The Man Himself
He’s funny, he’s warm – and he’s also a god-king.
A meeting with the Dalai Lama...
Little Tenzin Gyatso was just three years old when he was recognized as the incarnation of Chenrezi – the Buddhist god of compassion – and the next Dalai Lama.
Son of simple farmers from the north-eastern village of Pari Takster, he was brought to Lhasa with his family but had to live apart from them in the Potala Palace. It was, for a young child (pictured above), something of a ‘golden prison’. For five months each year he had to stay in a musty room, reciting religious mantras, under the gaze of his stern-faced tutor and Regent. From his window, or sometimes through his telescope on the roof of the Potala, he would view the world outside, and watch ‘the cowherds coming home looking happy and carefree. Little did they know,’ he recalls, ‘how much the Dalai Lama would have liked to be with them!’
Today he lives much closer to the people, in a modest house, and takes care to make himself accessible.
In the waiting room his private secretary looks at my questions – and suggests some changes. ‘It’s not to make them less provocative. He likes provocative questions. But he gets bored if he’s asked questions he’s been asked before and you won’t get such a good answer.’
We go in. He seems tall but otherwise it’s exactly as I expect. He has a big warm smile and an extraordinary ability to make one feel at ease in his presence. It’s more like meeting an old friend than a revered leader, let alone someone who has been worshipped as a god-king since early childhood. He also has a most infectious sense of humour and can reduce a room full of people to wild laughter with the ease of an accomplished comedian. I start with an inevitable and definitely serious question.
Do you think that your policy of non-violent resistance is working?
I think so. We have worldwide sympathy and support because of our non-violent approach. If we engaged in violence we would get more publicity, of course, but this might not increase sympathy or support in the long run. One significant result of the non-violent approach is that Chinese intellectuals not only outside but also inside China are showing more understanding of the Tibetan issue. In the long term the most important thing is for China and Tibet to live peacefully as neighbours. To achieve this we must carry out this freedom struggle non-violently.
Aren’t Tibetans running out of patience? Don’t some of them want a more confrontational approach?
If my non-violent approach does not bring about a constructive result and the situation remains as it is then these feelings will grow, especially among the younger Tibetans.
Don’t you feel that time is running out?
Yes, it is running out. The Chinese population in Tibet is increasing day by day. Whether intentionally or unintentionally some kind of cultural genocide is talking place.
Do you think there is a danger of a Tiananmen Square situation occurring in Tibet?
Potentially it’s there. There is a potential for bloodshed and the danger of some violent eruption is recognized.
Can the international community do anything to help avert this?
It can help by supporting the negotiations we are driving at. Mine is a ‘middle way’ approach. I am not insisting on total independence, just some kind of genuine self-rule.
What do you say to critics who say that you can’t compromise on independence in this way?
[Long pause] Historically we have the right to independence! But my main concern is to preserve Tibetan culture. Tibetan culture has the potential to create a better, more peaceful society. Tibet is in a strategically important position between India and China and making it a ‘zone of peace’ will help guarantee peace between those two countries. So preserving Tibetan culture will benefit not only six million Tibetans but millions of Chinese and Indians!
In order to make Tibet a genuine ‘zone of peace’ the most important thing is human compassion. You can’t do it if there is hatred and anger. The political status of independence is, I feel, less important than this. Political independence without peace – with civil war, for example, like in some of the African states – is no use.
Let the critics say what they will! It’s one thing to be able to speak forcefully about the right to independence of Tibetan people but it is another to thing to be able actually to do something under the existing circumstances. It’s not enough just to repeat ‘We are an independent nation, we are an independent nation’. We have to do something to save our nation and to save our culture.
The Chinese have so far rejected all your initiatives. There’s a deadlock in negotiations. What is your next step going to be?
[Laughs] Up to now we have been seeking greater international support. At the moment the Chinese leadership is in a process of transition. This current situation will not continue for much longer – perhaps a few months or one year. And then I think things may improve.
If China disintegrates as the USSR did will the Tibetan Government-in-Exile be ready to push forward its own independence agenda?
If China falls apart there may be bloodshed. So I hope it does not work in this way and that the changes are evolutionary. I think the people in China who are prepared to do anything to cling onto power are only temporary. A more democratic atmosphere must come. People who are genuinely using human intelligence must come to the top and I am hoping we will achieve some kind of meaningful dialogue and a mutually agreeable solution. Apart from that I have no other plans. I certainly have no plans to acquire weapons or anything like that!
Some people have said your stance over the discovery of the new Panchen Lama was very confrontational towards the Chinese. Was this your intention?
My priority was that the reincarnation should be genuine. Right from the beginning of the search I tried to communicate with the Chinese Government but they did not respond. In the meantime Tibetans were urging me to decide the new Panchen Lama. I could have waited and let the Chinese decide. This would have been less problematic and more peaceful in the short run. But how could I then have convinced the Tibetan people that this was the genuine Panchen Lama? In the long run the view of the Tibetan people was more important.
Your plans for Tibet involve establishing a Western-style democracy. Up to now you have played a very central and prominent part. How easy will it be for you to take a back seat?
My main wish is for a genuine stable democracy to be established. There are bound to be problems at the beginning. I hope that these problems appear within the next 20 years so that I am still around to do something to help solve them. That is my main objective.
Many years ago you said you might be the last Dalai Lama. Do you still think that today?
I think the majority of Tibetans still want a [ruling] Dalai Lama. But maybe after 20 or 30 years, when there is a stable democracy, people will feel it is no longer necessary. That does not mean my life is discontinued. My life stays and there will be a continuation of rebirth.
Is a female Dalai Lama possible?
Oh yes! Why not!
You have travelled extensively and have met with many heads of state. They have expressed plenty of sympathy for the cause of Tibet but this hasn’t really translated into effective pressure on China. How does this make you feel?
I think this is normal. There is no reason to lose our determination now. You know, even during the Cultural Revolution Tibetans kept their hope. We were isolated. There was hardly any support from the outside world. But now I think our situation is much healthier. The international community is much more aware and much more supportive. So today although the situation inside the country is very grave, I think it is much more hopeful than before.
You have just turned sixty. What is your mood as you enter this stage in your life?
Sixty is nothing special! People here in India consider the sixtieth birthday special, but that’s a Hindu tradition, not a Buddhist one. For a Buddhist the day of death is more important than the day of birth. It’s only then that you know whether that person has done good or bad and whether their life is worth celebrating or not! Anyway, for me the morning of every day is a birthday. The important thing is that the day should be useful, should be meaningful!
The Dalai Lama’s initiatives
THE FIVE-POINT PEACE PLAN
(Proposed to the US Congress in 1987)
THE STRASBOURG PROPOSAL
(Proposed to the European Parliament in 1988; officially withdrawn due to lack of Chinese response and criticsm from within the Tibetan exile community in 1992)
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996