The Vancouver Sun
Sat 03 Jan 2004
Page: E1 / Front
Section: Arts & Life
Byline: Daniel Wood
Source: Special to the Sun
The Dalai Lama and me: BUDDHISM I
It was by chance that Victor Chan became a close companion of His Holiness
photo by Susanne Martin
KABUL, Afghanistan It all beganas good stories often doin a preposterous way. It was late 1971. Hong Kong-born Victor Chan, who now resides on Bowen Island, was chatting with two young Western women in a teahouse just off Kabul's famous Chicken Street. It was the place every trans-Asian traveller stopped on the so-called Hippie Highway.
Two men sitting nearby invited the three foreigners to an Afghani banquet the following night and they naively accepted. The next evening, somewhere in the foothills of the Hindu Kush, a rifle was produced, rape discussed, and murder threatened, as the three captives rode with their kidnappers into the mountains. Days passed.
Under these circumstances, Chan, then 26, began a clandestine love affair with one of the women. Cheryl Crosby, a student of Buddhism in New York City, confided to him that she was on her way to India to visit the Dalai Lama. She had a letter of introduction.
Chan agreed that if they escaped their captors, he'd join her on her pilgrimage.
He didn't know much then about the exiled leader of Tibetan Buddhism, but he did know he'd fled his homeland after the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1959 and had settled in Dharmsala, in northern India, hoping one day he'd be allowed to return. He was still waiting.
On the fourth day of captivity, the kidnappers' car crashed on a snowy mountain road, and Chan and his two companions fled, uninjured.
Chan's first encounter with the Dalai Lama could not have been less auspicious. Inside His Holiness's modest compound, Chan's new girlfriend had prostrated herself before the Dalai Lama, while Chan stood stiffly, refusing to kowtow to the affable burgundy-robed man.
Chan saw the Dalai Lama's eyes settle on him, his expression one of bafflement: Chan was sporting a droopy Fu Manchu moustache and shoulder-length hair, and was dressed in voluminous black velvet Moroccan pants, a black silk shirt, and a swashbuckling, Zorro-like black cape from Spain.
"He tried to keep a straight face," Chan recalls today of the Dalai Lama's reaction. "But ... he couldn't stop giggling. He'd look away. Then look back. Every time he looked, he'd giggle again. I was put off! The Dalai Lama was laughing at me. I guess he'd never seen a Chinese hippie before."
For two weeks, Chan and Crosby explored Dharmsala, intoxicated by the Tibetan community and their exotic, transported culture. It was the first time he'd seen Buddhist prayer wheels and yaks and men in felt boots. It was the first time he'd encountered such warmth and welcoming from strangers. Everywhere he went, people smiled.
It never occurred to Chan that, from this unlikely beginning, he would end up dedicating much of his life to understanding the Tibetan people. Or that he would, in time, become a close and constant companion of the Dalai Lama. Or that he'd endeavour30 years laterto begin building a bridge between his own Chinese homeland and the Tibetan homeland the Dalai Lama had felt compelled to leave.
HONG KONG, CHINA
Chan was born in 1945, one of eight children raised by a well-off businessman and his two often-bickering wives. Like many educated Hong Kong adolescents, Chan immersed himself in the kung-fu fiction of Jin Yong, a famous Chinese writer. His books often featured Tibetan monks who had cultivated mystical powers through meditation and rigorous discipline. They could levitate. They could channel their psychic powers into their palms and then pulverize their enemies with a gentle touch.
Chan knew nothing about the reality of Tibet in the 1950s or about what was happening to the young Dalai Lama then. Tibet, to him, was a faraway land where monks meditated in mountaintop caves and men could fly.
The man the world knows as the Dalai Lama was born to poor peasant parents far from Lhasa in 1935. His name, at first, was Lomo Thondup.
When he was three, senior Buddhist monks from Lhasa became convincedfollowing oracles and visionsthat the farm boy was the reincarnation of the recently deceased 13th Dalai Lama. At age five, amid great pageantry, the boy was officially declared His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet. (The Tibetan words "Dalai Lama" translate as "ocean of wisdom.")
This meant he also became the political ruler of the isolated Himalayan theocracy and its six million Buddhists citizens. A regent was appointed to govern until he reached adulthood.
The Dalai Lama spent his youth in cloistered study: reading ancient Buddhist scripture, meditating, always seeking to understand the nature of enlightenment. Meanwhile, beyond the borders of Tibet, the Second World War raged, western colonialism began its slow collapse, and Chairman Mao and his People's Liberation Army (PLA) gained control of adjacent China.
In 1959, after almost a decade of threats, the PLA entered Tibet, declaring that China was simply reclaiming territory that had fallen from its control during the days of British imperialism 50 years earlier. Over 80,000 Tibetans died in the rebellion that followed the Chinese occupation. Another 80,000, including the Dalai Lama and his ecclesiastical entourage, made a perilous three-week trek through 6,000-metre high Himalayan passes southward to Dharmsala, India.
In the two decades that followed, thousands of Tibetan monasteries, temples and shrines were destroyed by the Chinese. In the face of this, the Dalai Lama rejected revenge or violence, calling instead for compassion for the people who had conquered his country.
After several years of travelling the world, Chan returned to Ottawa, where he'd earlier succumbed to what he calls "the elegance of physics" at Carleton University. After his travels in the Himalayas, he knew he didn't want to work in some radioactive dungeon, wearing a security badge, all his life. He wanted to be outdoors. Mountains thrilled him.
He had a gnawing sense that between his childhood training in calligraphy and tai chi in Hong Kong, and his later glimpse of the peaceful Tibetan Buddhists of Dharmsala, and his subsequent readings from Ram Dass on eastern philosophy, his future lay in Asia. While working as a bartender in a Japanese restaurant in Ottawa, he conceived a plan to write a book about the ancient Silk Road. With maternal financial support, Chan headed to Tibet and realized that, in some unfathomable way, he had come home.
In 1984, exactly 25 years after the Dalai Lama left, Chan found himself in a medieval country that in many ways had remained unchanged, despite the Chinese presence, for the last 1,000 years. On 11 trips during the next five years, Chan explored Tibet in a way few, if any, ever have. He covered 43,000 kilometres by foot, truck, bicycle and yak. He crossed 250 Himalayan passes, each more than 6,000 metres in elevation. He slept in Tibetan nomads' tents, gratefully accepting the peasants' meagre gifts of food and shelter. He climbed to remote Buddhist hermitages where monks meditated for years in frigid, high-altitude caves. He hiked to Mount Everestfrom the Tibetan side.
He is the first person to bicycle through the Himalayas from Kathmandu to Lhasa. And the first outsider to complete the three great multi-week Tibetan pilgrimages to Buddhism's sacred mountains.
"The place," he says of Tibet today, "is suffused with a spirituality that is practically tangible. It's profound. The landscape is primordial: stark deserts, the highest mountains in the world. The people are so gentle, so kind, so peaceful. Tibetans value life so much that they won't walk along a trail if they know worms are on it."
Wherever Chan went, the Dalai Lama's presence was nearby. Despite a quarter-century's absence, every Tibetan he met still revered the exiled leader, carrying his image on tattered cards in their pockets or praying before a faded photo of a youthful man who was, in fact, no longer young.
It bothered him deeply that, through all his travels in Tibet, most of the ancient sites the Buddhist texts described had, he found, been either looted or dynamited in the 20 years following the Chinese invasion. Many religious buildings had simply ceased to exist. Historians say the destruction was one of the greatest cultural calamities in history.
"It was heart-rending to see," Chan says. "I have a strong sense of my Chineseness. I decided I wanted to ameliorate the things we did." He decided he would, as a sort of gentle apology, write a book on Tibet.
He didn't know then that he had become, in an unplanned way, the Dalai Lama's eyes and ears on his homeland. Or that the two men's paths were beginning to converge.
The same year Chan left Tibet to begin his writing, the Dalai Lama was summoned to Stockholm to receive the 1989 Nobel Prize for Peace. It was given to him for his 30-year-long embrace of the principles of passive resistance and for his advocacy of non-violence in international affairs. In his acceptance speech, he said: "People inflict pain on others in the selfish pursuit of their happiness or satisfaction. Yet true happiness comes from a sense of brotherhood and sisterhood. We need to cultivate a universal responsibility for one another, and the planet we share."
In 1994, after five years of further research and writing in Europeand marriage to an East German woman, Susanne Martin, along the wayChan finished his incredibly detailed Tibet Handbook: A Pilgrimage Guide (Moon Travel Handbooks, 1,104 pages). When he read in a newspaper the Dalai Lama was in England, he went to his London hotel. At first, he hesitated at intruding on the famous man, but thenas His Holiness stepped into the elevatorChan summoned up his courage, held the doors apart momentarily, and said, "I have a book for you."
It had been 22 years since they'd last exchanged glances.
For several years in the mid-'90s, Chan toured North America, promoting his guidebook and talking about Tibet. In the back of his mind he began formulating an outrageous plan. It would be a book project so unusual, so unlikely that he half-feared proposing it to the Dalai Lama.
Then word reached Chan in his Bowen Island home that the Dalai Lama was coming to Bloomington, Ind., to officiate at the 1999 Kalachakra ceremony, the most important public ritual in Buddhism. The Dalai Lama was aware, said officials in Dharmsala, of Chan's efforts to inform the world about Tibet. Would Chan like an audience with His Holiness?
So Chan and his wife packed their two young daughters, Kira and Lina, into their 17- year-old Volkswagen van for a trip to the American Midwest. The beater broke down the first day. Chan tried to remain calm and Buddhistic, But he knew his plan was in jeopardy. He had to talk to the Dalai Lama.
Reluctantly, he informed his family that they'd have to return to Vancouver. The next morning, however, he turned the key one last time and, as he describes it, "the thing had healed itself." Five days later, they were in Bloomington.
The instant Chan saw the Dalai Lama, memories of their 1972 meeting rushed back to him, but he'd learned a few things about humility since then. He prostrated himself. So did his wife.
When Chan stood, he followed the Dalai Lama's gaze to where Chan's three-year-old daughter, Kira, remained prone on the floor, preparedit appearedfor nap time. The adults laughed.
While Kira slept in Susanne's arms, Chan described his travels in Tibet, his book promotion tour and the growing interest in Buddhist mysticism he'd observed in North America. When it came time to ask the big question, he was no longer shy. "Would you," he asked, "be interested in collaborating with me on a book?"
And Chan explained further: I want to demystify the man who's looked upon as a sort of devil in China and as a saint in the West. I want to convey an accurate picture of youthe real man. On a whole variety of issues. I want to shadow you. Describe your life. I want to be a fly on the wallwherever you go. This means not one interview but dozens. It will take years.
The Dalai Lama took only a second to respond: "Yes. Why not?"
Later, on reflection, he added with characteristic mischievousness: "The only place you can't follow me is to the toilet."
From the windows of the Dalai Lama's ridge-top stucco-and-glass residence, the world appears peaceful at dawn. The haze over the Kangra Valley turns purple; the silhouetted foothills of the Himalayas remain black.
It is to this building that Chan has come again and again over the last four years in a series of unprecedented sessions lasting two to three hours a day for periods of weeks. No one outside the Dalai Lama's staff has ever spent as much time with His Holiness as Chan.
As morning's light fills the Dalai Lama's meditation room, they may talk about anything under the sun: Saddam Hussein and the impossibility of true evil; the ways modern physics mirrors Buddhism; why Hollywood has become so interested in His Holiness; the importance of forgiveness in human affairs.
On other days there's a respectful silence between them and, says Chan, "I'm just a plant on the shelf."
He has been there when a refugee Buddhist monk, newly released from his Chinese imprisonment after years of starvation and torture in Tibet, was asked by the Dalai Lama, "What were you really afraid of?" The man replied, "What I was really afraid of was that I might lose my compassion for the Chinese."
He was there when actor Pierce Brosnan joined His Holiness on stage at a public event and squirmed cross-legged amid the gathered Buddhists. Brosnan later confessed to His Holiness that he was jet-lagged, the Himalayan air was too thin, and his knees and hips ached from injuries acquired while playing James Bond.
The thought that 007 was mortal amused the Dalai Lama. "So...," said the Dalai Lama teasingly to the action-star, "you didn't know coming to see me was your punishment!"
Whenever the Dalai Lama has travelled away from Dharmsala during those years, Chan has been his shadow. He has moved amid Hollywood celebrities like Richard Gere and Goldie Hawn; world leaders like Poland's Lech Walesa and the Czech Republic's former president, Vaclav Havel; a crowd of 75,000 last fall in New York City's Central Park, and a 2002 gathering with a half-dozen people blinded by bombs and rubber bullets in the Northern Ireland fighting.
It was in Belfast that Chan watched as the Dalai Lama took the hand of a blind man and said, "You can't see me, but you can feel me," then humbly conveyed the man's fingers to his shaved head and face.
He has seen the world's most famous boxer, Muhammad Ali, receive a goading punch on the chin from the world's least likely pugilist. He has witnessed South African Nobel peace laureate Desmond Tutu crawling around on the floor, pursued by a crawling, dog-like Dalai Lama as both growled and giggled hysterically.
Says Chan of the Dalai Lama: "He is so childlike in his laughter. In his curiosity. He gets excited about things most of us are too jaded to notice. He is really different.
"He has spent his whole life seeking happiness and enlightenment. He owns almost nothing: his robes and his rosaries. He lives very humbly. His needs are exceedingly simple. He doesn't care if he lives or dies. His every fibre is geared to: Can I help?
"He sees the world's violence and believes that Tibetans have something to show to the rest of the world. That universal kindness is the answer. If he were a billionaire, he'd give it all away. But he's not a billionaire. He knows that a kind word, a smilethis is what he has to give."
For the past year, Chan has been working in conjunction with Pitman Potter, director of UBC's Centre for Asian Studies, and the Vancouver Multi-Faith Action Society to organize what will be a major event. In mid-April, Nobel peace laureates Havel, Tutu and the Dalai Lama will be part a four-day international conference here called Educating the Heart. Its goal is to initiate development of a worldwide school curriculum aimed at countering the world's militarism with studies focused on the benefits of compassion, peacefulness, and respect toward all sentient things.
The conference will also launch fundraising for UBC's new Centre for Contemporary Tibetan Studies, a first in North America. It's Chan's hope that by bringing modern Chinese and Tibetan scholars together in Vancouver, the path to non-violent rapprochement between the two peoples can be found.
At the same time, all three Nobel laureates will receive honorary doctorates from both UBC and Simon Fraser University.
This fall, Chan's new book, currently titled The Laughter of the Caterpillar, will be published by Penguin. Among the 330 other books by or about the Dalai Lama, it will be the first look behind the scenes into His Holiness' life. Chan will reveal what it was like to walk the walk for four years with one of the world's most celebrated humans, to showrather than to tellwhat the Dalai Lama's life and philosophy are all about.
Daniel Wood is an award-winning Vancouver writer.
• Color Photo: The Dalai Lama (right) and Victor Chan out for a walk at the Dalai Lama's residence in Dharamsala. Photo by Susanne Martin.
• Photo: Francois Mori, Associated Press Files / The Dalai Lama owns very littlehis robes, his rosaries, if he had a billion dollars he'd give it away, says author Victor Chan.
Story Type: Profile
Note: Profile of Victor Chan.
Length: 2923 words