Chapter 4

An epic nonviolent yarn

Dusk was falling as the march neared the outskirts of Mandi, where traffic on the road was growing denser. They were not the only ones walking—small knots of men and women carrying statues came by in the opposite direction.

“Shivaratri Fair,” one of the DL’s aides was explaining. “They call Mandi the ‘Benares of the Hills.’ The Hindus have 80 or 90 different temples up here, each with its own cult. And once a year all the idols have to go visit the Madho Rai temple and bow down to Vishnu—he’s a gold Vishnu. And then they all come to the fairgrounds, and it’s a eight-day party, at the Paddal, where the Beas and the Suketri flow together. There are people from all over the Kangra. From the Punjab even.”

As he talked twenty long-haired men, stripped to the waist even in the chill, strode by, carrying a spangled deity on a pair of poles on their shoulders. The statue showed a woman with a crescent moon resting on her hair, in her raised right hand a club.

“Is that Devi Baglamukhi,” the DL asked one of the men.

“Yes,” he said as he hurried by. “From the temple at Bankhandi.”

“A very interesting deity,” the DL said to Loksak, who had taken the flag from him for the evening. “You see that with her left hand she is pulling out the tongue of that demon?” he asked. “She has the power to silence anyone. She is very powerful. She can turn each thing into its opposite—power into weakness, defeat into victory. Or to say it another way, she can see the victory hidden inside defeat. She understands that things are not what they seem.”

“But we are Buddhists, and she is Hindu,” said Lopsak.

“True,” said the DL. “But Buddhism and Hinduism are neighbors. And since you are a rapper musician, you should be very careful of anyone who can pull your tongue out.”

Their small party reached a guesthouse owned by a Tibetan exile—prayer flags hung in the evening air from the balconies of the two-story brick building. Word had clearly spread about their approach; a dozen people were lined up outside the door, most holding white katha scarfs to be blessed.

The first, owner of the house, murmured his greeting, bowing. “Your holiness, we welcome you.” Second and third in line were two old women, each too overcome to speak, trying to prostrate themselves. The DL pulled each one up, clasping both their hands in his, and to each spoke a short blessing.

The fourth greeter, a young man with a scratchy beard, held out the white katha in both hands, but as the monk approached he let the scarf drop. And in his right hand was a dull-gray pistol which he pointed at the DL’s chest.

“Your Holiness, I’m going to kill you,” he blurted.

“Okay,” said the Dalai Lama, who stood still, save for holding up his left hand to restrain Lopsak, who was starting to move toward them.

“I’m going to kill you because . . . you’re betraying Tibet,” the young man said, sounding less defiant with every syllable.

“That’s okay.”

The young man stood there, arm outstretched, for a few seconds, and then slowly started to droop. “I can’t,” he said. “I can’t.”

“That’s okay,” said the Dalai Lama, and he took the gun from his hand.

“Don’t be ashamed. It’s hard for a Tibetan to kill the Dalai Lama. But I could do it.” He pointed the gun at his temple and smiled. “Let’s go inside and talk. And if, after we talk, you still think it would be better if I were dead then I will do it for you. Okay? Lopsak, help us here.”

The caterer’s assistant, and another young monk, half-carried the young man—who had gone nearly limp—into the guesthouse. The formal front room was lit by candles on an altar at its end, an altar with a golden Buddha statue, a photo of the Dalai Lama as a younger man, and another of the 10th Karmapa. They sat in the flickering light, the would-be assassin slumped at the end of a bench across from the DL, who was still holding the pistol—holding it in both hands as if he’d just gotten it as a gift.

“So tell me again why you wanted to kill me,” he asked, but the boy—in the light it was clear how scratchy his beard really was—just stared.

“Well then, tell me where your parents were from in Tibet,” he said. “My grandparents. Chamdo. They left when they were young,” he said. “Chamdo,” the Dalai Lama said, and waited. When the boy stayed silent, the DL said, “I’ve always wanted to land at the airport the Chinese built at Chamdo. They say it is the highest in the world. The runway is miles long, because there’s so little air pressure to slow the plane.”

“Why weren’t you even scared when I was going to shoot you?” the boy said suddenly, speaking in a rush.

“Actually, I was a little scared—I’m an ordinary monk,” the Dalai Lama said. “But monks spend a long time meditating every day. I get up at 3 in the morning to meditate. And do you know what we spend a long time meditating about, maybe more than anything else? About dying. Here’s what I think about it: Everyone will die, and only the time of death is unpredictable. Not a single individual will avoid death. We cannot hide in the mountains, or deep in the sea. It doesn’t matter how brave we are, death will find us. Most of us accept that, but since we don’t know when it will come we tend to think of it always as some ways off. If we think about it we know it gets closer all the time— years are consumed by months, months are consumed by days, and the day is consumed by hours. Our lives are a few hours shorter now than they were at lunch today.

“It could happen at any time. The body is like a machine, and machines can break. Our heart has to beat many times every minute, and it could always just stop. Mine almost did when I saw this gun.

“But if you have made your mind familiar with this process, at the time of death when it actually takes place you will be able to handle it, and you will face death contentedly. Or so is the theory. I am grateful to you for letting me find out that I need a little more meditation, because part of me was very scared.”

The boy was more alert now, his posture straightening. “I was going to kill you because they said you were going to surrender to the Chinese. We must fight the Chinese.”

“Many people, maybe most people, will agree with you,” said the DL, still holding the gun. “People have an idea about the proper way to fight, usually with a gun. They’ve seen that’s that how the Chinese fight, when they shoot monks or burn monasteries. At Chamdo, in the 1950s, they fought the Tibet Army and they won. I think that is probably when your grandparents came to India.

“But if you are going to fight, maybe it is not the best idea to choose the weapon of the other side. The People’s Liberation Army has two and a half million soldiers, the biggest military force in the world. There are three million Tibetans in Tibet, maybe. If each Chinese soldier shot just one Tibetan, there would be almost none of us left. I am not a gambler but even if I were those do not seem like good odds to me. So maybe I have given up, at least on the idea that we can tell the Chinese what to do. If you take a gun like this and sneak across the border and kill a few of their soldiers, they will kill far more Tibetans. That is the kind of trouble they are good at handling.”

“So you’re surrendering?”

“I’m walking back. I don’t know what will come of it. Not a Tibet free from the Chinese. But maybe they will have to react somehow. It’s like throwing a rock in the pond—where it was smooth before now there are ripples heading out. You don’t know what they will stir up. Maybe nothing, except an old man walking. You’re welcome to come.”

“Me? I was going to shoot you.”

“Well, that’s one way to look at it. Another way is, you didn’t shoot me. You saved my life, which leaves a good karmic imprint. Assuming you don’t want me to shoot myself now. Since you saved my life, you could be a bodyguard if you wanted. Not with a gun, just your body. Bodyguard! By the way, have you ever actually shot this?”

“Only this afternoon when he—when I was practicing. It shoots six times.” “I’ve never shot a gun. Do you mind if we try?”

In the road outside the Shivaratri fair was in full swing—out front pickup trucks tooled slowly down the road, pulling statues of deities: many with amplifiers blasting chants as devotees danced behind. Dev Kamrunag from the high lake, Jhathi Vir. In the back yard of the guesthouse the owner set up a row of bottles on a wall, and the small huddle of monks gathered about thirty yards way. The kick of the small pistol surprised His Holiness, and the first shot missed right by feet. But he compensated, and the last bullet cracked the center bottle. “Fun!”