The Lifelong Trudge to a State of Wonder and Serenity

5 April 2002

The Strait Times, Singapore.

Unlike the Dalai Lama, who was born to be the leader of his spiritual tradition, Ganden Tripa Lobsang Nyima, who is that tradition's Supreme Spiritual Authority, worked his way up slowly to his present position over the past 62 years, after he decided to become a monk at the age of 12. "You live out your teachings, day by day," he tells Tan Shzr Er. To understand the mysteries of life takes years of personal enrichment, says Ganden Tripa Lobsang Nyima.

Ganden Tripa Lobsang Nyima, 74, the No. 2 man to Tibet's Dalai Lama, worked his way up, learning the art of compassion the slow way. He can't levitate or perform miracles, but knows a thing about living life for the sake of others. Some men are born good. Other men become good. Tibetan Lama Ganden Tripa obsang Nyima, 74, has taken the latter path through his entire life.

Known better by his title of the 100th Ganden TRipa of the Gelugpa Tibetan Buddhist tradition, he is the "supreme spiritual authority", holding a seat that transcends officially even that of the Dalai Lama.

Outside his monastery on Drepung, South India, however, he is content to be No 2, where the Dalai Lama is known to be the political head. He is happy to let his charismatic colleague deal with the strange ways of "the outside world", and happier being the quiet, ordinary man behind the scene.

"In Tibet, there is a saying - that the throne of Ganden is open to anyone who aspires to it," the soft spoken, smiling man says, speaking through an interpreter. "ANY common man who is compassionate and patient enough can ascend it."

Unlike the Dalai Lama, the Ganden Tripa was not accorded the mysterious birth of a glamorous reincarnation. Born the second of five children into a poor Eastern Tibetan family, he was a lowly goat-herd who played a tag in the fields until the age of 12. That was when he decided to enroll for monk hood at a local monastery and later, Lhasa.

"There was no dramatic vision. I did not experience a sudden calling," the Ganden Tripa recalls. "I come from a very beautiful Buddhist family. It was a very natural path of progression for me." A slow, steady and seemingly undramatic life he has led indeed.

Now, perched cross-legged upon a bed in a devotee's HDB flat, where he is staying during his two-week private visit here, he could almost be your favorite grandfather, all at home with the humid weather and the smells of home-cooked breakfast.

The official reason for his visit here is a medical checkup for his mild diabetic condition - for, yes, even saints fall ill. But this old man with droopy eyes, wrinkled through years of chronic smiling, is the same "living Buddha" who blesses red-clothed monks by the thousands from his cushioned throne in Drepung. And ironically, it is his touchable humanity, constantly bettered through a self-initiated trudge towards enlightenment that makes him an inspiring example for the hopeful common man.

"I cannot levitate. I cannot perform miracles, and I cannot prophesy about the future," he says. "I only try to remember my religious aspirations and precepts. I try to apply them in my daily life."

For the past 62 years, this stable routine has meant waking up at 6 am, going through morning lessons, teaching, meditating, reciting and studying scriptures before going to bed at 10.30pm.

To be sure, there were the teenage days when he was caught loafing and sent off to pull his ears in a corner. There was also the tumultuous year of 1959, when Chinese reasserted its ancient suzerainty over Tibet, and he was forced to flee Lhasa, together with the present Dalai Lama, for India.

But preternaturally calm and undramatic about his escape, he brushed the incident aside to Lianhe Zaobao in an earlier interview. "Of course there was physical hardship," he said. "However, this deepens my faith in the Buddha's teachings and makes me a stronger person. Whatever has to happen, no one can escape."

Life, for now, is back to the regular diet of eat, sleep, study and meditation, if spiced up occasionally with South-India offerings of chapatti and curry lunches. Sometimes, visiting friends bring me my favorite dried mushrooms and barley from Tibet," he confesses.

Tiny luxuries sometimes become holy monks, so you find out. Otherwise, it is very much the life of a world-renouncing ascetic that the Ganden Tripa leads. There are internal struggles, but these become mental and physical exercises overcome through self-restraint, meditation and plenty of fortitude.

"For a monk, there is no distinction between private and public life," he says. "You live out your teachings, day by day."

With each new fancy title acquired in the screened-off quiet - from Gegu (Disciplinarian) to Lama Umdze (Assistant Abbot), to Gyudmed Khensur (Abbot Emeritus, Tantric College Of Lower Lhasa) and finally Ganden Tripa (Spiritual leader) - he has increased his capacity for compassion.

"It is good to draw from your own experiences to understand and suffer on behalf of others," he amuses. "No matter how globalised or technologically advanced the world, there will always be suffering."

The master's eschewing of secular life has not prevented him from keeping abreast of happenings in the "outside" world, however. The Internet, English-language classes and CNN have, albeit in controlled channels, wormed their way into the self contained biospheres of his monasteries.

"Buddhism still has a practical role in society. We try to keep up to date. As long as such worldly things are for the advance of knowledge and not put to use for entertainment, I see nothing wrong."

As for the recent wave of Western interest in Tibetan culture, what with the likes of Hollywood stars Richard Gere and Steven Seagal claiming their "appointments" as serious disciple and reincarnated tulku (high lama), respectively he is all diplomatic.

"ULTIMATELY, it is good that Buddhism is spread around the world - even if it has taken on a very exotic, stereotyped image," he says. "There are those who are truly sincere, and they know who they are. There are those who pursue it for mere intellectual knowledge, and those who do so for other reasons. There is no point in sorting them out."

Not that the master has not experienced the glowing pressures of celebrity, of course, In Drepung, he gets literal red carpet treatment. Fellow monks trussed in giant ceremonial hats and hoisting telescopic instruments line up in rows to welcome him during official temple visits. In Singapore, devotees "ooh", "aah" and giggle over the mattress that he has slept on and the biscuits that he has nibbled.

The man himself takes the pampering with a pinch of salt, parting his lips in silent laughter when reporters' bimbo questions star raining down on him. There is calm and common-sense answer for everything, from the frequency of regulation haircuts ("once a month") to impudent requests for the on-the -spot disappearing acts ("I don't do them, but you can attain this after years of training.")

When rounds of grueling interviews conclude finally, he is happy to bestow upon kneeling reporters a handful of "wonder" life-prolonging pills, blessed by himself and the Dalai Lama. You deliberate over whether to eat them. But you stuff them into a paper envelope instead, opting to follow his example of becoming a better person through living the miracle of life without the reliance on the miracles of phenomena.

His earlier words ring clear in your ear:"The mysteries of life and true concepts of Buddhism can only be understood through years of personal enrichment. Certain things cannot be attained or explained in split second moments."

As you look up, you see the toothy grin of a man worn out by age but marching on serenely with the help of dentures - "he's had two teeth done recently", the interpreter reveals- and inextinguishable optimism.

He is perfectly ordinary, and ordinarily perfect.