Living one’s calling – the life of the 14th Dalai Lama

A few hours ago I re-watched what I find the best piece of film I have ever seen:

This clip consists of the last 10 minutes of the film Kundun, which tells the story of the 14th Dalai Lama from the time he is discovered by the Buddhist authorities, at the age of 2, to the age of 24 when he escapes to India following the Chinese invasion of Tibet.

‘Kundun’, in Tibetan, means ‘the presence’ and is one of the titles of the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama is considered a reincarnation of Avalokiteshwara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, the personification of one of the sacred powers that are connected to the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. The mere presence of the Dalai Lama is considered a guarantee of the safety of the Buddhist tradition in Tibet. The tremendous spiritual potential of a Dalai Lama can be seen in this prayer that the bearer of that title says:

I will liberate those not liberated

I will release those not released

I will relieve those not relieved

And set living beings in nirvana


In 1959, following the Chinese invasion of Tibet, the 24 year old Dalai Lama gradually lost all power that he used to have over political affairs in Tibet and the real controllers of these affairs became the Chinese. Things came to such a pass that there were reasonable fears among the Tibetans that the Dalai Lama will be arrested by the Chinese and sent away to live the rest of his life in a prison in China, if not killed. This actually happened in the case of the 10th Panchen Lama some years later. The Dalai Lama and his assistants decided that the best way the former could help Tibet was from outside Tibetan territory, which would ensure his survival and freedom. Hence, one cold night, the Dalai Lama, dressed as an ordinary soldier, accompanied by a handful of his aides, left Tibet for a 14-day clandestine journey to India. The journey was full of dangers, both because of the terrain and because of the Chinese aircraft trying to find and attack the escaping group.

Traditionally, it has been believed that the Dalai Lama’s leaving Tibet would signal total catastrophe for the country. Now, it was happening. ‘The presence’ was moving out. The land of snows was no longer safe. For the believer, this was no political head escaping to seek asylum in another country. Kundun, the protector of Tibet and the vehicle for the descent of the most important sacred power, was moving out of the country. The spiritual protection offered by the the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshwara, of whom the Dalai Lama has been a vehicle for several centuries, was now abolished.

At the same time, there was hope that this escape was the only way through which the whole Tibetan civilisation, now under assault by the Chinese communists, could be saved. The tremendous faith of the Tibetan people in the preciousness of the Dalai Lama, or rather, in the potentialities inherent within his being can be seen in the story of the guards who accompanied the Dalai Lama to the Indian border. These simple, sturdy folks knew that India is granting asylum only to the Dalai Lama and his senior officials, and that they would have to turn back from the borders to face the Chinese coming in their tracks. The soldiers’ death was inevitable. But death was not a consideration when the task placed upon them was to ensure the safe passage of the Dalai Lama, the vehicle for a higher power that would ensure the preservation of Buddhist philosophy, culture and life. The guards left the Dalai Lama at the Indian border and went back bravely to die at the hands of the far more powerful invaders.

And what of the 24 year old Tenzin Gyatso, who held the position of the Dalai Lama? Was he aware of the momentous significance of this escape to India? Travelling on horseback through steep mountains, through snow and harsh rain and through illness, the young Dalai Lama was the one on whom all hopes lay. The Dalai Lama has said that he had very little interest in spiritual growth until he was in his late teens. Hence, at 24, it is most likely that his spiritual development would have made him only partially access the spiritual potential that his tradition considers him to have.

One of Dalai Lama’s associates has written about how the young Dalai Lama could often come across as burdened and not mature enough to handle the responsibility destiny had placed on his shoulders – the responsibility for 6 million Tibetans and the 14 centuries long Tibetan Buddhist tradition.

In the decades that followed, the Dalai Lama did not remain the shy, overburdened leader he had been. Over 200,000 Tibetans have been re-settled in exile, most of them in India. Each important monastery that existed in Tibet has been reconstructed in India, although on a smaller scale. Today it is possible for monks to go through the full religious education that the Tibetan tradition had developed over the centuries. Several of the hundreds of spiritual lineages of lamas have been preserved in these monasteries as lamas now reincarnate in the exile community in India. The Dalai Lama himself is today one of the most admired persons in the world, his world-view and personality winning most of those who meet them with an open heart.

What may we learn from the tremendous faith of the Tibetan people in the Dalai Lama and his role in successfully leading the exile community to not only survive but also preserve its religion? Surely, these achievements could not be reached by one man alone without the help of intelligent and capable associates, several of them highly respected leaders of Tibetan Buddhism, themselves manifesting their callings. Also, this would not be possible without material help from India and several Western organisations, who instinctively recognise the genuineness of this cause.

At the same time, it is also doubtable how far the Tibetans in exile could have reached without the Dalai Lama leading them. Surely, the Dalai Lama is in many ways an ordinary person, with his shortcomings, pains and pleasures. At the same time, there is something about him that is not ordinary. Growing from being the immature 24 year old to a global spiritual leader and statesman, the Dalai Lama may be seen as an exemplar of a man who recognises his calling and gradually works towards realising it amidst the gravest difficulties. Backing him is a 1400 year old tradition that recognises that each person has a calling and provides a philosophy and a technique for uncovering this calling.

For most, this calling is not grand, but for some, it can include large undertakings that involve the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. If not recognised and worked on, the calling may be lost, at least in this lifetime, as the Buddhists would say. But when recognised and cultivated, it manifests to a great deal even amidst great adversity. The Dalai Lama spends more than half his waking time on spiritual practice. His life as a Buddhist monk, working to uncover the manner in which sacred reality manifests through him, is the backbone of his life in the world as a statesman and philosopher. Without the inner training that is the foundation of the life of the Dalai Lama and his associates, the Tibetan culture may have descended to violence and cultural death that several other occupied cultures in the world seem to be heading towards.

In the mean time, the Chinese occupation of Tibet continues. Occupied by the 2nd most powerful country in the world, the majority of Tibetans pursue a non-violent freedom struggle. But despite the material dominance of the Chinese, Tibetan culture has survived in exile. The spirituality it embodies has not been erased from the face of the earth, as the invaders may have liked, but continues to be a tradition that is fully alive. And because of ‘the presence’, both of the Dalai Lama and the tradition his represents, the world is a better place. In the bigger picture, that is the difference made when a whole culture attributes such tremendous significance to individuals recognising and manifesting their calling.

Perhaps most importantly, this serves as an inspiration for us to uncover our own calling, however grand or seemingly ordinary.

~ by tdcatss on October 8, 2010.

2 Responses to “Living one’s calling – the life of the 14th Dalai Lama”

  1. You are such a thinker and writer. This was wonderful. It seems like the more pressure that is applied to harm something good, all the more the good prevails. Once, during the morning service at church, someone placed a bomb threat note in the collection plate. The church was evacuated. It turned out to be a hoax. That night we had another worship service, with even more people coming. :)
    Thanks so much, Kaif!

  2. Thanks Debbie :) That’s an interesting point you make. Perhaps adversity reminds us of what really matters and that explains the incident about the church.

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