One on One with the Dalai Lama
Twenty-nine years ago today, I sat knee to knee with the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, at his home just outside Dharamshala in Northern India. We talked for one hour.
The road there was long, five years and thousands of miles. It started in Chengdu, Sichuan province, April 1986. I arrived there with two friends via Japan and Hong Kong, five weeks into what for me was to be a 90-day journey around the world.
China then was just opening up to Western travelers, one region, one village, at a time, and backpackers like us, on our own, were unheard of, out in the countryside we might as well have been extraterrestrials. Security forces admonished more than once, “You are not permitted here,” but didn’t detain us, happy enough to send us on our way to be some other official’s problem.
No way to book ahead, we had to make it up as we went along, and the first order of business on arriving anywhere was to sort out where we were going next and how to get there.
We flew into Chengdu from Guilin on an Antonov 26, an ancient Russian two-engine prop bucket of bolts, a white-knuckler for my companions. Early the next morning, we went to the local CAAC office (Civil Aviation Administration of China), which then operated all domestic flights.
After vigorously fending off a dozen locals trying to jump the queue at the only open ticket window, we asked a very stern – or nervous – young agent, “Can we reserve for your flight to Kunming on Thursday?” Her answer, “méimén,” which we surmised translated roughly as “no, no, not possible.”
So try again. “Very well, then can we go to Xian on Thursday?” Vigorous shake of the head, “méimén, méimém,” with not so subtle undertones of “I don’t want to deal with foreigners, too much trouble, please go away.” She started to take crumpled renminbi from a half-dozen hands poking past me.
I persisted. “Ok, then where can we go on Thursday?” She suddenly brightened, giggled, tee-hee, “You can go to Lhasa.” I asked, “You mean Tibet?” Apparently finding this uproariously funny, she rolled her eyes and snarked, “You want three tickets to Teebet?” Yes, we most certainly do. Not about to pass on Shangri-La.
Two days later, on a weathered Boeing 737 needing a paint job and who knows what else, we landed at Gonggar airport. Lhasa itself lies at almost 12,000′, so the airport is an hour away and 2,000 feet lower, where the valley is wider and winds less fierce, next to the glacier-fed Yarlung Tsangpo river, which downstream becomes the tepid Brahmaputra as it wends through India and Bangladesh into the Bay of Bengal.
Deplaning, our first stop was the CAAC desk at the airport, where we learned that we had just missed the weekly flight to Beijing. And so, serendipity, we would have seven days in the Forbidden Kingdom on the Roof of the World.
We bypassed the spanking new Holiday Inn on the outskirts – which we learned later had opened to scathing reviews – opting instead for No. 2 Guest House in the center of old Lhasa, where, hell bent on going local, we got hard beds, a week’s dose of grime and a bath down the hall for five renminbi – about a quarter – per night.
Out for our first walk, we found a humble lunch spot offering veggie momos, yoghurt and yak butter tea – the last definitely an acquired taste but essential sustenance on the energy-sapping high Tibetan plateau – this would be our daily go-to fare.
Lhasa sits on a flat plain next to the meandering river of the same name. Looming majestically above the city is the Potala Palace, 400 meters long and rising 13 stories atop Marpo Ri, the “Red Hill.” A warren of almost 1000 rooms constructed between 1635 and 1694, it was the winter home of successive Dalai Lamas for 310 years, from 1649 to 1959, when China’s so-called People’s Liberation Army (PLO) invaded Tibet and the 14th fled into exile in India.
Two kilometers east and down the valley from the Potala is the Jokhang, the most sacred Buddhist temple in Tibet, and three kilometers west is the Norbulingka, “Jeweled Park,” the Dalai Lamas’ traditional summer residence dating back to 1780. In both we would come face to face with the Chinese occupation of Tibet.
In 1986, the Han Chinese presence in Lhasa was minimal, or at least not obvious, mostly PLO units barracked outside the city, felt rather than seen. But as we circled the Jokhang through the main Barkhor market, mingling with pilgrims prostrating themselves one body length after another, always clockwise as a sign of reverence and devotion, we ran almost headlong into a tall PLO officer sauntering alone against the flow, imperious in his mirrored sunglasses, as if to say, “Take heed, barbarians, we will go in whichever direction we wish.”
Inside the Jokhang redolent with incense, a red-robed monk whispered, “You have Dalai Lama photo?” I nodded, and he steered us to an exterior staircase onto the roof.
We were informed in Chengdu that it was “forbidden,” subversive, to bring photos of His Holiness into Tibet, even to possess one. So before heading to the airport I had tucked my dogeared copy of the Lonely Planet China guidebook under my shirt in the back of my trousers, now it was in my backpack.
On the roof, hidden behind dome-shaped stupas, I tore out two photos and presented them, one each to two monks, who kissed them and grasped our hands in fervent gratitude. So this is what the Chinese invasion of Tibet comes down to: it isn’t enough to exile the Dalai Lama from his own country, any likeness of him must be exiled too.
The next morning at the Norbulinka we stood in line with a dozen pilgrims, including an endearing sun-burnished elderly gent with his grandson.
As we stepped inside, a young monk asked us to please take off our boots. The floor was covered with red carpets and the walls with thangkas, silk paintings depicting, our guidebook told us, the life of the Buddha and the long, non-Chinese, history of Tibet. Holiness seeped into our bones.
An hour later we stepped out into the inner courtyard, collected our boots and sat there beyond content in the brilliant sunshine, cradling cups of steaming tea brought by the young monk. Our reverie was interrupted by loud voices, and out onto the veranda strode a dozen PLO officers. Still wearing their boots. Holiness clearly foreign to them.
My friend Barbara leapt to her feet, pointing, remonstrating, “How dare you wear your boots inside, don’t you have any respect?” The senior officer, a general given the stars on his collar, momentarily taken aback, turned to one of his adjutants, who translated. No surprise if we had been put on the first flight out of the country. But instead the general just smirked, shrugged and strode with his entourage out of the courtyard, as if to say, “No matter, all of this belongs to China now.”
Flash forward five years to 1991. The 1990 Immigration Act – Sen. Ted Kennedy was lead sponsor – included a provision for 1,000 immigrant visas for “displaced Tibetans” – calling them “refugees” would have piqued the PRC government – to be settled in 10 cluster sites around the country, including Seattle.
A friend who knew I had been to Tibet pulled me onto the local committee arranging housing with sponsor families, work – most of the women started as nannies, the men as gardeners – and English language classes for the 25 coming to Seattle. A very humbling experience, their gratitude and grace was boundless, fifteen years later one woman was still sending me Christmas cards.
Just weeks after the first Tibetans arrived, I was about to set off with my camera on another trek, first Guangzhou to reconnect with a young Chinese engineer we met in 1986, then Israel, in the throes of the First Intifada, and at the tail end, Moscow and St. Petersburg as the Soviet Union was breaking up.
But as long as I was going in that direction, why not detour to India and try to get a meeting, an audience, with the Dalai Lama. So I wrote the Office of the Tibetan Government in Exile, mentioning my time in Tibet and the refugee project. Hoping for the best, but pre-internet getting a response before my departure was unlikely.
Surprise, surprise, three days later there was a fax from Tenzing, the Dalai Lama’s personal secretary, “His Holiness would be happy to meet you, but unfortunately on the dates you propose, December 6 and 7, he will be in Stockholm for the second anniversary of his Nobel Peace Prize, could you please come on the 16th instead?” Well, let me check my calendar. It took two heartbeats to fax my reply, “No difficulty to adjust my schedule, will arrive Dharamshala on the 12th or 13th. Very much looking forward to the meeting.”
I flew into Delhi on December 9 and the next morning took the Paschim Express to Kalka, then a very non-express train, 98 km. in five and a half hours, up to Simla – some spell it Shimla – a hill town once the summer capital of the British Raj.
The KSR, aka the Toy Train Line, narrow 2 ft. 6-inch gauge, diesel rather than electric, constructed 1898, H.S. Harington, Chief Engineer, snakes its way – 70% of the track is curved – up 5,300 feet through and over 18 stations, 103 tunnels and 983 major and minor bridges, one of the most spectacular railways in the world, it is now a UNESCO world heritage site. By itself worth the journey.
The doorman at the venerable Woodville Palace Hotel, where Greta Garbo, Kathryn Hepburn and other film stars once slept, arranged a car and driver to take me the rest of the way up to Dharamshala. A pleasant but overly deferential fellow who “sired” me to distraction, he insisted on coming along, his day off, he said.
The next morning, it quickly became apparent that the very young driver, grinding his way herky-jerky up the twisting road, was bewildered by the clutch. After an hour, I had enough. When we stopped for tea, I said to the doorman, “Time for driving lessons,” and jumped behind the wheel. His immediate instinct, “Yes, sir,” turned quickly to “No, sir, please no, passengers cannot drive.”
I insisted, demonstrating for 30 minutes and then coaching from the passenger seat for the next 30, rinse and repeat. My young driver made good progress at first, but then, alas, slowly regressed. When we finally arrived, he was, I regret to say, still a lousy driver, but at least his return trip was downhill.
Dharamshala – loosely translated from Hindi as “sanctuary” or “shelter” – sits perched on a steep hillside amid pine and oak forests in the foothills of the Dhauladhar Range, a spur of the Himalaya. In 1864 it became the summer capital of British India and home base of the famed 1st Gurkha Rifles, the “bravest of the brave.”
But after a devastating earthquake in 1905, the British moved lock, stock and barrel down to Simla, and by 1991 Dharamshala – Tibetans call it “Little Lhasa,” or “Dhasa” for short – was a sleepy backwater with a down-at-the-heels bazaar. Well off the beaten track, just my style. I checked into a small hotel with a restaurant overlooking the valley and sipped a gin and tonic on the terrace as the sun went down.
The next morning I snagged a taxi for the steep five kilometer climb from Dhasa up to McLeod Ganj – a Persian word for neighborhood – where the Dalai Lama lives. It was named for Sir Donald Friell McLeod – yes, my clan – Lieutenant Governor of Punjab 1865 to 1870.
Here and there along the road, too irregular for bus stops, were small clusters of Tibetans, waiting, I soon realized, for the Dalai Lama’s return home from Stockholm. At the top, white smoke poured from a large white stupa, and there the road forked. To the right was McLeod Ganj bazaar, and two kilometers further on the neo-gothic Anglican church, St. John in the Wilderness, where British Viceroy Lord Elgin – he of the eponymous Elgin Marbles in the British Museum – is buried.
To the left, towards Namgyal Monastery and Tsuglagkhang, the Dalai Lama’s temple, the road was lined five and six deep with diminutive Tibetans, their hands clasped in reverence, a handful of Western dharma bums towering over them.
I found a vantage point a bit above the crowd and waited too. Rumor had it that a Hollywood benefactor had given the Dalai Lama two Mercedes sedans, one burgundy, the second buttermilk yellow, both the colors of monks’ robes. Ten minutes later, a murmur of excitement rippled up the hill. His Holiness had arrived. In buttermilk.
I had booked a sunny room on the second floor of a small guesthouse just off the bazaar, a square with a prayer wheel in the center and lined by a dozen small shops. Above one of them, up an outside staircase, was a cozy café where I would have breakfast every morning.
The guesthouse proprietor, Tibetan, 40-ish, settled me in with a warning, “When you go out, close your windows, if you don’t, the monkeys – macaques – on the roof will steal everything that isn’t nailed down,” or words to that effect. Indeed. Later that afternoon I walked out of my room for five minutes and came back to see one of the ruffians scampering out the window with my red lens filter. No doubt it made his simian day.
The next morning I went out early for breakfast. When I returned, my proprietor was all a twitter, he stammered, “His Holiness’s office called, asked if you could come today instead of Monday.” I wondered, how did they know I was here? Then again, it was a small town and I didn’t exactly blend in. I asked, “What time?” “11 o’clock.” “That works, please call back and tell them I will be there at 10:45.”
Time enough to collect my thoughts and camera. I walked up the hill toward the monastery, where several monks and an English-speaking local invited me to meet an elderly nun who had been imprisoned and tortured by the PLO in Lhasa during the 1988 uprising. She had escaped and, following the same route as the Dalai Lama in 1959, had just arrived. Sanctuary.
But now I was running late. One of the monks escorted me to the gatehouse of the Dalai Lama’s residence, guarded by a no-nonsense Gurka cradling an Uzi. A young Tibetan in a jacket and tie gave me a cursory pat-down.
The inside of the gatehouse was a mini Norbulinka, floor to ceiling thangkas punctuated with brass bowls. I sat on a cushion and took it in all in.
A few minutes later, a monk entered, “Welcome, Jon, I’m Tenzing, please come this way,” and escorted me through a courtyard, where one monk was shaving another’s head, then onto a veranda with creaking planks and vermillion bougainvillea spilling off the corrugated green metal roof. An unpretentious and lovely place.
As we walked, he asked, “Have you read his autobiography?” I replied, “Yes, of course, Freedom in Exile, I have it with me.” “Did you like it?” “I did, very much, it’s an incredible, riveting story.” Tenzing turned and looked me in the eye. “Please tell him, he’s very insecure about his writing.” His Holiness? H-squared, as we affectionately called him. Insecure?
A dozen steps on, Tenzing stopped and pulled open a double screen door. And there he stood, two feet in front of me, the Dalai Lama. He grasped both my hands in his and said, “Jon, it’s good to see you,” as if we were old friends, as he does with so many, and pulled me over to two wooden chairs side by side, his right knee against my left. He patted my arm and said, “So you’ve been to my country, please tell me about my country.”
In March 1959, as PLO troops were crushing a massive Tibetan revolt, the State Oracle, the most senior advisor to the Dalai Lama told him – although already ordained as the spiritual and political leader of Tibet, he was still only 24, young and green – that he had to get out while the getting was good.
Disguised as an ordinary soldier, the Dalai Lama slipped out of Lhasa and traveling only at night, accompanied by his most trusted aides and according to him, several CIA agents with a short wave radio, trekked in a blizzard over a 16,000′ mountain pass into India.
He had not been back since, more than 30 years, and he wanted to hear, from the horse’s mouth so to speak, what he was missing. I realized then that I was having a private audience with the Dalai Lama because in 1986 we could not get a flight to Kunming and ended up in Lhasa instead. Fortuitous. Sometimes things just turn out alright. More than alright.
And so I reeled it out, how we had ended up in Tibet in the first place, the monks who asked for his photo, the PLO officer walking counterclockwise around the Jokhang, the soldiers with their boots in the Norbulinka, a 12-year old monk in the Potala Palace – Bo Sang his name – with the aura of a 1,000-year old soul.
His Holiness frequently interjected with exclamations, sighs and questions about how ordinary Tibetans were faring. He speaks English quite well, but several times, unable to find exactly the word he wanted, he apologized and appealed to a tall young Tibetan in Western dress, his translator and, as the only other person in the room, presumably his bodyguard too.
After 30 minutes or so, I said, “If you have more questions, I will do my best to answer, but then I would like to ask a few.” He smiled, “Please do. And I will do my best to answer you.”
I started gently, asking about his boyhood fascination with movie projectors, blue prints of ships and planes, music boxes and most of all old time pieces at which he became very adept in taking apart and putting back together again. He smiled at the memories, “As a child I spent much time alone, these things gave me great pleasure. And still do.”
Then I upped the ante to the Chinese occupation of Tibet. “Your Holiness. when your people revolted against the PLO in 1959, you had cassettes smuggled into Tibet telling them to stop fighting, that violence is not the way.”
“But wherever people struggle, fight, to win freedom from their oppressors, blood always runs in the street. Do you not think that the same will be true for your people, for their freedom?” A cloud passed over his face. After a moment he said, “I fear you may be right, but I wish it would not be so.”
Next, “When the time comes, where will the next Dalai Lama be found.” He replied, matter-of-factly at first, “Well, of course my successor may come from Tibet, or from India – did you know, there are 100,000 Tibetans here? – or Switzerland, many there too.” Then, with a twinkle in his eye, “Or even America, why not America?” Followed by his deep, joyful rumble of a laugh.
“Yes, America perhaps,” I said, “You know that 1,000 Tibetans are coming to America on humanitarian visas, 25 of them to Seattle, families are taking them into their homes, they are learning English and we have found work for them so that they can eventually become self-sufficient, independent. But, Your Holiness, life in America is fast, commercial, and Tibetans are so spiritual, I wonder if they will ever feel at home there or always, as we sometimes say, like a fish on a bicycle.”
That laugh again, bigger than before. “Oh, Jon, do not worry, it’s not what Americans can do for Tibetans, but what Tibetans can do for Americans.” And I laughed with him.
A pause, then, “I just finished reading your biography, and although I have never asked anyone for an autograph, I was wondering if you would sign my copy.” He looked at me intently and asked, “Did you like it? Sometimes I think it is too plain, too rough.”
“I tracked down a copy right before my flight to Hong Kong and finished before I arrived in Simla, couldn’t put it down, a page-turner we would call it, a window into Tibetan Buddhism and a fascinating life story in such rich detail, as if I was with you every step of the way, I enjoyed it immensely.” He smiled, sweetly, almost like a child, and said, “I am happy to hear that, a great relief really. Please give me your book.”
And then, in an elegant Tibetan script, he wrote on the last page, “Always praying for happiness,” and signed it, “A Tibetan Buddhism Monk, Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, 12/14/1991.” Above it was the prayer he recited at his 1989 Nobel ceremony:
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.
And with that his translator stood up. Our talk was over. We walked together out onto the veranda and into the brilliant sunshine. Tenzing took our photo.
Coda: Dharamshala and McLeod Ganj are now overrun with tourists, hotels and shops multiplying like rabbits, going back would be tough to take. Lhasa too, but on steroids. China’s relentless and overwhelming Hanification and brutal occupation of Tibet is like a monstrous sky burial, a war crime, many war crimes. More in a future post. —