On a mission (The Oberver, UK)

Ed Douglas, The Guardian: As the exiled leader of Tibet flies into Britain, supporters detect a fresh urgency in his pleas for an end to Chinese oppression. At 68, the Buddhist monk knows his people’s hopes live or die with him.

y the time the Apache leader Geronimo surrendered in 1886, stifling the last gasp of native American resistance, ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody had been touring for three years with the Wild West Show, selling a version of the world he helped destroy.

Something similar happened in the old Tibetan capital of Lhasa this month. Visitors to the Jokhang temple, the spiritual centre of the country and its religion, reported that the Chinese authorities had installed metal barricades across the inner temple’s entrance to make sure that tourists can no longer sneak in without paying.

The irony won’t be lost on Tenzin Gyatso, once the most important inhabitant of Lhasa but now a longstanding exile in India and better known as the Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of Tibet and of the Tibetan Buddhist diaspora.

Just as Buffalo Bill cashed in on a disappearing world, the Chinese have created a Tibetan Wild West Show. The Dalai Lama may be in charge of a ‘splittist clique’, but Lhasa’s temples and his former homes – and all that they represent – are a superb business opportunity.

His Holiness wouldn’t recognise much else of his old home town. For at least a decade it has had more in common with a generic modern Chinese city than the ancient capital of a wholly different culture. More recently, the city’s authorities have acknowledged what had long been known; more Chinese now live there than Tibetans.

That he wants to return is undisputed. The Dalai Lama arrives in Britain for the first time in five years this week, on his never-ending tour to drum up political and popular support for his people’s cause. In their struggle to achieve some level of self-determination in the face of China’s 54 years of occupation, the 68-year-old monk remains by far their most powerful asset. He himself fled Lhasa in 1959, despairing at the broken promises of the Chinese, his dramatic escape fixing his plight in the world’s eye ever since. The democratically elected Prime Minister of Tibet’s government-in-exile, Samdhong Rinpoche, is also in London next week, lecturing at the International Society of Ecology and Culture. But everyone knows who the real draw is.

The Dalai Lama has his critics. Rupert Murdoch told Vanity Fair in 1999: ‘I have heard cynics who say he’s a very political old monk shuffling around in Gucci shoes.’ Given Murdoch’s ambitions in China, the put-down was laughable. The Dalai Lama doesn’t wear Gucci shoes, not even metaphorically, and to describe him as a political monk is like asking whether the Pope is a Catholic. Holding the future of millions of his fellow countrymen in his hands, what choice does he have? If anything, some critics argue, he has proved not political enough.

But there was a whiff of a more serious charge in Murdoch’s charmless sniping. The Dalai Lama is not as thoughtful as he might be about his public profile. And his willingness to meet pretty much anyone who asks can leave the public with the impression, however unfair, that he likes hanging out with movie stars. Christopher Hitchens has said that he heads ‘a Hollywood cult that almost exceeds the power of Scientology’.

Some of the celebrities devoted to the cause of Tibet have a long-standing commitment, like the glamorous Joanna Lumley, whose grandfather was a trade agent in the Tibetan town of Gyantse, close to the Indian border, and a friend to the Dalai Lama’s previous incarnation. As Kate Saunders, the Tibet specialist and a friend of Lumley, puts it: ‘People like Joanna can be very useful to the Tibetan cause. She has access to the right people, is friends with politicians and can raise a lot of money.’

Others, you feel, have a less than firm grip on what his life’s work means. Sharon Stone, barefoot and with a boa draped across her shoulders, invited the audience at an event in Los Angeles to applaud ‘the hardest-working man in spirituality … Mr “Please, please let me back into China!”‘ Or even Tibet.

The Dalai Lama’s secretariat, at times naïve, at times frustrated by their leader’s openness, hasn’t always picked the right openings for him to spread the message. He suffered particularly at the hands of CNN host Larry King, who introduced him on his Millennium Special , ‘as a leading Muslim’ – not a mistake Larry would make now – and then, six months later, conducted an interview which made the Tibetan leader appear incomprehensible.

Martin Scorsese’s film Kundun, which the Dalai Lama saw and admired, went some way to explaining that beneath the National Geographic glitz of Tibetan culture is a country with a gritty political history. But it is difficult for Westerners to get past the ineffable exoticism of the Dalai Lama’s childhood.

He was born Lhamo Thondup, the fourth son and fifth child to survive of Choekyong Tsering, a farmer from a small village called Takster in north-eastern Tibet in the former province of Amdo. Amdo has been swallowed up into the modern Chinese province of Xining. The boundaries of the Tibet Autonomous Region are often confused with historical Tibet. In fact, the TAR is a fraction of the old territory. Takster is, unsurprisingly, off limits to tourists.

Tibetan agriculture – and society – was largely feudal but the family worked for themselves, leasing a small parcel of land and growing barley, potatoes and buckwheat as well as keeping a herd of yaks, sheep and goats.

This life was interrupted by the arrival of monks from Lhasa. Through clues left by his predecessor, they identified the child as the fourteenth Dalai Lama. The family moved to Lhasa and while the young lama began his training, the family became involved in Tibetan political life. His mother was adored, but his father became embroiled in the internecine bickering which hamstrung any chance the Tibetans had of resisting the Chinese. The Dalai Lama’s brother, Gyalo Thondup, told the writer Mary Craig that he was convinced his father was murdered to get rid of a political nuisance.

From a young age, the Dalai Lama has been mesmerising in the flesh. After attending his enthronement in 1940, British diplomat Basil Gould said he had ‘never seen anybody assume more complete and natural control of great assemblies’. That ability has only deepened with the passing years. He can hold a crowd of agnostic Westerners in the palm of his hand despite simple English, but he is most impressive with his own people. Speaking Tibetan, his voice seems to possess a more serious tone.

When Mao heard that the Dalai Lama had fled Lhasa in 1959 in the face of rising tension with his Chinese overlords, the Great Helmsman is reported to have said: ‘In that case we have lost the battle.’

If his leadership is totemic, it hasn’t always been politically astute. Many believe the Tibetans missed an opportunity in the 1980s to take advantage of a thaw in relations when Deng Xiaoping invited exiled Tibetans to return home. In 1989, His Holiness declined an invitation to attend the funeral of the Panchen Lama – effectively the second-most important spiritual leader in Tibetan Buddhism. The Tibet scholar Tom Grunfeld described it as ‘probably the gravest error of his political life’.

The 1990s were a lost decade, but his government in exile seems to have learned from its mistakes. Discussions have resumed with the Chinese, and there is cautious optimism that these may lead towards some kind of settlement. His special envoy, Washington-based Lodi Gyari, is an astute lobbyist in Washington – the Dalai Lama met President Bush in 2001 – but some are concerned he is not sufficiently on the wavelength of the current Chinese leadership.

There is also the suspicion that all the Chinese have to do is wait until the Dalai Lama dies. Even if the discovery of the next Dalai Lama proves uncontroversial, it would be decades before he became a political force, by which time the idea of Tibetan autonomy will have lost impetus. His Holiness seems aware of these dangers, saying that his administration must now ‘turn its face to China’ for a solution and putting his foot on the diplomatic gas pedal. Luckily for Tibet, the Dalai Lama is in rude health.

His acknowledgement of Western advances – he always advises the sick to use whatever medicine will work – and his deep spirituality put the Dalai Lama at an interesting crossroads. His ideas about compassion strike a chord in the West but he is equally forthright on the damage consumerism and sexual freedom can inflict on individuals. Not attitudes, you feel, that would go down well in mainstream America.

He feels strongly about the environment and the damage inflicted on it. ‘An environment that is full of life is much better, much more attractive. Forests without animals or birds, bad. Without trees, even worse,’ he has said. Given the environmental price China is paying for its economic growth, he has a point.

Those of his people still in Tibet will continue to be second-class citizens in their own land. More or less, urban Tibet is now Chinese and making economic progress, while rural Tibet remains as it was, without health care or education.

Meanwhile, Tibet’s natural resources are beintrucked east. Soon a railway between Chengdu and Lhasa will open and the process will accelerate. Critics of the Dalai Lama say the old system in Tibet was backward and oppressive. But both communism and Chinese consumerism have plunged the people of Tibet into a morass of corruption and indifference.

With the Beijing Olympics on the horizon, perhaps the Chinese will see the merits of letting the hardest-working man in spirituality come home.

Dalai Lama

DoB: 6 July 1935 (Takster, Tibet)
AKA: Tenzin Gyatso, Lhamo Thondup, Ocean of Wisdom (a translation of Dalai Lama), Yeshin Norbu (Wish-Fulfilling Dream), Kundun (the Presence)
Jobs: Exiled head of state of Tibet, Buddhist leader

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