TIME talks with the Tibetan spiritual leader
BY ALEX PERRY
When China invaded Tibet in 1950, it promised to bring modernity to the isolated feudal kingdom. Instead, it brought a reign of religious and cultural repression that drove the Tibetan government into exile, including its supreme religious and political leader. Discovered as the 14th incarnation of Tibetan Buddhism’s high priest at age 2 and enthroned at 4, the Dalai Lama escaped to India in 1959 and has never returned. After 45 years of trying to preserve a nation without a land, the Dalai Lama is grappling with the future of Tibet in a startlingly pragmatic way—one that risks alienating his own people, his international supporters and even his family. In a candid conversation with TIME’s Alex Perry at his cottage in McLeod Ganj, India, the Dalai Lama admits that he now believes the only way forward for the Tibetan people may be to “remain within China”—while hoping China preserves Tibet’s unique culture.
TIME: How is the situation in Tibet?
Dalai Lama: Despite some economic improvement and development, the threats to our cultural heritage, religious freedom and environment are very serious. Then also in the countryside, facilities in education and health are very, very poor. It’s like the big gap in China proper between rich and poor. So the whole picture, it almost looks hopeless. When the 13th Dalai Lama visited China in the early 20th century, there was a large Manchurian community—even the Emperor was Manchurian. Almost exactly 50 years later when I visited, the Manchurian community was no longer there. It was completely assimilated. That danger is very alive [in Tibet, too]. So that’s why the Tibetan picture is almost hopeless. That’s why we are trying to gain meaningful autonomy.
TIME: Is there any reason for optimism?
Dalai Lama: Many communist and authoritarian regimes have changed, including the Soviet Union, not by force but by their own people. These are very positive developments. China [still has] the same system, but the reality is that much is changing. Freedom of information, religious freedom and freedom of the press are much better. I feel that man-made unrealistic systems eventually return to a human, natural way. We love freedom. Even animals love their freedom. And now naturally that is coming back. So on that level, the situation in Tibet is hopeful. Today, quite a number of [Chinese] people are showing an interest in the preservation of Tibetan culture and spirituality. Tibetan spirituality is a very important part of the spirituality of China as a whole, and the preservation of Tibetan culture can enrich China. Millions of Chinese are traditional Buddhists, and many people in China are turning to Tibetan Buddhism.
TIME: How is your relationship with Beijing?
Dalai Lama: We renewed direct contact with Beijing three years ago. We’re not expecting some major breakthrough—the Tibetan issue is very complicated, and China is oversuspicious and very cautious. It will take time. However, meeting face to face and having friendly discussions is very, very important. Some Chinese intellectuals, artists and writers are showing a proper understanding and are supporting my middle-way approach to solving the problem, which is not seeking independence but rather meaningful autonomy to preserve Tibetan culture, language and environment.
TIME: You’ve faced some criticism for giving up Tibet’s fight for independence.
Dalai Lama: Some Tibetans now accuse me of selling out their right to independence. Even my eldest brother is for complete independence and he always accuses me [of this]. But my approach is actually in our own interest. Tibet is backward, it’s a big land, quite rich in natural resources, but we completely lack the technology or expertise [to exploit them]. So if we remain within China, we might get a greater benefit, provided it respects our culture and beautiful environment and gives us some kind of guarantee. For us [it would mean] more modernization. The new railway [into Tibet], for instance. This is generally speaking a good thing, very beneficial for development, providing it is not used politically.
TIME: Some say China is waiting for you to …
Dalai Lama: To die.
TIME: Well, yes. What do you make of that idea?
Dalai Lama: There are two opinions. Some say, yes, once the Dalai Lama passes away, the whole Tibetan issue will die. Another opinion is that the grievance will still be there, or will even become stronger, but in the meantime there will be no one to guide and persuade Tibetans, [so] Tibet becomes more difficult to handle. Which is correct? I do not know. Wait until my death. (Laughs.) Then reality will answer.
TIME: Do you think the cohesion of the Tibetan community would disappear without you?
Dalai Lama: The Tibetan issue is the issue of a nation. So when one individual passes away, that is a certain setback. But since it’s an issue of a nation, so long as the nation remains, the issue will remain. With sufficient willpower and sufficient economic [prosperity], then I think it is possible to carry on. Look at the Jewish community: for 1,000 years it has kept its spirit. Sometimes Tibetans become complacent if things are easy. If things become difficult and serious, then the Tibetan mind becomes quite strong.
TIME: After you, what happens to the position of the Dalai Lama?
Dalai Lama: The institution of the Dalai Lama, and whether it should continue or not, is up to the Tibetan people. If they feel it is not relevant, then it will cease and there will be no 15th Dalai Lama. But if I die today I think they will want another Dalai Lama. The purpose of reincarnation is to fulfill the previous [incarnation’s] life task. My life is outside Tibet, therefore my reincarnation will logically be found outside. But then, the next question: Will the Chinese accept this or not? China will not accept. The Chinese government most probably will appoint another Dalai Lama, like it did with the Panchen Lama. Then there will be two Dalai Lamas: one, the Dalai Lama of the Tibetan heart, and one that is officially appointed.
TIME: was the international Free Tibet movement a fad, like saving the whales?
Dalai Lama: I don’t think so. I think interest worldwide in Tibet and support groups are active still. Sometimes concerts happen, sometimes they don’t. Another factor may be Afghanistan and Iraq; they make Tibet a secondary issue.
TIME: if international interest and pressure are not maintained, does China win?
Dalai Lama: China is already in a win-win situation in any case. It already controls Tibet. (Laughs.) But what do you mean by win or lose? This is quite complicated. We’re not suggesting separation, [but] that Tibet becomes more prosperous within China—and that it is also in the interests of the people of China to preserve our cultural heritage. Only if you seek independence or separation is it a question of win or lose. If worldwide interest in Tibet diminishes and is not sensitive, then the Chinese government will not feel much sensitivity [toward Tibet]. But Indian public sympathy is very strong and also the Tibetan community in America and Canada.
TIME: How much has exile cost you personally?
Dalai Lama: I don’t know. Of course, I lost my own country and for more than 45 years I have been stateless. But I think I’ve had a very good opportunity to learn new things, including other traditions. As a result, my nonsectarian spirit is much, much stronger. And accordingly I can make a small contribution to religious harmony. I am a rare religious person who has a lot of genuine friends in other traditions. So I feel that if I stayed inside Tibet, in the Potala [Palace] looking around with binoculars, I may [have missed that]. And because I became a refugee, I became more realistic. Our generation is facing a serious challenge. Therefore, in a way, we have the best opportunity to show our inner strength. You can’t say this is white or this is black, absolutely positive or negative. Everything is, you see, mixed. And much depends on how you look. Some people, I notice in the West, are fond of clear cuts. [If the situation is] positive, [they are] very happy. A little negative, very unhappy. This is unrealistic.
TIME: is there still a Tibet to return to?
Dalai Lama: I think so. When Manchuria was facing danger, no one in the outside world took it seriously. Tibet is not like that. Today, Tibetan culture is almost like a part of international culture. That’s a big advantage for us.
TIME: What do you see in the future?
Dalai Lama: If you look at the Tibet situation locally, then it’s hopeless. But from a wider perspective, it’s hopeful. That’s my last words on this. Not bad.