Much like the Buddhist philosophy he expounds, the Dalai Lama is many different things to different people. To many Americans, he may only be known as the Asian guy who is friends with Richard Gere. To most Tibetans, however, he is an incarnation of Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara—enlightened beings who have delayed their own spiritual union with the supreme spirit in order to return and serve humanity. To the Chinese government, he is the demon rebel, standing between Communist China and the takeover of neighboring Tibet. In actuality, he is one of the greatest champions of mankind's precious right to live one's life according to one's own values and customs.
Tenzin Gyatso was born in 1935. He was taken from his parents to an ancient Buddhist monastery in Tibet where he was groomed for the role of Dalai Lama, the political and spiritual leader of Tibet. In 1950, the Chinese government invaded Tibet. Only 15 years old, the Dalai Lama and his aides tried to cooperate with the Communist invaders, but brutal acts of repression forced him to flee to Dharamsala, India, in 1959. He has lived in exile ever since.
For close to four decades, the Dalai Lama has traveled the world seeking help from the international political community to end the destruction of Tibet's culture by the occupying forces of China. This destruction, which has been likened to the Jewish Holocaust of W.W. II, has resulted in the razing of more than 6,000 temples and the deaths of at least one million Tibetans.
The Dalai Lama's activism has enlisted the support of groups as diverse as Amnesty International and Hollywood celebrities such as Harrison Ford. In 1989, the Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Prize for his commitment in furthering the causes of nonviolence and human rights.
After more than 50 years of hostile occupation by the Chinese, many aspects of Tibetan culture have been irretrievably lost. However, the work of the Dalai Lama has created a climate of hope in the high mountain country. Limited numbers of Tibetan pilgrims are allowed to visit the Dalai Lama in neighboring India and as long as the monks stay out of the political arena, Buddhist monasteries are largely left in peace. Still, as long as Tibet is denied independence, there will a great deal yet to accomplish before the Dalai Lama realizes a dream he once penned:
. . . of total freedom for all Tibet,
Which has been awaited for a long time,
to be spontaneously fulfilled;
Please grant soon the good fortune to enjoy
The happy celebration of spiritual with temporal rule.