His Holiness the Dalai Lama: The Oral Biography

His Holiness the Dalai Lama: The Oral Biography

by Deborah Hart Strober, Gerald S. Strober

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Advance Praise for His Holiness the Dalai Lama

"You too can know him, the great prophet of compassion whose grace touches us all."
—bell hooks, Distinguished Professor of English, City College, New York, and contributor to the Shambhala Sun

"The Dalai Lama's warm embrace of all humanity places him among the greatest spiritual giants of our time. As a


Advance Praise for His Holiness the Dalai Lama

"You too can know him, the great prophet of compassion whose grace touches us all."
—bell hooks, Distinguished Professor of English, City College, New York, and contributor to the Shambhala Sun

"The Dalai Lama's warm embrace of all humanity places him among the greatest spiritual giants of our time. As a Christian leader who has met him several times, I honor his remarkable spiritual journey and commend this new biography."
—Lord George Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury

"The Dalai Lama is one of the most significant religious leaders of our time. His religious spirit and leadership have endeared him to his followers and to those of us who call him our friend. I hope many people will read this book and share our admiration of the Dalai Lama."
—Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, President Emeritus, University of Notre Dame

"A fascinating mosaic of His Holiness the Dalai Lama as a multifaceted individual. The picture that emerges is the epitome of a sublimely balanced human being. He inspires us all to become better people and to treat each other with love and respect, as he does with everyone he meets."
— B. Alan Wallace, Ph.D., President, Santa Barbara Institute for the Interdisciplinary Study of Consciousness

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
The Strobers, authors of the similar "oral biographies" Nixon: An Oral History of His Presidency and The Reagan Presidency, here direct their somewhat unconventional approach to one of the preeminent religious and political figures of our time, the 14th Dalai Lama. In 2004 they posed a variety of questions to more than 50 people who have had extensive contact with His Holiness from as early as the 1940s. Interviewees include Tibetan religious and political leaders, Jewish and Christian clerics, actor Richard Gere, Prof. Robert Thurman, and a lone critic representing the People's Republic of China. Responses are arranged topically, with the first chapter focusing on the Dalai Lama's qualities and the rest generally advancing chronologically from his infancy. The overall result, more hagiography than true biography, will please His Holiness's many fans with details, personal insights, and anecdotes hard to find elsewhere. Recommended for public libraries to supplement the Dalai Lama's two autobiographies, Freedom in Exile and My Land and My People, as well as Melvyn Goldstein's The Snow Lion and the Dragon: China, Tibet, and the Dalai Lama.-James R. Kuhlman, Univ. of North Carolina at Asheville Lib. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.

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His Holiness the Dalai Lama

By Deborah H. Strober

John Wiley & Sons

ISBN: 0-471-68001-X

Chapter One


Justin Trudeau, educator, son of the late Pierre Elliott Trudeau [1919-2000, prime minister of Canada, 1968-1979; 1980-1984] I have done a lot of reading on him, trying to understand him. The one thing that keeps coming back is how people are physically affected by his presence. And to be quite honest, I had sort of dismissed that a little bit-I figured it was something that people would get overly worked up about or were particularly religious-and when he walked over to me and greeted me [just before Mr. Trudeau introduced the Dalai Lama at an appearance at the SkyDome in Toronto, Canada, in April 2004], his presence was like a physical blow, like a wave that actually hit me, and it absolutely amazed me. He exudes this joy and this strength and this simplicity that absolutely floored me. I had been given a scarf to hand to him, for him to put on me, and he took the scarf that I had been given, put it aside, and took out one of his scarves, which I think was of better quality-and certainly more beautiful-and he had me bend over and he put it around my neck. He sort of smiled and nodded and said a couple of words of thanks and greeting. And then he pulled me in toward him and pressed his temple against mine and just held me for a moment. I have rarely felt as welcomed and comfortable with someone as I did in thatmoment of connecting with him. I was on the verge, and slightly over the verge, of tears for the entire experience. I thanked him and walked down off the stage and back to my seat and for the first fifteen minutes of his talk, I was basically in a daze, which was wonderful, so it was a very, very powerful, moving experience.

Professor Robert [A. F.] Thurman, former Buddhist monk, ordained by the Dalai Lama in 1965; Jey Tsong Khapa professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies, Columbia University; author of Inner Resolution, Infinite Life, and other books; cofounder and president, Tibet House, New York City There is such a thing as the charisma of office, then there is the charisma of person. In the case of the Dalai Lama, there is definitely the charisma of person. My wife and I were once asked by an Indian gentleman, "Have you ever seen the Dalai Lama perform a miracle or do something magical?" I had seen a few funny things happen around the Dalai Lama, but I thought it wasn't a good idea to talk about them. But my wife said, "Oh yes, I've seen plenty of miracles. You know that the Dalai Lama is a very busy person and while I've seen him in many different settings, I have never seen it happen that he was with somebody and didn't give the person his total attention and total focus." The Indian gentleman was disappointed, but my wife insisted that the Dalai Lama's response to people is miraculous. When people walk into his field, they feel a different kind of space for themselves. Normally, when we meet each other, we reach out to the person over there and communicate. With the Dalai Lama, there isn't this person who is over there. He is over here, with us.

Richard Gere, actor; social activist; philanthropist; president, The Gere Foundation; chairman of the board, International Campaign for Tibet I first met him in 1981, in Dharamsala. I had been a Zen Buddhist for some time before I went there, but I had a strong impulse to meet the Dalai Lama, although I had not read much of his material. And we had a mutual friend, John Avedon. John was just finishing up a book he was writing, called In Exile from the Land of Snows. I really had not known-as almost no one on the planet knew-what had happened to the Tibetans. It had been a very guarded secret for some reason. John arranged for me to go to Dharamsala and I stayed with His Holiness's younger brother, Ngari Rinpoche.

They were very skillful with me. They said, "His Holiness will be able to see you but it will probably be ten days to two weeks before he has the time. In the meantime, while you're waiting, we want to show you the community. So they spent ten days to two weeks showing me everything the dalai lama: his appeal to the masses 5 public about the Tibetan community in exile, and it was quite an extraordinary education. Of course, by the end of that, I was pretty much a card-carrying Tibetan. And then, when I met His Holiness, Ngari Rinpoche was there. He was educated in an English school in Darjeeling, so his English is impeccable, and he was kind of the interpreter when it was required.

I came there with my girlfriend at the time. He was very gracious and quite striking in his appearance-quite handsome and formidable as a person-and he had the kind of aura that a powerful public person has. At the same time, he was utterly simple and direct. In many ways, he reminded me of my father in his directness, in his simplicity.

Do People Admire Him More for His Spiritual Search, His Political Symbolism, or His Great Celebrity?

Sir Malcolm Rifkind, KCMG, PC, QC, former foreign minister, United Kingdom It's a combination of all these factors. After Nelson Mandela he's probably the nearest thing to a global icon there is. If you think of Mandela, if you think of the Pope, and if you think of the Dalai Lama, there are not many others today who have that global reputation based, essentially, on their personality and their values, and the fact that they combine these personal qualities with an unswerving political set of objectives. So he's not just a spiritual leader and he's not just a politician; it's the combination that makes him remarkable and makes me compare him with the other two people whom I've mentioned.

Dr. Ronald B. Sobel, Senior Rabbi, Congregation Temple Emanu-El of the City of New York; host of the Dalai Lama's appearance there in 1998 I suppose if I were a political figure, it would be his political struggle that would be on the forefront of my consciousness-although it's on my consciousness, it's not on the forefront of my consciousness. But even while saying that, history has thrust this Dalai Lama into a position where political leadership and world statesmanship are not divorced from his religious role, and it was his overwhelming humanity that impressed me. Now, obviously, we have different theological affirmations; our world views are hardly the same; the cultures are significantly disparate. But there are similar factors that we sense: his exile and his people's diaspora, the Jewish people's exile and diaspora, even though it's been a hundred years since my maternal and paternal grandparents came to America, fleeing a world of pogrom and persecution and horror. And what I see in the Dalai Lama are qualities that I would wish always to see in myself but, alas, do not. So, in that sense he becomes also an exemplar for me, by giving values toward which I, personally, should strive to attain.

Reasons for His Popularity in the West

Sir Malcolm Rifkind It's a combination of things, but it also reflects an awareness of the total disparity of power between China and Tibet-China a billion people, Tibet a handful of people; China incredibly powerful, Tibet effectively no power at all in the conventional sense; China a great empire well-known around the world, Tibet still relatively unknown. So there's a romantic element to it, there is the David-and-Goliath relationship, and there is also awareness that in the last twenty years it has been demonstrated that even the impossible can happen. People are saying it looks impossible; it probably is impossible; but after what we've seen just in the last twenty years in other parts of Asia and in other parts of Europe, you can't say it's impossible.

Tsering Shakya, born in Lhasa in 1959 of Nepalese ancestry; expelled with his family to Nepal by the Chinese; author; fellow in Tibetan studies, London University Historically, the fascination with the Dalai Lama was always there; the institution of the Dalai Lama was there. There has always been support by Western travelers, and a lot of books and religious figures have created this fascination, so the institution of the Dalai Lama has always been mysterious and something unique. At the same time, the present Dalai Lama has created this type of personality and stature just out of his own work and his own engagement with the world and the West. So part of the institution of the Dalai Lama is historical, and there has been this fascination, but mainly today's standing really has to do with his own engagement with the world and how he has managed to be so successful-to engage and encounter and relate to the modern world. The Dalai Lama in some ways is really fantastic at understanding about psychological and social conditions of the postindustrial society. That's why he is able to relate so well to Western society; he can relate to these conditions and have the answers and the solutions to the problems you have.

Patrick French, visitor to Tibet in 1999; author, Tibet, Tibet It's hard to say what it is that makes the Dalai Lama such a globally popular figure. It's not really because people are directly following Tibetan Buddhism; it's not really because they're interested in the politics of Tibet. It's that there is something about him, personally, that seems to catch people's imagination, the fact that he has some kind of personal presence. And I think it's very much linked to the fact that he appears to represent the transmission of some ancient spiritual lineage that he's discovered in this extraordinary way, through supposedly recognizing objects that belonged to his predecessor, and that he attained this position of considerable political and religious power at a very young age. Then he had the experience of trying to cohabit with the Chinese communists, fleeing across the Himalayan Mountains into exile. It's a very glamorous story. And I also think that people feel that, somehow, by being around him or by listening to him, that they are going to get some kind of secret and maybe that will help them to live their lives in a happy way.

I've often noticed when I've been with him that people come to him who need help of some kind. Normally, people who have emotional, psychological, personal, or health problems come to the Dalai Lama because they think he's going to reveal a secret, or he's going to heal them in some way. And he's extremely patient and compassionate in how he deals with people like that. He will interrupt what he's doing to give his full attention to somebody who says, "I've just been diagnosed with cancer," or "I have some major upset in my life." I've even noticed that when people know you've had some interaction with the Dalai Lama, they want a little bit of that: "What was he like? What did it feel like, being around him?" They want some of the magic that he appears to give off. In the end, it's not something that's definable; it's more than a religious thing.

Lama Surya Das, ne Jeffrey Miller, American convert to Buddhism; author, Awakening the Buddha Within; meditation teacher; scholar; founder, Western Buddhist Teachers Network; assistant to the Dalai Lama in France The Dalai Lama was very, very impressive. I never expected that much from somebody in his position. I would never have sought out the Dalai Lama of Buddhism or the Pope: growing up in the fifties and sixties and being somewhat disillusioned with such people, I didn't expect that much from statesmen and leaders. But he was everything and more. I felt such a profound personal connection with him. He was really interested in me; when he was with me, it was the most important thing he had to do in the world, which is quite a marvelous feeling. Even if it's just one moment, he's really there, although he definitely has other important things to do.

Father Laurence Freeman, monk of the Monastery of Christ the King, London, United Kingdom; author; lecturer; director, World Community for Christian Meditation Some are born to greatness; some have greatness thrust upon them. He does keep a certain distance. Sometimes he responds to questions when it's best not to respond to them, and then the media jump on that. There have been some unpleasant, negative articles about him, but on the whole the media haven't turned on him as they tend to turn on people they idolize at some point. He had to handle that very delicate situation and at the same time be the father of his people and the symbol of their integrity, their unity, and their culture. Tibetan history is full of conflicts. Even now, the Tibetan monastic world has its conflicts and rivalries, and he's carrying an enormous burden as the symbol of unity. So I think very few people would have been able, in terms of character or temperament, to carry that off, and he has done it in a most amazing, mysterious way. At the same time-maybe this is the answer as to why-he has kept his own identity as an individual.

Lama Surya Das I asked my own personal teacher, Tulku Pema Wangyal Rinpoche, who is one of the leading teachers in France, "How is it that some of our lamas, who are known to be the greatest of lamas-the Dalai Lama himself goes to the teachings-don't seem to have so much outreach, know so much, and touch people so widely?" And he said, "The Dalai Lama's quality is sort of turned inside out to the world because of his role and position in the world, and some of the other Tibetan sages don't have that role or position, so their qualities are more luminous within for those who can see." I thought that was very interesting, that even the Dalai Lama's teachers, who, he would probably say, are even more enlightened than he is, still don't have that kind of charisma or outreach or skillful means to touch all modern people, to speak to people of the different religions the way he does.

Harry Wu, Shanghai-born former prisoner in the Laogai, the gulag of the People's Republic of China; human rights activist; executive director, The Laogai Research Foundation; author of Bitter Winds: A Memoir of My Years in China's Gulag; Laogai: The Chinese Gulag; and Trouble Maker: The Story of Chinese Dissident Harry Wu When I met the Dalai Lama for the first time, he touched my hand and he said to me, "You know, Harry, we are brothers." The Dalai Lama is a very special character. You cannot ask John Paul, the Pope, "What do you think about sex?" or, "Do you ever think about being with a woman?" The Dalai Lama will answer these questions. You can ask any question. He's always calm, he's always smiling. There was only one time when I was with him that he almost cried, when he was talking about the Tibetan people. All other times, he is always smiling. There is a phrase in Tibet: "As the rains fall into the ocean, there is no decrease or increase," because you're the ocean; you're not a lake, you're not a river, you're not a pond, you're not a reservoir; you're the ocean, no matter how heavy the rain.

Sister Mary Margaret Funk, OSB, executive director, Monastic Interreligious Dialogue Board; coordinator, Gethsemani Encounter, 1996 He considers himself first and foremost a monk. I sat through his Kalachakra Initiation Rite in Bloomington, Indiana, in 2001, and I realized that in their tradition, it's a very privileged life to be a monk or a nun, especially a monk. And he's a bodhisattva, which means that he turned down being just in nirvana and came to this realm to help other sentient beings. And he sees monkhood as kind of like sainthood in this realm, so he's raised up all of us to think highly of being a monk or a nun. It is his identity: he has no other persona; he always wears the robes. His favorite topic is "The Lifestyle of a Monk or Nun and Prayer," and he sees our role as teaching everyone to live a life that would reduce suffering in this realm and raise up everybody else.

However, he believes in democracy and he believes in separation of church and state and secularization. And that is what appeals to him about the American experiment. At our Gethsemani Encounter dialogue in 'ninety-six, he just was right at home; he lived the life right with us. One time, he went up to one of the Christian nuns and said, "Am I being too casual?"


Excerpted from His Holiness the Dalai Lama by Deborah H. Strober Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

DEBORAH HART STROBER and GERALD S. STROBER are the authors of four previous oral histories, including one on the Kennedy presidency, "Let Us Begin Anew"; Nixon: An Oral History of His Presidency; The Reagan Presidency: An Oral History of the Era; and Monarchy: An Oral Biography of Elizabeth II. They live in New York City.

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