National Geographic : 1955 Jul
My Life in Forbidden Lhasa When the jeep arrived at Jewel Park, a new dilemma arose. The gate in the Inner Garden's yellow wall was too narrow to let it pass. What should be done? Orthodox old monks shook their heads and agreed, "The wall cannot be touched. It has stood for many years, just as it was built in perfection by former Esteemed Kings." Defying tradition and the monks, the 14 year-old Dalai Lama ordered the gate to be widened. And so it was. The episode pre sented a striking test of power. I had grown aware of the youth's independence of will and his intellect. He was worshiped as Tibet's greatest Living Buddha, but the Re gent and abbots dominated him as a child. They did not favor construction of the thea ter. They knew that it would unmask an exciting new world to his eager, inquisitive mind. Spring, 1950, turned the Inner Garden into an enchanted oasis. The days grew warm, the grass green and thick. Peach and pear blos soms stirred amid tinkling bells. Strutting peacocks fanned their blue-green tails. An old gardener arranged fragrant flowers in the sun. Servants cleaned the many small houses in preparation for the Dalai Lama's arrival from the Potala. The cinema awaited its young manager when he moved in stately procession to the summer palace. As I focused the camera on his richly adorned palanquin, he peered through a curtained window-and smiled. A Summons to the Palace After the cavalcade disappeared into Jewel Park, I rode back toward Lhasa. A panting bodyguard caught up with me, his red robe flapping like wings. "Kusho, Henrig-la! We have been look ing for you everywhere. You are to return to the summer palace. They say you must hurry." "What now?" I thought. A mishap? Short circuit? Perhaps a fire? I galloped back to the Jewel Park. Lobsang appeared grinning at the entrance to the Inner Garden and handed me a ceremonial scarf. At the projection-booth door I came face to face with the Living Buddha. The Dalai Lama caught up my presentation scarf with his left hand and used his right to bless me with a spontaneous pat. "Do you know how to work this apparatus?" he asked. The Dalai Lama's abbot protectors greeted me without warmth. The boy alone showed no trace of embarrassment. He chattered like a schoolboy, asking a hodgepodge of questions that he must have stored up for years. Without waiting for replies, he rushed to the projector and said, "Come, let us see the capitulation of Japan." It was a wartime documentary film, obtained in India. Clumsily I began to wind the film on a spool. He stood at my elbow, watching every movement. Finally he nudged me aside and threaded the apparatus himself. A Self-taught Technician The Dalai Lama explained that he whiled away many lonesome evenings studying the projector. He had managed to strip down and reassemble the machine without help. The abbots, meanwhile, had taken their places on carpets before the screen. The Dalai Lama called through the door, "It is going to start!" The boy bobbed with delight. I had rigged up a loud-speaker system to provide formal communication between the projection room and auditorium. As the Dalai Lama threaded a second documentary film into the projector, he nodded toward the microphone and insisted that I speak. The old abbots must have jumped, because he laughed aloud. Next he projected a film that I had made at Lhasa festivals. The self-conscious monks gradually lost their stiffness when they rec ognized themselves on the screen. Finally they guffawed at a scene of an old cabinet minister napping during a long ceremony. When the film ended, the Dalai Lama dismissed the abbots. He moved into the empty auditorium, sat cross-legged on the carpet, and arranged his red cowl. Then he unleashed another flood of questions. "How old are you? Only 37? Why do you have yellow hair when you are so young? How do you write your name? Do you like it here in the holy city? Can you operate an army tank? An airplane? How do jet airplanes fly? Why do you have hair on your hands like a monkey?" The last question might have been meant as flattery. Tibetans believe their patron god, Chenrezi, took the form of a monkey, mated with a female demon, and thus fathered the race.