Victor Chan, author and travelling companion of the Dalai Lama

02 November 2006

'The first thing the Dalai Lama thinks about is your welfare'

I rang my wife and said, "I'm not coming home: the Dalai Lama has asked me to travel with him." That was when this book really took off. We went round Europe and, for the first time, to Northern Ireland. I was the only one in the entourage not from his inner circle.

When I first visited the Dalai Lama, I was struck by this quiet Tibetan culture transported from the Himalayas: 80,000 people had followed him into exile. Everyone seemed so smiling and gentle. I must have seemed strange with my long hair, goatee moustache, and black ensemble from Morocco.

That was more than 30 years ago. I had been travelling in Afghanistan with two friends when we were kidnapped. One of the girls was on her way to India with a letter of introduction to visit the Dalai Lama. After we were released, I joined her on her pilgrimage.

The whole experience gave me the travel bug. But this was diametrically opposed to the culture in which I was brought up. I was brought up in Hong Kong, and had been schooled to go into a proper profession. I was on a fast track to becoming a doctor.

Instead, I wrote a book about Tibet. I crossed the country 11 times in four years; it is roughly the size of Western Europe. There are no roads to some of those sacred places. I got invited into people's homes, and I was struck by how many people had pictures of the Dalai Lama. People seemed devoted to him.

I presented my work to the Dalai Lama and suggested we worked on a book together. He agreed without hesitation, but it didn't start well.

I felt he was getting bored with me. I spent time with him in his home with two people translating into English and Chinese for me. But I did not want his words filtered through translation, and I became quite depressed about the project, until he suggested I travelled with him.

When he met up with Desmond Tutu in Oslo in 2001 they were like two giggling schoolboys. It was the centennial celebrations for the Nobel Peace Prize, with more than 30 living laureates. They all stopped to watch these two because of the infectious energy they generated.

The Dalai Lama has always been very sympathetic to Christianity, ever since he met Thomas Merton in 1968. They had a number of discussions and worked to promote interreligious harmony. Last year I invited both Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama for a dialogue in Vancouver, where I live.

The Dalai Lama has meditated for 100,000 hours. He was trained from a toddler and has transformed his mind. The first thing he thinks about is your welfare - to him this is the most important thing, not politics or interfaith dialogue.

As a joke, he is sometimes called the "Teflon Lama", because nothing sticks. He has no ulterior motive. I find this rather depressing, as it is a model I cannot aspire to.

I think by the time his 80th birthday comes, the Dalai Lama may be back in Lhasa.

I love all Carl Hiaassen's books. He is very clever and very funny. I have never found it easy to write, and still wake up in cold sweats about my books. When I started to write I went on a course.

I met my wife immediately after the Berlin Wall came down. It was her first time in Western Europe, and she was travelling around for five days. We have two children, and two years ago we all spent six months visiting the Dalai Lama.

President Vaclav Havel, the first President of the Czech Republic, is someone who has greatly inspired me. I met him while he was in power. He was utterly unassuming, very low-key, and his main concern was for the well-being of his people.

I went to an Anglican school, and have fond memories of the morning assemblies. But I was very rebellious when I was younger, and anything I learnt in Sunday school I consciously eradicated from the hard drive of my brain. My father was a Mormon and a freemason. When I went to college, I became interested in the ideas of non-attachment enlightenment.

Happiness is something I find very elusive. There are certain degrees of passion that can wear off, but I am probably happiest when I am with my wife. When I am with the Dalai Lama, I am rather conscious of the enormous gap between us.

I got very angry recently when a car cut me up. I started to get out of the door, but my wife stopped me. That sort of action is very self-destructive.

The island where I live outside Vancouver is stunning. I love the sea and mountains, but, having been brought up in Hong Kong, I do miss the city and skyscrapers.

Victor Chan was talking to Rachel Harden. The Wisdom of Forgiveness by the Dalai Lama and Victor Chan is published by Hodder & Stoughton.

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