THE REAL DALAI LAMA
The audience members wear a 'blindfold', a symbol of darkness and ignorance, during an initiation ceremony held by the Dalai Lama in New York in 2013. Robert Nickelsberg/Getty
The Dalai Lama sat backstage at a theatre in Rome last month, waiting to come on as the star attraction at the Summit of Nobel Peace Prize winners. He was flanked by two of Italy’s most senior politicians. There was time for a little small talk. Walter Veltroni, former mayor of Rome and candidate for prime minister, asked him how he coped with jet lag. Deploying his familiar syntax-free English, the Buddhist leader replied, “Travelling the world – time difference – no problem.” Then he moved on to more intimate matters. “But bowel movement does not obey my mind. But this morning – thanks to your blessings – after 7 o’clock – full evacuation. So now I am very comfortable.”
Bowel movements apart, this final fixture of 2014 had been clogged with problems. The Nobel summit is held in a different city every year, and, for months, preparations had been under way to stage it in Cape Town, marking the first death anniversary of the most feted of all the laureates, Nelson Mandela. The Dalai Lama, with his vast global popularity, would be the star turn – but, as the date approached, it emerged that the South African government of Jacob Zuma would not grant the Tibetan a visa.
Should the show go on without him? Supporters of the exiled lama said no: how could an event intended to celebrate the courage of the Nobel peace laureates fall into line with the cowardly action of a government being squeezed by China? Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama’s old friend and himself a laureate, fumed, “I am ashamed to call this lickspittle bunch my government”.
A new political party in the Tibetan diaspora, the Tibetan National Congress, took up the cause. “They swamped laureates with mails demanding the event’s cancellation,” said Dave Steward, executive director of South Africa’s FW de Klerk Foundation. Nine laureates and 11 affiliated organisations announced they were pulling out, forcing South Africa to concede defeat. At the 11th hour, however, Rome offered to host it instead.