This sentence, which begins His Holiness's autobiography, Freedom in Exile (1990), is the most important sentence the man has written to date. Or at least that's my opinion, and the case I will try to make as a kind of homage to this long and significant life on the occasion of the Dalai Lama's birthday.
First, the sentence itself: It's simple, clear, forthright, and factual, which is how much of the world views the man today, two decades after he wrote the sentence, and over five decades since he left Tibet. Or, as he said, more accurately, of course, "fled tibet."
Because the Chinese were after him, that's clear, and Lhasa was in revolt, and had he not fled, disguised as a soldier, no less—the ultimate and post-modern nod to nonviolence—we wouldn't be reading this sentence now, and we wouldn't be wishing this man a happy birthday and giving him long-life blessings as he turns seventy-seven.
Many more, Your Holiness, many more. We need you.
If you start looking into Buddhism's arrival in the West, though, you'll eventually run up on this sentence (as long as we're talking about sentences): “The coming of Buddhism to the West may well prove to be the most important event of the twentieth century.” Arnold Toynbee, the imminent British historian of the last century, is purported to have said this, and the statement pops up all over the internet, as does the question, "Did Toynbee really say this?" No one knows; not even Google. But it points us to a sentiment that His Holiness elicits from many of us in the West: the Dalai Lama has carried on his back, over the last half-century, to all corners of the earth, his message of nonviolence, peace, compassion, kindness, love and human rights, which also, by the way, is identical to the version of Tibetan Buddhism that he offers up for public consumption everywhere he goes. No religious tradition that I am aware of—assuming you consider Buddhism a religion, which the Buddha didn't, and which many others, myself included, don't—no other religion, however you define it, has had such an influential spokesperson. His Holiness is simply the hardest working man in the spirit business. That our lives have been enormously enriched by His Holiness is an understatement. So he fled Tibet, and many of us in the West have benefited.
But let's look at the other side of this issue. Suppose His Holiness had never needed to write that autobiography? Or at least if he did write one, it began with another sentence altogether. Suppose his autobiography had begun with the sentence, "I have lived in Tibet, in relative peace, for seventy-seven years." Suppose there had been no Chinese invasion, no forced exile, no cultural genocide, no torture, no slaughter, no deforestation, no shrinking of the Third Pole, and no arrival of Tibetan Buddhism in the West at the hands of the ablest religious diplomat the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have seen? What then?
Many of us in the West can't imagine our lives without His Holiness's teachings, without his example. And he doesn't work alone. Other great Tibetan teachers have arrived in his wake, and some came before he arrived in 1979, and many of these have been equally capable and adept at explaining to us the nature of reality in a way that connects immediately with our day-to-day lives—a kind of Spiritual Physics for the Masses. Maybe Toynbee was right.
As Westerners, though, we must remember that Tibetans rightfully tire of hearing us declaim ad nauseam about the somehow inevitable—maybe even ordained—spread of Tibetan Buddhism beyond its indigenous and original borders. So we have to ask ourselves: what is the cost of our happy discovery of a spirituality we had known relatively nothing about before the 1960's and one that has helped us handle the rampant materialism that is popping up everywhere from the reality TV shows that feature the howling housewives to the pyramid schemes that leave thousands defrauded of their retirement funds? The answer to that question? Here's a start at figuring the cost: the lives of 1.2 million Tibetans; 6000 Buddhist temples; countless sacred manuscripts and works of sacred art; the severing apart of families; the continuing torture of thousands upon thousands of Tibetans; the enclosure of the Tibetan nomads; the attempted eradication of the Tibetan language; the re-education of the Tibetan people according to the propaganda spewed forth by the People's Republic of China.
That is the price that was paid, and is being paid, by the Tibetan people for our own spiritual prosperity.
Let's make sure and keep this in mind as well, as we wish His Holiness a happy birthday.
The Fourteenth Dalai Lama is indeed a gift to the civilized world, or what's left of it, outside of Tibet, and most of all to the Tibetan people, who are struggling mightily inside of Tibet now, where His Holiness and all Tibetans belong, should they ever be allowed to return there, or should they decide to do so, and should their choice ever be honored by the Chinese government.