As Tibet and the world celebrated his birthday on July 6, I wish to celebrate the presence of the Dalai Lama, a Tibetan leader, who is added to the very civilisation of India. One has to understand the nature of his influence. I love the apparent paradox of the man, a monk who understands the real world, a refugee at home in the universe, a presence in the very marginality of his location. He makes China look silly, one man’s life against all the battalions. The satyagrahi as trickster becomes obvious here. He seems more real, more tangible. In fact, more memorable than Mao Zedong. He appears like history’s jokes. One can think of Joseph Stalin asking, “The Pope? How many divisions has he got?” to realise that this Tibetan monk needs none. That is the beauty, the everydayness and the miracle of this man. I realise his spirituality can touch the core of ordinariness. I imagined reciting Ogden Nash’s limerick to him.
The one L lama, he’s a priest
The two L llama, he’s a beast
And I will bet my silk pyjama
There isn’t any three L lllama
I can hear the monk chuckling hardest, may be even seeing a Buddhist nuance in it, a special cowl hiding wisdom behind a touch of idiocy.
Yet, he, as a religious leader and a Tibetan monk, means China well. He knows it is a great nation, a greater civilisation enamoured with the power of itself, and he wants this powerful state to find the right values. This man realises that state and church may be separated. He may also realise that theocracies as regimes may not work best, that the Vatican eventually has a symbolic role. But he knows that one cannot doubt the spiritual, the domain of values in the rituals of the state. He wants the rule of law to be wise and benign and he watches like a citizen. He speaks both with the passion of a Tibetan and the quiet detachment of a well-wisher. No foreign policy analyst has that double-edged clarity.
The Dalai Lama gave Tibet a special place in the imagination. From the “Forbidden City” — the last Shangri-La of Orientalists — it became a place the mind visited to renew itself. People talk of Hollywood and the commitment of filmstars looking for meaning in Dharamsala, but with the impact of Buddhism on science and ecology peace becomes a search for life, a philosophy beyond security studies and the torrid dilemmas of the nation state.
I also realised his truth is not bland; it has spice and salt to it. I remember a friend of mine, petite, charming, a wonderful rock singer full of life, met him and he greeted her warmly, like an old friend, calling her “Oh Buddhi (old woman)”. She laughed it off, but I realised his insight had cut through. Here was a woman who was almost anorexic in her efforts to stay thin and I think the Dalai Lama sensed it. In a quick way, he was warning her of the old woman in her, requesting her to celebrate that also. The economy and timeliness of the comment intrigued me.
The Dalai Lama marks the best of Indian hospitality — an openness to a defeated country and a way of life with no questions asked. The monk always called India his teacher. While the comment was a simple one I think it had layers to it. He was referring to India as a civilisational home of many religions, of India as civil society, about India as nation and nation-state. Puckishly he asks or suggests that may be today the Indians do not add up. A more immediate example would explain.
Today, South Africa does not add up. A country that fought for freedom refuses to host a conference in which the Dalai Lama could be present. Can realpolitik go so far as to damage a nation’s sense of itself? In his silence, the Dalai Lama seems to suggest that the South Africa of today is not quite Africa. It has a sense of being a bit more “white” than its neighbours. It is in this same context that His Holiness, watching George W. Bush rant about the axis of evil and the dangers of Islam, observed succinctly, “George Bush brings out the Muslim in me.”
Watching the monk one realises that three possibilities, each spiritual in nature, have played themselves out in India. One is the guru, the other is the saint and the third is the monk. All are ascetics, all seek to define and exemplify the cultural and spiritual in different ways. All three go beyond the priest as ritual specialist and bureaucrat in articulating the possibilities of a message. I have a layman’s view of the three roles as forms of spiritual being, of the way in which they get constructed in folklore. The guru as teacher, as exemplar, as one to follow, is ever present in media. They have been fragments of charisma and popular culture. The guru is a teacher whether in music, dance or religion. He brings an element of craft to spirituality and spirituality to craft. The guru has become a more populist, even controversial, figure through the works of Asaram, Ramdev or even Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and Satya Sai Baba.
When one talks of saints, one thinks of Ramana Maharshi or the first Sai Baba. They lived lives of extraordinary spirituality. They are objects of worship for the way they lived their lives, for their teachings and their spirituality. Gurus are common, but saints are rare, each almost unique and singular in his own way. The monk is more every-day creature. He is the mule of spirituality. For him spirituality is work, a regime, a rhythm, and even a routine. While the guru or saint conveys a message, a monk lives out one. He embodies the everydayness of a spiritual regimen.
Between the three they carve out the spiritual space and I feel closest to monks because they need neither miracle nor charisma. Their ritual regimen does the speaking. When I watch monks in the Ramakrishna Mission or the Buddhist monks, I feel the everydayness of religions is intact.
The Dalai Lama is a special monk, who combines religion and spirituality to articulate the wisdom of politics. As an ethical exemplar he needs to be celebrated. I am glad that the world is celebrating the genius of a man and his life.