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Dalai Lama’s newest book also his most personal

November 16, 2010

WASHINGTON, D.C.

For “just a simple monk,” as he likes to describe himself, the Dalai Lama has a lot on his plate.

He remains serene and jovial — his beatific visage remains one of the world’s most recognizable — even as Chinese troops have slaughtered an estimated one-sixth of his country’s population, reduced ancient monasteries and temples to rubble, incinerated sacred texts and installed a military occupation that suppresses all dissent.

Yet, the Dalai Lama still calls the Chinese his “brothers and sisters.”

The rough outlines of the Dalai Lama’s biography are well known: His identification at age 2 as the 14th reincarnation of the first Dalai Lama; the flight from Tibet into India in 1959; the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize; the hobnobbing with world leaders and Hollywood stars.

But what makes this formidable, gentle, infectiously cheerful man tick? What are his thoughts on his spiritual life?

Author of at least 72 books — his U.S. publisher is not certain of the precise number — the Dalai Lama now offers his latest, My Spiritual Journey, one of his most accessible books for those curious about the private persona behind the public figure.

Across 273 pages, the Dalai Lama charts his trajectory from his boyhood in rural Tibet through his exile in India to his role as a world leader, symbol of peace and, to many fellow Buddhists, the earthly manifestation of the Buddha of Compassion.

Through recollections, public speeches and talks on the dharma (Buddhist teachings), he and translator/researcher Sofia Stril-Rever provide access to the innermost recesses of a 75-year-old mind that is nimble, encyclopedic, and sharply witty. He calls himself a “professional laugher.”

But he insists he is “no one special,” just “a human being” who has chosen to be a Buddhist monk. “I am a monk first of all,” he stresses. “I am a monk before I am the Dalai Lama!”

Amid the basic tenets of Tibetan Buddhism, he reserves extended discussion for what seems to be his favorite article of faith: Compassion — its universality, its power, and its difficulty to practice.

“Until my last breath,” he vows, “I will practice compassion.” And not just to people, but all sentient beings, he says.

He was born Tenzin Gyatso on July 6, 1935 in the remote northeastern Tibetan village of Tasker, which means “roaring tiger.” The village was poor. It was only because his brother was recognized as a reincarnated lama “that we had a little more than other people.”

His mother, the Dalai Lama writes, was surprised to hear him repeat at an early age, “I come from central Tibet. I have to go back there!” His favorite game was packing a bag and saying goodbye. His parents, who had 16 children, “never suspected” their son might be the reincarnated Dalai Lama.

Thinking of becoming a Buddhist? Don’t bother, the Dalai Lama writes. He repeats his conviction that it is better to deepen and preserve the religion of your ancestors. “It is not necessary to become Buddhist when you are a Westerner,” he writes.

In fact, you don’t have to be religious or even believe in an ideology. “The important thing is to develop our human qualities as much as we can.”

As for defeating desires for material goods and physical pleasures — even sexual gratification is “only an ephemeral satisfaction” — he cites an Indian sage: “When you have an itch, you scratch yourself. But not having an itch at all is better that scratching yourself for a long time.”

The book also describes a typical day in the life of the Dalai Lama: Arising around 3 a.m., he immediately recites a prayer, followed by a workout on a treadmill and breakfast. If there’s nothing special on the agenda, his time is filled with studying Buddhists texts and “at least” five or more hours a day of praying and meditating (he meditates on the state of impermanence “constantly”).

The key to happiness lies in “strength of mind, inner serenity and a quality like steadfastness.” The aim of Buddhism is eliminating the “three mental poisons: ignorance, desire and hatred.”

Perhaps not well known is that the Dalai Lama met with Chinese leader Mao Zedong “at least” a dozen times in the early 1950s.

“I found him very impressive,” the Dalai Lama writes, somewhat cryptically. “Physically, he was very unusual.”

Mao spoke in short sentences, probably because he had trouble breathing, but nonetheless made himself clear. Religion was “poison,” Mao said in the pair’s final meeting in 1955, and one of its victims was Tibet. The statement filled the Dalai Lama with “an intense fear.”

Committed to Buddhism’s “Middle Way,” the Dalai Lama does not seek full independence for Tibet, and does not want an active part in any future government there.

In a position he has long defended, the Dalai Lama instead seeks from Beijing “a significant autonomy” for the Tibetan people, “capable of guaranteeing the long-term survival of our Buddhist culture, our language and our distinct identity.”

Beijing, Tibetans and the Dalai Lama himself are already speculating on his eventual successor. He writes that it’s worth remembering that there’s nothing preventing the next Dalai Lama from being a woman.

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