terrain. It reminded me of Ireland, where my parents had emigrated from in the fifties. Ireland’s countryside is famously lush, but when you are walking through its blue-black hills late at night, without a porch light or a spark of electricity visible, the loneliness of the place can make you shiver. I’ve always thought of superstition and ghost stories as beginning in places like these, places where the landscape seems indifferent or ready to devour you.
My father used to tell me about a family friend who told him he would meet him at “the Hand” when he was dead. The Hand was a local crossroads, and months after the man’s death, when my father was walking home from a party, he saw the family friend there. My father is not a superstitious person, but he swore that he’d met that one spirit.
Empty landscapes produce ghost stories. And faith.
In my first days in Lhasa, I had that feeling I’d gotten in Ireland. I was struck by how tangible the Buddhist faith was there. In a place where you could be arrested for possessing a picture of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, Tibetan women prostrated themselves in a square near the Potala Palace, their faces to the ground. I walked with young men doing their circuit around the Jokhang Temple at the center of Lhasa, their faces grimy and exhausted. I saw impossibly old women—bent over at the waist from age—climb the floors of the Potala Palace. It seemed like a large risk to their health. Yet in their faces was blissful happiness. Many were crying.
I had always thought of Buddhism as something mental, something you did with your brain. Pictures of Buddhists practicing their faith showed them with their eyes closed. The Catholicism I was raised in was more connected with physical places, pilgrimages, stories of crucifixions, and bloody pogroms. Buddhism seemed to float above the real world.
I’d been raised in the Irish equivalent of Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets—not as violent, but close enough—and I grew up marinating in the iconography of the Catholic Church: suffering, wounds, transcendence. I was named after the first Catholic martyr. Even though I didn’t believe in it anymore, Catholicism’s intimate connection with the hard details of life attracted me.
In contrast, Buddhism seemed bloodless.
Until I went to Tibet. Just as in rural Ireland, I saw a Buddhist faith that went down to the bone. These simple people bowing to an empty throne were risking imprisonment for the rest of their lives by even acknowledging His Holiness. Buddhism here wasn’t just a mental discipline; it was something that people were actively suffering in the service of. When I managed to sneak in a quick conversation with a young Tibetan man, his voice broke at the mention of the Dalai Lama. “We want to see him so much,” he told me. The fact that they were prevented from seeing His Holiness, made many of the Tibetans I spoke to in Tibet and elsewhere seem actually physically tormented—really, there is no other word.
There was a restless hunger to be in the presence of the Dalai Lama, and touch him and hear his voice. I hadn’t expected that. It made the faith more comprehensible to me. Yet that hunger is a conundrum, of course. Buddhism teaches the value of detachment from worldly things, but here were Buddhists so attached to the idea of one man that they were willing to risk jail just to hear his voice.
Before visiting Lhasa, I’d spoken to some Buddhists who felt the intense devotion to the Dalai Lama was in fact a bad thing. To them, his escape to the West, which had spread the word about Tibetan Buddhism to every corner of the earth, had freed Tibetan Buddhism from Tibet. The worship of His Holiness, the relics, the people flinging themselves to the ground in front of the Jokhang Temple—all of it was a throwback to them. It needed to go.
But, after seeing Lhasa, I disagreed. Here were Buddhists whose faith was something they could touch, something that tore their heart. And that brought me closer to the faith than I’d thought possible.
As I toured the spots where the story of the Dalai Lama’s escape had played out, I thought back on the thing that had first made me want to write his story. It was a short passage in His Holiness’s second memoir, where he talked about how, as a young teenager, he was more interested in playing soldier than reading about the Buddha. When I came across that paragraph, I had to stop and reread the words again.
I had always thought of the Dalai Lama as a serene being who’d come by his faith automatically. He was, after all, the reincarnation of a line of lamas. He’d inherited his tranquillity of mind as you or I might inherit a chest of drawers.
But when I began researching the story, I realized how untrue this was. As a thirteen-year-old, the Dalai Lama was as unruly, godless, tenderhearted, and selfish as I’d been as a teenager. He had a ferocious temper, growing so angry at times that his body shook as he stood on the shiny floor of his winter palace in Lhasa, and religious stories bored him so much that he would edit them in his head to make them more exciting.
To think that for many years, His Holiness wasn’t religious at all, or even spiritual, was startling to me. I spoke to people who’d been close to him and found out that his minders often worried about him. What if the Fourteenth Dalai Lama turned out not to care about Buddhism at all? It had happened before; the bisexual Sixth Dalai Lama became a drunkard and a womanizer (or a manizer, depending on his mood), fleeing his palace to get drunk in the streets of Lhasa.
It had never occurred to me that a Dalai Lama could choose whether or not to follow the dharma. And when I found out the circumstances under which the Fourteenth had made his choice, I found them revealing.
When the Chinese invaded Tibet in 1950, Tibetans had little or no faith in the aristocrats and bureaucrats who ran the country. I spoke to monks and private citizens who told me how a Chinese bureaucrat would go from door to door in the nice parts of Lhasa, a bag of silver coins over his shoulder, paying off the men who worked in the government offices. Many Tibetan leaders were as corrupt as the day is long.
And Tibetans were divided among themselves. The Easterners hated the Westerners. The Khampas hated the Lhasans, and vice versa. The city folk looked down on the country people, and the country people returned the favor. As Americans, there are so many things that bind us together: the Constitution, baseball, hamburgers, language. But in 1949 a woman from Amdo province would not have even been understood in Lhasa, the capital. Even the great monasteries had individual colleges where different dialects were spoken.
The only things that a Tibetan could say made him a Tibetan were tsampa, the roasted barley eaten from one end of the country to the other. And Buddhism, embodied in the Dalai Lama. So the citizens of this occupied country, quarreling and mistrustful, looked to the young Dalai Lama to save them. But isolated from his loved ones, deeply lonely, badly educated, the young lama had no idea how to be a leader. He turned to Buddhism, not as the reincarnation of a holy line who is finally taking up his destiny, but as a frightened young man searching frantically for a compass. He dove deep into Buddhism’s lessons and emerged, really, a different man. Very much the person we know today, a monk who has given himself over utterly to the practice of the dharma.
So Buddhism in Tibet was not separate from its modern history. Quite the opposite, it was essential. In many ways, it was all that mattered.
Before I interviewed survivors of the uprising, I had assumed that most of them fought for their country. That was the narrative in the West: Tibet was a nation taken over by a foreign power. It was a story that Americans and Europeans understood instinctively. The memory of World War II, of occupation and liberation, is very much alive in us.
But what I found in researching the Tibetan uprising contradicted my assumptions. Many of the people I spoke to had fought as Buddhists first and Tibetans second. Monks in the colleges grabbed rifles when they heard a rumor that the Chinese were going to kidnap His Holiness. They hadn’t taken up arms in 1950 when the Chinese invaded their borders; nationalism hadn’t roused a majority of them to fight. The notion of Tibet was too diffuse and the history with China counseled patience rather than war. What sparked the uprising was a threat to the Dalai Lama that Tibetans—rightly or wrongly—perceived in that spring of 1959. And to stop that threat, they would have laid down their lives. I spoke to monks who now live in tiny rooms in the hills of Dharamsala, India, and many told me the same thing: in fighting the Chinese in Lhasa, they believed they were protecting His Holiness as he sped toward freedom. They believed if he died, the dharma would be irreparably harmed. No price was too great to prevent that.
The men and women I spoke to even remembered in vivid detail the morning when rumors of a Chinese plot to kill or kidnap the Dalai Lama began to circulate in Lhasa. They’d dropped whatever they were doing, literally dropped pans and hairbrushes and shovels to the ground, and ran toward His Holiness’ palace. They’d abandoned their own lives in half a second. They no longer existed as individuals; the only thing that mattered to them was His Holiness.
In talking about the fighting and the horrors they’d seen, these Tibetans rarely mentioned themselves. They didn’t dwell on what the uprising had cost them personally. Some seemed puzzled when I asked that typical American question: When you saw an abbot shot down, or your dead sister, how did that make you feel? They’d so given themselves over to protecting the dharma that they couldn’t understand the question.
I wondered, how many Christians would so lose themselves to the moment? It was then, for the first time, that I understood the concept of detachment from inessential things.
One of my last stops in Lhasa was the Potala Palace. The tiny rooms and hallways are beautifully illustrated with murals, the ones that His Holiness used to gaze at for hours on afternoons when he was left alone. I could almost feel the claustrophobia he must have felt in his early years, locked up in these dark rooms for one afternoon after another, separated from his family and from children his own age.
Before the escape, His Holiness lived a life of less-than-splendid isolation. In his two palaces, one for summer and one for winter, his every moment was scripted and formalized. How he talked, how he walked, how he held his body was determined by tradition. His followers were not allowed to look at him, and the language they spoke was so formalized that it was really just another ceremony, not a real conversation. During these endless ritual talks, the Dalai Lama gazed above the speaker’s head. It was sacrilege for him to meet their eyes. He was barely allowed to think or speak for himself.
His Holiness’ only access to the larger world was a telescope he would gaze through for hours, unnerving the prisoners who were held at the foot of his winter palace. And some old issues of Life magazine and, later, a few films. That was it.
The Dalai Lama clutched at these artifacts of a different world. Some would say he was only curious; “insatiably curious” is one of those clichés that are passed around about the Dalai Lama as a boy. But I think he was reacting to the narrowness of his world. He was protesting what Tibet had become: isolated and inward.
As much as he loved Tibet, the Dalai Lama by 1959 had come to realize that it was also a cage. When he fled with a small group of relatives across the moonscape of the southern provinces, the Dalai Lama was not only fleeing the increasing oppression and brutality under the Chinese, he was fleeing the ancient court of Lhasa.
This was the final thing Tibet taught me: If the Dalai Lama hadn’t escaped, he would be a very different man today. Being ejected into the wider world allowed him to remake himself according to his own ideas. Which is just what he did.
And he began immediately. I found a long-forgotten interview with His Holiness right after his escape. He was being housed in a hotel in India when a poet was sent by Harper’s Magazine to interview the exotic “god-king” (a term the Tibetans hated). Before the meeting, the poet was told by the Dalai Lama’s stern minders what he could and couldn’t do in the presence of the Precious Protector. All the old rituals of the Lhasa court were invoked, including the stipulation that, at the end of the interview, the poet couldn’t turn his back on His Holiness and walk out. He had to shuffle backwards, ridiculously.
As soon as he entered the room, the poet was frightened to realize he was with an ebullient and childlike person who had no intention of observing his minder’s strict rules. The Dalai Lama patted the poet on the leg to make a point; he laughed like a young boy; he pursued his interviewer across the room. The poet was terrified that the meeting in fact was one long heresy. When he began to shuffle backward toward the door, the young monk laughed, grabbed him by the shoulders and gave him a small push.
This is the first real sighting of the man we would come to know as the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. A free, ordinary man. Free not only from the Chinese and from worldly illusions, but from his own past. I believe escaping Tibet gave him the chance to manifest Buddhism in his own nature—childlike, joyful, empathetic. As his own people had thrown over their own lives in an instant to save the dharma, so he had begun to peel away everything that restricted him from pursuing it.
His Holiness was the fourteenth reincarnation of a line of lamas and rulers, but his predecessors would hardly have recognized themselves in this compassionate and wonderfully approachable man. He shed the more absurd traditions as one would slip out of a badly fitting coat, and that process began in those high Himalayan passes on the trail from Lhasa.
If you ask the Dalai Lama, he will tell you that leaving Tibet forced him to think differently. And it did. He had to contend with issues and situations he would never have had to in Tibet. He came to the world not as a guru whose word was quite literally law. He came as a political supplicant. And only then as a teacher.
The real benefit of all this to the world is in how His Holiness practices his faith. The core of the Dalai Lama’s faith wasn’t changed by leaving Lhasa. If you attend one of his lectures, you will find him delving deeply into the traditional texts; I’m sure in doing this he disappoints many of the people who come to see him. Hoping to find a more authentic Deepak Chopra or a more exotic Dr. Phil, they find instead a serious student of the classical texts.
But how he applies his beliefs was clearly affected by his experience as a refugee. He thinks like a man who is guaranteed nothing. He strives to make Buddhism modern—his work with the Mind & Life Institute, for example, shows his near-obsession with proving that some of the faith’s tenets are scientifically sound. The very instability of Tibetans’ place in the world has given his message to the global community a flexibility and adventurousness it wouldn’t have had back in Lhasa.
The result is a Buddhism that is forward-looking, one might even say unafraid—even of looking ridiculous. The Dalai Lama skirts that border occasionally, because there is nothing he considers off-topic. You need to attend just one of his press conferences to get a taste of the kooky questions tossed his way, and how genuinely he answers. He finds no question embarrassing. There’s nothing that’s beneath him, and that fact alone has changed how people view their own small tragedies.
It’s His Holiness’ openness that has attracted so many people to his view of Buddhism. He isn’t a Martin Luther; he hasn’t reformed the dharma. But he’s helped many thousands of people simply by making it relatable.
Perhaps I’m Westernizing Buddhism by looking for real-world events to view it through. Perhaps I need this idea of a faith tested in action to begin to understand what Buddhism truly is. But I find its role in the spring of 1959 thrilling and instructive.
Or maybe I’m Christianizing it—the testing of the Dalai Lama during the uprising was, in a way, his Gethsemane. And the blood spilled in an uprising against oppressive rulers, well, that is the story of the first Catholics. Some Tibetans cooperated with the Chinese army; one of the Dalai Lama’s closest advisers called him a traitor and a dog on Peking Radio. (One can only think of Peter denying Jesus.) But the human circumstances of Tibet’s tragedy made Buddhism more meaningful for me.
Today, half a century after the escape, the Dalai Lama is a spiritual celebrity. His Twitter account and his daily lessons on Facebook reach many thousands of people. (To literally become a follower of the Dalai Lama nowadays, one need only click a button.) But his words often emerge out of the ether, sayings from a smiling man in a robe. I worry that, to many people, he is a nice man who says gentle things, and nothing else.
If people knew how much he went through to see Buddhism clearly, and how Tibetans suffered to keep the dharma alive, I think those words would feel heavier.
They certainly do to me.