The Dalai Lama: A very earthly representative

For 60 years, the Dalai Lama has been a spiritual leader and an emblem of dispossession. He's also appeared in adverts, charmed celebrities and gained a million followers on Twitter. John Walsh charts the virtues and vices of a thoroughly modern monk

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He is, without any doubt, the only incarnation of the Buddha who has ever guest-edited Vogue Paris.

He's the only spiritual leader of millions who has ever flogged a 1966 Land Rover on eBay and appeared in an advertisement for Apple. He is probably the only Nobel Prize winner on the planet who has Sharon Stone and Richard Gere on speed-dial. He must be the only "simple Buddhist monk" (his description) who sends daily bromides to a million followers on Twitter. Nobody in the world so bizarrely conjoins the spiritual and the material, the sublime and the ridiculous, dangerous politics and trivial celebrity, as the 14th Dalai Lama.

Wednesday is the 60th anniversary of his accession to the title, which means "Ocean of Wisdom" (the full version is Jetsun Jamphel Ngawang Lobsang Yeshe Tenzin Gyatso, which translates as "Holy Lord, Gentle Glory, Compassionate, Defender of the Faith, Ocean of Wisdom"). To almost all Tibetans, even those who criticise his stance over China, he is an object of reverence. But to many in the West he is a sneaky diplomatic strategist, a star-struck terrestrial and a turncoat Buddhist. To Rupert Murdoch, he could be "a very political old monk, shuffling about in Gucci shoes". As we shall see, there's a considerable list of complaints levelled against him. But after 60 years as a human bridge between East and West, do his virtues outweigh his shortcomings?

He was born Lhamo Dondrub in 1935, to a farmer and horse trader called Choekyong Tsering in the Chinese village of Taktser. When he was two, he was discovered, by a method that may not impress the sceptical, to be the incarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama. A search party was sent out, headed by a Tibetan "regent" or senior holy man. All they had to go on was the fact that the head of the recently embalmed Dalai had mysteriously turned north-east, so that's where they went. At a sacred lake, Lhamo La-tso, the regent had a vision of a one-storey house with distinctive tiling and guttering in the district of Amdo. They found the mud-and-stone house, and the child inside it. To settle any doubt about his identity, they'd brought some of the 13th Dalai Lama's old toys, and some toys that had no connection with him. Young Lhamo confidently picked out all the Lama's belongings, shouting: "That's mine!"

He was brought to the Potala Palace in Lhasa, allowed to wander anywhere in its 1,000 rooms and perched on a golden throne. As a child, he was keen on war films – he watched them on his predecessor's movie projector – and driving. In the early 1940s, there were only three cars in Tibet and he drove (and crashed) them all. From an early age, he knew trouble was brewing between small, isolated Tibet and its large neighbours. He taught himself to write by copying out the 13th Dalai Lama's will – a prophetic document, written in 1932, when civil war was raging in China. Warning against "barbaric red Communists", it warned that: "Our spiritual and cultural traditions will be completely eradicated. Even the names of the Panchen and Dalai Lamas will be erased. The Monasteries will be looted and destroyed, and the monks and nuns killed or chased away... We will become like slaves to our conquerors... and the days and nights will pass slowly and with great suffering and terror."

The real power in Tibet then lay in the hands of a corrupt sect of monks who lived off the taxes of peasants. When he was 11, the Dalai Lama-elect watched through a telescope as monks opened fire on the army, following the arrest of one of their own. And when in 1950, aged 15, he officially took on the mantle of Dalai Lama, it coincided with the Chinese People's Liberation Army invading east Tibet. Nine years later, he was forced into exile. He and scores of thousands of Tibetans fled to the Himalayan city of Dharamsala.

For 51 of his 60 years as spiritual leader to six million people, he has been an emblem of dispossession. He has travelled the world speaking out passionately for the return of Tibetan independence – but since 1988, he's scaled down his demands to wanting "autonomy" for Tibet within China, arguing that Tibet could, realistically, grow as a modern nation only if it stays part of China. He has consistently urged that only non-violent means should be used. Many of his countrymen wish he would encourage a less supine response to his country's colonists.

Things came to a head in March 2008, when riots broke out in Lhasa, directed at Chinese civilians by Tibetan mobs. Across Europe and America there were outbreaks of protest in favour of Tibet, and 18 Chinese embassies and consulates were attacked. The Chinese claimed that the riots were orchestrated by the Dalai Lama. In fact, they were more probably the result of years of social discrimination against Tibetans, unequal pay, and the rumour that several Tibetan monks had been arrested and killed. The Dalai Lama denied having anything to do with the uprising, but agreed to talk to the Chinese authorities – who said they'd communicate only if he agreed to renounce Tibetan independence altogether and recognised that Tibet was an inalienable part of Chinese territory.

Many Tibetans must have felt that a call to arms from their spiritual leader would have had a galvanising impact, both in Lhasa and around the world. Instead, he threatened to resign as the head of the government-in-exile in the Himalayas if Tibetans continued with acts of violence against the Chinese. He has always spoken out against economic boycotts of Chinese food or of hunger strikes, and insisted that their relations with China should be "neighbourly". Is he too weak to stand up to China? Or is he a realist, who remembers what it was like when the monastic elite were in charge of Tibet, when he watched outbreaks of gunfire through a telescope, and when he discovered that the 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th Dalai Lamas had all died young, probably poisoned?

If he is regarded as politically ineffectual, his role as a religious leader has also been called into question. Although he possesses a geshe degree, the equivalent of a doctorate in Buddhist philosophy, he has gone out of his way to simplify and secularise Buddhism for a modern audience. His teachings and sayings (especially those on Twitter) have the profundity of fortune cookies: "The greater the level of calmness of our mind, the greater our peace of mind, the greater our ability to enjoy a happy and joyful life" was Thursday's post. He steers clear of the word "Nirvana" – meaning nowhere, freedom from the great wheel of being and reincarnation – preferring to speak of "global ethics". He downplays his own role, casts doubt on his ancestry as an avatar of the Buddha of Compassion, and assures people he is not a "living Buddha". He says that if modern science disproves Buddhist teachings, they must be abandoned. He even advises Western audiences not to embrace Buddhism.

When asked for his views, he employs a curious mix of ancient wisdom and modern liberal pragmatism. He takes the view, universally held in Tibet, that abortion is an act of killing – but goes on to qualify it with, "except if the unborn child will be retarded or if the birth will create serious problems for the parent". Asked by a Seattle schoolgirl if it's ever right to fire a gun at anyone – a question that few Buddhists have ever answered in the affirmative – he replied that yes, it's permissible, if the person is trying to kill you (but you shouldn't shoot to kill them). His views on sex have startled many people. He told Out magazine that homosexuality was OK but that oral, anal or manual sex weren't permissible. His moral relativity has annoyed some of his co-religionists. "The sins of the Dalai Lama and his followers seriously violate the basic teachings and precepts of Buddhism and seriously damage traditional Tibetan Buddhism's normal order and good reputation," was the judgement of Dorje Phagmo, the only leading female Buddhist priest.

He has also incurred the wrath of Christopher Hitchens for accepting money from the leader of the Aum Shinrikyo cult, which was later to release lethal sarin nerve gas in the Tokyo subway system. But the Dalai Lama has always criticised himself for endorsing the man and his organisation – even saying that it showed he wasn't infallible or divine after all.

All of which must make us ask: is the Dalai Lama a bad guy? Or is he merely a disappointment to many people who wish he were something he isn't? Pico Iyer, in his 2008 biography, The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, writes that his subject is the victim of Western preconceptions about Tibet as the heavenly Shangri-La depicted in James Hilton's 1930s novel Lost Horizon. The West would like Tibet to remain a prelapsarian, pre-modern place of innocent happiness, and the Dalai Lama to be the kind of divine princeling depicted in the films Kundun and Seven Years in Tibet. They would rather not hear the princeling criticise the barbaric feudal system in which he grew up, or listen to his conviction that a modern Tibet needs to be grafted to a modern China to become a strong economic unit, rather than a Black Narcissus fantasy. To the Chinese he is a "separatist", a "splitter", a troublesome demagogue to whom Mao Tse-tung once bluntly said: "Religion is a poison". To Tibetans he is a beloved leader, but one who sucks up to the West and is seen as weak by the Chinese. To Buddhists, he is a bringer of confusion rather than enlightenment, and an intimate of Hollywood nincompoops such as Steven Seagal. To conspiracy theorists, he is a shady customer, a Marxist sympathiser, a recipient of CIA dollars. But there is something entirely heartening about the way he moves through this cacophony of disapproval with Zen-like calm, recommending mutual understanding, global unity, decent compromise. He's the boy from the Tibetan backwoods who found himself sitting on a golden throne, only to lose it for exile in the mountains and a life of fame and celebrity in the West – a man from an elderly fairy tale, losing his home, finding a new one on the other side of the world, and refusing to wallow in the past. "In Tibet," writes Pico Iyer, "the Dalai Lama was an embodiment of an old culture that, cut off from the world, spoke for an ancient, even lost, traditionalism. Now, in exile, he is an avatar of the new, as if, having travelled eight centuries in five decades, he is increasingly, with characteristic directness, leaning in, toward tomorrow."

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