IN 1959, the little-known 14th Dalai Lama fled his homeland as China’s army invaded Tibet. Just over a decade later, a generation of young Western seekers encountered Tibetan culture for the first time. Among them was Stephen Batchelor, who looks here at the story behind the Tibetan diaspora, what it has meant for Buddhism in the West, and what the future may hold.

On March 28, 1959, three days before reaching sanctuary in northern India, the Dalai Lama's escape party crosses Karpo Pass on horseback.
On March 28, 1959, three days before reaching sanctuary in northern India, the Dalai Lama’s escape party crosses Karpo Pass on horseback.

SOME YEARS AGO I strolled into a diner off West Houston Street in New York for a quick lunchtime sandwich. The manager, a burly middleaged Italian-American with a bouffant hairdo, sat on a stool by the cash register in one corner. On the walls around her were pinned colorful posters of Tara, Avalokiteshvara, and other Tibetan Buddhist deities as well as several photographs of a beaming, namaste-ing Dalai Lama. As I was paying for my meal, I asked why she had all these images around her. “It’s him,” she pointed to a picture, “the Dolai Lamma. I was in Central Park last summer. He was talking to this crowd of people. Then someone asked: ‘Who’s been your most important teacher?’ And he answered— without missing a beat—‘The Chinese. They have taught me the most.’ That really touched me.”

I suspect that for many Americans like this woman, the most Christlike figure alive today is not a Christian but a Buddhist: Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet. For here is a man who has undergone unimaginable loss and hardship but who appears to bear no grudge against the people responsible for invading his country, desecrating its ancient culture, and forcing him into an exile that he has now endured for fifty years. He seems to embrace the Chinese occupiers with equanimity and kindness, to see them as suffering people rather than ciphers of a hostile nation, to regard them not as foes but as valued teachers who enable him to cultivate tolerance and compassion. And the more one observes the Dalai Lama as he travels the world, whether meeting presidents or addressing vast crowds, one starts to realize that this is not political or religious posturing, a cynical tactic designed to gain sympathy for his cause. This is the real thing: a man who cultivates and embodies the values he champions.

When I arrived in Dharamsala in 1972, the Dalai Lama and his followers had been in exile for 13 years. They had fled their beloved country in the wake of a failed uprising against the Chinese occupation in March 1959. With little more than the clothes on their backs, they escaped over the high mountain passes into Nepal, Bhutan, and India to begin life as refugees in some of the poorest countries in the world. When I first met him, the Dalai Lama was a young, energetic man of 37, full of good humor, faced with the daunting task of resettling 100,000 Tibetans in India and establishing a functional government-in-exile. Despite the enormous tragedy that had befallen them, the Tibetans I knew tended to be upbeat. These proud, resilient people found it hard to imagine that their exile could last for much longer.

From the perspective of common sense, Tibet is a country just like Italy or Japan. It possesses a rich and complex culture with a long history, its own language and literature, a highly distinctive religion and a unique form of government. So why, one might reasonably ask, is it not welcomed into the family of nation-states and given a seat at the U.N.? Why should recently concocted political entities such as Pakistan or Israel be accorded full recognition as nation-states, whereas Tibet is not? Why, in the past 50 years, has not one single government recognized the Dalai Lama’s government-in-exile? And why should a people who have never for a moment thought of themselves as Chinese be regarded as Chinese citizens? It all seems terribly unjust.

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