In April 2011 the Dalai Lama announced his full retirement from office as leader of the Tibetan government in exile. Henceforth it would be headed by a democratically elected first minister. In thus handing over political power, the Precious Protector brought to an end three and a half centuries of theocratic rule – albeit that power had for long periods been vested in regents acting in the name of the Dalai Lama.
It was a reform not universally applauded by Tibetans, but it had clearly been among the Precious Protector’s plans from the moment he decided in favour of democracy on first coming into exile.
The Dalai Lama effected extraordinary change with this move. When Altan Khan, the Mongol strongman of sixteenth-century Central Asia, pro- claimed Sonam Gyatso, abbot of Drepung, to be Taleh (the Mongolian term for ocean, from which the word “Dalai” is derived) Lama, the Tibetan was head of a monastery comprising several thousand monks. But although this conferred immense prestige and great wealth, the direct political power attaching to him personally was limited to the sway he held over the Gelug establishment in general and over Drepung and its sister monasteries and their estates in particular.
It was not until the Great Fifth secured the patronage of another of the Khans that the institution of the Dalai Lama attained such prestige that, in combination with his viceroy and backed by the military might of the Mongols, he could exercise political power across the Tibetan Buddhist world as a whole. In so doing, the Great Fifth forged the Tibetan people into a broadly harmonious society in a way that had not been seen since the fall of the religious kings in the ninth century.
Moreover, his imaginative recapitulation of the Tibetan empire brought the spiritual realm of gods, demons, and protectors together with the earthly realm of human beings, their landed property, and their possessions, and made both answerable to a single authority.
What the present Dalai Lama brought about with his retirement was thus not just his withdrawal from politics but the end of the dispensation whereby, in effect, the Dalai Lama united within himself the functions of both priest and patron.
This, it will be remembered, was the paradigmatic relationship whereby the priest, or lama, guaranteed the legitimacy of the king, while the king in turn supported the lama temporally. Under the new dispensation, the Dalai Lama continues to rule the supernatural realm while earthly matters are placed under the authority of a secular establishment. What is especially innovative about this manoeuvre is the elevation of the people themselves to the role of patron.
The withdrawal of the Dalai Lama’s authority from the temporal realm was almost as important for its psychological as for its political value. No longer should Tibetans look to the Dalai Lama for answers to every question of a practical nature that, in theory at least, they had hitherto been free to put to him. Instead, they would stand on their own feet.
The Dalai Lama and his successors could thus concern themselves with what they are actually trained for, namely, spiritual direction, even if, to the end of this life, he would remain a symbolic figurehead for his people.
Given that the Precious Protector’s every word is held by most of his people to have divine authority, it presumably takes considerable restraint on his part not to speak out on earthly matters from time to time. But save for his handling of the Shugden controversy, insofar as it is a political matter, the Dalai Lama has so far shown little inclination to intervene in affairs of state. Instead, the former leader has dedicated himself to fulfilling what he describes as his three “main commitments.”
These are, first, as a human being, by helping others to be happy; second, as a Buddhist monk, by working to bring about harmony among the world’s various religious traditions; and third, as a Tibetan, by helping to preserve his country’s unique language and culture. In this last, he emphasises the enormous debt the Tibetan tradition owes to what it inherited from the Indian scholar-saints of Nalanda, the Buddhist monastic university that flourished from the fifth to the twelfth century and provided the blueprint for the monastic universities of Tibet.
A major component of these commitments is the Dalai Lama’s dedication to the environmentalist cause. The destruction of wildlife in Tibet since 1950 is a continuing sorrow to him, though his attitude toward the environment generally is neither sentimental nor a function of his religiosity. There is nothing “sacred or holy” about nature, he writes in his autobiography; rather, “taking care of our planet is like taking care of our houses.”
Similarly, while he is a ready advocate of compassion in farming and has said on occasion that he would like to be the “world spokesman for fish,” he does not go so far as to deny categorically the possibility that animal experimentation might, in certain circumstances, be justifiable – provided that the motive in doing so is altruistic. It is characteristic of the Buddhist approach to avoid absolutes.
Also to the dismay of some, the Dalai Lama, though he has often spoken in favour of vegetarianism, is, as we have seen, not a vegetarian himself. Moreover, he recognises the difficulty of living in an environmentally responsible way and does not make a fetish of doing so. While eschewing baths, he admits that, in taking a shower morning and evening, there might be little difference in his water consumption.
With respect to his commitment to helping others find happiness, the Dalai Lama includes scientific research as an important component in the human search for felicity. To this end, he continues to meet and to engage in dialogue with scientists from around the world. Whether a consequence of this is that he has himself “become one of the world’s greatest scientists,” as Robert Thurman has suggested, may be open to question. It is certainly not a claim he would make for himself.
But his patronage of a compendium of Buddhist scientific texts demonstrates his wish to see Buddhist inquiry, especially into the nature of consciousness, given serious consideration by outsiders. Noting the congruence between the Buddhist and the scientific worldviews, the Dalai Lama wonders why “the impulse for helping and kindness are not recognised as drivers for human behaviour and... flourishing?” If scientists were to ask these questions honestly, he believes that they would find the answers provided by Buddhist thinkers compelling.
In the field of interreligious dialogue, the Dalai Lama has, since retiring from office, continued to meet and to pray with religious leaders and prominent spiritual figures from around the world. Setting aside his vow to refrain from intoxicating beverages, he once partook of Holy Communion administered by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. On another occasion, he donned an apron to serve food in a church-run homeless shelter in Australia.
Despite hostility from some quarters, the Dalai Lama has visited Israel more than once; in 2006, he met with both the Sephardi and Ashkenazi chief rabbis. He has also visited several Islamic countries, notably Jordan, again more than once, meeting with Prince Ghazi bin Mohammed, a leading figure in Islamic interfaith dialogue, later that same year.
Besides advocating pluralism with respect to other religions, it is evident that the Dalai Lama also wishes to strengthen his followers in their faith. As a rule, he counsels people to remain within their own faith tradition, remarking that if a person is a poor practitioner of one, changing to another will do nothing to improve matters.
Referring to his visit to the monastery of Le Grand Chartreuse, where he noticed the monks’ feet cracked with cold from wearing only sandals, he praises the dedication of followers of non-Buddhist religions. At the same time, he speaks of his concern about Tibetan teachers abroad who live luxuriously or flout their vows.
Yet his concern about behavior inappropriate to prelates is not confined to Buddhists. When Pope Francis removed a German ecclesiastic for the ostentatious restoration of his residence, the Dalai Lama wrote to congratulate the Roman pontiff. Whether or not it is true that, of all the other religions, the Dalai Lama feels closest to Catholicism is an open question.
On the one hand, for him it is given a priori that there is no creator. On the other hand, the superficial similarities between many of the liturgical practices of Rome and Lhasa cause him to wonder if there was not earlier contact between the two traditions. Both religions practice ritual eating and drinking, and both venerate the relics of saints. It is also true that the Dalai Lama has been hosted many times by ecumenically minded Catholic organisations, and if he is not mistaken, the Dalai Lama enjoys divine approval for fostering links with the Catholic Church.
On a visit to Fatima in 2001, he experienced a vision of the Virgin Mary, whose statue turned and smiled at him. In this context, it is not entirely clear how we are to interpret his remark that one of the biggest surprises of his life came when Pope Benedict XVI proclaimed the indispensability of reason to religious faith. In the Dalai Lama’s view, if people would only think hard enough, they would come to see the truth of how things really are – and thus the falsity of the pope’s position and the correctness of his own.
Excerpted with permission from The Dalai Lama: An Extraordinary Life, Alexander Norman, HarperCollins India.