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The Dalai Lama and the Rivers of Tibet
Joel Makower, 26 Dec 05

Dharamsala, India -- My wife, Randy Rosenberg, is an independent art curator and consultant to museums, companies, and institutions. For the past 18 months, she has been curating a major exhibition titled The Missing Peace: The Dalai Lama Portrait Project.

The exhibition -- which will open next June in Los Angeles, then travel to Chicago, New York, and Miami, and on to Europe and Asia through about 2009 -- brings together artists from around the world who are creating artworks in many media that depict the Dalai Lama, his values, and his world. The project is sponsored by the Dalai Lama Foundation and the Committee for 100 for Tibet.

It is that exhibition that has brought us to Dharamsala, home of the Dalai Lama and the Tibet Government in Exile. And, on this day, to a private audience with His Holiness to talk about the exhibition -- and, as it turned out, the environment.

When we arrived, the Dalai Lama greeted us at the door, shook our hands, and invited us to sit and talk. Randy quickly launched into a briefing about the exhibition, describing the various themes in which the artworks have been arranged -- "Humanity in Transition" "The Unity of All Things," "Spirituality as a Global Commodity," and others.

His Holiness listened with interest and immediately homed in one particular theme -- Tibet: Its People and Its Land. "It is important to give a clear presentation about the land," he said. "Not just the beauty or some animals, but the emphasis on the major rivers and their source of life."

The problem, he explained, is that many of the rivers that flow through large areas of Asia -- Cambodia, China, India, Laos, Pakistan, and Vietnam -- including the Yellow river, Brahmaputra, Mekong, Salween, and Yangtse, all originate in Tibet. And it is at these rivers' origin that large-scale deforestation and mining are taking place. The pollution of these rivers is having a drastic effect not just on Tibet's ecology, but on the downstream countries.

He continued:

Within my lifetime, the glaciers in Tibet have reduced quite rapidly. According to some scientists, at the rate of reduced snowfall and becoming warmer, then after a few decades, all the major rivers will become very different. That means the whole northern India will suffer because of drought.

The unnecessary exploitation of nature in Tibet has to stop for that reason. It is of immense importance to educate that the ecology in Tibet needs special care. Without adequate caution, just exploiting the major resources, is wrong. The communists always do that for two reasons. First, they are really ignorant. And second, they don't care.

Another key issue, said the Dalai Lama, is Tibet's growing population, the result of the Chinese government's relocation of millions of its citizens to Tibet, where Chinese now outnumber Tibetans. In addition to putting Tibetans at an economic disadvantage, the continuing migration of Chinese progressively erodes the capacity of the region to provide clean air and water and other critical resource needs.

He explained:

Two centuries of limited population is okay. But much increased population in those lands is of great damage to the ecology. So, one of our real fears is the rapidly increasingly Chinese population. They are causing great damage not just to Tibet's ecology, but also to its culture.

It was a brief conversation with this holy man -- about 20 minutes in all -- but it was an unexpectedly ecologically focused one. Saving Tibet turns out to be about much more than saving Buddhism and the Tibetan culture. It is literally about saving Tibet: the land, its rivers, and all of their life-giving properties.

There's one final story to tell before we depart Dharamsala. It's not related to anything environmental. It's about the Dalai Lama's shoes.

As I mentioned, my wife, Randy, is curating a show in which more than 75 artists from around the world are creating artworks that depict the Dalai Lama, his values, and his world. One of those artists is Sylvie Fleury, a Swiss installation artist. For the exhibition, Fleury wanted to use a process called kirlian photography to portray the Dalai Lama's aura. Toward that goal, she asked Randy to procure something that belonged to the Dalai Lama that she could use to photograph the aura. So, Randy worked through channels to do that.

Soon thereafter, the shoes arrived. The Dalai Lama's office had sent an old pair of brown Dexter shoes, size 7-1/2.

When they arrived at our home, the first notable thing was the shoebox in which they had been packed. The brand of the shoebox: Easy Spirit. Clearly, someone back at headquarters was having a little fun with this.

As we sat around admiring the shoes, it was tempting to want to try them on -- how many of us can say we have walked in the Dalai Lama's shoes? But we resisted the temptation -- after all, we didn't want to mess with the aura. (Besides, the shoes wouldn't have fit: My feet are a full size larger.)

And so the Dexters were dutifully repacked for shipment to the artist in Switzerland. Since I was the next one heading out the door that day, I was tasked with delivering them to Fedex. And because this was an international shipment, there was some paperwork involved.

The Fedex clerk asked, "What's in the box?"

"A pair of shoes," I replied.

"Are they a gift?"

"No. Just a pair of shoes."

She persisted. "Anything special about them?"


"Do they have any special value? Are they fragile or breakable?"

"No," I replied. "They're just a pair of shoes."

And all the time I wanted to tell her: "THEY'RE THE DALAI LAMA'S SHOES!"

I couldn't, of course, because the paperwork would no doubt have tripled.

In our audience with the Dalai Lama this week, I told him this story about his shoes. He chuckled along appreciatively and joked that since the shoes had been resoled, the resulting aura might well be that of his cobbler.

But he got serious when I mentioned how we had been tempted to try them on -- to "walk in the Dalai Lama's shoes." And I assured him we hadn't.

To which he replied, simply but sternly: "Good."

But there's a bigger story here than a mere encounter with a great man's footwear. Tenzin Tethong, former chair of the Dalai Lama's cabinet, who now teaches at Stanford (and chairs the Committee of 100 for Tibet, one of the sponsors of The Missing Peace), says that the goal of the exhibition should not be about hero worship, or even the fight for Tibetan freedom. And it's not about how we become the Dalai Lama, or walk in his shoes.

Rather, says Tethong, the exhibition must show how each of us can walk alongside the Dalai Lama: how each of us has a story, and how that story can share in the Dalai Lama's story -- of compassion, peace, and the unity of all things.

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Wonderful, Joel. What a treat to meet the Dalai Lama-- thank you for sharing the highlights with us.

About the shoes.... don't worry. The Dalai Lama knows perfectly well that they weren't really "his" shoes.

Posted by: Kim on 27 Dec 05

I am very appreciated to your project on Dalai Lama than you

Posted by: tenzin mingyur on 30 Dec 05



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