By Mary Kissel
DHARAMSALA, India -- "So, Rupert Murdoch is buying your newspaper?"
It's unclear whether the Dalai Lama's private secretary is making small talk about News Corporation's impending takeover of Dow Jones, or if he's obliquely reminding me of Mr. Murdoch's oft-quoted reference to his boss as "a very political old monk shuffling around in Gucci shoes." I'm momentarily flummoxed -- how does one reply when surrounded by monks? -- but I recover as we make our way through clouds to the Dalai Lama's residence here in the Himalayan foothills.
For more than 40 years, the man better known as "His Holiness" -- or, if you're in China, the "splittist," "separatist" or -- the ultimate slight -- "politician" -- has been waging a peaceful campaign for a free Tibet, which was invaded by Communist China in 1949 and has been brutally suppressed ever since. His "middle way" diplomacy, a talk-and-talk-some-more approach, has produced distinctly middling results. In the leadup to next summer's Beijing Olympics, the atrocities in Tibet have barely been mentioned -- overshadowed by China's weapons sales in Darfur, a world away.
Over the border, China is tightening its vise. The State Administration for Religious Affairs declared last month that all Buddhist reincarnations must get government approval, a move that sets the stage for Beijing to name its own Dalai Lama once this one passes. The Party's "Go West" campaign is flooding Tibet with Han Chinese, marginalizing the native Tibetans. And a wave of recent political crackdowns has been left largely unnoticed in the Western press.
But the Dalai Lama seems unperturbed, even buoyant. He emerges from the mist, shuffling down a footpath to minister to a waiting line of devotees. He chats with a group of former Tibetan special forces personnel who helped whisk him over the border in 1959 ("let's take a photograph"); then he tends to the sick ("visit a doctor"), and blesses visiting Buddhist pilgrims.
In the line also stand two teenage Tibetan schoolgirls whose father was imprisoned last month for standing up at Tibet's annual Lithang horse-racing festival and denouncing the local monks for cooperating with the communists -- sparking sympathetic protests and subsequent crackdowns all over the province. "Your father is a brave man," the he tells the ponytailed girls, who look simultaneously awed and sad. (The secretary is translating for me in a jarringly perfect American accent; he spent time in New Jersey as a youth.)
The girls had trekked over the Himalayas to Nepal, and later, to India and freedom. Like many of the approximately 3,000 refugees who come here every year, they may never see their family again. The Dalai Lama, the private secretary whispers in my ear, grants each of them an audience upon his arrival in Dharamsala. Moving into a sitting room, we leave the misty courtyard behind.
There is room for cautious optimism for Tibetans that things will improve in their homeland, but perhaps not in the Dalai Lama's lifetime.
As China gets richer and citizens search for spiritual fulfillment, underground religious movements are budding across the country. Last year, more than 500 mainland Chinese trekked to southern India to hear the Dalai Lama preach, according to the Tibetan government-in-exile.
Others now come to Dharamsala to learn Buddhism and then return to China. When Zhao Ziyang, China's former premier passed away, his family asked the Dalai Lama for a blessing.
"Chinese society is now ruled by autocrats," the Dalai Lama says with a laugh, as we start our formal interview. "But the society is still Chinese society." (The New Jersey-infused private secretary sits nearby, helping with translations when necessary.) "Chinese society built many, many Buddhist temples. . . . Now with a little liberalization, or lenient policy, their religious faith is now, khare-zego-re, (Tibetan for 'what is the word?') returning, reviving, including the Buddhist faith." I must have looked surprised at his cheerful optimism. "Mmm," he murmurs, shifting slightly in his chair.
Authoritarian, closed societies are "unpredictable," but the Dalai Lama insists that he's taking the right approach. "We are not seeking independence," he says. "We want a solution according to the Chinese Constitution." The Constitution, as his negotiators often remind Beijing, says "all nationalities in the People's Republic of China are equal," and adds "the state protects the lawful rights and interests of the minority nationalities and upholds and develops the relationship of equality, unity and mutual assistance among all of China's nationalities."
Beijing, of course, insists that this the "splittist" wants "independence," not autonomy. That was true -- 30 years ago. Through the upheaval of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, there wasn't much dialogue to be had with Beijing. In the early 1970s, as the Cultural Revolution was peaking, the Dalai Lama decided to shift to a call for autonomy, not independence, as a sign of good faith. At the time, he described it as a "middle approach."
Since then, the monk who's never been far from politics has tried to separate himself from the process to give it real legitimacy. The Tibetan government-in-exile founded a parliament in 1960. But in 1991, a new constitution, the Charter of Tibetans in Exile, transferred the power to select its members to the Tibetan people. In 2001, the charter was amended to allow the direct election of the prime minister -- Samdhong Rinpoche, a reincarnate lama himself. "I have no longer any political status," the Dalai Lama emphasizes. "I remain just a simple Buddhist monk," he says, "quiet!"
Beijing hasn't responded in kind to these gestures. If anything, the relationship has deteriorated over six rounds of talks. Last year President Hu Jintao's administration launched an intensive round of attacks against the Dalai Lama, calling him "unworthy" of being a religious leader. China's rhetorical venom has created a growing sense of fury in the Tibetan exile community. Many Tibetans worry that the Communist Party is playing a waiting game, stringing along the Tibetan negotiators until the Dalai Lama passes -- a fear that the Buddhist leader acknowledges.
"There's certainly more and more signs of frustrations, not only on our side, but inside," the Dalai Lama admits. A Tibetan youth tried to immolate himself when Mr. Hu visited Mumbai last year; another tried last month. In Tibet, violent tendencies have been crushed by the communists, but that doesn't mean they won't surface. "The suicides, the bombings, these things . . . it's possible," the Dalai Lama acknowledges, sighing slightly, with his hands now open. "But then, we always ask people to keep, keep peace."
One way of doing that is to institutionalize the Tibetan cause in the younger generation. Through private donations, the Tibetan government funds the Tibetan Children's Village, a network of schools for refugee children. Others are educated at Indian government-funded institutions.
All teach Tibetan language, culture and a version of Chinese history that would never see the light of day on the mainland.
"In the past, Tibetans, particularly the nomads and also the farmers, they simply carried their centuries-old way of life . . . completely ignorant about the current world," the Dalai Lama says. "We Buddhists must be Buddhists of the 21st century." (Maybe that's why the secretary is following Mr. Murdoch's purchases so closely.)
Another way to perpetuate the movement -- especially inside China -- is to debunk the Communist Party's characterization of religion as a destabilizing force. The Dalai Lama preaches what he dubs "secular ethics" -- the idea that there are common experiences that all people, regardless of religious faith, share. In his view, all spiritual traditions talk about basic concepts of love, compassion, forgiveness, tolerance, contentment, self discipline. While these ideas may come packaged in different philosophies, the message is the same.
"The main thing is some kind of usefulness to others." He pauses.
"That's the meaning of life," he says, leaning forward and pointing his finger at me gently.
Despite his optimism, there's little chance that the "middle way" will spark a breakthrough anytime soon. From Beijing's perspective, the Dalai Lama's return to Tibet would galvanize Tibetans to rally behind their leader and push for independence -- an example that China, which has suppressed other ethnic groups, such as the Uighurs, could not tolerate.
For the Communist Party, Tibet remains the third rail of politics -- a topic so sensitive that it turns mild-mannered Chinese bureaucrats red in the face at a mere mention. The party toyed briefly with liberalization of the region in the 1980s, only to find Tibetans gleefully displaying the Dalai Lama's image and calling for independence. In 1989, a crackdown ensued, overseen by now-President Hu, then the party secretary of the Tibet Autonomous Region. Since taking office, Mr. Hu has installed a loyal hard-liner to oversee the area.
China's economy is increasingly providing political cover for its suppression of Tibet; it's too big and important to let a little bright light shine on human-rights abuses in a far away land. The Dalai Lama's cause is especially lonely in Asia, given China's economic rise and its rapidly accruing military clout. "Very few" democracies in the region publicly support Tibet, with the notable exception of India -- which comes under pressure frequently from Beijing. The silence is deafening, given that many Asian democracies, including those in Japan and South Korea, are home to large populations of Buddhists.
Even Western democratic nations come under intense pressure from Beijing. Belgium cancelled an official visit with the Dalai Lama before an EU-China meeting in May this year. Australian Prime Minister John Howard hesitated to meet the Buddhist leader in June, but after intense lobbying from Washington, acquiesced. Germany's Angela Merkel is proving braver -- she's hosting the Dalai Lama's first-ever visit to the German chancellery on Sunday.
"When we look at Tibet issue locally, then almost hopeless," the Dalai Lama concedes. But from a "wider perspective," the Tibet cause is "always hopeful." Recalling how the Soviet Union changed, he muses for a moment on how China is developing. "China is communist without communist ideology -- only power," he declares. "So logically, no future!" The "only future" for China is "democracy, rule of law, free press, religious freedom, free information. China's future depends on these factors." That's something, he adds, that President Hu must know. "I really feel sympathy" for him.
The U.S. has always proved a strong supporter of the Tibetan cause -- a close relationship that makes the Dalai Lama feel "proud." America, he says is a "champion of democracy, freedom and liberty. So their full support means they recognize our struggle as a just cause and a moral issue." Next month's Congressional Gold Medal award ceremony has sent the Chinese embassy into high defensive gear. But that hasn't stopped President Bush from scheduling a private audience with the Dalai Lama.
"Of course, sometimes I have disagreement with . . . President Bush, but as a person, I always made clear, personally, I like him. He's very straightforward," the Dalai Lama recalls, "down to earth." House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is a "close friend of me personally and, I should say, a close friend of Tibet."
As we end, the Dalai Lama drapes a traditional white katag scarf around my neck and presents me with a pin depicting Potala Palace in Lhasa, his ancestral home. Then, like a child might, he throws his arms around me, and whispers into my ear: "We are passing through a difficult period," he says. "One ancient nation, with a unique heritage in a way, dying. So support from the free world is very much appreciated."
But will the free world follow through?
Ms. Kissel is The Wall Street Journal Asia's editorial page editor