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By Irwin Abrams

Published in The Nobel Prize Annual 1989 (Boston, Mass.: G.K.Hall, 1990, pp. 77-87).

"This year's Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to His Holiness The Dalai Lama, first and foremost for his consistent resistance to the use of violence in his people's struggle to regain their liberty.... We affirm our unstinting support for his work for peace, and for the unarmed masses on the march in many lands for liberty, peace, and human rights."
-- Egil Aarvik, Chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee)


On October 5, 1989, shortly before three o'clock in the morning, the telephone rang in the house in Newport Beach, California, where the Dalai Lama -- the exiled religious and political ruler of Tibet -- was staying. It was the secretary of the Norwegian Nobel Committee in Oslo calling to notify him that soon in Oslo it would be eleven o'clock and the official announcement would be made that the Dalai Lama had won the Nobel Peace Prize for 1989.

The Dalai Lama's staff did not want to interrupt his sleep or disturb him when he woke at his usual hour of four and proceeded with his devotions. The secretary of the Nobel Committee, unable to give the word personally to the Dalai Lama, sent off a cable.

Soon the news would be out and received with great joy by communities of Tibetan exiles in India, Nepal, and elsewhere, but heard with anger in governmental circles in Beijing.

How did the Dalai Lama happen to be in Southern California? He was meeting with prominent American neuroscientists who were briefing him on their work on the mind-brain relationship, while he in return was explaining to them the Tibetan Buddhist techniques of meditation and its relevance to their study of sleep and dreaming. The Dalai Lama next visited Buddhist centers in Northern California. One morning he went by helicopter to the summit of Mt. Tamalpais, where in his traditional maroon-and-saffron robes he led Buddhist monks in an ancient Tibetan ceremony designed to create harmony between people and their environment. On a throne set up under a white tent next to the crumbling barracks of an abandoned Air Force radar station, the Dalai Lama prayed for environmental peace while the monks chanted, sounded their horns and cymbals, and a white plume of juniper smoke rose up to the sky.

The helicopter then took him to San Francisco, where he explained before twelve hundred luncheon guests his plan to make peace between China and the Tibetan people, who since 1948 have lived under Chinese occupation.

What kind of person is this Tibetan Buddhist who consorts with scientists and who helicopters between religious ceremonies and political speeches? He insists,"I am a simple Buddhist monk, nothing more." He is a good deal more, not only a world scholar and teacher of Buddhism, but to devout Tibetans the reincarnation of a being who is so enlightened that he could ascend to the highest spiritual state but instead, to serve his people, has returned again and again to take rebirth. In the person of Tenzin Gyatso, Tibetans believe, the Dalai Lama has come to them for the fourteenth time.

It is not accurate to describe the Dalai Lama as a god-king, as so many Western journalists do. Buddhism does not have the concept of a creator deity, as in Judeo-Christian belief. Other high-ranking Tibetan monks are also regarded as reincarnations, but the Dalai Lama is considered a more highly evolved being, an embodiment of the spirit of compassion.

Though venerated by his people, he is modest and unpretentious, wearing the same unadorned robes as other Buddhist monks. Ever cheerful, with an abundant fund of humor, his interviews are punctuated with frequent chuckles, and his smooth, round bespectacled face is often lighted up with a smile.

He radiates the kindness he preaches, and his love for people is most evident. At the traditional torchlight procession in the laureate's honor at Oslo, the Dalai Lama stood on his hotel balcony to receive the homage of the crowd below. Before long, he descended to shake hands with as many as he could reach. At his Nobel Lecture the ceremony was delayed while he moved slowly down the aisle, joyfully greeting members of the audience at the end of each row.

In his forthcoming autobiography he recalls what it was like to have been "a country boy" who at the age of five was proclaimed Supreme Leader of six million people. When the thirteenth Dalai Lama died in 1933, the search began for the child in whom he had chosen to be reborn. Following signs and portents, the search party identified the two-year-old son of a farmer in northeastern Tibet. The child was renamed Tenzin Gyatso and in 1940 installed in the capital city of Lhasa as the Dalai Lama ("Ocean of Wisdom"). While a regent ruled the country, he underwent a rigorous religious education and also studied secular subjects such as mathematics, geography, and English. His Western tutor has remarked upon his insistent inquisitiveness and his fondness for taking apart mechanical instruments like clocks and putting them back together again. At the age of twenty-five the Dalai Lama completed his education with the doctorate of Buddhist philosophy, passing the final oral examinations with the highest honors before a vast audience of monastic scholars.

Ten years before that, however, he had taken over the reins of government at the age of fifteen, several years earlier than usual, because of the political crisis resulting from the arrival of Chinese troops in Tibet. Tibet, a mountainous country about twice the size of Texas, is situated in the heart of Asia, between China and India. It has long remained geographically isolated, and its relationship with China has been uneven. When China has been strong, its rulers have treated Tibet as a part of their dominions. When China has been weak, as it was during almost four decades before the Communists took power in 1949, Tibetans have gone their own way. In 1950, for reasons both geopolitical and ideological, the Chinese government denied the Tibetan claim of independence and moved to integrate the Tibetans into "the big family of the motherland." This meant extending Chinese military power across Asia and at the same time reforming the rigid, traditional society of Tibet, whose people were to be "liberated" from their servitude to the priestly and aristocratic classes.

During the next nine years, the young Dalai Lama tried to cooperate with the Chinese while preserving the cultural and religious heritage of his country. But Tibetan resistance to Chinese policies grew, and despite all the efforts of the Dalai Lama to keep peace, rioting broke out and in 1959 spread to Lhasa. As the Chinese prepared to use armed force to establish order, the Dalai Lama, recognizing that any hope for Tibet's future rested with him, reluctantly escaped across the mountains to India, where he was given asylum.

After crushing the uprising, the Chinese proceeded with the sinification of Tibet. More than one-half of Tibet's original territory has been incorporated into the contiguous Chinese provinces, leaving only central and part of eastern Tibet to form the so-called Tibetan Autonomous Region. Massive Chinese immigration has been set in motion, making the Tibetans an under-privileged minority in their own territories. Their culture and its religious foundation have been undermined, most of the monasteries destroyed, and ancient treasures removed. Many of the brightest twelve-to fourteen-year-olds have been sent to schools in far-off Chinese cities, to be indoctrinated and trained to join Tibetan Communist Party cadres back home. China has made Tibet an important military outpost, with a large contingent of the People's Liberation Army permanently stationed there and strong nuclear missile bases. Tibet's natural resources have been exploited, and there are indications that it may become a major depository of nuclear waste.

An estimated one million or more Tibetans have died as a direct result of the Chinese occupation. Many thousands of religious and political prisoners have filled the jails and labor camps, and the widespread use of torture has been well documented. Yet, demonstrations in favor of Tibetan freedom continue, and the Chinese have had to declare martial law and close Tibet to the international media. Tourists who have been permitted to enter the country report that the most appreciated gift they can give a Tibetan is a photograph of the Dalai Lama.

In the Himalayan city of Dharmsala in northwestern India, where about a hundred thousand Tibetans have followed the Dalai Lama into exile, he has established a small Tibet-in-exile. He has organized there a political administration, economic and relief projects for the refugees, and schools where pupils study not only their ancient culture but also English and modern subjects. Also at Dharmsala are a monastery, a temple, a library of Tibetan works and archives (including Buddhist scriptures), and a school for painting, music, and dance. It is the intention of the Dalai Lama both to preserve Tibetan culture and to modernize and liberalize it.

He has promulgated a democratic constitution and declared that in a self-governing Tibet he would relinquish his political power. Meanwhile, he has an important political role to play in pleading Tibet's case for self-determination before the world. India, sensitive to its relationship with China, has not formally recognized the Tibetan government-in-exile, nor, for similar reasons, has any other country. In the United States, the Dalai Lama has found support in Congress but not in the State Department, although before Communist China was recognized, the Central Intelligence Agency was sending material support to the Tibetan resistance and even training Tibetan guerrilla fighters in Colorado.

In his far-ranging travels in recent years the Dalai Lama has visited with two Popes and other religious leaders, seeking unity among the denominations. He has lectured at Harvard and other universities, engaged in Buddhist activities in many countries, and lobbied for Tibet with major political figures worldwide.

While denouncing China's oppression of the Tibetans, he has continued to seek a peaceful resolution of the conflict. He has never ceased to urge his people to avoid violence in their struggle, not only because of Buddhist principles but because, as he declared in 1988 after the Chinese troops had fired on a peaceful demonstration in Lhasa, "nonviolence is for us the only way. Quite patently, in our case violence would be tantamount to suicide."

In September 1987, the Dalai Lama announced a five-point peace plan before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus in Washington, D.C., calling for "the conversion of Tibet into a zone of peace, a sanctuary in which humanity and nature can live in harmony." He asked for "respect for human rights and democratic ideals, environmental protection, and a halt to the Chinese population transfer into Tibet." Finally, he called for earnest negotiations between the Chinese and the Tibetans, and in a June 1988 speech before the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, he declared his willingness to recognize Tibet as a self-governing entity "in association with the People's Republic of China," which would remain responsible for Tibet's foreign policy and maintain defense forces in Tibet until a regional peace conference could arrange for Tibet's neutralization and demilitarization.

The Dalai Lama knew that many Tibetans would still insist on full independence; just as many, especially among the younger generation, rejected his counsel of nonviolence, but he felt that it was imperative to begin dialogue with the Chinese. There was no response from Beijing, however, and events in 1989 have left even less hope for negotiations. In March the Chinese declared martial law in Tibet, and in June in China the hard-liners took full control and brutally suppressed the student democratic movement.

It was the Chinese situation, however, that apparently brightened the Dalai Lama's prospects for the Peace Prize. In recent years the Nobel Committee had recognized champions of human rights, including Andrei Sakharov, Lech Walesa, and Desmond Tutu, declaring that true peace must be based on justice, and this year there were again strong candidates who worked for human rights by the methods of nonviolence.

The Dalai Lama had been on the list of nominees for several years, but events in China drew fresh attention to the Chinese violation of Tibetan human rights. That a prize for the Dalai Lama would be seen as a sign of support for the Chinese student movement of Tiananmen Square might also have been on the minds of Committee members. Moreover, with the Dalai Lama nonviolence was not just a policy but part of a philosophy of life based on concern for all sentient beings and for nature. The Dalai Lama has often spoken of how Mahatma Gandhi, the apostle of nonviolence, inspired him. Nobel Committee members have expressed their embarrassment at Gandhi's absence from their roll of honor, and the choice of the Dalai Lama has made it possible to pay tribute to Gandhi's memory.

In mid-September the Committee members arrived at their decision and then kept their secret until the official announcement on October 5. The Dalai Lama was cited for his nonviolent struggle for the liberation of his people and for his philosophy of peace, based on "a great reverence for all things living and upon the concept of universal responsibility embracing all mankind as well as nature."

As was expected, the Chinese denounced the Nobel Committee, claiming interference in their internal affairs, and they attacked the Dalai Lama as "a political figure" who was seeking "to divide the mother country." To many in the Western media the political implications were more noteworthy than the award itself. Some called it a response to the events of Tiananmen Square, a slap in the face to China.

To the Dalai Lama the prize was something different. In his acceptance speech at Oslo, he declared, "I believe the prize is a recognition of the true value of altruism, love, compassion, and nonviolence which I try to practice, in accordance with the teachings of the Buddha and the great sages of India and Tibet." He went on to say, "The prize reaffirms our conviction that with truth, courage, and determination as our weapons, Tibet will be liberated."

He referred to his peace plan but spoke at greater length of his Buddhist philosophy of life. "Everyone can develop a good heart and a sense of universal responsibility with or without religion," he said. All religions pursue the same goals, "that of cultivating human goodness and bringing happiness to all human beings," and there is no contradiction between religion and science. At Newport Beach he made the remarkable statement that if Buddhism were to be found inconsistent with the findings of science, then Buddhism should change.

Optimistic as always, he declared "that the ancient values that have sustained mankind are today reaffirming themselves to prepare us for a kinder, happier twenty-first century."

At the press conference held in Oslo after he received the Peace Prize, the Dalai Lama was at his best, informal and buoyant. When asked whether he had ever considered that the search party for the Dalai Lama might have made a mistake, he replied with a smile, "Well, I think I have achieved something in the last forty years. If I am the wrong Dalai Lama, perhaps it doesn't matter."

What about the government officials who will not receive him? He is not troubled: "The politicians change; the Dalai Lama remains." He thinks that in China the present generation of leaders will pass on, and within five to ten years he will be able to negotiate with the next leaders. He has met with Chinese students who have fled abroad and is convinced that China cannot escape the spirit of freedom sweeping many parts of the world.

Whether the wrong Dalai Lama or not, he is a most remarkable human being. It has been said that there is sad irony in the fact that the Dalai Lama would probably not have received the Nobel Peace Prize if it had not been for the Chinese invasion of Tibet. There is greater irony in the fact that after his forced departure from Tibet he became a very different person from the remote priestly figure perched high in his palace of Potala, surrounded by lamas and aristocrats and seen by ordinary mortals only in ceremonial processions. In the past thirty years he has lived in the midst of his people at Dharmsala, and in his travels he has seen the world. His insistent inquisitiveness has led him to probe scientific theories, to confer with other religious leaders, to study democracy, and to learn how to become a practitioner of international diplomacy. Yet, he has remained "a simple Buddhist monk" in the dedicated practice of his religion.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee has done well in awarding the Dalai Lama the Peace Prize. There can be no real peace when human rights are trampled, and it is now far less likely that the cause of Tibet will be forgotten or dismissed as an internal affair of China. But this prize has also emphasized that true peace must have a spiritual foundation, and it has turned our attention to the Dalai Lama's message of love and compassion. If we can harken to this message, it will be in the realm of the spirit that the Dalai Lama will make his most enduring contribution to the peace of the world.

Copyright 1989 by Irwin Abrams. All rights reserved.