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The Charismatic Dalai Lama

Born into a humble farming family on July 6, 1935, Lhamo Dhondup (Tenzin Gyatso), had subtle beginnings before he became the leader of an entire people. After the thirteenth Dalai Lama’s passing, the high lamas searched for his next reincarnation among the Tibetan people. Tibetan Buddhists monks journeyed to a small village and found a boy about the age of two who, after passing numerous trials, was determined to be the next Dalai Lama. He commenced his training in the study of Tibetan culture and philosophy soon after his trials.

The Dalai Lamas are considered to be the protectors of Tibet and the reincarnation of the Bodhisattva of Compassion. Living in a time of turmoil for the Tibetan people, Tenzin Gyatso assumed political power in 1950 as Chinese troops invaded Tibet and brought it under its control. In 1959, thousands of Tibetans revolted against Chinese rule, but were quickly suppressed. Some 15,000 were killed. The Dalai Lama was forced to flee to India with thousands of followers, creating a Tibetan diaspora near Dharamsala, where they have remained for the past half century.

Through his numerous public appearances, the 14th Dalai Lama has been able to call significant attention to the plight of the Tibetan people and the desire to ensure the survival of the Tibetan people’s distinctive culture, language and identity   He has been recognized as leader on human rights issues and in 1989, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. His renowned, charismatic personality bolsters his support and credibility to further his cause.

John Holdridge was a political officer in U.S. Consul General Hong Kong in the 1950s; he was interviewed by Marshall Green and Charles Stuart Kennedy in 1989. William Brown, a political-economic officer at Embassy New Delhi in the late 1960s, discusses his meeting with the Dalai Lama and how a meeting request was turned down as the U.S. prepared to normalize relations with China. He was interviewed by Kennedy beginning in November 1998.

Barbara Merello, who had served in the United States Information Agency (USIA), reflects on her volunteer efforts to help the Tibetan people. She was interviewed by Lewis Hoffacker beginning in January 2000. Joseph O’Connell, External Affairs for the Voice of America (VOA) discusses his contact with the Dalai Lama and a later angry exchange with Chinese visitors. He was interviewed beginning in December 2011 by Kennedy. Walter Deering, Officer in Charge for the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security in the Miami Field Office from 1991-1999, discusses his lengthy contact with the Dalai Lama and the latter’s childlike sense of humor. He was interviewed by Kennedy in December 2004.

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“He radiated a spirituality which a hardened political officer like me found was really something”

William Brown, Political-Economic Officer, Embassy New Delhi, 1968-1970

BROWN:  The Dalai Lama was and is the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people. He fled from Tibet to India in 1959 and has lived in exile since then. U.S. support for the Dalai Lama and his movement was one of the many bones of contention between ourselves and Beijing. (The Dalai Lama with India’s Jawaharlal Nehru.)

For its part Beijing had crushed the efforts by the Tibetan people to achieve independence or resist Chinese domination.

The Chinese Communists brutally overwhelmed the country, had the territory firmly in hand, and were going through the process of destroying Buddhist monasteries, subjecting the Tibetan people to Chinese rule, and stationing Chinese cadres in the country. Now, on top of it all, in the mid-late 1960s, they applied the Cultural Revolution to Tibet, so that the destructive and vindictive aspect of the Cultural Revolution was in full force there.

John Holdridge, Political Officer, U.S. Consulate, Hong Kong, 1953-1956

HOLDRIDGE: In April of 1956, the Chinese established what was called the Preparatory Committee for the Autonomous Region of Tibet. They had quite a conclave of senior people — the Chinese leading official whose name I can’t remember, the Dalai Lama, etc. The Dalai Lama made a speech which was carried intact in the Chinese press which we, of course, translated. It was also released in English version, in the New China News Agency version in English.

A comparison of the two, which I made, showed that there were some very significant omissions from the Chinese in the English version. For example, the Dalai Lama was quoted as saying that the Chinese had built many roads in Tibet, and he was very grateful for this development of his country.

He went on to say, “However, in the course of the construction of these roads, many of our people gave up their valuable lives, and we send our sincere condolences to the families of these people.”

In other words, there was something wrong there. There were a number of other spots where you could see that the Chinese had overridden religious scruples. They had changed the social system, and there were deep resentments.

Before I left in 1956, I wrote this one dispatch — we don’t write dispatches anymore since everything goes by cable. I came to the conclusion that the Chinese were having a real problem in maintaining their control in Tibet. If they thought they had it hand, they were whistling in the dark.

1968 — “He radiated a spirituality which a hardened political officer like me found was really something”

BROWN:  I went along with Bob Paige, AID [Agency for International Development] officer, on his farewell call on the Dalai Lama. I introduced myself and my wife at a lovely meeting up at Dharamsala with His Holiness, the Dalai Lama. He radiated a spirituality which a hardened political officer like me found was really something to run into.

Of course, the Dalai Lama was all eyes and ears about the situation [Prague Spring and subsequent crackdown] in Czechoslovakia, what had happened, and so forth. He wanted to know what I could tell him. He was a magnificent figure….

Through another channel I heard that the Dalai Lama wanted to make a visit to the United States. I said to those who told me this: “I don’t think that this is going to work out.”

They said, “What do you mean? We have a very special relationship with the Tibetans,” which they did.

I said, “Well, I don’t know about that. I haven’t been involved in political relationships with the Dalai Lama, if you will. I have been in contact with him on refugee rehabilitation matters. I can tell you that I don’t think that Washington is going to be in the mood to receive him in the United States.”

However, I dutifully cabled back to the Department of State that the Dalai Lama was interested in visiting the U.S. Shortly before I left India, I received an instruction saying that I should go to the Dalai Lama’s brother, who was then up in Darjeeling, India, and tell him that it would not be opportune at this time for the Dalai Lama to come to the U.S. The brother was the eminence grise of the Tibetan cabinet.

So I flew from New Delhi to Calcutta and took the train up to Darjeeling. I was given a sumptuous feast by the Dalai Lama’s brother and then, as diplomatically as I could, had to break the news that now was not the time for such a visit. The brother took it with a wooden face, as he was my host. He said that he understood.

I got on the train and came back down to Calcutta. I felt very sad because I had great affection for the Dalai Lama. However, I sensed that something was afoot in U.S.-PRC relations. And it was….

However, much as I sympathized with the Dalai Lama and Tibetans more generally, I felt that Washington would not be in a mood to receive him in the United States at that time. And Washington wasn’t in the mood to receive him because President Nixon and Henry Kissinger were looking for a breakthrough in U.S.-PRC relations….[Nixon’s historic trip to China took place in February 1972.]

“His simple robe was of a beautifully woven fabric, and on his feet were — not sandals — but rather a well-worn and sensible pair of Rockport shoes”

Joseph O’Connell Jr., External Affairs for Voice of America, Washington D.C.,  1998

O’CONNELL: VOA [Voice of America] has broadcast in Tibetan for over a decade. The Dalai Lama visited VOA and the Tibetan Service at least twice during my final years there, the first time right after the broadcasts started.

Seeing him was extraordinary, especially so for the Tibetan staff. We had been told that the only thing that we were to prepare for the Dalai Lama was what the Tibetans called “white tea,” which was really just hot water, maybe with a slice of lemon.

As he arrived at the Tibetan service, with the Tibetan staff eagerly awaiting him, I was standing next to a Tibetan woman of short stature. As the Dalai Lama approached the door of the service, the woman fell to the floor. At first, I thought she had fainted, until I realized that she prostrated herself at his feet.

The Dalai Lama reached out to her gently and said, “Please, please, don’t,” and he helped her to her feet. His voice was deep and [his] sense of humor excellent. His simple robe was of a beautifully woven fabric, and on his feet were — not sandals — but rather a well-worn and sensible pair of Rockport shoes.

Predictably, the Chinese were extremely unhappy [with the Tibetan broadcasts]. They immediately began jamming and, as far as I know, they continue today, although they roundly deny it.

Years later, I gave a tour of VOA to a group of young Chinese government officials who were in Washington on a State Department-sponsored visit. At the start of the tour, I took the picture-snapping group into the VOA visitor center, on whose walls hung larger-than life-sized photographs of prominent visitors from the past.

Among them, right at the entrance, was an enormous photo of the Dalai Lama. No sooner had the Chinese officials walked into the room when their two leaders saw the poster and turned to me to demand angrily — in English — why the photo of “this crazy, bad Tibetan monk” was being displayed at the Voice of America.

Before I knew it, they were in my face, furiously spitting out their words and waving their arms. The others in the group of some 30 watched their leaders carefully, clearly waiting to take their cue. Some of them, if only half-heartedly, started in on me, too.

Between the visitors’ shouts, I tried to explain that people come to VOA every day, and that everyone is welcome, including the Dalai Lama. I added that VOA broadcasts in Tibetan, and that of course set them off again. There were no more smiles after that.

“He does emit a radiance. He is a holy man, there’s no question of that.”

Barbara Merello, United States Information Agency, 1992-1993

MERELLO: We became interested in a Tibetan project. I had always felt a great deal of sympathy for Tibet, and there was a very remarkable woman here, who’s living somewhere else now, but she had started a committee here (Austin, Texas) There’s a Tibetan Committee of New York and then in other cities as well.

I had plenty of money, I guess, and so she called me and she said Congress had agreed to bring a thousand Tibetans to this country (and this was in 1992, I think), and they were going to come in little groups to different cities, because the whole idea was for them to be able to preserve their culture that they had in Tibet.

And they drew lots, people who were willing to come, because the Dalai Lama didn’t want only educated people to come; he wanted everyone to have a chance who was willing. So they drew lots, and so it was a great variety of people. Some people knew English. Most did not. Some were more educated than others. All of them were refugees, either in Nepal or in India….

They have five little bowls that they fill full of water in the morning, and then around five o’clock they pour the water out. It’s sort of a symbol of pouring [out] with maybe the bad things of the day.

The Dalai Lama had interviewed each one of them and taken over their burdens, whatever they had suffered, and some of them had really suffered and had to walk out of Tibet through the mountains or had relatives killed. And he sort of took over all their suffering and gave each one of them an amulet. I still have the amulet and a picture of the Dalai Lama.

Later we got to meet the Dalai Lama….He does emit a radiance. He is a holy man, there’s no question of that. He’s a remarkable leader. And he said something I liked very much during his talk. He said, “What a good thing that there are so many religions in the world. We need them all.”

“The Dalai Lama’s standing on the other side of the room, he’s got his hand over his mouth and he’s pointing at me and laughing”

Walter Deering, Officer in Charge, State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security, Miami, Florida Field Office, 1991-1999

DEERING: We got notified that the Dalai Lama was coming to South Florida to receive an honorary degree at Florida International University. This was an era where — it was following the 1998 East African bombings, DS [Diplomatic Security] was in a state of flux because we had to respond to requests worldwide for TDY [temporary duty] support as a result of the bombings.

Our field offices were pretty much milked out, we had a lot of people on TDY assignments. Our programs were kind of almost at a standstill because of the fact that there hadn’t been any new hiring in years….

When dignitaries came into field office regions and they were only going there, it was pretty much left up to the field office, with guidance from our Diplomatic Protection Division, to handle the short-term details. So with the resources we had in Miami, we felt we could deal with it.

He was there for about 36 hours. I ran the detail and my other supervisors were the shift leaders and the assistant Agent in Charge and the agents, the detail was staffed by I think 12 to 15 Miami agents. DS has traditionally had protective responsibility for the Dalai Lama and when he comes to the United States there’s generally a detail on him. He does a lot of travel in the United States.

So he came and he was staying on one of these little islands off in Biscayne Bay there. Somebody had given him a condominium to stay in, a high rise and that’s where he stayed with his entourage. The Dalai Lama’s a fascinating person, very outgoing, very friendly, almost child-like in his humor. Speaks, I guess, seven or eight different languages, all self-taught and he just likes to socialize with everybody who’s near him.

I remember when we came out of the car to go up the high rise, in the elevator, I’m standing next to him and one of his assistants are standing on the other side, from the office in New York, he grabbed hold of our hands when the elevator starts to go up.

We get upstairs and he’s just kind of smiling, almost giggling and we get upstairs and he goes off into his room and I call the aide over and say, “Excuse me, but His Holiness, is he afraid of elevators?”

He says, “Oh, no, no, he just likes people.”

I said, “Okay.” So then we went off, I think it was the next morning, he had the ceremony at Florida International University….It was arranged that I would march in the [graduation] procession.

We’re all in a room getting our caps and gowns for the procession. The Dalai Lama’s already got his cap and he’s got his gown and he just needed a sash and his robes. And I’m over there, trying to get ready, I’m in there by myself, the other guys were outside and Governor [Jeb] Bush is in there.  I’m struggling to get my cap and gown on over my equipment.

Governor Bush comes over, “Oh, let me help you, let me help you.” And I look over and the Dalai Lama’s standing on the other side of the room, he’s got his hand over his mouth and he’s pointing at me and laughing. Just thought that was the funniest thing in the world, but that’s the way he was.

Then we left there and went back and we had a full motorcade, support from the locals and we had a lead car from, I believe it was Metro Dade….

We came off an on-ramp onto one of the major thoroughfares in Florida. I was in the limo, one of my supervisors driving the limo and the Dalai Lama’s in the right rear seat, sitting right behind me. And he’s just kind of sitting there, I could see him in the rear view mirror, just looking at what’s going on.

We come out and our lead car gets too far ahead of us as we merge onto the freeway and a big tanker truck gets in between the lead car and us and we’re in a heavy old mid-1980’s or 1990 armored Cadillac. It’s not real easy to slow this baby down when you get going….

We’re moving fast enough that we’re almost in the rear end of this tanker truck. I’m looking at Bob. I say, “Bob, you need to stop this thing.” Bob says, “Don’t worry, don’t worry.” By the time we slow things down, we were…a foot or a couple of feet [behind the truck].

The Dalai Lama pats me on the shoulder. I turn around, he goes, “That was close!”

That was the sense of humor he had. When he left, we had to sit with him on the plane, he was flying on a Lufthansa flight, he was going up to Berlin or Frankfurt….We always were there until they closed the doors.

I’m standing there and he calls me over. And he goes, “Thank you very much” and he takes my hand and he’s got something in his hand. He takes my hand, opens my hand and he puts it in my hand and puts my hand down at my side. And the doors close and I left.

I get outside and it’s a little peppermint he’d given me. I heard a lot of stories about the aura of the Dalai Lama and it was really true. He was quite a memorable person, probably more so than any other of these dignitaries I’ve dealt with over my career.