Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Dalai Lama, 1990

Dalai Lama, Toronto, Sept. 1990

AT THE BEGINNING OF THE NINETIES IT SEEMED LIKE WE WERE LIVING THROUGH A LOT OF HISTORY. The Berlin Wall had fallen the year before and a year later the Soviet Union would no longer exist. Maybe this is why I ended up shooting a lot of news stories like this for NOW magazine in 1990, when history looked like it was happening fast and we needed snapshots of it as it passed.

Toronto hosted two visits by famous political figures that year, both of which I was assigned to shoot. The second was the Dalai Lama, the exiled leader of Tibet, whose fame and international profile grew exponentially during the following decade. He'd received the Nobel Peace Prize the year before, and his positive image has persisted: Just two years ago he was voted among the three most popular political leaders in the world (alongside Barack Obama and Pope Francis.)

Buddhist nuns at Dalai Lama event, Toronto City Hall, Sept. 1990

I can't speak to the popularity of the Dalai Lama as the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism; I've tried to understand this very particular offshoot of Buddhist thought, mostly by reading books by Robert Thurman (father of Uma!) but they utterly stumped me. His political appeal, especially at the time, was easier to understand; with Soviet Communism and the Eastern Bloc on the way out - almost bloodlessly - there was a surge of optimism, hardly ever imagined during the Cold War, that authoritarian states could be defeated simply by being persistent and nice.

With China remaining the sole Communist superpower, it was hoped that this constantly smiling man, with his saffron robes and prayer beads, could shame China's leaders into relaxing their oppressive rule and perhaps even withdrawing from Tibet. Goodwill tours like this one - to a city with a growing population of Tibetans - were the beginning of years of Free Tibet concerts and fundraising campaigns, and even saw spiritually questing westerners professing to adopt the gnomic and baffling precepts of Tibetan Buddhism the way they'd once flocked to Yoga and Zen. If nothing else, you started seeing a lot of singing bowls showing up on coffee tables, and Buddha statuary showing up in "prayer gardens."

Crowd at Dalai Lama event, Toronto City Hall, Sept. 1990

The crowd at City Hall for the Dalai Lama's appearance certainly reflected this wave of popularity - a major show of numbers by not only Tibetan emigres, but also Vietnamese and Chinese Buddhist communities. They were only half the crowd, however, which was truly mixed and filled the square.

I think I might have softened my own habitual pessimism at the time as well, and I certainly remember the early '90s as a time when the dismal potential outcomes of the past three and a half decades of nuclear stalemate might actually have been forgotten. (At the same time, though, it made me wake up with a start to the possibility that I might live past thirty, and that the nihilism with which I'd lived my life for the past decade could have been a mistake.)

Buddhist monks, Dalai Lama event at Toronto City Hall, Sept. 1990

There was always something slightly absurd about Dalai-mania. His newfound fans and followers have always turned a blind eye to his less-than-progressive stance on homosexuality, for instance, and there is something curious - even disturbing - about all this support for a regime that's positively pre-medieval in nature, with church and state firmly combined.

At around this time I was sent to do a fashion shoot with a very cheerful Tibetan Buddhist monk who was being hosted by a wealthy woman who'd re-done her whole house in high Tibetan style, right down to the meditation garden out back. He seemed bemused by it all, but content to accept her largesse - a monk not terribly different from one you'd read about in Chaucer.

I also remember a New Yorker profile of the Dalai Lama where several of his lieutenants admitted that they were unimpressed with the vegetarian meals his supporters were constantly offering them; Tibet is, after all, a mountainous country where little can be grown; the diet is protein-rich, and they said they'd prefer a good steak any time. The Dalai Lama himself tried to switch to a veggie diet to please his western followers, but his doctor told him to knock it off.

I have never considered myself a news photographer, but early on in my time at NOW I was eager to please and up for the challenge of shooting a big story like this one, fighting for shots alongside photographers from the big dailies and the wire services. They're not bad shots, but I'm not surprised that I'd never have a job at Reuters or AP.

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