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June 28, 2011

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Looking at Tibet's 'simple monk'

THE 14th Dalai Lama turns 76 on July 6, and reporters Li Na and Yu Zheng take a look at the birth, history and celebrity of the controversial "simple monk."

Gonpo Tashi, a nephew of the Dalai Lama, has been a guardian for at least three decades of the birthplace of the Tibetan spiritual leader at Hong'ai Village on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau.

"I prepare this room for the Dalai Lama in hopes of his return," says the stocky, 65-year-old Tibetan who showed reporters a dark, 12-square-meter chamber containing a throne that has been elegantly prepared for its supposed master.

The chamber is on the top floor of a two-storey wooden house. Outside the chamber hangs a giant photo of the 14th Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso. There are also six Buddha statues and a yellow monk's robe that Tenzin Gyatso used to wear.

Gonpo meticulously dusts furniture and rituals every morning at dawn.

"I believe that his soul has already been here, though his human body hasn't yet," Gonpo says.

Gonpo's hopes remind people of late Chinese Chairman Mao Zedong's call for the return of the self-exiled Dalai Lama. But hope gets ever fainter as since the Dalai Lama was denounced by the Tibet Autonomous Regional Government as a "politician in monk's robes" who is trying to split the country.

Gonpo built a bright yellow prayer hall on the original spot where the Dalai Lama was born. The modest, tidy courtyard contains the two-story wooden house, as well as the prayer hall. It faces 4,000-meter-high snowy Tsongkha Gyiri, considered a sacred mountain that brought good feng shui to the family of the boy who was later believed to be the incarnation of the previous Dalai Lama.

"On sunny days, Tsongkha Gyiri looks like a sleeping Buddha on a lotus," Gonpo says. "Our village sits on the flower petals, which indicates good feng shui." Feng shui, or geomancy, is a system of arranging locations, structures and rooms to benefit from positive energy in the universe.

Standing in front of his house, Gonpo points at a nearby white pagoda, saying it is a famous site in Tibetan Buddhism. He explained that the 13th Dalai Lama rode a mule from Lhasa to the Kumbum Monastery, and then went on to Labrang.

"He stopped over, just in front of us, to take a long break," says Gonpo. "It's said that he made his determination (about the next Dalai Lama) at the sight of this holy mountain. He hoped that his reincarnation would be found nearby."

The myths

One reason the 13th Dalai Lama chose to stop over was his sound relationship with Taktser Rinpoche, a senior lama in the Tibetan Lamaist hierarchy who was the eldest brother of Lhamo Thondup (the secular name of Tenzin Gyatso) who was born on July 6, 1935. He was later recognized as the 14th Dalai Lama.

Lhamo's poor farming family was remarkably rich in high lamas. Altogether, three out of seven siblings became top lamas, with the Dalai Lama atop the pyramid of all Tibetan lamas.

The boy ascended as a spiritual leader who mesmerized the faithful and gained political celebrity in exile. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. He called himself "a simple Buddhist monk" but was accused by his homeland government of being an ill-intentioned politician and the chief rebel in monk's robes who promoted separatist movements.

For Westerners he was fodder for sound bites, photo opportunities and front-page headlines.

Myths have fueled the mysticism and celebrity of the Dalai Lama. One myth is that Lhamo Thondup was the only candidate for the incarnation - it was said he correctly identified the belongings of the 13t Dalai Lama. But in line with Tibetan Buddhist tradition, a handful of candidates, not just one, should have been selected for the final pick.

After his delegation signed with the People's Republic of China central government the 17-Point Agreement on a peaceful settlement of Tibet in May 1951, the 14th Dalai Lama telegraphed Chairman Mao Zedong to actively support the peace agreement in October. He now says the rapprochement was reached "under duress."

In September 1954, the Dalai Lama, together with another Tibetan Buddhist leader Panchen Lama, went to Beijing to elect the state's top legislature and was himself elected a vice chairman of the National People's Congress Standing Committee. He now asserts that this was a "visit (to) China for peace talks."

What the Dalai Lama did in "China" was documented much more than he now officially acknowledges as "meeting with Mao Zedong and other Chinese leaders." He at the very least wrote a poem likening the paramount Communist leader Mao to "Brahma," the Hindu god of creation, and "the all-mighty sun," wishing Mao "a life to eternity."

On the most intractable controversy on his falling out with China's central government, the Dalai Lama wrote in a letter one day after the Lhasa riot on March 10, 1959, "Reactionary, evil elements are carrying out activities endangering me on the pretext of ensuring my safety. I am taking steps to calm things down." In his official website, however, he states that the "Tibetan People's Uprising begins in Lhasa."

The crisis led to his fleeing from Norbulingka Palace in Lhasa on March 17, 1959.

As one leading figure of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama, believed an incarnation of Avalokiteshvara, stands as a deity of compassion and a visible embodiment of Tibetan Buddhists' faith.

Only three of the 14 reincarnations meaningfully ruled Tibetans, and the throne of the Dalai Lama was historically bolstered by China's central authorities of various dynasties. The reincarnation conducted by Rinpoches and the accreditation from the imperial courts were inseparable parts of the whole system ensuring legitimacy of the Dalai Lama and his ruling over Tibet.

'Political monk'

In 1653, the title of the Dalai Lama was accredited by the royal Qing authorities. Emperor Shunzhi (1638-1661) recognized the 5th Dalai Lama and granted a gold conferring letter and a gold seal, thus officially ensuring legitimacy of the Dalai Lama in Tibet. In April 1713, Qing Emperor Kangxi (1654-1722) conferred the title of Bainqen Erdeni on the 5th Panchen Lama and granted a gold conferring letter and a gold seal. This marked the beginning of the official title Bainqen Erdeni.

The Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) acknowledged the same status of the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama. The two highest lamas had to be approved and mandated by Qing emperors.

In history, an angry Qing Emperor Qianlong (1711-1799) once issued a decreed to stop the reincarnation of a rebellious Tibetan Buddhist lama, which left his sect dying out.

Gradually rising as a regional spiritual and political leader, the Dalai Lama sweated for his long journey to the world stage. His first trips outside India were in 1967 to two Buddhist countries, Japan and Thailand. He made his first European trip in 1973 and his first trip to the United States in 1979, the year in which the US and the People's Republic of China established diplomatic relations.

Going into exile made him a star. Of the total 124 awards or honorary doctorates he has collected from around the world, 123 were granted after he fled his homeland. Rubbing elbows with him became a fad or a manifestation of moral dignity.

The "simple Buddhist monk," who was said to wake up usually at 3:30am and spend his first four hours every day in meditation, frequently indulged his secular side through interviews with the world's top media.

An online US Department of Justice document recorded the Dalai Lama's visit to the US from April 10 to 24 in 2008.

During the two-week trip, the monk, often with his brand big smile and deep laugh, talked about politics and China's "crackdown" on the March 14 Lhasa riot on NBC, CBS and NPR, to just name a few major media.


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