By Mayank Chhaya-
July 6 marks the 88th birthday of the 14th Dalai Lama. The following are excerpts from an authorized biography of his written by Mayank Chhaya. It was first published in 2007 in the U.S. by Doubleday and then in close to 25 languages worldwide.
Thick and dark clouds swirled around Mount Kyeri towering over a large valley before dawn came upon Taktser village in Amdo region in northeastern Tibet. The recurring thunder and lightning added to the austere magnetism of the Kyeri, which was worshiped by 400-some people of Takster as the abode of their protecting deity Kye.
It was too early in the day to wake up but some miles away, inside a mudbrick house a woman in her early 20s was awakened by the impending thunderstorm. She lay on her stone bed next to her husband, Choekyang Tsering, for a while. She gently massaged her pregnant belly and smiled to herself. Something told her a momentous birth was imminent, but she did not quite know what that meant. She had gotten up and begun morning chores when she felt cramps in her stomach. She knew it was time but continued to work. Babies were nothing new in her life. The one about to be born was her ninth child, and in all, she would have sixteen children. Only seven of them would live.
She went to the cow barn to tend her stock of six dzomos, a cross between a yak and a cow, some eighty sheep and goats, several chickens, and three horses. On the way she cleaned the gutter made from branches of juniper wood in preparation for the rain. Women in Takster, or for that matter anywhere in Tibet, did not let their pregnancies interfere with their daily life. Many of them delivered their babies by themselves. Prenatal care and midwives were unheard of. Allopathic doctors did not exist at all.
Takster, which in Tibetan means “Roaring Tiger”, is set amid rolling hills in the province of Amdo. The climate there had three fairly defined seasons. Summers were strong. Rains were relatively plentiful considering Tibet’s otherwise dry climate. Winters were particularly severe and brought inches of snow. Takster was atop a small hill that overlooked the valley where the pastures were generally not farmed. Nomads brought their herds there for grazing.
The month of July 1935 saw intermittent rains and some glorious rainbows. While children of Takster chased those elusive arches of seven colors, Sonam Tsomo clutched her stomach, once again massaged it, and sat down near a haystack. The dzomos chewed their cud and shook their heads, while chickens scampered near her as she prepared to deliver the baby. Half an hour later an eight-pound boy was born.
Two important details, which would be used much later to illustrate the boy’s high birth, were submerged in Sonam’s labor pains. Pains and pressures of childbirth in a society where medical help was non-existent, such details were not paid much attention, but some people in the family did subconsciously retain such details. The infant did not cry. And he came out with his eyes wide open. “My mother once told me after I was chosen as the Dalai Lama that she did not see any extraordinary signs that are supposed to attend the birth of a special child. I did not feel anything special either,” the Dalai Lama said. “I remember though that I was born with my eyes open, and I did not cry. It could be because I was already into my 14th incarnation and had developed clarity about life.”
Other signs that a momentous birth may have happened were reported but the Dalai Lama tends to be rather dismissive about them. His father Choekyang Tsering’s sudden recovery after weeks of illness was considered one such sign. He had been shunning work till the morning of July 6 when he awoke feeling fine and made offerings of butter lamps before a Buddha statue at the family altar. His wife bantered: “Were you ill or just lazy all these weeks?” Choekyang said in all earnestness that he had indeed been ill but that this morning he had felt “spontaneously cured.” A while later a neighbor from one of the 30-odd houses surrounding the family’s six-room cottage came running to the couple and informed them that a rainbow was touching the roof of their house.
The boy was named Lhamo Thondup, which meant “wish-fulfilling goddess.” “Gender was not very important when naming babies in Tibet. I was a man and yet they called me a she-god.” Some of the Dalai Lama’s earliest memories do not foreshadow the life ahead, and, if anything, they charmingly underline his keen sense of humor.
“There were no toilets in Tibet in those days. Nature’s calls were answered out in nature. I remember one day when I was two years old; I was sitting outside doing the big job as the Westerners call it. In the midst of it all I suddenly spotted a camel for the first time in my life. I was so scared that I ran home without finishing whatever it was that I was doing…It took my mother some time to clean me up. Some days later I was equally scared when a worm came out of me. Obviously, they did not deworm their children in those days.”
Lhamo’s father Choekyang was a man of medium height who was easily angered. He had a small farm and grew barley, buckwheat, and potatoes. He was nowhere near being called nobility, but he was not bonded to a master. The family led a fairly comfortable life.
Choekyang’s only regret about the boy who would be the Dalai Lama Vajradhara (the All Embracing Lama, Holder of the Thunderbolt) was that he did not share his father’s passion for horses. “My father could have spent his life talking about horses. He understood horses instinctively. I, on the other hand, was scared of them. He tried to introduce me to the joys of understanding this graceful animal but he could not.”
Choekyang treated Lhamo like any other ordinary child and occasionally spanked him. “Once I pulled his mustache while he was sleeping. He promptly slapped me.”
The Dalai Lama described his mother, Sonam as “one of the kindest people I ever knew.” He remembers a tragic story about a severe famine that hit China in the late 1930s.
“The famine had forced many Chinese families to leave their villages and look for livelihood elsewhere. I was told of a Chinese couple showing up near our house with a dead child in their arms. They were begging for food, which my mother gave them. She then asked them if they needed help to bury their dead child. They said no, adding that they would eat it. My mother was horrified to hear that. She called them inside and gave them our entire stock of grains and whatever else we had.
“I was very attached to my mother. I saw in her a woman of great strength and compassion who never complained no matter how hard her life became.”
[Excerpted from Mayank Chhaya’s ‘The Dénouement: The 14th Dalai Lama’s life of persistence’]
[Photo caption: The Dalai Lama cutting a cake to mark his 88th birthday on July 6 in McLeod Ganj in Himachal Pradesh, India. Photo: Tenzin Choejor]