Poland Fetes Dalai Lama

December 11th 2008

Warsaw, Poland, 11 December 2008 (By Louise Ireland, Reuters) - Forget the economic crisis, forget climate change, images of an elderly, bespectacled Buddhist monk in a maroon robe have dominated Polish newspapers and television screens all week.

The Dalai Lama has come to town and it seems everybody, from the president and prime minister to college students and housewives in this still-staunchly Roman Catholic country, want to meet and hear Tibet's exiled spiritual leader.  

Of course, the charismatic septuagenarian can bring out the crowds in many countries and counts among his worldwide fans heads of state and Hollywood stars. But he has struck a special chord in Poland, where some see in his decades-old campaign for Tibetan self-determination echoes of their own struggle against an atheistic communist government back in the 1980s.

Not by accident, the Buddhist leader kicked off his six-day tour of Poland in Gdansk at a party for another modern icon - Lech  Walesa, leader of the pro-democracy Solidarity trade union which helped topple communist rule in Poland in 1989, the year the Dalai Lama won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Although other Nobel laureates and European statesmen such as French President Nicolas Sarkozy were also in Gdansk for the celebrations marking the 25th anniversary of Walesa winning the Nobel Prize, the loudest applause was reserved for the Dalai Lama. Newspapers carried pictures of him and his old friend Walesa hugging and laughing together.

The Dalai Lama, who fled to exile in India in 1959 after a failed uprising against Beijing's rule, told Poles how much he had been inspired by the example of Solidarity, a movement rooted in religious - Catholic - faith and like him opposed to the use of violence.

The Poles returned the compliment by turning out in their thousands in Gdansk, Krakow, Wroclaw and Warsaw to hear the Dalai speak about Buddhist philosophy and about the Tibetan people's experience of Chinese communist rule.  

"Our young people are eager to hear about moral values," said Marta Kudelska, a professor of Indian philosophy at Krakow University and one of the organisers of the Dalai's visit.

For Poles of older generations who remember communist oppression, she added, there is an instinctive empathy for the Dalai Lama and his cause.

"About a year ago, I got a call from the Chinese embassy (in Warsaw) complaining about our preparations for the visit. It was not pleasant, it reminded me of the days of martial law in Poland," she said, referring to the Soviet-backed communist regime's efforts to stifle democracy in the early 1980s."

"For people of my generation, this memory of the past, of communist times, helps us to better understand the Dalai Lama's way; I think his way is similar to that of ( India's pacifist leader) Mathatma Gandhi or of Lech Walesa and Solidarity here."

When I visited Tibet 20 years ago, I remember how monks, some of them just children, would furtively approach me in the Potala Palace - the Dalai Lama's former residence in the capital Lhasa - to ask, out of earshot of our Chinese tour guide, whether I had any pictures of His Holiness.

I did not - I had flown into Lhasa from the Chinese city of Chengdu - but an American couple on our tour discreetly dispensed pictures they had brought from neighbouring Nepal. The joy of the monks was a revelation to us all .

Fast-forward 20 years, and both China and Tibet have been transformed. China is far richer and more open today, though it is still not a democracy and continues to keeps tight control over Tibet. However, Beijing points to the numerous monasteries and monks and nuns there as evidence of religious freedom.

What else has changed in the past 20 years is that the Tibetan cause itself has become much more widely known through the Dalai Lama's high-profile globe-trotting.

In Poland, I caught up with the Dalai Lama in his hotel in Krakow where he told us - in his distinctive Indian-accented English - of his wish to reach out to ordinary Chinese people while also urging Western leaders to stand firm on human rights in their ongoing dialogue with economic powerhouse China .

Asked whether he ever expected to see Tibet again, he was characteristically philosophical, "I really feel like that. But if not, it does not much matter. We have a Tibetan proverb, your home is where you feel most happy."


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