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The Special Friendship of Vaclav Havel and the Dalai Lama, Born from the Emergence of Freedom in Post-Communist Czechoslovakia
In November 1989, as an 11-year-old, I watched a puzzling scene unfold on our black-and-white TV: huge crowds of people had gathered in central Prague to rattle their keys above their heads. This peculiar happening was unlike anything that had until then been broadcast on either of the two Czechoslovakian TV channels of communist propaganda. Limited, censored entertainment and demagogic news reports of domestic economic successes, presented to contrast with the political and moral decline of rotten imperialist countries, were replaced by astonishing scenes from venues where the Velvet Revolution was taking place—a series of non-violent protests led by students and older dissidents that ended the declining 40-year totalitarian regime in Czechoslovakia. Crowds cheered the leaders of the revolution, including dissident writer and freshly released political prisoner Vaclav Havel, who went on to lead the country to become a proud and thriving democracy during the 14 years of his presidency.
Havel became a figure of tremendous inspiration to this young girl. He was the face of the revolution, the focus of the media, a powerful personality as well as an honest, down-to-earth human being, a selfless warrior for human rights, and an embodiment of wisdom and humanity. Qualities I had not seen in any of the communist “heroes” we had been made to honor in school.
Ideological education is a powerful tool used by oppressive regimes, and the communists had us kids completely brainwashed. Until the events of that decisive November, I had no clue that there existed any other explanation of the world, or values and ideas other than those presented by the authorities. Parents were obliged to keep opposing views secret from small kids, for if word were to slip out in the playground that “daddy thinks the president sucks,” they might soon be visited by the secret police. Dissent had repercussions, so one was forced to obey and conform unless prepared to bear the consequences, which included persecution, imprisonment, and limitations on various personal rights of oneself and one’s family.
I had, until then, been oblivious to living in an illusion fed by fear. The days and weeks following the political turn seemed surreal and left my head spinning. The pictures of president Husak that used to hang in every classroom came down, mandatory Russian language classes were removed from the curriculum, and the same teachers that had taught us communist ideology started to present quite a different story. Our western borders opened and, for the first time, people were allowed to travel freely, to experience freely, to speak freely. The motto of Havel’s party “Truth and love prevail over lies and hatred” sounded so full and honest, and so different to the Communist Party slogans, which held no meaning for me.
This period had a profound impact on me. I saw the “truth” change virtually overnight. Ideals instilled to be revered and followed were suddenly replaced by their exact opposites. The truth that I had never questioned as a child was turned, as if by magic, into a new, diametrically opposing reality. Truth one day, lie another. What is “truth?” What is set in stone? The concepts of one culture, of one time, viewed as the only truth—they may seem solid and unshakable, but circumstances change, and very slowly, or very suddenly, it can and ultimately will all end.
This experience of groundlessness awakened me to the reality of uncertainty. So when I came across the Buddha’s notion of emptiness, it immediately struck a chord. Anything that can be conceptualized by the mind is relative and the true essence of everything is emptiness. If the notion of good and bad, right and wrong, me and them, is an illusion, what is the “real” reality, the true essence of things? One can find answers to the most profound questions of existence in the teachings of the Buddha.
In 1990, this formerly insular country immediately started to open up to the outside world. Among the first public figures to be invited to visit by Havel was fellow Nobel Peace Prize nominee His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Indeed, it was His Holiness’ first visit at the invitation of a Western head of state, and many similar invitations from elsewhere would follow. His Holiness’ gift, as I see it, was to allow people who had been denied the freedom of spiritual expression, to receive from him spiritual inspiration and a message of compassion, love, respect, and humility—values that had been neglected in people’s hearts for a whole generation. For me, it was my first exposure to a source of blessings of the Buddha, coming through His Holiness via an unbroken lineage of masters. In the years to come, I would meet a number of illustrious masters of different traditions and schools, but the enlightening power of this particular teacher and his potency to inspire my mind would remain unparalleled. But at 12 years old, I could not have guessed how profoundly the meeting of these two people would shape my life.
As soon as I reached adulthood, I seized the opportunity denied my parent’s generation and left the borders of mytiny country. I would return 15 years later, educated, and having explored the world. During those years, I traveled to meet His Holiness on several occasions in Europe and India to receive teachings and Tantric initiations from him. In effect, he became one of my root teachers, a source of spiritual guidance, inspiration, and support.
Meanwhile, His Holiness was making regular visits to the Czech Republic—11 in total to date since the historical first one, when he met with Cardinal Tomasek, the 34th Archbishop of Prague, and prayed at the statue of the patron of the Czech nation, St. Wenceslas. During his second visit in 1997, the Dalai Lama spoke at a multi-religious gathering at Prague Cathedral themed “Religion’s Responsibility for the Future of Humanity.” He also attended the first Forum2000 international conference, which Havel initiated to enable dialogue on pressing issues facing humanity. Since then, His Holiness has been regularly invited to speak at Forum2000, and in 2000, His Holiness gave his first public talk in the Czech Republic on “Ethics for the New Millennium.” Two years later, His Holiness came again, accompanied by his younger brother, Tenzin Choegyal, and his schedule included a meeting with hundreds of Mongolians, Buryats, and Kalmykians living in the Czech Republic. During Havel’s years in office and up until his death, His Holiness’ visits were filled with meetings with people from different walks of life—politicians, academics, artists, religious leaders—participating in inter-religious dialogues, giving public talks on ethics, global responsibility, and tolerance, and appearing as a guest on TV.
His Holiness has become a prominent public figure, not for promoting the issues of the Tibetan people, but as an ambassador for peace and happiness. Naturally, interest in the Dalai Lama’s teachings has also grown. In 2013, the first teaching took place in Prague on the Eight Verses of Mind-training (Lo Jong), and during his latest visit in October this year His Holiness accepted an invitation to return to teach in the near future.
Havel’s health deteriorated in the last few years of his life, mainly the result of poor conditions in communist prisons. When Havel felt the end was near, the Dalai Lama came without delay to assist his frail, dying friend. He could not have been in better hands. In Tibetan Buddhism, teachings on death and dying are vast and profound, and His Holiness is a learned expert on this issue. Having received his last blessings, Havel passed a week later.
His Holiness expressed deep sorrow and admiration, referring to Havel as his “special friend.” In a moving gesture during the Dalai Lama’s most recent visit to the Czech Republic, he bowed down and pressed his forehead against a portrait of the ex-president. The nation celebrated Havel’s 80th birthday in October and 27 years of the Velvet Revolution on 17 November. With the memory of Havel fresh in our minds, emotions ran high, with expressions of frustration and disillusionment with the country’s current political climate.
As His Holiness the Dalai Lama teaches, all things are impermanent. Much has changed since Havel’s death. Although His Holiness keeps the Czech Republic on his schedule when touring Europe, the circumstances of his visits are very different. He no longer receives formal invitations from the state, nor a warm official welcome. The visits are in conflict with the current state leadership’s economic interests. Nevertheless, His Holiness continues to regularly attend the Forum2000 conference, and his friends and the general public extend as enthusiastic a welcome as ever. Even more so in the climate of disillusionment with the country’s current leader, who lacks the moral integrity, charisma, and diplomacy that made Vaclav Havel an icon of our times.
Zuzi Griffiths Cernakova first became involved in Tibetan Buddhism in the UK and later went on to explore Tibetan culture and Buddhism by traveling in Tibet and Nepal. She became fully immersed in her Vajrayana practice while working as an English teacher at Namdroling Monastery in southern India. Although she finds the solitude and the monastic environment conducive to formal practice, Zuzi prefers the “extreme” environment of ordinary, everyday life as the optimum setting for working with the mind and benefiting others. She is currently an English tutor and translator living in Prague with her husband and twin sons.