If you wanted to hear about it in the American mass media, you would have had to look long and hard to find the story. The suspense over who was going to get the Olympics in 2012 was just too much the human-interest story of the day, it seems.
But Tenzin Gyatso, better known as the 14th Dalai Lama, turned 70 yesterday. This is a man of extraordinary insight, strength, and intellect—but more than anything a man of great heart. He is, of course, the political and spiritual leader in exile of the Tibetan people, who have suffered such torture, deprivation, murder, and miscellaneous cruelty at the hands of the Chinese government as to make Abu Ghraib look like a frat party (to use Rush Limbaugh's expression) by comparison.
Tenzin Gyatso is also a very funny man—I guess you'd better be when you've lived a life so full of heartache, danger, and personal suffering as his. He has been an inspiration to roughly one-fifth of the people on this planet; won the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize (and actually deserved it, too); and he inspired a 1997 film starring Brad Pitt (which is based on one of the truly marvelous biographical books of our era, Heinrich Harrer's Seven Years in Tibet).
But this man's true value is in his personality and his message. To me, he's the kind of guy I'd like to spend an afternoon with, maybe with a six pack of beer between us. I've never met him of course, but he seems like that sort of fellow—a man you could relax with as he told his store of jokes and tales. This man can talk science, politics, philosophy, business, psychology, and of course spirituality with you, at any level you would care to try with him. But he always seems to prefer the simplest exchanges, since they are likely to be the kind you remember and cherish.
Incredibly, this gentle, modest, laughing Phil Silvers lookalike is demonized and slandered by Chinese government dweebs, virtually wherever he goes. Check out what they had to say about him as they warned the Swedish government against allowing him to visit their country last month: "We stated that the Dalai Lama is not merely a religious figure, but he is a political exile disguised in religious dress that has engaged in activities aimed at splitting the Tibet region from the motherland."
For those of us who happen to find the greatest social and cosmic value in a life of non-violent action in response to the oppression and aggression of institutional Power, Tenzin Gyatso is the last living member of a triumvirate that also includes Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi.
I just can't see him as a God-King or some sort of holy saint—that, it seems, would rob him of his most precious asset, which is his deep and pervasive humanity. Here's the kind of thing I'm talking about, from his new book, How To Expand Love:
"When I speak about love and compassion, I do not do so as a Buddhist, nor as a Tibetan, nor as the Dalai Lama. I do so as one human being speaking with another....This is my simple religion. No need for temples. No need for complicated philosophy. Your own mind, your own heart, is the temple; your philosophy is simple kindness."
Happy Birthday, Mr. Tenzin Gyatso. May that dream you have cherished for your people, for so long, spring to the most vibrant and enduring life, in the very next moment from Now. For those of you who might like to help him toward that moment, one place to begin is here.