September 2015


On the edge of a cliff

By Barry Hill

The Dalai Lama in Leura, New South Wales. © Juno Gemes

Meeting the Dalai Lama in the Blue Mountains

“How did you get on with the Buddha?” my daughter asked when I got back from the Blue Mountains.

She caught my hesitation and let out a laugh, embarrassed at her slip of the tongue.

“Well,” I said, “many people have thought of him as a Buddha, the Buddha reborn, actually, ‘a living Buddha’.”

“I am just a simple monk,” he insists, these days.

But there is nothing simple about His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama – to use his full title as the leader of the Tibetan people. As a guru, he is seen by followers as holy. “God-king” was a Time magazine favourite. Everyone knows how magic signs revealed him to be the reincarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama. Before that he was just Lhamo Thondup (which means “Wish-Fulfilling Goddess”), a little boy from a simple farming family. At the age of four, he was installed in the vast caverns of the Potala Palace in Lhasa, “hidden away like an owl”, as he has put it, while being taught the ropes of sacredness. By the age of 24, when he fled the Land of Snows to make a government in exile in Dharamsala, India, he was a geshe, or a doctor of theology, for whom it was natural to consult oracles. The miracle now is that he is a spiritual and political presence in the main capitals of the world. He is one of the most famous people in the world. He’s a celebrity monk, in fact. You won’t find him in a cave any day soon.

“So basically I always look at the human level,” he was saying to me as soon as we sat down.

“My main concern is inner peace,” he went on. In this project his helpers are educationists and scientists. They have worked towards an education system that teaches young people to know “the system of the emotions”.“Love love love,” he said, “not adequate.”

Got a question for the Dalai Lama?

In the weeks leading up to my appointment with him, I was asking around.

“Oh,” one bright woman said over her latte. “I can’t think of anything!” She was overcome. She took another sip, and added, “But you could ask him if he would ever go on MasterChef again.”

I looked to see if she was joking. She mimed a wince.

“Why, what happened on MasterChef?”

“I think they tipped noodles over his head,” she sighed.

How could such a thing happen? What were his minders thinking?

I went looking for the atrocity image. I watched the episode from 2011. He was received reverentially and fed gourmet items as if they were religious offerings. Clearly he knew they were not: no one could be so silly as to think he had not entered a principality of obsessive consumption, with its attendant capitalist vices of competitive skilling and regimes of egoism and cruelty. He ate what he was given and said nice things. He objected when one of the judges carped about a dish. The cook did her best, he snapped. Afterwards, he went backstage to thank the trembling kitchen slaves. He shook every hand and said the Buddhist way was not to criticise food but to be thankful for what they had been given. Thus, at the end of the show, he affirmed, in the face of Gross Consumerism, the ethic of Gratitude. Bravo, I felt.

Then I found the image. There he was leaning over a wide sideboard of noodles while the three judges ponced around his skull, piling noodles onto it. The image was a digital concoction. There was the predictable row about disrespect, and the Dalai Lama told the Sunday Times in London that he regretted going on the show but had done so on the advice of his secretaries.

Of course, in a celebrity culture, the Dalai Lama and his minders have to be prepared for all manner of events. Celebrity lights exploit every nuance of the possibly new, however cheap and cheapening. The integrity of the star is to be protected but nakedness is the name of the game. You can’t be in it, without the risk of losing it.

My daughter, who breathes celebrity, also had a question for him. “Ask,” she said thoughtfully, “does he have any fears?”

Fear of night flying, the Dalai Lama said, or words to that effect, when I put the question. He said that when his plane was taking off he felt like that Australian native animal – what was it? He turned to his translator.

“Koala,” he added, with a hearty laugh.

“Koala! It’s an animal with very strong claws,” I said.

His laughter continued.

“Apart from that, no man-made fears,” he said.

It’s also the banality of celebrity culture that is the killer. On the one hand, you can be humiliated by persons paid to let their vanity run riot in front of the cameras, overexposing the worth of their commodity. On the other hand, you can get stoned to death by the medium that wants everything to be simple. Unbearably so, excruciatingly, boringly so.

Still, it has to be said that just about everyone I know loves the Dalai Lama. Sometimes it is utter, devotional love. “I want to touch you when you come back,” said my financial adviser.

Or is it a love founded on secular esteem? Admiration and respect for a man who has become synonymous with courage, clarity, decency, patience, and who has survived for so long as an influence for good in the world. A non-violent presence, one should add, thinking of Gandhi, whom the Dalai Lama admires. A pacifist presence in the face of state power, brutal atrocities and all the mendacities of the chaos we endure these days. How does he survive with such vigorous vitality, and after all he has been through? He was a few weeks short of 80 when I met him, and as we sat knee to knee, I could sense his life force, or whatever it was that kept him laughing.

“Why are you always laughing?” I asked.

“Oh, because, we Tibetans, we are very jovial people,” he said, and he held forth in that inimitable way of his: leaning forward with his head tilted, the smile playing in all parts of his face, his voice a lilt or resounding like a conch shell.

I hoped he would say, “Oh, because I have the strength of a person who has mastered ‘inner disarmament’.” It is “inner disarmament” to which he refers when he wants to speak spiritually without making a song and dance about being spiritual. The “inner disarmament” comes from stripping away our anger and hatred, leaving us open to the compassion and sense of kinship that give us peace with ourselves and with others – what humanity needs, he insists.

I wanted something wise, like that. The secularists who love him need such straightforward wisdom. Many of us wonder if he is a hedgehog or a fox – I’m thinking of that famous essay on Russian thinkers by Isaiah Berlin, who saw Dostoyevsky, the Christian mystic who knew one big thing, as a hedgehog, and Tolstoy, who knew many different things, as a fox. You could say the Dalai Lama is both fox and hedgehog. With his Buddhist faith in loving-kindness he is a hedgehog. In his skilful means of playing a patient strategic game with China (or MasterChef) he is a fox, albeit a defeated one, it seems. But who has ever met a nicer, foxier hedgehog? Think of his grace and good humour when rebuffed by a prime minister, a president or even a pope, because they care more for the weather in Beijing than they do for a conversation with a good and powerless man.

The masses love him for his charming insistence on a worldly innocence. The oxymoron seems to create comfort in our age of escalating anxiety. Time and again he comes across as the human being whose powerlessness shows up power for what it often is: organised callousness.

“The Chinese,” he laughed, “call me demon.”

“Or they said you were a ‘wolf in monk’s robes’, a compliment coming from them,” I said.

“Oh yes,” he chuckled.

There was a moment with the Chinese when he did know fear. I mentioned what he’d written as a young man, when he came back from several months living in Peking in 1954. It was a thrilling, dramatic, historical moment and I had written a radio drama about it – Ocean and Great Helmsman, which was broadcast by Radio National in the early ’90s. “Ocean” is often used to refer to the Buddha, as “Great Helmsman” was a title for Mao. As a boy of 19, the Dalai Lama thought he might join the Communist Party, which he held to be the party of compassion. He had himself transported in a palanquin from Lhasa along with a party of 500 officials. They travelled for weeks, eventually by mule and then by car, jeep and truck, on new roads already being made by Tibetan forced labour. Finally, they crossed into China. Then a plane to Xian, the ancient capital, and on to Peking.

He marvelled at China’s technological and material progress. He met Mao many times, found him “spellbinding”, and was lulled by the fact that Mao’s mother had been Buddhist and that Mao once praised the Buddha because he was against the caste system. He explained to Mao that the Buddha valued “a thorough investigation” before accepting something as true or false. This was the Dalai Lama showing his pragmatism towards science and modernity. Back in Lhasa, he’d loved looking through his telescope, tuning into the BBC on his radio, repairing his clocks. (In years to come he would be absorbed in the wonders of quantum physics, with its dynamic conceptions of objective reality. One of his recent – and characteristically well-written – books is called The Universe in a Single Atom: How science and spirituality can serve our world.)

One day, Mao loomed over him and enunciated another prime truth.

Religion is poison.

“At this,” the Dalai Lama wrote in his memoir Freedom in Exile, “I felt a violent burning sensation all over my face and I was suddenly very afraid. So, I thought, you are the destroyer of the Dharma, after all.”

Do you still feel there are those who would destroy the teachings?

“Well, one aspect of Chairman Mao has that kind of view. But then, the immediate question is why? Firstly, he could not know the deeper value of the tradition, particularly Buddhism. These days I am saying that if Mao was still alive and had serious contact with modern scientists, he may have – he was quite an intelligent person – he may have different views.”

Marxism and Buddhism. Are they still partners?

“Not communism,” he said, but “socialism”. Nowadays “communism pays more attention to money and power” than the principal concepts of a classless society and equal distribution of wealth.

He leaned forward when he said “socialism”, lighting up as if pleased to say the word after all these years.

Religion is not the poison, he has written. “Sectarianism is poison.”

Soon after the Dalai Lama returned to Lhasa, Mao broke his promises of making gentle reforms in Tibet. The People’s Liberation Army jackbooted in, monasteries were sacked and atrocity reigned in the land. In 1959, the Dalai Lama fled, leaving a ragtag group of guerrilla fighters who were covertly supported by the CIA. Two of his brothers were active resisters, and the Chinese had attempted to manipulate one of them to assassinate him. The Dalai Lama threw himself into peaceful efforts to support his people as refugees, conceding territorial sovereignty to China while desperately campaigning for cultural autonomy. It has taken the rest of his life to establish his presence on the world stage. He is that rare thing: a leader in exile who must know there is no prospect of his people returning to their homeland, and even if they ever did, it would be barely recognisable – the Chinese would outnumber them, their religion would be in ruins. For all his tenacious optimism and inspiring affirmations, even his fondest supporters must know that the Tibetan cause is politically hopeless. But he cannot say so. His fate has been to stay afloat in their sea of suffering.

On this nationalistic front, there were poignant moments when he went to Uluru in June. It was his first visit, although this was his tenth trip to Australia. His minders must have been pleased with the heartwarming footage of him walking hand in hand with Aboriginal elders, their great rock looming in the background. He gave a talk to a few hundred people in a football field, praising them for holding on to their culture and advising Australia to value it as well, rather as if this was a new idea.

What his advisers seemed to have failed to tune him into is the depth of social tragedy in central Australia, where the suicide rate is as dire as that of monks in Tibet. Even so, as an Aboriginal leader told the television camera, they were lucky compared to the Tibetans. At least Centralians were living on their own land. It is hard to imagine this was not salt into the wound of the Tibetan caravan.

With such scales of hopelessness in mind, I ventured to suggest to the Dalai Lama that many Australians are fraught by their own political impotence about the recent wars they’d been in – and now, with Islamic State, are still in, bombs and all, civilians increasingly at risk.

“When America and its allies invaded Iraq, you wrote that it was a mistake to characterise Saddam Hussein as the villain of the piece.”

He nodded.

“Even more,” he said, “to say that all problems [are] due to one person – that’s a mistake. Sometimes he was called evil. But that does not mean a person was evil right from the beginning. Right from the beginning – we are the same human beings. We all have the same potential to develop love or compassion, that’s the seed of peace.”

“Do you think the same of Islamic State? I mean, how do we heal ourselves from such atrocities, when people are behaving so murderously? Are we making the same mistake as we did with Saddam?”

“Yes,” he said.

“What should we do with the young men, or women, who go to that war and then seek to come back? How should we receive them?”

“You should act according to your law,” he replied, which I took to mean that they could well be arrested and punished, if necessary.

But above all, he said, “we should look at the human level”.

“Education,” he went on. “I think many terrorists are genuine followers of Islam. Some have other reasons. But others are religious-minded. So [it is] very important that we don’t push them. We must look at the human level. Some become radical, become terrorists because of secondary level of human circumstances. At a fundamental level, they are also human beings.

“So, if possible, at some meeting, we should invite these terrorists to sit quietly and relax and discuss. You see, they love their own religion, but their activities are very harmful to the image of Islam, which they love and they follow. Because they have too much emotion, they can see only one aspect. In order to calm their agitated mind, we must extend our love. And talk.”

“Please explain how it is that an enemy can be a friend.”

“Because you can learn patience,” he said firmly. “And also you can practise infinite love. Usually your love and care applies to your own friends. It doesn’t by nature, biologically, develop that way. We are social animals. So what’s important now is that those who create our problems, those who we call enemy, can, through reasoning, through training, develop a sense of care or a sense of their love, or affection. That we really need.”

I did not doubt that this was well worth saying. It was, admittedly, semantically confusing to hear a teacher say, “Not love love love”, almost as if he had Tina Turner’s song in mind, and then in the next instant bring love back with bells on. Naturally, there is a family of terms at work here: love, loving-kindness, forgiveness, compassion – above all, compassion, which is the heart of Buddhist teaching. The teachings play over and over, and in the Dalai Lama’s broken spoken English they can sound like an old gramophone. Yet the repetitions are also deep. Aldous Huxley, who had laid out the common ground of religions East and West in The Perennial Philosophy, observed that it’s a “bit embarrassing to have been concerned with the human problem all one’s life and find at the end that one has no more to offer by way of advice than ‘Try to be a little kinder.’”

But, I wondered, what if one just lacked compassion, and didn’t even have it for oneself? I asked him, “What should come first, compassion for others or compassion for oneself?”

“Too much narrow, selfish tendencies, self-cherishing!” he declared. “If you really have self-hatred you will be never spiritually develop. So first you love oneself, then you extend to others. You see, anyone with negative feelings towards the self, it’s impossible to develop love for others.”

And right here, of course, his deceptively simple teachings slot into the self-regard of celebrity culture.

We were walled up in his suite at the plush Fairmont Resort in the Blue Mountains.

The foyer of the resort rustled with money. There was something of silver sheen beside the Dalai Lama when he came out of the lift. It was his smiling charitable friend, Richard Gere, a long-time student of Buddhism who is the chair of the International Campaign for Tibet. Wealthy people have come from all over the world to this retreat. Guests will partake of advanced Tantric instruction designed to cultivate altruism. Five days of prayers and vows and mantras to deities who are atavistic aides to the betterment of others. The Dalai Lama, the doctor of ancient theology, is backed up by the scores of clergy who can be glimpsed making bowed progress hither and thither, consorting among the rich.

His room has the best of views of the beautiful escarpments, glowing like giant kilns in the distance. A cable car is just below us. It is possible to feel, sitting there, that everything was being spoken on the edge of a cliff. For the hard truth of Buddhism is that we must take firm responsibility for ourselves, and the Dalai Lama has in recent years been pulling the rug from beneath himself.

How many know, for example, that he is on record as saying he has too many monks and nuns in his operation? Then, more bracingly, “I feel that Buddhist monks and nuns tend to talk a great deal about compassion without doing much about it.”

He is also of the opinion that you don’t need to be a Buddhist to get what he is on about. It’s enough for the simple monk to offer teachings as practical medicine against the destructive emotions of anger, fear, pride and egoism. He speaks of his ethics as beyond religion, a teaching for the whole world. “Universal responsibility.”

Everything hangs on a notion of interdependence. This is a truth of the cosmos, at every level. At the human level, the self can’t not be connected to others. Self-interest demands that we think of the welfare of others as we do of ourselves. We had best exist while being fully awake to selflessness. This is the wisdom of Buddhism, its golden braid, which can be presented ornately, as it is on this retreat with its medieval trappings, or it can be offered plainly, as psychological insight, which will be demonstrated in a few days, when he discourses on forgiveness.

A couple of thousand people will pay to hear him. They won’t have tickets on themselves as potential monks and nuns. They will mainly be hoping for some tips on cultivating a beneficial inner life, which might include the little miracles that sometimes allow us to forgive each other.

He is patient. I could feel the patience solid as a rock in front of me. I asked him about cultivating forgiveness. “Our only hope is to look to future generations,” he said, in several contexts.

On forgiveness he always wants to distinguish between the bad deed and the bad person. He will stress the healing power of being able to forgive. And he likes to tell the story of a Tibetan friend who was imprisoned and tortured by the Chinese but held on to his own sense of humanity by retaining compassion for them.

I remarked, “We must make a zero of the self, Gandhi used to say.”

He paused. “Yes,” he said, “but, then, from another point of view, in order to practise infinite love, and selflessness, you need tremendous courage. You need a strong sense of self.”

“How much self-sacrifice do we need, if we are to fight for peace? What are your feelings about the monks and others in Tibet who are setting fire to themselves? How should we see those actions?”

A shadow passed across his face.

The self-immolations in Tibet are regular these days. There have been 140 since 2009.

On his last visit to Australia, in 2013, he told the ABC’s 7.30 program that the self-immolations in Tibet were acts of non-violence. He was signalling that such acts of self-sacrifice are acceptable when they are expressions of compassion towards others, rather than acts of anger. Clearly, he did not want to imply any strategic support for such desperate practices. It is doctrinally problematic to take one’s life, when life is of the utmost preciousness. And politically, it would smack of supporting a violent resistance to the Chinese occupation. So the fox, at that moment, goes to ground.

“Of course, very, very sad. Very sad. They are really concerned about the situation, including religious freedom, and basic human rights. But their method [is] rather desperate, drastic. It is understandable. But it’s a very, very sensitive political matter, so I usually keep quiet!”

He paused once more.

“I am retired now …” he said quietly.

He retired from being Tibet’s official leader in 2011. Tibet’s government in exile has an elected parliament and a prime minister, Lobsang Sangay, a Harvard-trained lawyer. We might not hear much of the prime minister, but who is to say what will unfold in the future? As a globalist and a realist, the Dalai Lama has set his people on a democratic rather than a theocratic path. Meanwhile, his globetrotting is to spread the teachings of Buddhism – no more, no less. The monies raised simply fund the tours, and anything left over goes to charities.

“So therefore”, he is fond of saying, between thoughtful utterances.

“So therefore” – with a birdcall inflection.

His presentations strike bells. One sound does not necessarily follow from another. Or rather, you have to be deeply tuned in to hear the logical links. Often his discourse is a pitch to particular audiences, delivered with a forensic sense of what might answer to their particular needs. The Buddha did this, too, famously frustrating followers who were not quite ready for him. But there was nothing mystifying about the pedagogic strategy.

Kindness above all, that’s the thing. I suspect that many people get comfort from this when they are in the warm presence of the Dalai Lama. They want to see the simple monk shine like a saint, far from the darker recesses that are hidden in ancient Tibetan Buddhism, with its rituals and offerings for battling the demons that embody our wickedness.

And nowadays the simple monk has another ploy.

Maybe there will be no Dalai Lama after me, he often says. Maybe I will be the last Dalai Lama!

How could he say this? I looked at him in the pale light of the Blue Mountains and saw no sign of him vanishing. But the statement solicits the image of a monk going over a cliff (the better perhaps to swing himself off into a hidden cave).

Everything the Dalai Lama said to me that day was animated with optimism. In the last minute of our talk, he made a long statement about how the achievements of last century had led into the achievements of this century.

I could hardly believe my ears. He seemed to gloss over the horrors of two world wars, global poverty, vanishing species, environmental calamities, the ongoing wars and disease created by ignorance and neglect.

His sweeping historical affirmation defied my rational mind. I just had to go away and dwell on it, turn things over, and try to get into the zone of positive thinking. Go on a retreat, perhaps. Sit with it.

The confounding thing is that the Dalai Lama simply has a nobility of purpose and method and presence that defies dark gravity.

And I should not forget that back in Dharamsala, he hangs a rifle over his bed, something he’s never wanted anyone to photograph. It’s an air gun, and he uses it to frighten the hawks when they arrive to threaten the sparrows he so loves.

Barry Hill
Barry Hill is a poet and historian. His book Naked Clay: Drawing from Lucian Freud was short-listed for the UK’s 2012 Forward Prize.

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