Giant on the move
Dalai Lama’s laugh lines
Before the Dalai Lama spoke on the sober subjects of religion and the environment in Taiwan during a speech this week, he opened with a quip about his English.
“First thing, no grammar, no proper grammar,” the 73-year-old said with a low-pitched staccato laugh while addressing a full auditorium of residents in the southern city of Kaohsiung. “There is a danger to get misunderstandings, so I always tell you, be careful Dalai Lama’s broken English.”
His mischievous chuckle and self-depricating humour sent waves of laughter through the audience.
A day earlier, when aides accidentally broke a table in front of the kneeling religious figure, he surprised a somber crowd of about 10,000 local Buddhists with the same laugh, generating applause. During a Tibetan-langauge prayer for the same audience, he suddenly put on a purple sun visor, breaking into English to say the overhead light was too strong. That time the crowd laughed.
Quips and outbursts of laughter characterise the world-renowned Tibetan spiritual leader’s speeches as he uses humour, part of his core personality, to bring him closer to his listeners, people close to him say.
But his visit to Taiwan is hardly a joke. During his Aug. 30-Sept. 4 visit, he has prayed for hundreds who died when a typhoon hit the island last month. On his first full day in Taiwan, the Dalai Lama knelt above a massive landslide that buried a village, praying for the countless villagers who were killed as relatives of the dead stood by.
The Dalai Lama’s visit has also whipped up a new political storm between Taiwan and its long-time political rival China, which claims sovereighty over the self-ruled island and deems the India-based Dalai Lama a separatist who is seeking to split Tibet from its territory. China has cancelled or postponed a few Taiwan-related events in apparent retaliation, chilling relations with the island after a thaw that began in the middle of last year.
The Dalai Lama’s humour, does admittedly shock some new audiences, said Khedroob Thondup, a Taipei-based member of the Tibetan parliament-in-exile, but they learn fast to relax.
“He’s got a good sense of humour, which is his personal style,” Thondup said. “Normally audiences are surprised because these are serious occasions. But he always tries to make people feel not too strongly about it.”
Taiwan audiences have understood the humour as a way to unify people on the island, which hosts many different religions and ideas, said Chang Chia-hsing, a spokesman for the city of Kaohsiung, which organised many of the Dalai Lama’s events. “What he jokes about doesn’t count as serious,” Chang said. “It’s a way to bring people together.”