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'60s Rebel Adopts Tibetan Children as His Latest Cause

July 31, 1986|BILL MANSON

LA JOLLA — Hey. Hear the news? There's still a few around. Survivors of the '60s.

"I'd like to teach the world to sing, in perfect harmony . . . " "All we are saayying . . . is give peace a chance . . . "

La la la. You know the songs. The times. The Ivy League idealists, the doomsday back-to-earthers. There are still some around. Grizzled but alive. Yuppified but not yet mummified. Rough edges bevelled, but still ready to respond to some far-off Message of Distress that washes up in a bottle on their private beach at La Jolla.

Uh, oh. Here comes one now.

Of course. What else? A visiting professor of poetry.

Gaad. He's wearing Tibetan prayer-strings around his neck and carrying "The Dalai Lama: A Human Approach to World Peace" (Wisdom Publications, London).

Oh, no. In his left hand, it's a cassette: "Interview with Jamyang Norbu. Who . . . ?

Worse still, there's a light in his eye. He has that

unrelenting happiness of one who has found The Answer. Prof. Ben Wright, 47, ex-classroom rebel, ex-disc jockey and friend of the Chelsea set in London, has fallen lock, stock and barrel in love with the Dalai Lama's cause and the Tibetan people and culture and religion.

And he's off to save them in preparation for their Great Return, when the orange-robed priest-king leads his people back from their Diaspora in northern India to the isolated mountain society of the Tibet of their dreams.

Except when they go back, Wright's going to have them much more homogenized with the Western world--educated with Western degrees, American and British scholarships--a means of getting out from under the Chinese yoke, Wright says, that only education can provide.

Wright is at a friend's home near UC San Diego. He sits down in his paisley cravat, smoking his Backwoods cheroot, playing with the prayer-strings around his neck--the last tangible souvenir of his contact with the Dalai Lama in India.

That was last year, between bouts on his radio show "Big Ben and Friends" on Majorca and hobnobbing with good friend Lord Cowley in London, with whom he stays in Eaton Square, scene of that famous household of "Upstairs, Downstairs."

"Yes, on the 13th of November I took my Vow of Refuge."

"Vow of . . . ?"

Oh, God, here we go. Incomprehensible explanations of Ultimate Truths.

Now hold it. Whoa. Why is it we stay-at-homes are always so tough on the ones who are getting out there in the world and learning, or even doing something about it?

For instance, at least the good professor has gone to India once, found 100,000 Tibetan exiles there, been moved by pity for the poor and awe for their rich culture, adopted their cause 100% and is dedicating himself to it, at least for six months.

Wright brings out a stack of colored pictures.

"I want you to talk about the Tibetan Diaspora. It is like the exodus from Cambodia, but nobody wants to notice this one. I have decided to do what I can to help them with education. Then there are the orphans. They're living in settlements set up by the Dalai Lama's sister."

Wright hands over the top one.

"See this? These are hungry barefooted Tibetan kids on the other side. I took this photo as the Chinese guides ate and let these kids stand watching. We've got to help them. . . . That's why I'm going back. I'm mortgaging my condo.

"I'm buying a British Norton motorcycle in India, and I'm going to just putter around their schools. Setting up an English composition program for them. Quietly checking that they're being taught their own Tibetan language and culture."

What kind of a man does this? Drops a life and a career for a cause so unrelated to anything he's done before. You suspect he's looking for his own salvation?

At first meeting, you'd never know. First meeting is all this suavity, this name-dropping, this rolling of the R's in foreign words. Typical mainstream academe. Not that that puts you off Ben Wright. Nothing can stop him from being incredibly, well, likable. He has a boyish charm he shouldn't at 47.

Yet for all of his studied man-about-town image, he turns out to be a real live rebel refugee from the campus turmoils of the '60s--those fear-ridden days when teachers who rebelled faced hidden eyes, if Wright is to be believed, of fellow faculty members who agreed to "watch" questionable colleagues. When phones were tapped, when UC San Diego appointments evaporated overnight, no questions asked, no reasons given.

Ben Wright says he has lived it all.

Sure, his colleagues called him a brilliant teacher of literature. Sure, he's been an officer in the Navy. But when his views started becoming "radical"--turning against the Vietnam War, bringing Jim Morrison and Allen Ginsberg into literature classes--his career in academe started taking a nose-dive and has given his enemies the satisfaction of never really recovering in the 15 years since.

Hidden beneath the sophisticated globe-trotting literato is one of the walking wounded. One of the swept-under victims of the Establishment of the '60s.

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