The Dalai Lama: A life less ordinary

At nearly 70, the Dalai Lama, god-king of Tibet (and friend to the stars), knows he cannot go on for ever. But, as Johann Hari discovers, he shows no signs of curbing his ambition or his opinions
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It's tough being a god-king in the 21st century. The Dalai Lama is staging a press conference for Scottish radio from his hotel suite, just an hour before he is due to address the Scottish Parliament. He is scratching his shaved head and wearing a stilted smile as I am ushered in. Security agents scan me with their eyes. They are here to protect His Holiness from Chinese assassins, but they cannot shield him from the mind-melting blandness of some of the Scottish press.

It's tough being a god-king in the 21st century. The Dalai Lama is staging a press conference for Scottish radio from his hotel suite, just an hour before he is due to address the Scottish Parliament. He is scratching his shaved head and wearing a stilted smile as I am ushered in. Security agents scan me with their eyes. They are here to protect His Holiness from Chinese assassins, but they cannot shield him from the mind-melting blandness of some of the Scottish press.

"Your Holiness, how can we in the West be more compassionate?"... "Your Holiness, what is your favourite prayer?"... "Your Holiness, what do you make of the weather here in Scotland?" As these questions die all around him, cameras crack and whirr insistently in his face. If he is irritated, it does not show. "Oh, every morning I pray for Scotland, of course," he says, before releasing his trademark giggle. He giggles like a cartoon character: his head remains still while his shoulders roll and he emits a strange, rhythmic whine.

"Now. We are finished!" the monk declares, and I am plucked up by his entourage and led through to the adjoining suite for my audience. I feel thrown by this odd, dissonant little scene; it's like glimpsing Buddha doing a live two-way on CNN.

In 1937, the two-year-old Lhamo Thondup was discovered by wise men in a village in the north of Tibet. It was a country with no roads, no electricity grid, and a grand total of three cars. By the age of 16, this son of peasant farmers was in charge of a country under attack from Communist invaders. By the age of 24, he was sent into never-ending exile, the world's most famous refugee. Today he wanders the earth, trying to remind us - via satellite, cable and the worldwide web - that his tiny country in the Himalayas is being raped by China.

And here he is, striding towards me with his hands clasped together as though in prayer. "Table!" he says. I smile awkwardly and try to formulate a response. "Put it on the table!" He points towards my Dictaphone. He starts trying to move a little wooden table, and hits my leg. I urge him to stop - he is nearly 70, after all - and The Independent's photographer gently takes over. "Now," he claps his hands, "begin!"

I look awkwardly around the room. In addition to the Dalai Lama's translator, there is a mysterious woman, a mysterious man, and the press representative for the London Free Tibet Campaign. As one, they nod towards me expectantly. "Your Holiness, do you ever wish they had chosen some other boy to be Dalai Lama?" I ask. "Do you ever wish that the wise men had stopped at the next village along?"

The Dalai Lama looks away for a moment, as though to a point in the far distance. "When I was young, I used to go to Potala on retreat for three weeks a year. It was not a voluntary retreat, you know. My tutor came along and I had lessons all day. Then, sometimes, I would have regrets. In the evening, when the sun disappeared into the horizon and the shadows from the mountains spread, I would see the shepherds leading their flocks back home. I would think, oh, I wish I was one of them."

I smile. He does not. He suddenly focuses his eyes on me, and says: "But since then? No. I began to assume my responsibilities - sometimes beyond my capacities, that's clear - and I began to understand. I decided that my being should be dedicated to something useful for others. One of my favourite prayers says, 'So long as space remains,/ So long as sentient beings suffer and remain,/ I will remain in order to serve'. This gives me a lot of comfort. This is the meaning of my life."

His childhood seems to have been frozen in protocol and worship. He was selected as God-King of Tibet because, as a toddler, he managed to identify several of the 13th Dalai Lama's belongings from a jumble of domestic items. They concluded that Lhamo Thondup was the authentic reincarnation of the God-King's spirit - and so he was anointed the Buddha of High Compassion, sovereign of the High Land of Snows, Buddhist monk and Ocean of Wisdom. He admits that the years after this "discovery" were "a somewhat unhappy period" of his life: "My parents did not stay long, and soon, I was alone in these unfamiliar surroundings [the Dalai Lama's palace in Lhasa]. It is hard for a small child to be separated from its parents."

This icy, faintly pitiful existence continued into his teens. He describes one of his great teenage pleasures as "running to the roof, after my tutor left, with my telescope. I could see into the state prison, and I would love to see when the prisoners were allowed to walk in the compound. I considered them to be my friends and kept a close eye on their movements. They knew this, and whenever they saw me, they threw themselves down in prostration." When, at 17, he declared an amnesty for prisoners, he realised that he would miss his friends.

Yet now, all this seems like "the happiest moments of my life". When the Chinese massed on the border of Tibet in 1950, he explains, he had to assume his temporal powers at just 15. "A month before, I had been a carefree young man looking forward to the annual opera festival. Now, I was faced with the immediate prospect of leading my country as it prepared for war." The Chinese justified their invasion of Tibet by saying they were "reclaiming it for the Motherland". Tibet was just another chunk of their country, as Chinese as chopsticks and mah-jong, they declared as they seized the highest inhabited place on earth, the rooftop of the world. They ignored that Tibet had a totally different language, culture and religion.

"I was only a child, and I had nowhere near completed my religious education. I knew nothing of the outside world and had no political experience," the Dalai Lama says. "Yet I was mature enough to realise my ignorance, and all I still had to learn... As Dalai Lama, I was the only one whom everybody in the country would be ready to follow with no argument." The Tibetans had a derisory army. The Dalai Lama's advisers turned to oracles and omens for guidance, and the Red Army broke Tibet's defences like a child snapping a twig.

He speaks of his country's destruction with an odd lightness of tone. His description of the "cultural genocide" ripping through Tibet is punctuated by random giggles. He claps his hands as he describes how more than two million of his people have been murdered, starved or exiled by the Chinese tyranny. Is this a nervous tick?

For the first few years of occupation, the Dalai Lama tried to cut a deal with the Chinese authorities, but their savagery and contempt for the Tibetan people only grew. He finally fled across the border into India - and has never returned. I swallow hard and realise that we have reached 1959 - the point in the Dalai Lama's life story when he is no longer a blameless victim and his judgements can begin to be questioned.

There are three main criticisms of the Dalai Lama. I feel cruel putting them to him, but as a leader of a democratic liberation movement, he says that he welcomes critical questioning. The first criticism - always levelled by the Chinese and sometimes by the Marxist left - is that the Tibet romanticised by the Dalai Lama and his Western followers was no Shangri-La. Rather, it was a slave-owning feudal theocracy. Drepung monastery, for example, owned 25,000 slaves, who were indoctrinated to believe that their servitude was just punishment for their bad karma.

"We cannot revert to the old Tibet, and even if we could, we do not want to, because there were many things wrong with our society," he says. Radical change would have happened without a vicious military occupation. In the brief years he was in charge of Tibet, in uneasy alliance with the Chinese, the Dalai Lama instituted major reforms of his own. He established an independent judiciary and abolished inheritable debt, which was, he explains, "the scourge of the peasant and rural community", trapping them in servitude to the aristocracy.

Once in exile, he established full democracy among the refugees, and wrote a draft constitution that, on his insistence, even allows for the Dalai Lama to be removed from his position if two-thirds of Tibetans vote for it. "I do not want to run Tibet," he says. He explains that in a free Tibet, he will renounce all temporal powers, and live as a normal monk. He also explains that he might be "the last Dalai Lama. I will only reincarnate if the Tibetan people want it. There will come a day when there is no Dalai Lama. If I die in the next few days - not in Edinburgh, I hope - then reincarnation would happen." But in a free Tibet? He shakes his head, and giggles again.

The second criticism is of the Dalai Lama's tactics. He has preached pacifist resistance at all costs, persuading Tibetan guerrillas to renounce their guns. In 1987, he took the drastic step of rescinding Tibet's claims to independence. In a five-point peace plan, he said that Tibetans - provided they gave their approval in a referendum - would accept Chinese control over their foreign policy, in exchange for substantial autonomy and the removal of Chinese settlers from Tibet. He has said that he seeks a political settlement like Scotland's after devolution.

The Chinese hailed this as a great propaganda coup - even the Dalai Lama does not claim that Tibet should be a separate country! - and gave nothing in return. Indeed, the massive and aggressive influx of Han settlers into Tibet intensified, so now they almost outnumber the indigenous population. Tibetans are today on the brink of becoming an eccentric and colourful minority in their own country, like Native Americans posing from their tourist-stop reservations for the cameras.

Does he ever worry that he made a massive concession and got nothing in return? He shifts awkwardly in his chair. "Actually, you can't say that. It's too early to say. We offer, we clear some ground. So, up to now, there has been no response at the level of the Chinese government. But among the Chinese people - among students, artists, intellectuals - there are full supporters of the proposals. Recently, at Harvard University, I met with 30 Chinese students and professors. We discussed the plan. Some cried and apologised to me. They said that if Chinese people could be told the truth about the Dalai Lama's proposals" - he refers to himself in the third person again, another strange tick - "then the entire Chinese people would support it."

I don't think the Dalai Lama likes me. He looks tetchy; he narrows his eyes in my direction, then looks at his watch. I am about to offer another question, but he cuts in: "So, on the surface, nothing. But you can't say. No! Another two years? Ten years? Twenty years?" Yet on other occasions, he has obliquely mentioned that the Jews had to wait 2,000 years to return to a nation of their own. Doesn't he ever get frustrated? Does he understand why some young Tibetans are tempted by violence? "We are a country of six million next to a country of one billion. We need their sympathy. Not hatred."

The third area of potential criticism is spiritual. There is a soft-headed view among trendy Westerners that, while most religions have disturbing elements, Buddhism is a pure, simple, uncontaminated faith. Yet the Dalai Lama has suggested that Tibetans are being punished for their "bad karma". Can this be true, Your Holiness? "Yes. Of course. We are punished for feudalism. Every event is due to one's karma." So, are disabled children being punished for sins in a past life? "Oh yes. Of course." Suddenly, one of his entourage - dormant until now - leaps up and speaks quickly to the Dalai Lama in Tibetan. He turns to me.

"This is for Buddhists! Only for Buddhists! Last question now, please. We must hurry." Now I glance at my watch. We are meant to have more time, but the entourage is vibrating strangely, whirling around the room, and talking in Tibetan. I stammer some incoherent question, the Dalai Lama answers in a few incoherent lines. We take some quick photographs, and, as he poses, I try to ask him to elaborate on his comments criticising the massive inequalities of wealth in the West. "Yes, it is wrong," he says as he smiles. "Why do the rich need so much? We each only have one stomach. Well, not you," he says, looking at my belly. "You appear to have two."

I am whisked away, past the security guards, past the cameras, past rows and rows of orange-robed monks, and out on to the Edinburgh street. Have I been thrown out? My mind is flickering with images of oracles, monasteries stained with blood, and the Last Dalai Lama. The rooftop of the world feels very far away.