His Holiness The 14th Dalai Lama, Buddhist spiritual master and symbolic leader of the people of Tibet, who currently lives in exile in Dharamsala, India, regularly says that he's no more than a simple and humble monk. And I think that's probably true, on the surface – he is just a human being like me and you, navigating his way through the chaos of life (i.e. Samsara). However, as anyone who's studied Tibetan Buddhism knows, there are always two truths – the conventional and the ultimate. So if we say that, given all appearances and what he regularly states himself, His Holiness is only a humble Buddhist monk in the conventional sense, than what might he be in the non-conventional sense?
This is a question I probably never even would have asked until I met him myself in Dharamsala a few months ago. I'd been teaching English to Tibetan refugees there when I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to greet His Holiness along with some others during a private audience inside the temple complex where he lives (about which I wrote an article, published by Tibetan Review). I wasn't exactly sure what would happen during this meeting with him, and I knew it would be brief, so I suppose I wasn't really expecting too much (although I was quite nervous and excited). However, my expectations were blown away when, during my turn to greet him, after bowing I looked up and noticed he was gazing at me intently. Peering into his eyes during this brief moment – something I'd never gotten close enough to do previously, despite attending multiple teachings of his in Dharamsala – I saw something that startled me: behind his eyes there was a kind of a clear, peaceful expanse or energy, which I spontaneously associated with the sky. It wasn't anything I'd seen in another human being before – it felt peaceful and powerful and otherworldly – and I think that short moment changed me slightly as a person, and afterwards it was very hard indeed for me to believe that His Holiness was just a simple monk!
So going back to the question I posed at the beginning, I think I have my own answer now, based on my experience, but another answer is given by traditional Tibetan Buddhists, who regard The Dalai Lama as an emanation of Avalokiteshvara ("Chenrezig" in Tibetan), the bodhisattva of compassion and patron deity of Tibet (in Buddhism, a bodhisattva is an awakened person – perhaps a bit like a saint in Christian traditions – whose existence is dedicated to helping all living beings reach enlightenment). And now I too have to ask myself if His Holiness The Dalai Lama could actually be some sort of a manifestation of the holy being Avalokiteshvara here on Earth. (Note: The Dalai Lama himself accepts his role as this incarnation and believes it helps him to benefit people.) It's a difficult notion to swallow, especially for us Westerners who are used to a more rational and materialistic worldview, but then again, some consider Buddhist philosophy itself to be a kind of science, with the idea being that if some data doesn't fit the current paradigm, then you must adjust that paradigm to fit the facts. To quote His Holiness himself:
"I have often said that if science proves facts that conflict with Buddhist understanding, Buddhism must change accordingly. We should always adopt a view that accords with the facts. If upon investigation we find that there is reason and proof for a point, then we should accept it."
So perhaps this approach also applies here – if upon investigation we find that His Holiness actually is the manifestation of a higher spiritual being, then we must change our understanding of reality accordingly!
Of course, I'm not saying that I proved anything during my exceedingly brief interaction with His Holiness, as my experience may have been nothing more than a hallucination or wishful thinking on my part, but at the very least it made me doubt my previous understanding of what he was and what the potential for humans beings is.
What I can say that for certain is that Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, is a unique and special person, and we should be all be grateful that he's still with (and hopefully will be for many years to come) and that he's celebrating yet another birthday on July 6th (his 88th)! In a worldly sense, at the minimum, his life has been remarkable and unparalleled: he grew up in Tibet and was declared the next Dalai Lama around age four; in 1954 he actually met with chairman Mao Zedong (seeing pictures of the young Dalai Lama and the author of the Great Famine together in Beijing, roughly 70 years ago, is quite surreal!); in 1959 he undertook a daring escape through the Himalayan mountains after the Chinese invaded Tibet; he then settled in India and established the Tibetan government in exile as well as monasteries and schools to help preserve Tibetan culture there; in 1989 he won the Noble Peace prize; and he's worked tirelessly for the last several decades to spread the teachings of the Buddha and his own message of compassion throughout the world (remarking again and again that he harbors no ill-will towards the Chinese government, despite the fact that they've basically pillaged and destroyed his country while killing thousands of Tibetans in the process).
Is this a normal being by any standard? I don't think so. (A fact that also suggests rushing to judgement after watching a 10-second clip of him on social media without any context may be a grave mistake.)
Anyway, let's all wish His Holiness The Dalai Lama a healthy and happy 88th year, and may this 'simple monk' continue to grace the world with his boundless lovingkindness and wisdom, helping to lead it to a better place.
Christopher Heise grew up in the USA, but he’s spent the past 15 years or so traveling and working abroad. He’s taught ESL, either as a paid employee or volunteer, in Germany, Venezuela, Taiwan and India, and he once had the surreal experience of celebrating his birthday on a different continent for four consecutive years. Also a freelance writer and editor, his work has appeared in Indie Shaman, The Traveller Trails, Go World Travel Magazine and other publications. He can be reached at email@example.com.