Time running out for Dalai Lama
Toronto Star[Sunday, December 07, 2003 11:30]
The Dalai Lama speaks with Toronto Star reporter Martin Regg Cohn at a heavily guarded hilltop residence in northern India. The Buddhist monk has recently restarted a dialogue with Beijing after a decade-long estrangement. (ANGUS MCDONALD FOR THE TORONTO STAR)
The Dalai Lama speaks with Toronto Star reporter Martin Regg Cohn at a heavily guarded hilltop residence in northern India. The Buddhist monk has recently restarted a dialogue with Beijing after a decade-long estrangement. (ANGUS MCDONALD FOR THE TORONTO STAR)
Talks of Middle Way with China

Shares ideas on lust, politics, faith


DHARAMSALA, India — Before answering any questions, His Holiness fires off one of his own:

"Is it true you have recently been to Tibet — without a Chinese escort?"

His follow-up comes tumbling out before I can even switch on the tape recorder:

"How are conditions there now? What did you see?"

It has been 44 years since the Dalai Lama fled his realm for this remote Indian hill town, after an abortive uprising, to set up his government-in-exile. He has never been back across the border, to the roof of the world whence he came.

And so the Dalai Lama interrogates anyone who has recently been to Tibet.

Gone is the familiar smile emblazoned on book covers around the world, replaced by a furrowed brow that arches over the tortoise-shell frames of his glasses.

The frown deepens when he hears what he already knows: That there is no good news from Tibet these days.

That after more than half a century of Chinese occupation, time is running out for his fellow Buddhists.

Now the Dalai Lama wants to make a deal. The dream of independence is dead, he says sombrely.

Throughout our one-hour interview in his heavily guarded hilltop residence in Northern India, 400 kilometres north of Delhi, he repeats his mantra of the Middle Way.

The only possible compromise is full autonomy for Tibetans under Chinese sovereignty, so that he might return to Lhasa and lead his people — before he passes from the scene.

As he approaches 70, the reincarnated Buddha of Compassion is in a hurry.

"The Tibetan nation is dying, so therefore we need (an) immediate future," he warns.

The Dalai Lama has fretted for decades about the silent "cultural genocide" taking place in his homeland. Now he fears the rapid migration of Chinese settlers into Lhasa is overwhelming Tibet's demographic balance more rapidly than at any time since the People's Liberation Army arrived in 1951.

"This is a question of the survival of a nation with a unique cultural heritage and unique environment. So we need something we have to do something now! It is not sufficient to talk about it after 30 years or 50 years."

He argues that all of us have a stake in the outcome, which is why the Dalai Lama tours the world tirelessly — Canada is on his itinerary early next year — in search of support.

"The preservation of Tibetan culture, the preservation of Tibetan spirituality, is not only in the interests of 6 million Tibetan people ... but in the interests of humanity," he says in his broken English, smoothed out by his chief of staff and press secretary who remain by his side.

He glances at his two aides, and the mischievous grin returns. Tibet's highest spiritual leader abruptly breaks into gales of high-pitched laughter, his shoulders heaving through the gaps in his crimson robes.

Chosen at age 2 as the 14th reincarnation of the Buddha of Compassion, he was enthroned as a 5-year-old. At age 15, as Chinese troops marched on Tibet, he was designated Tibet's political leader.

His official title translates as "Holy Lord, Gentle Glory, Eloquent, Compassionate, Learned Defender of the Faith, Ocean of Wisdom."

Tibetans call him Yeshe Norbu, the Wish-Fulfilling Gem: the short form is Kundun; the Presence.

But it is his humanity, and his hilarity, that have captivated the world and exasperated the People's Republic of China. He disarms questioners by cocking his head to one side and chortling reflexively, yet his answers are often startlingly direct.

During our interview no topic is too delicate: fending off lust, fighting religious fundamentalism, the perils of worshipping the West, the pitfalls of romanticizing Tibet and idealizing him.

For all his candour, one subject gives him pause. When I ask about his scheduled trip to Canada next spring, the Dalai Lama glances at his aides, reading their nervous expressions before putting on his own diplomatic face.

He hints, politely, that he still hopes for "even some sort of chance (encounter), some sort of occasion (for a) meeting with the prime minister."

But an aide has already confided that their overtures for a meeting with Canada's prime minister or foreign minister have been rebuffed.

No foreign government recognizes Tibet as a separate country, yet the Dalai Lama is regularly welcomed by the prime minister in Britain, and the U.S. president in Washington.

While much of the world treats him with adulation, avoidance is Ottawa's watchword.

Such snubs are nothing new for the Dalai Lama, who always makes the best of a bad hand.

If Canada's top leadership cannot make time for him, he will busy himself with his Buddhist teachings. From Ottawa, he will travel to Toronto in late April to perform a ritual for world peace known as the Kalachakra, or "Wheel of Time."

It is the struggle for Tibetan rights, rather than the idiosyncracies of Western diplomacy, that preoccupies the Dalai Lama. The stakes are high. Glancing at my tape recorder again, he muses — in his staccato English — about getting in trouble with Beijing if misquoted:

"Some anger! And I get scolded!"

Over the years, Chinese government propagandists have excoriated him as a jackal and a "reactionary feudal serf-owner." His personal favourite is when they call him a "wolf in monk's clothing."

Unafraid of having his wrists slapped, His Holiness returns to matters of state, and the challenge of living with the country that has colonized his people.

"Why not remain within the People's Republic of China, provided they respect our culture, they take care about our environment, and they provide us economic development?" he asks, alternating between a measured, deep voice and sing-song exclamations.

"If we think with wider perspective, in modern times, now the question of sovereignty — complete independence — is now, I feel, in many cases just in name."

Hence his latest diplomatic initiative to restart a dialogue with Beijing after a decade-long estrangement. From his Himalayan perch, a 12-hour drive from New Delhi, the Dalai Lama has dispatched two delegations to China in the last year — including one led by his elder brother, Lodi Gyaltsen Gyari.

The talks generated a "quite positive atmosphere, so it's a good start, so we'll continue this direct contact."

His next scheduled meeting, after our interview ends, will be with one of his China emissaries who is waiting outside the door as we speak. The Dalai Lama wants the world, and Beijing, to understand that he is ready to settle.

"I am not seeking independence. This is my mantra! You know mantra? A thousand times you should recite that.

"The Chinese government's mantra is that Tibet is part of China. This is their mantra. But it seems as if both mantras are not having much effect so far."

Without a meeting of mantras, there can be no meeting of minds. And so his Middle Way remains a hard sell on both sides of the debate.

While the West loves this Nobel laureate, and his own people revere him as a living god, not everyone finds the Dalai Lama without fault. Critics accuse him of acquiescing to China by selling out Tibet's historic claim to statehood.

To be sure, his pacifism wins plaudits abroad. But the tactic exerts little pressure on Beijing, which shows few signs of relaxing its grip and still bars his entry to Tibet.

Still, he appeals to China and his own people to make the Middle Way work. Or risk graver consequences after his passing.

"If the situation inside Tibet does not improve, then criticism will increase within our community," he says, chopping the air.

Indeed, Tibet's biggest youth group has broken with him on the independence issue.

The Tibetan Youth Congress questions whether the Dalai Lama could persuade his own people to go along if China ever accepted his terms.

"The youth organizations are talking about independence," the Dalai Lama chuckles.

"They accuse me that I sell out Tibetan rights."

The dissent weighs heavily on the Dalai Lama, who keeps a portrait of his pacifist hero, Mahatma Gandhi, hanging in his residence.

He concedes that the Gandhian tactics that worked so well in British colonial times have failed so far against a tougher adversary in Communist China.

"True, that's very true," he sighs.

"In totalitarian regimes — even small demonstrations are immediately crushed."

Yet the Dalai Lama remains optimistic, arguing that intellectuals and Buddhists in China are becoming more aware of Tibetan traditions.

There is no alternative to peace — only chaos, he says, and his own irrevocable exit from the scene.

"That is my principle: If the situation becomes out of control, then my only option is resign — completely."

Despite his best efforts to transfer more decision-making power to an elected Tibetan prime minister and Parliament in recent years, democracy cannot trump theology.

The Dalai Lama's departure would come as a severe jolt to Tibetans.

A vacuum of power would result from the years spent selecting and grooming a reincarnated successor, while China and the exile government clashed over the process.

Hence the continuing concern over the 14th Dalai Lama's health and safety. There have been death threats in recent years, mostly from rival Buddhist sects.

Armed bodyguards — burly Tibetans and agents from the Indian security services — shadow him closely at the official residence where this "simple Buddhist monk" is a virtual prisoner within its mouldy brick walls and corrugated metal roof.

His day starts at 3:30 a.m. with morning ablutions, a shortwave radio newscast, and four hours of meditation and recitation.

Breakfast is tea and tsampa (roasted barley flour), followed by the study of sutras (Buddhist scriptures) until noon.

After a vegetarian lunch, the Wish-Fulfilling Gem conducts audiences until about 5 p.m. He takes no supper, merely evening tea at about 6 p.m., followed by more meditation and prayers.

He rarely leaves the grounds unless he's jetting around the world. As a stateless refugee, Kundun — the Presence — travels on a yellow identity certificate issued by his Indian government hosts.

Surrounded by thangkas — painted Buddhist scrolls —the Dalai Lama uses his time to reflect on how Tibetans must control their anger and strive for co-existence.

He applies the same critique to religious radicals of any faith who take up arms to impose their often fundamentalist views. Be they Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Christian, or Islamic fundamentalists, the Dalai Lama believes they all misunderstand the essence of faith.

"Fundamentalism is emotion — too much attachment, too much attachment," he says.

"In reality, there are several truths, several religions."

Equally, the Dalai Lama discourages overzealous admirers who expect him to perform miracles or heal the sick — and Westerners who fawn over him or fantasize about marrying him.

When a Russian admirer proposed marriage, "I repeated several times that this is impossible — you should consider me as your brother."

I delicately broach the matter of lust. How does a celibate monk control it?

"Oh yes, I think lust, sexual desire, I think that is biological," he explains breezily.

"So therefore with healthy body, yes. Some problems, naturally. But I think my case, I think fortunately, around 15, 16 years of age, (at the) same time I also developed more serious interest about Buddha Dharma (doctrine). So I always feel sort of deep satisfaction (with) the practice of Buddha Dharma and being monk, celibate. And that helps a lot.

"And then, meantime, those married people also not necessarily very happy. Lot of problems, I heard. You see, have problems. When they have no child — another worry. Too much child — another worry. That is not only (for a) few years, but whole life: Their education, their livelihood, and their own marriage. So, lot of problems, hmmmh?"

When I interject that married life can be pleasant, the Buddha of Compassion indulges me with peals of laughter again: "That's good. Congratulations, congratulations!"

The interview is over. The Dalai Lama drapes a ceremonial white katak scarf over me, then grips both my hands, fixes his gaze on me, and turns serious.

It is his turn to ask questions again:

"How was it in Tibet? What can you tell me?"

He walks me out to the porch and lets go at last.

Clasping his hands together in the traditional Buddhist greeting, he heads back for his next scheduled audience with yet another bearer of bad news: his personal envoy to China.