“So long space remains
So long sentient beings remain
So long suffering remains
I will remain. In order to serve.
That is the real purpose of our life.”
Documentarian Mickey Lemle first made a film about the 14th Dalai Lama (Compassion in Exile) in 1991. Now that His Holiness is in his eighties, Lemle has revisited the subject in The Last Dalai Lama? The title comes from comments that the Dalai Lama has made about whether he will reincarnate again—or how. But that question is only addressed in about the last quarter of the film.
The Dalai Lama is a world-renown spiritual leader. He has also been in the political spotlight since he was a teenager, dealing with the Chinese Communists and their expansion into Tibet. The film serves as a chronicle of his life, with the main focus on his work of trying to use science as a validation of his teachings about emotions and compassion. We meet scientists who are working to quantify the benefits of his teachings. We go to a British Columbia school where teachers are using his teachings with young children. We hear former President George W. Bush tell of the blessing he felt being in the Dalai Lama’s presence.
Early in the film when it refers to the escape from China, it mentions one of those close to him who was not able to escape and was imprisoned. The Dalai Lama told of this monk telling him that it was a dangerous time in prison. The danger was that he was close to not having compassion on his captors. When asked if His Holiness is asked if he hates the Chinese, he responds by speaking of the why of compassion:
I think quite often people get this impression the practice of love and forgiveness is something good for others, not necessarily themselves. This is totally wrong.
This approach is certainly as fitting for Christian consideration as it is for Buddhism. There are many Christians who look to the Dalai Lama as someone who can help us understand how we should better live out our own faith.
The political side of His Holiness’s life is also shown. He is the symbol for Tibetan independence. As such, the Chinese government seeks to silence him or control him. They have announced their intent to be involved in the recognition of his successor. (Which is a key reason for the question of how or if he will reincarnate.) In 2014 he declared, “I will not reincarnate.” The last section of the film is an exploration of what he might mean by that.
Of course, for many Westerners the workings of reincarnation, especially as seen in the lamas of Tibetan Buddhism, is a bit incomprehensible. Does he in fact have control over his reincarnation? Most of those who speak to this comment that he may choose to reincarnate in some way that is not as public as his current lifetime. He has expressed in the past the desire for a more humble life. Perhaps that is how he seeks to reincarnate. But between those who look to him for leadership and the Chinese government, it is hard to imagine how the fifteenth Dalai Lama will find such a quiet life. His own words in the film about his reincarnation do reflect that desire for humility—and the humility he has sought in this lifetime, even though it has been lived in the world’s spotlight:
I have no wish to be reborn in some heavenly place. What I want…my wish…my only sort of desire is to be reborn where some difficulties or problems where I can make some contribution.
The Dalai Lama is one of those persons who through their lives have transcended the religious labels that we choose to put on them. People of any faith—or even no faith—would do well to encounter this one who shares his life with us.