27 December 2023

Buddhism as soft power and the gift of the Dalai Lama’s presence

Dalai Lama constantly thanks India for hosting him as its longest staying guest

It’s truly heartwarming to see the Dalai Lama’s recent visit to the state of Sikkim after 13 long years. As the sister of the Dalai Lama, Jetsun Pema, recounts in her autobiography, Tibet: My Story, long before their coming into exile in 1959, many Tibetans – including her – made their way through the beautiful Chumbi Valley, into Gangtok, Sikkim, to enroll in Indian mission schools. They routinely travelled for trade to Kalimpong and Darjeeling, and further afield to Bodhgaya and other sacred Buddhist pilgrimage sites too.

The Chogyal of Sikkim donated the land on which the Namgyal Institute of Tibetology was built, with the Dalai Lama laying its foundation stone on 10 February 1957, when he visited India for the 2500th Buddha Jayanti celebrations, and with its eminent former director, the late Tashi Densapa Rinpoche, being a lifelong friend of the Dalai Lama.

The eldest brother of the Dalai Lama, Gyalo Thondup, who met with the Dalai Lama in Gangtok on his recent trip, retired in the region after playing a fascinating role in the resistance movement in the aftermath of Tibet’s invasion by the Chinese and memorably titled his autobiography, The Noodle-Maker of Kalimpong: The Untold Story of my Struggle for Tibet.

This long personal history of the Dalai Lama’s own family with Sikkim, both before and after its accession into India in 1975, encapsulates the rich and intertwined religious, linguistic and cultural identity and natural affinity of the peoples of the Tibetan plateau and the Himalayan region, that transcends the borders of nation states.

Accounts of this organic and easy trans-Himalayan relationship- of families, teachers, reincarnate lamas, goods, manuscripts, ideas and much more- are to be found in countless arresting histories across the centuries. To name an outstanding few in contemporary times, Tibetan Caravans: Journeys from Leh to Lhasa, Abdul Wahid Radhu’s memoir, recounts their family’s ancestral honour in leading biannual caravans of offerings by Ladakhi Kings to the Dalai Lamas of Tibet.

Likewise, the life stories of Bakula Rinpoche of Ladakh or Khunnu Lama Rinpoche of Kinnaur, both of whom spent years studying in the scholastic monasteries of Tibet, moving back and forth between India and Tibet at whim, and in the case of Bakula Rinpoche, going on to play key roles in the Buddhist renaissance of Mongolia, as well as recalibrating Ladakh’s identity with demands to recognise Bhoti as an official language of India. Indeed, the 6th Dalai Lama, Tsangyang Gyatso, even chose to be born in Arunachal Pradesh.

The present Dalai Lama is constantly thanking India, for hosting him as its longest staying official guest since 1959, and for all the country has done for Tibetans in exile. This says a lot about his graciousness and humility, for in actual fact, it’s his presence in the country that has truly resurrected in contemporary times its standing as the land of the Buddha Shakyamuni and the origin of Buddhism at an international level, while also rejuvenating the practice of Buddhist belief in the entire Himalayan region, towards a more engaged study and sophisticated understanding of its philosophy as opposed to mere ritual and dogma.

As I write this, the International Buddhist Confederation is inaugurating the first International Sangha Forum 2023 in Bodhgaya, a 3-day summit of global Buddhist leaders, wherein the Dalai Lama is the most distinguished delegate from India to co-initiate and grace the event. Buddhist sangha from countries practicing both Pali and Sanskrit traditions have gathered in large numbers, as they do annually for the Dalai Lama’s many teachings in Dharamshala and elsewhere.

On a trip to Ladakh in August this year, it was eye opening to see firsthand the widespread reverence the Dalai Lama generates in the local populace, Buddhist as well as non-Buddhist (space forbids me from elaborating on the latter). This manifested in the Dalai Lama’s smiling visage gracing the altars of hotels and homestays throughout Leh; vast numbers, including the striking Aryan peoples with their headdresses of potted flowers, turning up from far afield for his teachings; and those from the region of Sham insisting he visit their area to bless it, as he had previously blessed all other areas, and whom he subsequently obliged.

Indeed, such is the devotion for the Dalai Lama in Ladakh, that it naturally flows down to other eminent Tibetan Buddhist teachers, such as the young charismatic Kundeling Rinpoche, whose visits to Saspol, Nyemo and Phey at the tail end of his visit across the union territory I personally witnessed and which each saw the entire village turnout. Sitting in Delhi, one is apt to be misled at times by cynical accounts of lone individuals with petty local axes to grind, that sectarianism is what moves the people, when this is patently not the case on the ground.

Likewise, the Himalayan border states of Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh have seen vast numbers of devotees, including their topmost leadership, eagerly awaiting and in attendance for any visit, past or present, by the Dalai Lama, attesting to the age-old interdependent history of the Tibetan plateau and the Indian Himalayan belt.

India is facing increasingly open aggression from China, with bold incursions in recent years in Ladakh, but also, in its encircling the country with its conditional loans and/or BRI initiatives in our neighbourhood of Nepal, Bhutan, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Within its own borders, it is seeking to build civilian and military infrastructure right up to boundaries with India, as also dumping its cheaply-produced goods in our markets, including especially of our peripheral geographies, such as in Gangtok.

Extending its soft power influence via the claiming and ownership of Buddhism is at the top of its agenda, too, but this is where India has the great advantage of, and must consciously claim, the bulwark of His Holiness the Dalai Lama as its jewel in the crown. Prime Minister Modi took great pride in showcasing the backdrop of the Nalanda University ruins at the G20 inaugural meet of world leaders. India has its greatest living proponent in the personhood of the Dalai Lama, whose reputation and influence extend not only in the west and the entire Himalayan belt, but also, in contemporary Mongolia, Kalmykia and broader Russia, as well as Taiwan.

India would do well to make the best strategic use of his presence at a time when China’s economy is floundering and Ji Xinping’s grip on power appears to be running into serious domestic challenges. Amending President Kennedy’s famous words in his inaugural address of 1961, “And so, my fellow Indians: ask not what India can do for the Dalai Lama (and Tibet); ask what he can do for India”. There’s never been higher stakes nor a better time to do so in international geopolitics!

Originally Published in The Week on 21 December 2023