Sociologist Renuka Singh of Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University recently described the Dalai Lama as 'Avalokiteshvara' - the embodiment of compassion in the present era. This was on the occasion of the Asia premiere of the film 'Impermanence' in New Delhi. And indeed, the Dalai Lama's twinkling eyes and spontaneous childlike smile reached out with a very special message to each person in the audience.
The film was first released to packed halls at the Venice film festival in September 2004. 'Impermanence' is about the relevance of genuine non-violence in today's world. It is a journey into the world of Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama: taking us through his birth in a tiny rugged village of Amdo province, to the magnificent Potala palace in Lhasa, subsequent repression by the Chinese army, the flight to India, and his ongoing struggle for the survival of Tibetan identity and culture. In his life, the Dalai Lama has witnessed dramatic changes - providing ample opportunity for absorbing the Buddhist philosophy of 'universal flux'.
Sergei Scapaginini, Italian producer of the film, noted that the film was 10 years in the making. "We had the footage, the crew, the funds, there was no problem," he said. "Then why did it take so long to make? It took so long because it required a process of inner growth for us... My life was transformed by the making of this film."
Goutam Ghose, Director of `Impermanence', shared some of his experiences. "Travelling through Tibet, wherever I went, I received smiles, smiles and smiles. I tried to understand the people, their thoughts and traditions. The search took me to the study of Buddhism - Tibetan texts, Nagarjuna.... It took a long time. Then one day I was ready to edit the film.... It is a film about saving the planet through our actions."
The film communicates the living tradition of Tibetan Buddhism as it shines through ordinary village people, the monks and the Dalai Lama. "Hatred, cravings and ignorance are the root cause of all ailments, whether physical, mental or emotional," explains an elderly Tibetan doctor in the film. The modern world, while advanced in science and technology, is still plagued by ailments, just as traditional societies were. The difference is that in developed societies "instead of waterborne diseases, we find stress-related illnesses".
In keeping with his image as a practical, contemporary philosopher, the Dalai Lama notes in his book, `Ancient Wisdom, Modern World: Ethics for A New Millennium', which conveys the essence of his philosophy in lucid prose: "We must be careful not to idealize the old ways of life...At the same time, I think it is genuinely true that members of certain traditional, rural communities do enjoy greater harmony and tranquility than those settled in our modern cities.
"For example, in the Spiti area of northern India, it remains the custom for locals not to lock their houses when they go out. By contrast, in some modern cities, it is a remarkable event if a day goes by when there is not a murder... The challenge we face is to find a means of enjoying the same degree of harmony and tranquility as that of more traditional communities whilst participating fully in the realities of the world as we find it."
The film indicates that the material poverty of ordinary Tibetans laid the grounds for communist takeover in the 1950s. The Dalai Lama tried to work along with the Chinese, but the Tibetan people refused to accept the rule of China. Spectacular footage of people's rebellions, and brutal repression waged by the Chinese army, bring history alive for viewers. (The unsuccessful uprising in Lhasa left more than 100,000 Tibetans dead). The subsequent exile in India - the original land of the Buddha - is one of the abiding paradoxes of our age. Tibetan culture is surviving outside Tibet, and the struggle to free the land has taken on worldwide dimensions.
Speaking after the film show, the Dalai Lama pointed out that Tibetans are still very poor materially. Yet, he added, "I am proud to be Tibetan." He wants improvement in the general standard of living, but also recognizes the underlying strength of people's beliefs and traditions. The Tibetan tradition respects nature and the equal humanity of each person.
The Tibetan struggle is an important experiment on the world stage. As a non-violent struggle of a people in exile, it is unprecedented. It is a struggle against a regime that can be brutally violent. The Chinese judiciary had, for instance, sentenced a Tibetan monk, Tenzin Deleg Rinpoche, to death for alleged activities against the Chinese State. His colleague Lobsang Dondup was executed in January 2003. Under pressure from international human rights groups, the death sentence for Tenzin Deleg has recently (January 2005) been commuted to life imprisonment.
Against such brutality, the Tibetan struggle has staked a claim to autonomy and self-determination. In recent years, China too has realized that for worldwide acceptance as a trading giant it needs to check its human rights and religious freedom abuses. Since 2002, the Dalai Lama's emissaries have held talks with the Chinese government, demanding that Tibet be an autonomous province within the Chinese nation. A section of Tibetans, including many young people like Tenzin Tsundue - a Tibetan poet and the General Secretary of Friends of Tibet (India), who recently demonstrated during Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao's visit to Bangalore - are critical of this move.
But the Dalai Lama sees this as the only way to save Tibetan culture and identity. His strategies seem to arise from a deep consideration of human nature as well as the realities of today's world. Partly it is a question of realpolitik: the military might of the Chinese is a reality that cannot be wished away. At the same time, the decision to follow the 'middle path' rather than take up extreme, rigid positions has a philosophical basis. The Dalai Lama suggests that rather than see others as enemies, we must try to see them as our friends. In this way we would develop mutual respect and understanding, and clear the path to world peace and disarmament, social and political justice.
"This is not a matter for complicated theorizing," he explains in `Ancient Wisdom, Modern World'. "It is a matter of common sense. There is no denying that our happiness is inextricably bound with the happiness of others. There is no denying that if society suffers we ourselves suffer. Nor is there denying that the more our hearts and minds are afflicted with ill will, the more miserable we become... We can reject everything else: religion, ideology, all received wisdom. But we cannot escape the necessity of love and compassion. This is my true religion, my simple faith."