Bengaluru: Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s wishes to His Holiness Dalai Lama on the occasion of his 87th birthday made my heart swell with pride. The Prime Minister tweeted, “Conveyed 87th birthday greetings to His Holiness the @DalaiLama over the phone earlier today. We pray for his long life and good health.”
The wishes made me think of the innumerable lives he has touched which makes him so special.
Recently, an op-ed authored by a non-resident Indian made a case for The Dalai Lama being appointed as the country’s next president. This raised eyebrows on a WhatsApp group of young Tibetan academics of which I am a part, as perhaps being an attention-seeking exercise. Both the op-ed and this reaction illustrate the many claims on His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama’s identity, as a Tibetan first and foremost, but for many Indians and non-Tibetans, as a “son of India” and a globally beloved and respected icon of compassion, non-violence and a distinct kind of leadership that the world desperately needs.
On the occasion of his 87th birthday, it’s worth reflecting on how a boy named Lhamo Thondup, born to a simple farming family in the rural expanse of Taktser, Amdo in Tibet, became someone relatable as one of their own to so many from an entirely different identity-axis, be it nationality, ethnicity, gender, religious persuasion, scientific temperament and so on, in a contemporary world where polarisation on the basis of given identity is pervasive. This is greatly relevant to the Tibetan struggle’s future, for it holds political lessons for Tibetan youth that far outweigh much abstract learning in political science, a subject that is a great favourite amongst the younger generation.
Of course, the forces of history and occupation of 1959, in particular, thrust the present Dalai Lama, from a cloistered and closed society and at a very young age, straight onto the world stage. He often ascribes the global spread of Nalanda Buddhist philosophy and his own evolution to these unique circumstances of his life. But there was little stopping the Dalai Lama from being a very narrow-minded Fourteenth reincarnation, who clung to every tiny identity – be it a region in Tibet or a sect – out of insecurity at its potential loss. Instead, he is the polar opposite. The Dalai Lama’ssenior tutor Kyabje Ling Rinpoche and various learned others were his counsel during this tumultuous transition, but reading his life history it is clear that at the age of 24 already, he is his own master, taking forward-looking decisions for his entire country and peoples.
A Tibetan might argue that the Dalai Lama is a manifestation of Chenrezig, the Buddha of Compassion, and therefore, his deeds are bound to be extraordinary. While holding much merit, at the mundane level of human life, it is worth recounting why the Fourteenth Dalai Lama’s particular choices and way of being make him, in my view, the greatest by far in a distinguished lineage. The First Dalai Lama was a great Arya Tara adept and yogi; the Fifth bought political unity to Tibet; the Seventh was a renowned spiritual practitioner, but the Fourteenth has not just masterfully combined his spiritual and temporal roles in the most dangerous period of Tibet’s history, but also, has sought to adapt them to the modern age.
Like so many across the globe, I have always considered the present Dalai Lama as being special. The insider’s perspective afforded in assuming the role of the Principal of the Dalai Lama Institution, Bengaluru, by invitation, has only sharpened and strengthened this view. Amongst his manifold achievements, in the field of education alone, the reasons are as follows. First, the Dalai Lama prioritised the education of Tibetan children, to reflect and preserve Tibet’s unique language, culture and traditions. Second, he simultaneously prioritised the education of the monastics, not just recreating in exile all the key monasteries, with their remarkably high level of learning, but also modernising their curriculums with the addition of basic schooling in science and the learning of English. Third, he reproduced libraries and other key institutions of Tibetan arts and culture. Fourth, he advocated for universal ethics to be mainstreamed into educational systems. Fifth, the Dalai Lama built strong bridges with the scientific community by engaging in lifelong conversations with them.
Paraphrasing from Arya Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland, where a bodhisattva-aspirant prays her mere name benefits other beings, it is fair to say the Dalai Lama has actualised it. This is evident on seeing the numerous impressive educational and scholastic institutions conceived, permitted, funded and built on the back of his name across the southern Tibetan settlements and indeed, the whole of India. It goes further, as due to the respect he garners across the board amongst the Indian intelligentsia, these institutions have received affiliations and other recognition. Internationally, too, due to the Dalai Lama’s reputation, top ivy league universities today have centres and labs undertaking cutting-edge research on compassion and various universal values from the perspective of numerous disciplines.
The Dalai Lama’s attitude towards education illustrates why he is a timeless and modern thinker, naturally progressive and deeply reformist in attitude. First, he pushed for traditionally nomadic and farming Tibetan people to go into first-generation formal education, especially the women. Second, he has tried to ensure that whilst learning and maintaining deep roots in their own Tibetan language, English (and even Mandarin) is learned so top scholars in the monastic community, in particular, are able to teach dharma to increasingly interested urban Indians, Chinese and westerners. Third, he has expanded the scope of Nalanda Buddhist philosophy to be taught in modern education institutions, foreseeing that perhaps as a future avenue for the maximum number of beings to be benefitted. Fourth, he has reiterated time and again that as regards an institution’s standing, the scale and grandeur of buildings are less important than the quality and knowledge of people therein.
My firsthand experience working with a younger generation of Tibetans-in-exile in India has been superb. It challenged many abstract and stereotypical notions held within the Tibetan community itself, on the capability of Tibetan youngsters to carry the mantle forwards, and of much out-migration among them. My own view, after working closely with younger staff and students at the Dalai Lama Institute of Higher Education, is that the Dalai Lama has managed the impossible yet again – he and his name have provided circumstances where these displaced refugee children and now young adults born in India have been given sufficient support, a tailored education, and even love to make them secure and confident in their identity, while not harbouring the rigidities and inward-looking perspectives some of the older generation display. Indeed, the challenge will be to have a smooth generational handover of leadership and institutions, for which the capability and potential are fully present.
To younger Tibetans - full of talent, creativity, intelligence, dynamism, and open-mindedness, against all odds! - I say the world and more is your oyster. And you will best serve His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama by following his actions to a tee in both deed and spirit, including his remarkable love of knowledge, cosmopolitanism and ability to enlist all to his cause by offering the hand of friendship and empathy across the board, in a profound understanding of interdependence.
It is singularly how a population of six million in total, and only 150,000 in exile - smaller than a single neighbourhood of Delhi - has held the world’s attention to their country’s predicament in the face of a powerful aggressor for so many decades.