Test your Guru for twenty years from a distance, and only then accept him as a guru. Even when you accept him as a guru, always live at least two hills away from him
~ Tenzin Gyatso, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama
Conflict of interest
First of all, in the interest of full disclosure, I am a Buddhist in more than one of the Tibetan Buddhist lineages. What that means is that I have received traditional instructions in certain meditation techniques of those lineages from a “Guru” of those techniques. I also respect and admire the Dalai Lama deeply because of what I have read about him, and books written by him.
Dalai Lama – the man and the image
The two words “Dalai Lama” conjure the image of an apparently ageless oriental-looking man in maroon robes and a shaven head. Think a little more, and you might associate a smile with him. Unless one has been following the Dalai Lama or Buddhism with some passion, however, one would not know the fascinating history behind the man.
The 14th Dalai Lama, among many other high flown names, responds to his monastic name Tenzin Gyatso (Tibetan; translation – Ocean of Wisdom). The “14th” in his title refers to the fact that he is the fourteenth monk to hold that title, and the belief that it is the same consciousness that has inhabited each of those fourteen bodies. He is not only the Pope-equivalent of the Gelug sect of Tibetan Buddhism, but also the erstwhile de facto “king” of Tibet, as well as considered to be the physical embodiment of a Tibetan Buddhist deity, the Bodhisattva of compassion. His monastic training, traditional for Tibetan Buddhist monks, included more than twenty years of studies in fields as diverse as mastering intricate texts of Buddhist epistemology and comparative metaphysics, memorizing texts thousands of verses long and the way they are chanted, and meditation retreats – which he still continues to this day – that involve complex, intricate rituals and many millions of recitations of mantras that run into hundreds of syllables and complex visualizations of many armed deities, their ornaments, postures and moods. At the end of his training, he had to write an exam sitting inside a small four feet box of wood for more than thirty six hours, and had to face a number of debaters in a format much resembling a pressure interview. He has cleared all that and yet retains his sense of humour, which in my opinion is itself an achievement.
Skeletons in the cupboard – everything is politics
It is with great sadness therefore that I start writing about the controversies surrounding the Dalai Lama. Things are not pretty – the name “Dalai Lama” means the great lama, but the word Dalai is from medieval Mongolian means “Ocean”, translated directly from the Tibetan. The office of the Dalai Lama started with recognition from the-then dictator-usurper Altan Khan of Mongolia, the descendant of Kublai Khan, who merrily razed Beijing to the ground in his many raids. The office of the Dalai Lama was recognized from his political alliance, and many successive Dalai Lamas reigned over Tibet much like a lord with external military support.
The office of the Dalai Lama has also been criticized by other Tibetan Buddhist sects of being too political in nature, and of interfering in their internal religious matters. The most recent example of this was when the Dalai Lama recognized the rebirth of the head of another Tibeta Buddhist sect called the Karma Kagyu, different from the choice of the lamas traditionally charged with recognizing that rebirth. Then there was the esoteric little matter of the worship of a spirit-entity called Shugden whose worship and practice the Dalai Lama has expressly forbidden, triggering many comments about the suppression of freedom of religion.
Willing to learn
However, in a gesture befitting his stature as a man of great wisdom and statesmanship, the Dalai Lama has renounced all his political duties. In addition, he has, to the great fury of his Chinese oppressors, said that the future Dalai Lama might as well be a female and not Tibetan at all. The Dalai Lama continues to participate in extensive dialogues with leading neuroscientists, theoretical physicists and other interested scientists in exploring how Buddhism interfaces with frontier science. He has repeatedly said that wherever Buddhist dogma and science do not agree on facts, religious dogma must give way. His progressive thinking and willingness to engage with science alone merits accolades. And of course, a female Dalai Lama will always be a refreshing change – after all, his deity, Avalokiteshwara the Bodhisattva of compassion, is often depicted as female.