In the 1970s, when the Tibetan exile government in Dharamsala had only one telephone, a secretary called the Dalai Lama’s office which was two kilometers uphill on the ridge of McLeod Ganj. The secretary called the Dalai Lama’s PA, Lama Tara la. The voice on the other end said the PA was not in his office and asked if he could take a message. On enquiring who was on the line the voice said “Tenzin Gyatso”. No one of that name worked in that office. So the secretary asked “Tenzin Gyatso who?” It was then that the secretary’s tubelight blinked. He was talking to the Dalai Lama himself. He immediately hung up. Tibetans love making jokes about government officials. Over the years people spiced up the story by saying the secretary knelt down and offered three prostrations to the telephone.
When we meet Chinese activists and intellectuals, our debates are contradictory on almost all historical narratives. But about the origins of the Dalai Lama there are no two stories. In 1578, the grandson of Genghis Khan, Altan Khan, invited Tibet’s spiritual leader, the incarnate lama Sonam Gyatso, to Mongolia and gave him the title ’Talai Lama’ meaning ’Ocean of Wisdom’ — now anglicized as ’Dalai Lama’. His two predecessors were posthumously named the First and Second ’Talai Lamas’. The Fourth, Yonten Gyatso, was a Mongolian. And Altan Khan’s son, Gushri Khan, using his sweeping military might, helped the Great Fifth Lobsang Gyatso and installed him as the ruler over all Tibet. Since then the Dalai Lamas have been our spiritual and political leaders.
But the relationship between the Tibetan populace and the Dalai Lama is older than this 400-year history. From our parents and grandparents we learn early in childhood that our guru is the incarnation of Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva of love and compassion, and that he had even earlier in history come to serve the Tibetan people. In the almost 200 years of Tibetan empire building, from the seventh to the ninth centuries — as Buddhism arrived from India — the Tibetans were the most brutal warriors, plundering China, invading Mongolia, expanding their empire into the land of the Pathans in the west and India to the south. In the seventh century Avalokitesvara is believed to have manifested as the 33rd emperor of Tibet, Songtsen Gampo, who first helped Buddhism flourish in the Land of Snow.
The Tibetans may not have had a strong standing army, nor learned to exploit their rich resources to make bombs, but they have someone they are rightly proud of — the ’Wish-fulfilling Gem’, Chintamani, the Yeshin Norbu as His Holiness is known in Tibetan. Tibetans working close to him address him as ’Kundun’, the holy presence, while His Holiness signs his name simply Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso.
Of all of his 14 lives, this Dalai Lama has been the most relevant to Tibetans personally, touching every life. The suffering Tibetan people under Chinese occupation — as more than a million, one sixth of its population died from starvation and torture — found unity under his leadership. As the head of the numerically-dominant Gelukpa school of Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama has won the hearts of believers of all other sects by his non-sectarian practice and lineage teachings. History will hold him to be the most iconic Dalai Lama ever, although he’s spent most of his life in exile, even calling himself son of India.
Today, instead of preparing for his next incarnation, the Dalai Lama is investing his faith in something more modern and sustaining — Democracy. This has been his long-standing vision: To create a system and culture of accountability within the Tibetan community. Instead of begging His Holiness to lead us on, we must come forward and take up the challenge he is handing over to us, his children.