Indian American examines Dalai Lama as man, monk and mystic

IANS, February 19, 2007

New York, USA -- Indian American author Mayank Chhaya, who has written a biography of the Dalai Lama, wears his iconoclasm on his sleeve. Recently he floored a group of MIT students with the remark, 'I have rejected even nihilism'.

Yet Chhaya's cynical detachment, seldom concealed, has stood him in good stead as an author. He has written two biographies - the most recent one an authorised biography of Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama. An earlier biography of technology evangelist Sam Pitroda was a bestseller in India.

'Man, monk, mystic' will be published in India this month, followed in March by releases in the US, Australia, Brazil, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Taiwan and Russia. Random House is the US publisher.

Chronicling the life of a spiritual head can be akin to walking on eggshells. But reviewers have been fulsome in their approval.

'The end product is balanced - neither debunking nor hagiographic, but taking a Buddhist-style Middle Way toward its subject, even though the author is not himself a Buddhist,' said the bible of the publishing industry, Publishers Weekly, in a starred review.

Booklist noted 'Chhaya carefully presents diverse viewpoints of the Tibet-China conflict while simultaneously drawing an insightful portrait of this enigmatic personage.'

Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu has called the book an 'engaging portrait'.

'Here was this exotic man the world had come to know about,' said Chhaya of his first interaction with the Dalai Lama in 1997, 'but there was no biography of his that would make him accessible to the uninitiated reader. I wanted to know the man behind the persona.'

What followed was two years of extensive interviewing, during which Chhaya spent several hours with the Dalai Lama in one-on-one meetings. 'We talked about everything - from the Tibetan problem to his Nobel Prize, to his views on celibacy and sexuality,' Chhaya told IANS.

The greatest aspect of the Dalai Lama's personality, said Chhaya, is his ability to reach out to everyone.

'What is most striking about him is his sense of familiarity in any surrounding, and his ability to reach out to anyone without any intermediary. If I had to describe him in one sentence, I would say he is deceptively profound with a charming sense of humour.'

Over the years, the Dalai Lama has become a larger than life figure. Several books have been written about him, including his autobiography 'Freedom in exile'.

In 1999, legendary director Martin Scorsese made a film on him - 'In search of Kundun' - and this year has seen the release of another documentary 'Dalai Lama Renaissance' with a narration by actor Harrison Ford.

Nevertheless, Chhaya said his book brought a unique perspective. 'What differentiates this book from others is that it attempts to look at the person of the Dalai Lama from three vantage points - of man, monk and mystic. It attempts to bring this fascinating figure of historic proportions within the grasp of the uninitiated reader,' Chhaya said.

'I believe this is the first definitive biography of the Dalai Lama's life in exile which also puts the Tibetan cause within a modern context and tries to assess its future in the context of the new geo-political realities. The book attempts to make the highly complex issue of Tibet accessible to those who do not generally evince an interest in history,' he explained.

Besides interviewing him, Chhaya followed the Dalai Lama's lectures whenever he could. 'His stature has only grown. If earlier there were hundreds attending his lectures, now you have to book a stadium. He has emerged as the world's conscience-keeper,' he said.

Despite numerous films on the spiritual leader, Chhaya is not quite convinced if any of them catches the essence of his persona.

'Many of them manage to capture the quintessence, but it is possible that many of them employ cinematic devices to dramatise certain events. The fact that the Dalai Lama's life has been so intrinsically dramatic lends itself to great cinema. I do not recall having seen anything that captures his incredible life so far in a manner of great cinema,' he said.

Many young Tibetans today do not see eye to eye with their leader on the wisdom of the 'middle path', Chhaya said. 'Many young Tibetan exiles, who were born outside Tibet and have not experienced the kind of hardship and struggle that the older generation has had to endure, display impatience with the Dalai Lama's non-violent middle path approach,' the author noted.

'Although they uniformly respect the Dalai Lama, they believe in some sort of armed uprising. The Dalai Lama has been steadfast in his resolve against any form of violence because he sees the middle path as the only way out.'

The Dalai Lama has also, rather surprisingly, described himself as a half Marxist, half Buddhist. 'His fascination with Marxism stemmed from the fact that as a philosophy, it sought equality and justice for all. In that sense it is very similar to Buddhism,' said Chhaya.

Even to those who are not his followers, there is no denying the Dalai Lama's personal magnetism that Chhaya can attest to. 'Call it charisma, call it glow, but the man stands out. One can see why people are so taken up with him.'
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