Four Days With The Dalai Lama
The great irony during the 14th Dalai Lama’s four-day visit to Oahu is that the self-described “simple monk” who brought with him a message of peace, compassion and warm-hearted understanding required security almost equal to that of the president.
“He gets protection at the first level down from national leaders,” said Victor Chan, a friend of the Dalai Lama for 40 years who has authored two books with him, and who traveled on the media bus covering the Lama’s visit. “The agents in those big, black cars are carrying machine guns.”
Similarly, as noted in my cover story on the Dalai Lama’s two public talks on Maui five years ago this week, two police snipers with high-power rifles and scopes watched from the press box roof at Wailuku’s War Memorial Stadium.
This time, even knowing what to expect, there was a moment of shock as I pulled up to the Kahala Hotel for his welcoming reception and saw shaved-head monks in crimson and saffron robes standing side-by-side with armed HPD police officers in olive drab, with bomb-sniffing dogs checking every nook, cranny and bush.
For those of us in the media covering the Lama’s stops – both public and private – each day thereafter began by reporting to the Kahala Hotel between 6 and 6:15 a.m. Each morning we placed our bags, cameras and gear on the sidewalk, stepped away as multiple bomb-sniffing dogs checked everything, as did a human officer with a device that looks like a metal-detector but is sensitive to explosives. (Aren’t we all!) Inside, where in the afternoon the Veranda Cafe serves tea, we emptied all pockets and were “wanded” by members of the State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service, who seemed to be everywhere. Once we and our bags were “screened,” we were hustled downstairs and kept in quarantine until the press bus arrived. If someone needed to use the lua, an agent had to go along, so to speak. A DSS agent named Brian, a former Navy officer, was our constant companion. Once out of the bus, we had to stay together – frankly, keeping more than two journalists in line is like herding cats, but we did our best for the sake of security – lest we be contaminated, or passed a secret package.
Other than the two public talks at UH, locations of his private appearances were top secret to all but those involved. So you can imagine how security folks felt when Gov. Abercrombie blurted to 9,000 people at the Stan Sheriff Center that His Holiness would be blessing the Hokule’a the next day. At least he didn’t mention the location.
All this is no surprise for anyone who attended his two public talks at UH or his unannounced events that included visits to Bishop Museum, Iolani Palace, the East-West Center for a dialog with Hawaiian leaders, Kailua High and to Kualoa Regional Park to bless the new Hokule’a before its upcoming world voyage.
So my list of eight scripted questions for the Dalai Lama included asking about all these ironies, but his media conference at Kualoa was limited to just four questions. I was the last to ask, and also had other topics of interest. We’ll get to my question and his reply shortly.
The simple fact, the entire explanation for this security, is that there are many in China – generals, politicians, bureaucrats – who would like nothing more than to have the Dalai Lama go away, by whatever means, and to have the world avert its eyes from the continuing cultural carnage it has been carrying out in Tibet since at least 1959. That was the year the 23-year-old Dalai Lama – both the political and spiritual leader of the sovereign nation of Tibet since he was 16 – fled for his life over the Himalayas and established the Tibetan Government in Exile in Dharamsala, India.
For readers too young to remember or old enough to forget, when the Communist Chinese invaded Tibet in 1949, they began the systematic process of wiping out Tibetan culture, language and religion – something that resonates with Hawaiians. More than 1.3 million Tibetans have died, many by execution. Of 6,219 universities and monasteries in 1959, only eight remain. Ancient sacred texts have been mixed with manure and used as field fertilizer, and ancient sacred stone tablets used as urinals. Nuns and monks have been forced to have sex in the street. Simply possessing a small photo of the Dalai Lama lands you in jail, and gets you well-beaten. Today, as the Dalai Lama pointed out at Kualoa, ethnic disturbances in other parts of China are dealt with far less harshly than in Tibetan areas.
“The Chinese,” he said, “worship only guns and bombs.”
The Chinese Communists – who say they will name their own 15th Dalai Lama when this one passes, as they have done with other lamas including Panchen – claim that Tibet has always been a part of “the Motherland.” But as the Dalai Lama emphasized at Kualoa – in response to a question about 30 Tibetans who have burned themselves to death in recent weeks to protest the Chinese occupation – Tibet has had its own distinct language and script for at least a thousand years.
Given all that, the Dalai Lama’s equanimity, his teaching of peace and compassion even for your enemies, is all the more amazing. And compelling.
To explain compassion for an adversary, His Holiness sometimes tells the story of an elderly monk who, upon being released from prison where he was regularly beaten, traveled over the Himalayas to Dharamsala – which is how this anecdote turns up in my 2007 MidWeek cover story on his Maui talks and in Victor’s book The Wisdom of Forgiveness, coauthored with His Holiness. When the monk met with the Dalai Lama, he asked if the old monk had ever felt endangered by the Chinese. “Yes,” he replied, “in danger of losing my compassion for the Chinese.”
(Victor, by the way, commented that his challenge these days, after spending so much time with the Dalai Lama over four decades, is to hear him say something new. And he did during his Sunday talk – comments about always smiling except at certain moments in the lua.)
Yet as he said in a Saturday afternoon address to students at the Stan Sheriff Center – that had the feel of a high school pep rally: “Kindness toward your enemy does not mean submitting.” He urged listeners to take “compassionate action.”
I thoroughly enjoyed the “Lama Tour,” despite having to awake at 4 a.m. for three mornings, and having to “hurry up and wait” most of the time. But to be in the presence of the 14th Dalai Lama was, well, very nice. So too was observing and talking with local journalists, especially the rotating writer-photog duos from the Star-Advertiser, but others in print, TV and online as well. It was heartening to be in the presence of so many good people who happen to be good and conscientious journalists.
Folks on the bus included Agapi Stassinopoulis, sister of Ariana Huffington. She was tweeting regularly to the HuffPost during our travels.
Among a number of coincidences on the bus, Victor, a native of Hong Kong who these days lives near Vancouver, B.C., is married to Susanne Martin, a native of East Germany who turns out to be editor of the Bowen Island weekly newspaper Undercurrent, for which she won a regional journalism award last week. Turns out Undercurrent is owned by David Black, who also owns MidWeek and the Star-Advertiser.
On a strictly personal basis, the high points of four days busing down the Lama Trail were getting to shake his hand twice. The first happened at the welcoming reception. After a beautiful chant, hula and song by Kamehameha Schools Glee Club seniors, as he was leaving a small conference room he veered to shake hands with a woman he seemed to recognize, who was standing beside me. He looked up, almost surprised to see me, but quickly smiled and reached out his hand, and I shook his hand. It lasted only about five seconds, but was as cool a five seconds I’d ever known until then. His handshake was perfect, strong but gentle.
Then last Monday at Kualoa, the media’s 20 minutes was coming to an end after just three questions, His Holiness giving detailed answers. As I stepped to a microphone about 10 feet from him, a queue of another 10 journalists behind me, the moderator stepped onto the stage to end things. The Dalai Lama leaned forward, beckoned me with his hand to speak, said something about one more question.
Combining at least a couple of my scripted questions on the fly, setting aside my notebook, not wanting to take notes but instead to focus on this rare one-on-one interaction, and trying to keep it brief, I said (to the best of my recollection):
“Your Holiness, you are a dangerous man.”
He gave me a quizzical look.
“Looking at all of the police and security and dogs, it’s obvious that some people in the world consider you a dangerous man, and your teaching of peace and compassion a dangerous teaching. Why do these people fear you and your teaching?”
He replied that “in China they called me demon. Demon?” At that point he placed index fingers atop his head like devil horns – “Oh demon!” – and playfully turned to Mayor Peter Carlisle, which Star-Advertiser photog Craig Kojima captured for Page One the next day.
I’m grateful to Jon Letman, who has previously done work for MidWeek Kaua’i, for transcribing the Dalai Lama’s lengthy answer, which can be found at midweek.com. At the end of his answer, I thanked him “for bringing this very dangerous teaching to us.”
As he was leaving, he paused to shake hands with my old friend Heidi Chang in the front row, and then he turned and reached out to me, and I shook his hand, and instinctively placed my left hand over his, and then he placed his left hand over mine, and three times he shook both hands, each accompanied by a squeeze, and the warmest smile with which I have ever been blessed. And then he was gone.
Afterward, as happened at the Kahala, a couple of people who observed it asked to shake the hand that shook the Dalai Lama’s hand.
Spreading the blessing.
Victor mentioned that the Dalai Lama, 76, recently said that when he turns 90 – July 6, 2025 – he will announce where and when he will be reincarnated – having previously said it will not be in Tibet as long as he is forbidden by the Chinese from returning in this life.
Security forces have their marching orders.