Potala Palace in Tibet, chief residence of Dalai Lamas since the late 1600s, via chinatravelcompass.com.

By Becky Rynor

I was looking for the chink in that unfailingly optimistic armor, a moment of emotion from the man who was forced by invading Chinese forces to flee his homeland of Tibet in 1959. I was watching for the beatific smile to slide, perhaps even for tears to well in the eyes behind the glasses perched on the nose of the Dalai Lama.

As a journalist, I was also looking for the perfect lede, the emotional hook with which to pull readers into a story about the Dalai Lama’s public speech before roughly 7,000 people in Ottawa, the capital of Canada, on April 28th. Here’s a man who hasn’t been able to go home since he was 16 years old because he is considered a threat by the Chinese Communist regime. I was more interested in the personal than the political and as a skeptic, I was curious – just who IS this guy who can attract, charm and sway the masses the world over? What His Holiness was about to remind me was that sometimes you don’t need to go home, and yes, the personal is political.

The diminutive man with the delighted smile is not only a religious leader, he’s a politically adroit, media savvy, influential icon. If I thought I could coax him in any direction for the sake of a quotable quote, a look, a camera-ready moment, I was wrong. In other words, he’s on to you.

The press conference was attended by about 20 reporters ranging from local media to Radio Free Asia, Voice of America and ZUMA Press. Reporters were told that after the public talk–which marked the end of a North American speaking tour that included Honolulu, San Diego, California and Chicago–they would be allowed one question, with one follow-up. The tour culminated in Ottawa to coincide with the 6thWorld Parliamentarians’ Convention on Tibet, an international network of politicians that is developing a parliamentary plan of action to advance Tibetan issues and to support His Holiness the Dalai Lama (HHDL) in his efforts for dialogue with China.

The Dalai Lama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, via canoe.ca.

He easily fielded my  questions. I asked His Holiness what he said during a meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

“Ah, top secret, as usual,” he quipped to appreciative laughs from the journalists, photographers and cameramen in attendance. He said he thanked Harper for Canada’s plan to bring up to 1000 Tibetans from eastern India into the country over five years, and he acknowledged the “inconvenience” their meeting could cause the Prime Minister’s plans to expand trade with China.

“He had the courage to meet me, so I very much appreciate that,” the Dalai Lama said.

He also commended Prime Minister Harper for his stance in his dealings with China, which sees the Dalai Lama as a dangerous separatist. “I think he managed it very well. Keep close relations with China; at the same time in his own democratic values, he stands firm. That’s very good.” Canada is a major trading partner with China, but drew sharp criticism from The People’s Republic in 2006 when our House of Commons voted to make the Dalai Lama an honorary Canadian citizen. HHDL said the dialogue between the two leaders was shared “fifty-fifty,” but acknowledged, “When I open my mouth, usually it’s a long sentence.”

“Then,” he said with the kind of smile you usually see from somebody about to play trump, along with a pause for effect, “I mentioned that I am honorary citizen of Canada, so I call him myPrime Minister.”  No head-butting or power tripping for this guy. A compliment, a flattery delivered as a simple truth. It was also a disarmingly deft move by the man who calls himself “a simple Buddhist monk,” but who is arguably one of the most influential politicos in the world.

As organizers called an end to the press conference, I muttered to the television producer next to me, “I want one more question.” “Well, he’s not gone yet,” she said nodding over to where handlers were assisting him down from the raised platform he’d been sitting on.

Sidling up to where two Radio Tibet journalists were already kneeling and waiting to be blessed, I said in a low voice, “Your Holiness, it has been so many years since you have been home.”

The Dalai Lama wheeled on me and grabbed my hand.

“Where is your home,” he affably challenged, his face inches from mine. Clearly there was going to be no pulling of heart strings, none of this attempt to coax emotion out of him for the benefit of readers – or viewers, for that matter – as the phalanx of TV cameras and still photographers closed around us.

Gobsmacked, I couldn’t say a word. I wasn’t even sure I was supposed to.  “Where is your home?” he repeated.

“You know, there is a very nice Tibetan saying,” he said to me, then turned to his translator. As they talked, he gestured and I felt my hand see-sawing back and forth, firmly clenched in his. “Whoever is kind to you is actually your parent,” the translator finally offered. “Wherever you feel happy, that is your home.” Then the Dalai Lama proceeded to tell a story – one of his “long sentences” – about when he first travelled to Europe in the early 1970s and was asked by a friend, “’Why do you go to these different countries outside India?’ I told him, ‘I consider myself as a citizen of the world, so I have the right to visit more places.’” Ending with a chesty guffaw he released my hand and continued through the group of journalists now leaning forward to press this Buddhist’s flesh.

The Dalai Lama had earlier told the Ottawa audience that he got his first good night’s sleep in years after stepping down as Tibet’s political leader in March, 2011. He says he remains the country’s spiritual leader, traveling widely and advocating for “meaningful autonomy” for Tibet, courting high-profile support from movie stars such as Richard Gere, a long-time activist for Tibet who accompanied the Dalai Lama on this trip to Ottawa and also chaired some of the World Parliamentarians’ Convention.

The Dalai Lama and actor Richard Gere in Ottawa, Ontario.

“He’s widely respected. He can say he’s not a political leader, but of course in a sense he is,” said John Higginbotham, Senior Distinguished Fellow at Carleton University’s School of International Affairs in Ottawa.

According to his website, the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, was born July 6, 1935 to a farming family in a hamlet in northeastern Tibet. At the age of two, he was recognized as the reincarnation of the 13thDalai Lama. Dalai Lamas are believed to be manifestations of Avalokiteshvara or Chenrezig, the Bodhisattva of Compassion and the patron saint of Tibet. Bodhisattvas are enlightened beings who have postponed their own nirvana and chosen to take rebirth in order to serve humanity. This Dali Lama now lives in exile in the northern Indian town of Dharamsala although he travels widely, speaking and meeting with the leaders of other countries to further the movement to allow Tibet political and religious autonomy. He wields significant political power and influence.

“China remains a very centralized, nationalistic state and it regards the Dalai Lama and his associates as what they would call splittists,” Higginbotham noted, adding that the meeting with the Canadian Prime Minister is “certainly not something that the Chinese will officially like but it will probably fall in that category of somewhat formalistic positions that the Chinese traditionally take in relation to critical sovereign issues. For example Canada has good working relations with Taiwan, but China does not officially recognise the government in Taiwan.”

The young Dalai Lama, via wikipedia.

Higginbotham says the Dalai Lama’s political influence may hold more sway now because China’s social and economic ideologies are undergoing a period of extraordinary change.

That was echoed by Carl Gersham, president of the National Endowment for Democracy, a private, congressionally supported grant-making institution seeking to strengthen democratic institutions through non-governmental efforts.

Speaking at the Convention on Tibet, Gersham said this change in China is “reflected in a much greater interest at the grass roots in Tibetan Buddhism and the Dali Lama. I think there is the potential here for coming together between two peoples based upon moral and spiritual values which the Chinese people at the grass roots are hungry for.”

He said there are “growing incidents of Han Chinese visiting Tibet, inviting monks to family events, people learning Tibetan. The important thing is it’s expanding at the social level. It’s not something coming from the elite.”

The irony in this, Gersham said, “is that a movement that based its credibility on the pursuit of material prosperity is being undermined by people who feel spiritually empty. I think this is one of the great weaknesses of the Chinese system. It just doesn’t know how to satisfy that longing people have for higher values. It has denied that since communism came to power in 1949, first through communism and now through state capitalism. Both deny this spiritual dimension and it will destroy a society over time.”

“It’s clear that in 60 years of Chinese rule, that the Chinese people – the Han Chinese and of course the Tibetans as well – have really suffered greatly,” said Sharon Hom, the Executive Director of Human Rights in China. Citing “violent scars” from injuries she says were inflicted by incidents such as the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square, “ten years of the abuses of the cultural revolution,” as well as the “crackdown in Tibet,” she counts herself among those Chinese who “desperately need to heal.”

“We need to be able to talk about it. We need to take responsibility for it. We need to have some accountability… we need to heal at every level, but the level that is very seldom talked about is the spiritual level,” she said. “We do a lot of policy and political work, but we don’t talk about spiritual healing. You can’t build a democratic, open society with people who are profoundly, spiritually injured.”

Tibetans display posters of those who killed themselves in self-immolation, Sam Yeh via Getty Images/The Guardian

The Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 in recognition of his non-violent struggle for Tibet. He was also the first Nobel Laureate to be recognized for his concern for global environmental problems. He is one of those rare leaders that appeals spiritually and politically as well as on very practical and progressive levels too.

“I studied international development,” said 23-year-old Jordan Thompson. “His Holiness has quite the reach…focusing on trust, and how people invest in the military because there is no trust. There are extremists on both ends so if we were able to invest in common sense, trust and togetherness we wouldn’t have to allocate so much funding to military and weaponry.”

Seventy-seven-year-old Anne Kittridge said she came away feeling, “hope for peace in the world. That was the biggest message I got. I hope it’s true. There’s hope for Tibet, that Tibet will eventually be free. It may not come in my lifetime, but it’s going to come eventually. To me that’s really important.”

“People need to look at the world in a less materialistic way and help others be more community-based,” said 45-year-old Barbara Gillie. “I’ve always thought of the Dalai Lama as quite an obviously spiritual person. It was the opportunity of a lifetime to see him speak in person.”

In retrospect I’m bemused that my idea of a good story about the Dalai Lama was to evoke some romantic concept of hearth and home as that place where we are born and raised and will always be welcome, always accepted, always able to return to.  In this story, HHDL is the tragic figure denied a most basic human right.  It’s not even something I believe; how true is that for how many of us?

To American author Thomas Wolfe’s statement that we can’t go home again, I respond that many of us could go home but might choose not to. As I recently packed a bag for an assignment in Niger, I reflected on how “home” to me is not where my parents are, not the town I was born and went to school in. Home is where my partner and two children are, plain and simple. The Dalai Lama’s skill or niche is that he appeals to the masses by preaching simple truths, with plain words. That isn’t necessarily a simple path or an easy one. But what I find truly sobering is how desperate people in the West are for someone to lead them along it.

Becky Rynor is a journalist based in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.