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They Say Nobody's Perfect, but They Haven't Met the Dalai Lama
May 27, 2000

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'For as long as space endures, and for as long as living beings remain, until then may I, too, abide to dispel the misery of the world' - His Holiness the Dalai Lama
His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama is the spiritual and political leader of Tibet. Above all else, he is a man of peace. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his non-violent struggle for the liberation of Tibet. Even in the face of extreme aggression, he has always maintained his message of peace, non-violence, inter-religious understanding, universal responsibility, and compassion. He is the most remarkable man I have ever met.

So who, or what, is a Dalai Lama? In his own words: "'Dalai Lama' means different things to different people. To some it means I am a living Buddha, the earthly manifestation of Avalokiteshavara the Bodhisattva of Compassion. . . to me, 'Dalai Lama' signifies the office I hold. I myself am just a human being and, incidentally, a Tibetan who chooses to be a Buddhist monk."

Buddhists believe that all living things are reincarnated or born again after they die. However, only some very important beings can be recognized in the next life. These very important reincarnations are called incarnations.

So let's learn more about this Buddhist monk who happens to hold the most important office in all of Tibetan Buddhism.

The words "Dalai Lama" are usually translated to mean "Ocean of Wisdom." The present Dalai Lama is the fourteenth person to hold the title, and yet he is the same person who held all the previous titles. How does that work? Through a process called reincarnation. This is an idea that most Western mentalities have difficulty understanding. His Holiness describes the idea of incarnation this way: " certain beings, of whom the Dalai Lama is one, can choose the manner of their rebirth."

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Just some of the people patiently waiting for a glimpse of His Holiness
So that means, when this type of person dies or, more accurately, when the body they are living in dies, he or she can be reborn into another body of his or her choice. Since the current Dalai Lama is the fourteenth Dalai Lama, he is a being that has been born, died, and been reborn, fourteen times. Christian, Jewish, and Islamic sensibilities teach that when we die, our soul goes somewhere, depending on how we lived our lives. Buddhism teaches that we are reborn again and again, until we have earned enough merit to become perfect. Then, we no longer need to be reborn at all. But some perfect souls, like that of the Dalai Lama, choose to return in order to serve humanity and to help them reach a higher state of being.

In Tibet the snow lion is a mythical white lion with a green mane. It symbolizes the fearless proclamation of the Buddhist religion.

The current Dalai Lama was born on July 6, 1935, as Lhamo Thondup, to a poor farming family in a small settlement in the northwest of Tibet. He lived in a stone and mud house typical of the area. His mother bore sixteen children in all, seven of whom survived. When he was little he liked to play in the hen coop and make clucking noises. There were signs of his high birth, but no one thought much of them at the time: He used to tell his mother "I'm going to Lhasa!" (the capital of Tibet) and he would let no one but her handle his bowl.

See the pray wheels on the way to Dharamsala.

28.8 56.6 DSL

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So how was this Dalai Lama discovered? How did they know which baby was him? Well, in 1933, HH the XIII Dalai Lama died. His body was placed in his throne, facing south. Later, his body was found facing east. So they knew they needed to search in the east. Also, there was a curious star shaped fungus growing on the east side of his tomb.


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His Holiness extends a warm greeting to everyone
Next, the search party traveled to a sacred lake where Tibetans believe skilled monks can see the future in the waters. After meditating there for several days, they saw visions of a certain monastery and a dirt house. Following a long journey through the snow and the mountains, the search party found the monastery and the house. They disguised themselves as simple travelers by covering up their monks' robes with sheepskins, and they asked to stay the night. The senior lama, Kewtsang Rinpoche (title of an incarnate lama, meaning "precious one" in Tibetan), pretended to be a servant and observed and played with the youngest child in the house, Lhamo. Lhamo (who of course we now know is the Dalai Lama) recognized the man, and said to him, "Sera lama, Sera lama!" because he knew that the man had come from Sera Monastery in Lhasa. He also recognized other monks in the room, and asked to go with them. The men left the next day, only to return a few days later in a formal deputation. They were almost sure they had found the Dalai Lama.

But they had some tricky tests for the boy before they could be sure. First, they put two strings of black beads in front of him. Without hesitating, he chose the beads that had belonged to the thirteenth Dalai Lama (in other words, he chose those things that had belonged to himself in his previous life). He did the same with other strands of beads, with walking sticks, ivory drums, and other objects. By the time the testing was complete, the Rinpoche and his fellow monks were deeply happy and relieved, because they were sure they had found the right boy, His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama. He was two years old.

After some time, Lhamo and others made the dangerous three-month journey through the mountains from his home to the capital of Lhasa. He was carried in a specially decorated chair, astride two mules. Still, it was a long trip. When he finally arrived in Lhasa, he was greeted by crowds of people carrying white scarves to show respect. He was ushered into the Potala, the palace of the Dalai Lama. Soon after that, he was placed on the great "Lion Throne of Tibet," the traditional seat of the Dalai Lama in Lhasa, and not much later, at four years old, he was made the spiritual leader of the Tibetans. He didn't even keep his original name. He was no longer Lhamo Dhondup, but His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso, the XIV Dalai Lama.

A Precious Human Life

"Every day, think as you wake up,
Today I am fortunate to have woken up,
I am alive, I have a precious human life,
I am not going to waste it.
I am going to use
All my energies to develop myself,
To expand my heart out to others,
To achieve enlightenment for
The benefit of all beings.
I am going to have kind
Thoughts towards others.
I am not going to get angry,
Or think badly about others,
I am going to benefit others
As much as I can."

-H.H. The XIV Dalai Lama

Even though he held a special place, or perhaps because of it, His Holiness had to study extremely hard from the time he was a young boy. He began his studies at age six, and continued to study very hard until age twenty-three, when he passed with honors and received his doctorate of Buddhist philosophy. That was in 1959. But in 1950, after China's invasion of Tibet in 1949 the fourteen-year-old Dalai Lama was called upon to assume full political power. That's a lot of responsibility for a young teenager, don't you think?

During the 1950s the situation in Tibet became increasingly bad, and finally it became so dangerous that His Holiness, and many others, had to leave. The Dalai Lama wanted to avoid violence, and he felt his presence in the city could result in more people getting hurt, since the Tibetan people would fight to protect him. So, as the Chinese prepared to attack, on March 17, 1959, His Holiness disguised himself as a common foot soldier, and with a group of his family and attendants, moved silently through the checkpoints, and crossed rivers in yak skin boats to get far from Lhasa. The next day they discovered that the Chinese had bombed His Holiness' summer palace, and had rushed in hoping to find the dead body of the Dalai Lama. Over 10,000 Tibetans were killed in that three-day period.

His Holiness has authored over fifty books, all of which have something important to teach. One of the best and most readable for any age is Freedom in Exile, his autobiography. A small pocket book that is currently popular, entitled The Dalai Lama's Book of Wisdom, is also well worth perusing. For younger readers, To The Lion Throne, The Story of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, by Whitney Stewart (Snow Lion Publications, Ithaca, New York) is a great start to learn about His Holiness.

With this sad news, His Holiness had no choice but to continue on, to cross the mountains and seek help in India. It was a difficult and dangerous journey, one that tens of thousands of Tibetans have faced in their lives, and continue to face as they still flee the terrible situation in their homeland.

His Holiness now lives in McLeod Ganj, near Dharamsala, in northern India. I met His Holiness at his private residence there on a beautiful spring day. He was dressed, as always, in his maroon robes. For some reason I was surprised to see him wearing red socks and brown leather shoes. He walked out onto the porch and was the smiling image that I had seen so often on television and in pictures. He was there to give a public audience to the many people from around the world who had come to see him, as well as to resident Tibetans, and recently arrived Tibetans in exile. As an Odyssey Trekker, I had special permission to stand near him and take photographs.


Avalokiteshavara- the deity that represents perfect compassion
Bodhisattva- enlightened beings who have postponed their own nirvana and chosen to take rebirth to serve humanity
Buddhist- a person who follows Buddhism, a religion spread by Siddhartha Guatama, who lived in India in the fifth century BCE
monk- man who devotes his life to a particular practice of religion
sensibilities- judgement, awareness
merit- worth, value, entitlement
astride- on top of

Flanked by security men, a procession of people passed by, and he offered handshakes and greetings to them. He exuded good feeling and people simply shone when they saw him. It was remarkable to see how people reacted to just being near him. For almost two hours, His Holiness greeted all kinds of people. Finally, when the last of the recently arrived Tibetans had left, carrying, like everyone else, a red prayer string that His Holiness had blessed, I was brought to His Holiness and introduced to him.

When His Holiness took my hands in his, and looked into my eyes I felt myself go positively numb, even though it was not the first time he had looked at me. As I had been taking his picture for the past two hours, he had looked at me and laughed several times, but now it seemed different. I expected to feel a surge of energy, electricity, or something else powerful. However, the experience of being so close to the Bodhisattva of Compassion left me so mesmerized that I could hardly hear him speak or feel a thing. Too soon that luminous smile, that magic twinkle in his eye, and his enormous presence was gone, and I found myself simply floating down the slope of the driveway, and out the front gates of the compound, too exhilarated for words. The feeling has not gone away nor is it likely to.

Check out the Tibetan Government-in-Exile's official web page.

His Holiness has never returned to Tibet since he escaped in 1959, although he would like to, when it is again a free country. But even now, he is generally a happy man who loves to laugh. Despite the intense sorrow that he has seen and continues to endure through the suffering of his people, His Holiness has never changed his attitude about non-violence and peace as a means of solving the problems that he and his people face. His immense love of life, his gentle spirit, and his infectious good humor and smile are enough to give even the hardest among us hope that his path is the right one and his cause will be victorious.


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

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