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Tutu and the Lama

We all need a little lift and you can get one from BBC iPlayer (available abroad if you know how). For a week cameras followed Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama up in the Himalayan area given to Tibetans fleeing the Chinese invasion in 1959. The two men talked about joy and were joyful in one another’s company, the documentary also gives us glimpses into their formative pasts, a Buddhist Demi-god, a Christian leader, each bringing their different vantages to the jovial debate as they wander about the hill town of Dharmsala.

Camilla and I know Dharmsala quite well. In 2004 I was asked to write a book about the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Diaspora to accompany a film the Lama had asked an Indian friend of ours to make. The place is a delightful knit of forested ridges and vales to which the sprawling town clings and Tibetans of all ages are everywhere living their lives. Some have been there decades, others arrive from their beleaguered homeland almost daily. So strong was the Tibetan culture, you felt you were in their ancient land. You also felt their angst, their pain, their longing.

My only regret was that the renowned Indian documentary maker, though a good friend, refused to give me any introductions, saying, “Neither did I have any when I first went.” No, but suspicious doors that refused to budge for me opened for him because his father, the most recent king of a lineage older than Rome, who was also a humanist politician admired the world over, was a close friend of the Dalai Lama.

Interviewing dozens of traumatised children, I did manage to write a long children’s novel based upon their harrowing tales of escaping Tibet on foot. To help them assimilate their experiences, I freely donated this work to the chain of Tibetan schools, but their director was suspicious of my intent. Who can blame him - China continually harasses them with spies of all descriptions.

In response to suffering, dear old Desmond Tutu, a man who was constantly engaged in active charity, was emotional, warmly human. In contrast, the Dalai Lama’s undoubted compassion was abstract and remote, conditioned by decades of mediation distancing the observer from the observed. To the Buddhist suffering is a figment of the imagination, to be observed, not engaged with. To the Christian Tutu, engaging was vital, and that was why, in my late twenties, realising I’d become too detached, I turned from teaching Zen and Yogic meditation - to physically help others.

Tutu and the Lama were relaxed about death, which has now taken dear old Desmond Tutu and may soon rid us of the delightful Dalai Lama. Sooner than we release, any one of us could go, it is life, we are born, we die. I am convinced that our seeking ultimate (religious) answers to Life arose in response to the madness of our complex beings evaporating like mist - great characters suddenly nothing but empty bodies.

I know how I might fade - currently 14th infection, 14th antibiotic round in 17 months! One day this balance will tip. With each attack I’ve grown weaker, despite my effort to exercise and give my body the requisite strength.

Those two great leaders seemed not to be at all tense. They were content to be who they were and so they spread this outwards. I who have never been tense, now am due to my deep brain reacting to my traumas, I must relearn relaxation (amusing for a guy who wrote two de-stressing books). A decade ago, I put Buddhist thoughts into the mouth of a character in a novel set in the Himalayas - “Imagine how this world would be if we were all content with ourselves, if we could spread that love around us.” Tutu would add: “By caring for one another.”

find it on BBC iPlayer - Misson: Joy

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