By Rashme Sehgal
Spiritualism alone cannot fill stomachs, says the exiled spiritual leader of the Tibetans in this exclusive interview. He believes there are benefits to staying with China, but only if China learns to respect democracy, civil rights and religious freedom
The recent unrest in Tibet, timed to re-focus the world’s attention on Tibet just as China prepares to host the 2008 Olympic Games, is the most serious since 1959. And the spotlight is clearly on the Dalai Lama, exiled spiritual leader of the Tibetans, whom the Chinese accuse of masterminding the uprising.
Despite his iconic status (to his followers he is a living Buddha), when one meets the Dalai Lama face-to-face he is always the simple ‘Tibetan monk’. The key issue of concern for him is the preservation of tibetan culture. Even when talking about issues of great importance to him, he never loses his calm and all his replies are punctuated with smiles and easy laughter.
The Tibetan demand for autonomy seems to upset the Chinese.
In recent years, the last 10 years, we have been demanding ‘meaningful autonomy’. But the Chinese perceive this to be the ultimate threat — that the Tibetans want to separate from China — forgetting that it is they who have all the power. Our concern has been with how we can protect and preserve our ecology and forests. Large-scale deforestation has caused unprecedented floods.
Deng Cheng (Deng Xiaoping) gave instructions in this respect (to preserve the ecology). We saw the development of some positive attitudes towards ecology. Unfortunately, private businessmen are extremely corrupt. They do not care for government instructions and have been doing the opposite. That is why we say we need meaningful autonomy. Our cultural heritage and our dedicated environment must remain with the Tibetan people.
You believe it is in the Tibetans’ interest to remain with China?
Tibetans are materially backward but they are spiritually quite advanced. Spiritualism alone cannot fill stomachs. Besides, we need material development. Being with China, we stand to get much benefit. That is why I have always been advocating the middle way.
The Tibet Youth Organisation is, however, very critical of our approach. My eldest brother, who is over 80 years, told me: “Dear younger brother, you have sold my Tibetan rights.” I respect him but his views on Tibet are completely different.
Amongst our supporters, even Indians here are very critical of our approach. They want independence. They say our approach has not yielded any positive results. This criticism is increasing, but still we are fully committed to reform. It is understandable for people to be critical. When they say that the Dalai Lama’s approach has failed, this is an expression of their frustration.
You have been quoted as saying that cultural genocide is taking place in Tibet.
Yes, there is a great deal of suppression taking place within Tibet. The Tibet Youth Congress has warned that it will disrupt the holding of the Olympic Games.
I have explained my stand on this issue. China is the most populated country in the world; it deserves to hold the games. Despite the suppression going on inside Tibet, and the intense criticism which I am facing, my position is the same. We are not Chinese but we respect China for holding the games in Peking.
I am fully committed to their taking the torch through Tibet, as this is part of the games.
This is not to say that I do not acknowledge some of the criticism by some individuals who criticise the Chinese record. The Chinese people must respect the civil rights of others; they must give others the right to religious freedom. This is the basis of our criticism, and they must improve.
A lot of people feel your middle path approach has failed.
It’s too early to say that the middle path approach has failed. (You will have to) wait for a few months.
Many younger Tibetans are demanding independence from China.
Right from the beginning, from 1986-87, I have asked the Tibetan community what its views are. My path is the middle path and that is the best approach. Tibetans living in Tibet also support my middle way.
In 2002, I renewed direct contact with the Chinese government. But my attempts to talk to them failed completely. I cannot force everyone to accept this point of view — we are fully committed to democracy.
The problem is that if you do a certain action, you should be clear about the consequences. Such an action can also generate criticism. Unfortunately, the Chinese leaders have no such experience. They cannot understand what democracy is. They accuse us but they do not realise that we do not have control (over the entire Tibetan population). We do not want separation, but the entire demography of Tibet has changed.
Why has the violence escalated in recent weeks?
The situation inside Tibet has been peaceful. I have already told the Tibetans that if there is an escalation in violence, I will resign. I am committed to non-violence. Chinese soldiers opened fire. Police shot at the public, one Chinese rifle fell down and they (took it and) shot back. If the violence goes out of control, I will resign. I am committed to non-violence. The Chinese side has guns, the Tibetan side has no guns.
Chinese soldiers, disguised as Tibetan monks, were indulging in violence. To a layperson, soldiers dressed like monks may look like monks. But we watched the images carefully and realised they were not monks. Also, in a photograph showing a Tibetan with a sword, the sword is Chinese. They all look like Chinese people dressed like Tibetans. Tibetans are not so foolish. For Tibetans to do something like this is almost like suicide. Tibetans come out and express their deep resentment through non-violence. They are met with shoot-on-sight orders.
What has the response been from the Chinese side?
My side is always open for dialogue. We are waiting to hear from the Chinese side. We have no power to bring China to the dialogue table. We have only truth and sincerity. That is why we are appealing to the world community: please help. I am helpless. I can just pray.
I have no authority to say do this or that. I follow Buddha. Buddha has given us liberty. He always said to his followers that they should not accept his teachings through devotion but should accept them through investigation. The poor Dalai Lama is happy to follow that way.
I always make a comparison between China and India. In India, there are different languages, different food, but still there is rule of law, freedom of expression (except in Kashmir where there is a problem involving slight use of force). This is a reflection of India’s stability. Newspaper men may indulge in sensationalism; problems are raised and then resolved. China looks stable but underneath there is a lot of resentment. China is a police state with a rule of terror. People cannot be put down by threats; this may work on animals but we are humans. We should have rule of harmony not rule of terror. Chinese leaders should study more human nature.
The Chinese have accused you of spreading falsehoods.
We believe in the truth. There are 6 million Tibetans living in China. People should go to Tibet and check whether what we are saying is true. Two weeks ago, I went through the same experience as I did in 1959. I faced a lot of fear, worry, anxiety… my mind was very disturbed. But now I have become much calmer.
When can we expect some tangible results?
This crisis is a spontaneous expression of the people. The Chinese were taken by surprise. So were we. I have met Tibetans who came from Tibet. Some have a good livelihood; students are getting a good education in Chinese universities. But all these people show a lot of frustration. Tibetans who are in the age-group of 50-60 years are more or less contented, as long as they do not face daily harassment, unlike during the period of the cultural revolution.
But the younger generation living there says as long as the Dalai Lama is there we will follow his advice, but once he goes we will take appropriate action. I feel concern at this. Whenever I meet Tibetans who come from Tibet I tell them, don’t do these political activities, concentrate on education and training. I tell these people independence is too much of a risk.
The Chinese are taking independent groups of people around Tibet.
You are taking a select group of neutral people who should investigate thoroughly the situation there. At the Jokhan temple, 30 monks came and said that what those official (Chinese) were telling was not true. Visiting Lhasa is not sufficient. They should go to remote areas and investigate and find out the truth.
Are you planning to go back to Tibet?
When we left Tibet, we did not come here on a pilgrimage. To go into the past, when the Chinese army reached Chando, in 1950, it was an independent nation. In 1951, I went to China where I had several meetings with Chairman Mao. I developed a genuine admiration for him. I was attracted to Marxism. In fact, I wanted to join the Chinese communist party. Many Tibetans were also communists. Many Tibetan communists were kept in jail for 18 years and more.
I had long-drawn-out meetings with Chairman Mao. He once told his audience that there must be criticism of the communist party. He asked them to list the limitations of the party. Everyone was silent. He insisted. Finally some people spoke out and said that the village-level officials were not behaving properly. Chairman Mao told them that the communist party was like fish — just as fish cannot survive without water, so the party cannot survive without criticism.
But in 1956, when the Chinese introduced reform in Tibet, it was done in a very unrealistic manner. The Chinese way of reform was different — the Chinese landlords were merciless. The Tibetan landlords are different. The Tibetan people want me to come back but I can do nothing unless there is freedom. There must be some degree of freedom for us to return. Tibet must be given meaningful autonomy. It must be genuine.
You often talk of retirement.
I am committed to the promotion of religious harmony. Once Tibet achieves autonomy, I will resign voluntarily. I am already is a semi-retired position. Happily, in the political field, we have elections taking place every five years. On the spiritual side, we have young, qualified people who will take care of Buddhist culture. One old monk can devote time to preparation for the next life.
Can you define spirituality and how one can attain it?
Aah! Aah! Spirituality means belief in a moral principle — in order to be a happy person, to have a happy family, one must cultivate the inner values of compassion and warm-heartedness. Now modern scientists in the West are also showing a keen interest in the development of a compassionate mind. All religions — Hindu, Christian, Muslim — have the same message. The essence of all religion is compassion, forgiveness and contentment.