I’m only a simple Buddhist monk,” the slight, 44-year-old man is fond of saying. But no spiritual or temporal leader of this century has had a stranger reign than the Dalai Lama, the exiled god-king of Tibet, who this week is making his first visit to the U.S.
Born into a poor farming family in a remote province, Llamo Dhondup was only a toddler when he was singled out by holy men as the 14th Dalai Lama, the reincarnation of Buddha. The monks who found him were said to be guided by “signs,” among them curious cloud formations and a great star-shaped fungus. Then when he was 4 the Dalai Lama journeyed to Lhasa and six months later ascended the brocade throne in the 1,000-room Potala Palace. The government itself was turned over to him at 15—just before the Red Chinese invaded Tibet. Then in 1959, when a Tibetan uprising was crushed and Buddhism suppressed, the god-king finally fled the 1,500 miles across the Himalayas to India. For the past 20 years he has been a leader in exile, ruling the 65,000 believers who followed him into India, as well as disciples of his Mahayana branch of Buddhism all over the world.
He now resides in the Himalayan foothills 250 miles north of New Delhi, in a compound shared with other monks. (His mother, three brothers and a sister live nearby.) The Dalai Lama rises at 4 a.m., puts on a maroon toga with a splash of yellow brocade, and meditates in the chapel of his bungalow. After a breakfast of Tibetan butter tea and cake at 6, he meets with the members of his government-in-exile. The last meal of the day comes at noon, and the afternoon is given to meetings, teaching scripture or gardening (his bodyguards do the heavy work, but he handles all transplanting personally). Another hobby is tinkering with the components of watches and cameras. “In the late evening there is prayer,” he says, “and then I go to sleep about 10. Sleep is the best meditation.”
Some recent callers have detected a touch of melancholy in the Dalai Lama, who has always been candid about the trauma of his early separation from his parents. “Sometimes, as a child, a tutor would put me on his lap,” he relates, “and wrap me in his gown and give me dried fruits. That is almost the only solace I remember.”
But the god-king has not slackened in his dual responsibilities as “the voice of Tibet” and its spiritual leader. He has met with Pope Paul VI, visited Japan and Russia, and drafted a new Tibetan constitution providing for a democratic government. The Dalai Lama’s U.S. trip will cover 23 cities, meeting with college audiences and (he says in advance) “no politicians.” “I will speak about human problems, how to lead a happy life through humility, honesty and kindness.”
He had rejected a Chinese offer to return home this summer pending broader human rights for his people, and he told the press that “the liberalization which has been taking place in China has not spread to Tibet—it is a vast prison.” But the Dalai Lama speaks officially with notable moderation about China’s current rulers, leading some observers to wonder whether he might be negotiating a rapprochement. The Chinese, he notes, “have not succeeded in wiping out Buddhism or in making the Tibetans into Chinese. Once the Chinese listen to what the Tibetan people themselves want, we can reach a solution.”
Could Buddhism and Marxism coexist? “There was a Buddhist king a thousand years ago who redistributed the wealth of the Tibetan people three times,” says the Dalai Lama. “I could live with a Marxist system if that was what my people wanted.” Then he will be back on the brocade throne? “There is no question,” responds the god-king. “I shall definitely return.”