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Things you didn't know about the Dalai Lama

In Divine Power: The Search for the Dalai Lama, Cambridge anthropologist David Sneath travels to the foothills of the Himalayas to meet the present Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, in his residence overlooking the plains of India. The programme examines the past, present and future of the institution of the Dalai Lama.

We take a look at the man behind those iconic spectacles. Here are eight things you might not know about the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people.

1. The Dalai Lama is 83 years old

The octogenarian monk celebrated his 83rd birthday on 6 July 2018, and he was recognised as the reincarnation of the previous Dalai Lama at the age of just two. That’s a long old stretch providing spiritual guidance and leadership!

2. Tenzin Gyatso is the 14th Dalai Lama

The present Dalai Lama is “the 14th reincarnation, in a lineage that stretches back to the 14th Century”, explains David Sneath. Although he recognises that he is not the same being as his predecessors, the Dalai Lama says, “certainly, I have some special connection, karmic connection with previous Dalai Lamas.”

Snow Leopard: His Holiness passionately supports the endangered cat

3. The Dalai Lama is a passionate environmentalist

The Dalai Lama has a wide range of interests – one of which is the environment – and he certainly provides a powerful mouthpiece for the causes he supports. Buddhist author and academic Robert Therman explains how during one televised teaching the Dalai Lama “mentioned that he felt sad when he saw… Tibetans wearing endangered snow leopard fur pieces on their hats… and immediately there were these huge bonfires all over Tibet burning stacks of expensive furs!”

Second sight: The Dalai Lama claims never to have seen a deity, but is not too bothered

4. He fights for the rights of women

The Dalai Lama has keenly promoted the right of nuns to take the Geshe (or Geshema) qualification, which David Sneath describes as “the religious equivalent of a PhD”, during which religious texts are studied for seventeen years. Thanks to his advocacy, the first cohort of nuns has recently qualified.

5. He gets up at 3.30am every morning

The Dalai Lama’s strict, spiritual regime as a simple Buddhist monk remains intact, even into his 80s. He wakes at around 3.30am everyday so he can squeeze in several hours of prayer and meditation. We wonder what time he goes to bed?

6. Unlike other Dalai Lamas before him, he doesn’t claim to have seen God

Many of the previous Dalai Lamas have claimed to have come face to face with deities, explains the spiritual leader. But he is not like his predecessors: they may have seen visions of gods, goddesses and Buddha, he says but “me, 14th Dalai Lama, nothing. But at the same time, I usually express I am most popular Dalai Lama!” He laughs. “So it doesn’t matter!”

7. He won a Nobel Peace Prize

The Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, in recognition of his nonviolent campaign to end China's domination of his homeland. He has consistently opposed the use of violence and been an advocate for peaceful solutions based upon tolerance and mutual respect.

8. He has a sterling sense of humour

The Dalai Lama is famed for his playful sense of humour, describing himself as a “professional laugher.” It is something he uses to his advantage, regularly and quickly winning over large crowds. He tries to introduce humour into every event he attends, and is rarely stiff and serious. In his words, “Everyone too much formal.”

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