When Californians need more water, they take it from their neighbors. Image credit: Robert Goldstrom
You have to be really hard-bitten not to be taken with the Dalai Lama’s charm. He came across in our meeting as so pleasant and friendly—complete with a robust sense of humor—that I was disarmed.
The fourteenth Dalai Lama was born July 6, 1935, in the northeastern Tibetan province of Amdo. Named Lhamo Thondup by his parents, he was renamed Jetsun Jamphel Ngawang Lobsang Yeshe Tenzin Gyatso after monks discovered him at the age of two and proclaimed him to be the reincarnation of the previous Dalai Lama. When he was fifteen years old, the Chinese invaded Tibet. While both sides came to an agreement that allowed the Dalai Lama to stay on, this arrangement came to an end in 1959 when the Chinese started crushing a revolt on the eastern flanks of Tibet. The Dalai Lama fled to India along with some of his followers. Since 1960, he has lived in Dharamsala, a town situated at the foothills of the Himalayas that has become the seat of the Tibetan government in exile and home to 10,000 of his fellow countrymen.
The Dalai Lama is an inveterate traveler and has visited the West numerous times in recent years to propagate the Tibetan cause, making frequent media and public appearances. He has written two memoirs, My Land and My People and Freedom in Exile, and several books dealing with religion and spirituality, including the just-published The Universe in a Single Atom. Accounts of the Dalai Lama’s life appear in two Hollywood films: Kundun and Seven Years in Tibet.
In 1989, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize “first and foremost for his consistent resistance to the use of violence in his people’s struggle to regain their liberty,” said Egil Aarvik, the chair of the Nobel Committee.
“I accept the prize with profound gratitude on behalf of the oppressed everywhere and for all those who struggle for freedom and work for world peace,” said the Dalai Lama in his acceptance speech. “I accept it as a tribute to the man who founded the modern tradition of nonviolent action for change—Mahatma Gandhi—whose life taught and inspired me. And, of course, I accept it on behalf of the six million Tibetan people, my brave countrymen and women inside Tibet, who have suffered and continue to suffer so much.”
The Dalai Lama is perhaps one of the most in-demand personalities in the world. Just ahead of me on his appointment roster was the ex-president of El Salvador, Francisco Flores. Later on that same afternoon, cinema superstar Jet Li dropped by. Numerous Western tourists time their visit to Dharamsala according to when he’ll be in residence there just so that they can catch a glimpse of him.
I met the Dalai Lama on October 6 in Dharamsala. He lives in a house opposite a temple and a public area where he gives sermons. The house is not very grand from the outside, but contains a spacious courtyard surrounded by well-appointed rooms. After being frisked by security, I was ushered into a waiting chamber that held various awards and honorary degrees he has received, although I noticed that his Nobel medal was missing. (I was told afterward by my escort Jigmey Tsultrim that he keeps it in the meditation room.)
Tenzin Taklha and Tenzin Geyche Tethong, both assistants of the Dalai Lama, dropped by to chat with me while I was waiting. When I was beckoned for the interview, the Dalai Lama was outside in the hallway waiting to greet me. He guided me by the hand to the living room, where we spoke. The room contained a statue of the Buddha in a wooden showcase and several thangka cloth paintings depicting Buddhist imagery. Sitting in for assistance with his English (which the Dalai Lama needed only a couple of times) was Tenzin Geyche Tethong. When I asked a Buddhism-related question, a young monk was brought in to help with the translation of religious concepts. The Dalai Lama punctuated the interview throughout with his high-pitched laughter.
When the interview was done, the Dalai Lama clasped my hand for the keepsake photograph. As I was leaving, he put around my neck a white scarf in the traditional Tibetan manner of bidding a person farewell. When I bowed slightly in acknowledgment, he bowed so deeply in response that the situation became slightly awkward. It is hard not to be beguiled by the Dalai Lama.
Question: What are your thoughts on the Iraq War?
The Dalai Lama: When September 11 happened, the next day I wrote a letter to President Bush as a friend—because I know him personally. I wrote this letter and expressed, besides my condolences and sadness, a countermeasure to this tragedy: a nonviolent response because that would have been more effective. So this is my stance. And then just before the Iraq crisis started, millions of people from countries like Australia and America expressed their opposition to violence. I really admired and appreciated this.
When the war started, some people immediately asked me if it was justified or not, whether it was right or wrong. In principle, any resort to violence is wrong.
With regard to the Afghanistan and Iraq cases, only history will tell. At this moment, Afghanistan may be showing some positive results, but it is still not very stable. With Iraq, it is too early to say. There are so many casualties; there is so much hatred.
Q: What are the sources of terrorism, and what is its solution?
The Dalai Lama: Initially, terrorism was a certain mixture of politics, economics, and religion. Now, it seems that terrorism is more individual and done to avenge personal grudges. So there are two kinds of terrorism.
Just after September 11, some reporter asked me why terrorism happens. I told him that my view is that such acts are not possible unless you have very strong hatred and very strong willpower and determination. That tremendous hatred comes from many reasons. The causes of this hatred may be going back centuries. Some people say that the West has a cruel history. These people also may see the achievements of Western countries—in terms of the economy, education, health, and social achievements—as a result of exploitation of poorer countries, including Arab countries. Western nations get rich by using resources such as Arab oil. Meanwhile, the countries supplying them raw materials remain poor. Due to such injustices, jealousies are created. Then, there’s perhaps a religious factor. In some places, there’s the concept of one religion, one truth. In the Muslim world, there’s the notion of Allah. The Western, multireligious modern society is some kind of a challenge to this. These, I feel, are the main causes, and, when combined with lots of anger and frustration, cause a huge amount of hate.
The countermeasures for such things are not easy. We need two levels. One level—the immediate—various governments are taking, including some violent methods, right or wrong. But we have to have a long-term strategy, too. In the Muslim world, certain mischievous individuals will always be there, just like among Christians, Hindus, and Buddhists. We can’t blame the entire Muslim society because of the mischievous acts of a few individuals. Therefore, at the general public level we must cultivate the notion of not just one religion, one truth, but pluralism and many truths. We can change the atmosphere, and we can modify certain ways of thinking.
Then, second, there should be a spirit of dialogue. Whenever we see any disagreements, we must think how to solve them on the basis of recognition of oneness of the entire humanity. This is the modern reality. When a certain community is destroyed, in reality it destroys a part of all of us. So there should be a clear recognition that the entire humanity is just one family. Any conflict within humanity should be considered as a family conflict. We must find a solution within this atmosphere.
It’s not easy. If we tackle these problems the wrong way, then while today there is one bin Laden, after a few years there will be ten bin Ladens. And it is possible that after a few more years, there will be 100 bin Ladens.
Q: Apart from Buddhism, what are your sources of inspiration?
The Dalai Lama: Human values. When I look at birds and animals, their survival is without rules, without conditions, without organization. But mothers take good care of their offspring. That’s nature. In human beings also, parents—particularly mothers—and children have a special bond. Mother’s milk is a sign of this affection. We are created that way. The child’s survival is entirely dependent on someone else’s affection. So, basically, each individual’s survival or future depends on society. We need these human values. I call these secular ethics, secular beliefs. There’s no relationship with any particular religion. Even without religion, even as nonbelievers, we have the capacity to promote these things.
Q: Is this what Buddhism has to offer to nonbelievers?
The Dalai Lama: No, these are not necessarily Buddhist teachings. These are old teachings based on human values. The way of presentation is different according to each religion. In theistic religions like Buddhism, Buddhist values are incorporated. In nontheistic religions, like some types of ancient Indian thought, the law of karma applies. If you do something good, you get a good result. Now, what we need is a way to educate nonbelievers. These nonbelievers may be critical of all religions, but they should be decent at heart.
The happiness and success of humanity depend on this.
Q: Buddhism is a male-dominated religion. What’s your view about getting more women in leadership positions in the Buddhist hierarchy?
The Dalai Lama: First, among the followers of all different religions, women are in the majority. Among Hindus, women are so much more devout, and, similarly, for Buddhists, too. I think when religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism—as well as Christianity and Judaism—were founded, at that time societies were generally male-dominated. So, therefore this social notion also influenced religion. For example, when the Buddha came on the scene 2,500 years ago, the society that the Buddha was preaching in was a male-dominated society. If he stressed feminist viewpoints, nobody would have listened to him. [Laughs] I think even these great masters used to teach according to the prevailing social circumstances. In Buddhism also, a bhikshu [ordained man] is considered higher than a bhikshuni [ordained woman]. Ordained males usually sat higher.
The important thing is that now, for the past thirty years, we have worked to change that. Many nuns are very sincere, but they have had no chance to ascend to the highest ordination level. This has made me somewhat uncomfortable, especially since the Buddha gave equal opportunities to women. But we, even as followers of Buddha, neglected that. In the last few centuries, we completely neglected the quality of religious studies in nunneries. For the last forty years, ever since we’ve been in India, nunneries have developed better. Then, we introduced the same levels of studies for both males and females. Now it is possible for both men and women to get doctorates in Buddhist studies.
Q: So will it be possible in the future for both males and females to be the highest lamas?
The Dalai Lama: Up to now, most of the abbots in the nunneries are males. Now, there will be well-qualified female abbots within the nunnery community itself. Then, if a female lama passes away and she’s been a good scholar and practitioner, it is quite possible that the reincarnation will be a female, too. So, I think, that in the twenty-second century, there will be more female reincarnations at female institutions. Then there’ll be competition between male lama institutions and female lama institutions. It’ll be a positive sort of competition. [Laughs]
Q: What do you hope as a just settlement with China, and what sort of system and society do you foresee in Tibet once that happens?
The Dalai Lama: Meaningful autonomy. Autonomy is provided for in the Chinese constitution for minorities and special rights are guaranteed for Tibet. In communist states, sometimes the constitutions they write are not sincerely practiced. It’s a special sort of case with Tibet. It becomes possible to have one country, two systems. Why not? Let’s consider Tibet historically: Different language, different culture, different geographical location. So in order to get maximum satisfaction for the Tibetan people, I think a higher degree of autonomy should be given. Then Tibetan loyalty to the people of China will naturally come. Tibetans will enjoy true autonomy. That is the guarantee for preservation of our identity, our culture, our spirituality, our environment.
Our common interests are more material development, such as rail-building. In independent Tibet, such rail-building [the Chinese are constructing a major rail line in the region] and communications would have been impossible. But because such resources are available in China, such things have become possible. On the other hand, although some economic development has happened in Tibet under China, it is without any rights or meaningful autonomy. Within Tibet, even though the economy is better, there is lots of resentment. So that’s my thinking: not separation, autonomy. Even the Chinese constitution gives us that. Basically, I’m not going against the Chinese government’s thinking. The government’s main concern is that Tibet must remain within China. That we fully agree with. There are no basic differences. Then, we have the same goals: stability, unity, and prosperity. We also want that. But the methods? The way of the Chinese officials is to bring about stability and unity under the gun. That’s their sole vision. Our approach is one that gives us some satisfaction. Then the unity and stability naturally will come with an awareness of common interest. In Quebec in Canada, some politicians wanted independence, but when the people were asked, they saw that their greater interest, their greater benefit, was by staying within Canada. It’s similar with Scotland, also. Their high degree of autonomy within Great Britain gives them satisfaction. So giving a higher degree of autonomy brings no danger of separation.
Q: What role would you play in that system?
The Dalai Lama: My own role? Nothing. Zero. As early as 1969, I made an official statement that the very institution of the Dalai Lama, whether it should continue or not, is up to the people. Second, in 1992, I made clear that when the day of our return—with a certain degree of freedom—comes, I’ll hand over all my political authority to the local Tibetan government. Hopefully, that government should be a democratic, elected government. And even while we have remained outside Tibet—for the last forty-six years—we have undertaken strong efforts at democratization. In the last four years, we have established an elected political leadership. Since then, I have been in a position of semi-retirement. Once the day of our return comes, I will go into complete retirement.
There will be no political role for the Dalai Lama. This will be true not only for me but for any future Dalai Lama.
Q: And you have said that the next Dalai Lama will be discovered outside China.
The Dalai Lama: As I’ve said earlier, whether this institution will continue depends on the people. Under the best of circumstances, I think that the institution should continue. First, the maintenance of the institution is important. Then, there is the personal history. Both options should be kept open. If the Tibetan people want another reincarnation, then logically while we’re outside, the successor should be someone who can carry out this task, which has not yet been accomplished by the previous Dalai Lama. That means that he must come in a free country. But the Chinese government will also appoint a Dalai Lama. So there’ll be two Dalai Lamas. One Dalai Lama—the Chinese official Dalai Lama—the Tibetan people will have no faith in. Even the ordinary Chinese will have no faith in him. He’ll be a false Dalai Lama. Sometimes our Chinese brothers and sisters have different calculations. [Laughs]
Q: What’s your assessment of U.S. policy toward Tibet?
The Dalai Lama: I feel that it has been quite satisfactory and quite encouraging. Let me give one example. The American Administration appointed a special coordinator to encourage our dialogue with China. There’s a lot of sympathy for us in both houses. Besides, how much can they do? It’s a very complicated issue. China is not like Iraq. It’s a community of more than one billion people. It’s economically very powerful, also. In spite of that, the amount of support in the Western world is very encouraging.
Q: There are governments, such as the one in Burma, that claim to be Buddhist but engage in severe repression. What’s your response to its misuse of Buddhism?
The Dalai Lama: I don’t know. Is the Burmese regime really Buddhist?
Q: It claims to be.
The Dalai Lama: I think many of its leaders, naturally, are Buddhist. But, as far as their policies are concerned, do they manipulate Buddhism?
Q: They do things like funding pagodas.
The Dalai Lama: This is in order to get support from the public. On a few occasions, people have asked me if I have any statement to make regarding Aung San Suu Kyi. I have often expressed to the military leaders, since they are Buddhist, that they respect human rights, individual as well as those of groups, and that they modify some of the strict laws they have.
In the 1930s, one Mongolian leader became a very, very brutal dictator and eventually became a murderer. Previously, he was a monk, I am told, and then he became a revolutionary. Under the influence of his new ideology, he actually killed his own teacher. Pol Pot’s family background was Buddhist. Whether he himself was a Buddhist at a young age, I don’t know. Even Chairman Mao’s family background was Buddhist.
So one day, if the Dalai Lama becomes a mass murderer, he will become the most deadly of mass murderers. [Laughs]
Q: You turned seventy in July. As you get older, what are your thoughts on mortality?
The Dalai Lama: At a personal level, as a Buddhist practitioner, I deliberately visualize and think about death in my daily practice. Death is not separated from our lives. Due to my research and thoughts about death, I have some guarantee and some conviction that it will be a positive experience.
Amitabh Pal is the Managing Editor of The Progressive.