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His Holiness and I

Toronto Star, December 05, 2004

Toronto, Canada -- It can't have been a pretty moment when Victor Chan phoned his wife on Bowen Island in B.C. and said, sorry, "I'm not coming home for a while. I'm going to France with the Dalai Lama."

Oh, and Hungary, the Czech Republic and Northern Ireland, too.

Chan is, in his own words, a Dalai Lama fanatic.

"Instead of being a doctor or a dentist like my two brothers, I was much more focused on the Dalai Lama," says Chan. "I was doing things that were very unconventional for someone brought up in Hong Kong. I don't know of any Chinese in the last three decades having this intimate relationship with the Dalai Lama and Tibet."

Over five years, Chan joined the Dalai Lama on his worldwide tours. He attached himself to the Dalai Lama's household in Dharamsala, India, home to the Tibetan government in exile. He interviewed him for several hours a day for weeks at a time and was given unusual access, which has led to a book, The Wisdom of Forgiveness ? Intimate Conversations and Journeys. The Dalai Lama is listed as co-author.

"I was part of his entourage, on his private plane. He took me to restaurants in Prague, he introduced me to Vaclav Havel, he allowed me to spend time with him in his home, not only the audience room, but in his bedroom and his meditation room. I was there when he got up in the morning, when he was having his breakfast; I was privy to his meetings with remarkable people such as Desmond Tutu."

There were celebrity visits, too, from Jet Li, Pierce Brosnan, Sharon Stone and, of course, Richard Gere, who has been practising Tibetan Buddhism for decades.

And what is with the Dalai Lama and celebrities? "I asked him that, too," says Chan. "He says Hollywood stars have the same needs as everyone, they have the need to achieve meaningful happiness, too. He does not refuse anyone, a movie star or beggar, but movie stars have means to get a message through to arrange an audience, which is much more difficult for ordinary people."

The relationship started 30 years ago when Chan, with a waist-length ponytail and fu-Manchu goatee, tight velvet trousers and romantic black cape, met the Dalai Lama while travelling in India.

After that, something took hold of Chan, who travelled to Tibet 11 times in the 1980s researching his first book, a 1,100-page guide to Tibetan pilgrimage sites. He also earned a reputation as a modern adventurer, cycling across the Himalayas from Kathmandu to Lhasa, all of which seems strikingly improbable for the quiet-spoken, precise, academic-looking man with horn-rimmed glasses sitting in the very posh restaurant at the King Edward Hotel. It's a look better suited to his current role as a researcher at the Institute for Asian Research at the University of British Columbia.

Despite his morning walks in the Dalai Lama's garden, the esoteric conversations on compassion and forgiveness, and only a 10-year age difference, the 59-year-old Chan, who organized the Dalai Lama's visit to Vancouver this year, admits to a childlike skittishness around the Tibetan leader.

"I feel like a schoolboy of 8 or 9 sitting across from a professor emeritus. I feel awkward and tongue-tied. Every time I see him my heart starts to palpitate."

Despite this, he says, the Dalai Lama was comfortable enough with him to reveal some of his spiritual practices, and allow Chan to film his morning meditation. The camcorder, which was new and worked perfectly well before and after the filming, failed when the Dalai Lama began meditating.

"I don't want to give a mystical spin to it. I'm saying it was a malfunction."

And Chan felt comfortable enough to tell the Dalai Lama he has to exercise more. "I'm really concerned about him sitting around too much. He's driven everywhere when he's on tour, then he's giving talks. His aerobic quotient is non-existent."

The Dalai Lama told Chan he agreed to let him into his daily life because he feels a karmic link between the two, a past-life connection.

Chan's Chinese background was also significant in their relationship. "It's very important (for) ... one single Chinese to have close contact and better understanding of Tibetans," the Dalai Lama told the Palm Beach Post in September, when Chan flew to Florida to meet the Tibetan leader and hear firsthand his impression of the book.

He was told the Dalai Lama couldn't put it down.

The Dalai Lama also said Chan's "strong emotions" revealed that he was sincere.

"Heart, sincerity, that's important. Not important is being poor, education, believers, non-believers, the president, beggars, no difference," the Dalai Lama said.

The Dalai Lama fled Tibet in 1959 after the Chinese invaded and occupied the country. In the intervening decades, Buddhist monasteries have been levelled and monks murdered. The Dalai Lama has proposed a middle path, allowing for Tibet's autonomy within China, and has spoken repeatedly about forgiving his enemies, especially the Chinese.

Tibetans and their supporters have been holding weekend candlelight vigils outside the Chinese consulate on St. George St. this month and next weekend, to draw attention to the execution order facing Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, a Buddhist monk active in preserving Tibetan culture. Several human rights organizations are advocating for his release.

Chan's own religious background is mixed. His father was a Christian and Freemason who later embraced Mormonism. His mother practised a kind of folkloric Buddhism, and Chan was educated in an Anglican school in Hong Kong. He came to Canada in his 20s.

And how has he changed after these years of pursuing the Dalai Lama? "He emphasizes motivation. Everything we do we should always look inward and be brutally honest about our motivation. I can be nice to you because my ulterior motive is I want you to write about me and my book. Is that harmful?

"I've learned to be quite honest with myself so I do not harm other people."

And what about Chan's wife ? it's tempting to add long-suffering ? who was at home with their two daughters?

"My association with the Dalai Lama has made me more appreciative of her gentleness and kindness and selflessness. I cherish the fact that I have a spouse whose innate makeup echoes the best aspects of the Dalai Lama."



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