The Dalai Lama's 75th birthday on July 6 marks a bittersweet milestone. The anniversary is cause for celebration that his message of peace has become so widespread, yet it is also illustrative of his mortal frailty as China's power grows and the Dalai Lama's fades.
But there is also a deeper resonance -- and controversy -- to his preachings: that peace and compassion are more important than prosperity and financial advancement. It is a message, at one time straightforward and prehensile, that now poses a dilemma, particularly to the West, in our troubled times. Practicing what the Dalai Lama preaches, for some, has never been harder.
In September 2006 a murder on a remote mountainside on the Tibet/Nepalese border perfectly illustrated the West's conflicted response when the moral imperative to speak up for human rights and spiritual freedom comes at the risk of increasing prosperity. Near Choy Oyu, the sixth tallest mountain in the world, a group of Chinese People's Armed Police opened fire on a group of 74 Tibetan refugees in full view of 100 or so Western climbers.
Among them was 17-year-old Tibetan Kelsang Namtso. Forbidden from becoming a nun by her family in Tibet for fear that it would lead her into trouble with the Chinese authorities, she took her vows in secret. A year later, frustrated that that she could not practice her faith in a working nunnery because of draconian regulations and interference from Communist party officials, she decided the only option she had left to find spiritual fulfillment was to cross the high Himalaya. A chance of a few seconds with the Dalai Lama and the opportunity to practice her faith freely in India was worth a grueling journey beset with danger. Together with her best friend Dolma Palkyi, she set out. After 12 brutal days, just 20 minutes from the border, Kelsang Namtso was shot in the back and killed as Western climbers watched.
Shortly afterwards children, monks and others who couldn't escape were led through the climbers' camp at gunpoint, some later to be tortured in a mountaintop military compound.
Some of the Western mountaineers, making considerable amounts of money leading climbing expeditions, urged others in camp not to talk about the murder lest the Chinese retaliate by banning them from climbing in Tibet. In short, the climbers faced the same dilemma that the West faces in that if it wants to economically prosper together with the Middle Kingdom it must, at China's insistence, turn a blind eye to its human rights abuses. A few climbers broke the adopted code of silence -- one Romanian filmed the murder -- and the story shortly thereafter became an international incident as the footage contradicted China's assertion that the soldiers killed in self-defense. It was the first time a human rights murder in Tibet had been captured on film since the Chinese invasion in 1950.
Kelsang's best friend, Dolma Palkyi, and 43 others made it to India where they met the Dalai Lama.
I too met the Dalai Lama shortly after Kelsang Namtso's murder and found a profoundly human presence, rather than a lofty god-king. He was above all else direct and simply angry, not only at the murder but also at the West's apathetic response to China's brutal treatment of Tibetans. He told me that the West was often consumed with indifference, self-interest and quite simply racism.
"In the sixties, seventies and eighties, we went through incredible suffering," he explained. "But they [the west] all looked at Russia and not China." His chest was heaving as he spoke. "Perhaps it is because we are Asian, they don't care?" he asked me directly. "So you see there is even discrimination in human rights!"
Now the West, however uncomfortably, is forced to deal with the dilemma China presents to the world. Our economic future is increasingly tied to an emergent superpower with a dismal rights record, where Christians are forced to worship in underground churches. In Tibet, according to the Dalai Lama, the authorities are carrying out "cultural genocide" by extinguishing any vestige of Tibet Buddhism in order to ensure loyalty to the "motherland."
Yet, despite China's demands that governments refuse visits with the Dalai Lama and not publicly talk about Tibet, the supreme temporal and spiritual leader of Tibet is an international phenomenon who inspires devotion from millions the world over. In the West, he inspires soul-seekers like the thousands who packed Radio City music hall in New York in May, indicative of his enduring universality across the globe.
A new generation in Tibet, despite having access to Western influences and the Internet, was raised in a Chinese-occupied land where free speech is criminalized and owning a picture of their Dalai Lama can lead to five years in prison. Still, a meeting with him, as with their ancestors before them, is still worth risking their lives for. They set out across the high passes of the Himalayas, sustained on the dangerous journey largely by faith alone.
At one time 2,500 to 3,000 Tibetans made the dangerous journey but since an uprising in Tibet in 2008, the Chinese authorities have mounted a vicious crackdown. They have built security towers that are manned 24 hours a day in the high Himalaya. And they have blocked all escape routes out of the country. Last year only around 600 made it though.
Yet despite the egregious risks, every day, all over Tibet, the same scene is reenacted in deep secrecy, usually in the dead of night, as young and old, women and children escape to India over the high Himalaya for the chance of a lifetime and many lifetimes to come: a few brief seconds with their exiled spiritual leader. They resist China's supposed modernization of their country and the heralded promise of economic prosperity for spiritual fulfillment.
Like the Tibetans who risk their lives to see the Dalai Lama, many in the West feel that our morality and the basic principles which define our democracy -- freedom of speech, the right to practice religion and to live free of persecution -- are more important than economic prosperity alone. We should look to Tibetans' bold and brave allegiance to spirituality rather than money as inspirational.
Their devotion, like Kelsang Namtso's and the Dalai Lama's legacy, much to the chagrin of China's government, will live on.