By Jörg Eigendorf
He says he is a Marxist monk, yet still the Dalai Lama doesn’t see an alternative for a free market economy or wealth. A contradiction?
Getting to the Dalai Lama is a long and treacherous journey. The religious leader and Tibet’s head of state lives in exile at the foot of the Himalayas, two hours north of New Dehli by airplane. Here in Dharamshala his residence lies on an idyllic hill, right next to a Buddhist temple. Those who want to get to him must go through strict controls performed by both Indian as well as Tibetan security guards. Even bare fingers are patted down.
Fears over His Holiness are great. On one hand, the over 50-year-old non-violent fight for the autonomy of the Tibetan state has made the Nobel Peace Prize winner an international superstar. On the other hand, the Chinese have seen him as their archenemy since 1959.
But for years now the monk has shifted his focus from solely the Tibetan question and the fight against violence and has engaged himself in matters of the global economy and the challenge of how wealth can be distributed more fairly. Shortly before his trip to Germany at the end of July the Dalai Lama warns not only against greed, but also against having too much faith in the state.
WELT ONLINE: Your Holiness, for the Tibetans you are a divine king and you have many followers in the western world who idolize you. Do you have any weaknesses?
Dalai Lama: (laughs) Yes, I am lazy. Of course I wake up every morning at 3:30am and do some excercises, mediate, eat breakfast and meditate again. This goes on for four or five hours. In the spiritual regard I am not lazy. But when I sit in an airplane I always see people reading, writing or working on their computers, preparing presentations. I never do that – no homework, no preparations. These are signs of my laziness.
Does it bother you?
No, because when I prepare for something to intensely I always feel like it is too fake. I feel much better when I am spontaneous, because it comes from the heart.
Can you imagine how long I spent preparing for this interview?
(laughs again): You are German, so everything has to be precise. Besides, your questions have to be interesting. If I had to be the one asking questions, I would prepare for it too. But I just need to answer your questions, and if I don’t know an answer, I will just tell you.
Ok, how will we solve the financial crisis in the short-term?
See, this is one of those questions – I don’t know. The politicians must decide this. I am no expert in regards to solving a severe crisis. The same goes for violence and terrorism. In the short-term governments will have to act to prevent from endangering its citizens, which is the right thing to do. But with all the short-term actions we are taking, we shouldn’t forget the root cause of the problem.
What, in your opinion, is the root cause of the financial crisis?
Greed and gambling. Many people and companies only have one goal: money, money, and more money. Greed is ok when you let others profit from it, but greed for oneself is bad, it makes you ill. The egotistical ambition to always want to earn more money harms both the company and the individual himself. That is the biggest weakness of many managers – the financial crisis has proven this.
So it’s ok for someone to earn a lot as long as they share?
Wealth is not necessarily a bad thing when it has been earned in an honest manner and neither other individuals nor the environment suffered for it. As Buddhists we recognize that wealth is a basic prerequisite for a happy life. But a billionaire also only has ten fingers. He can fit three or four rings on each finger, but that would look weird. The satisfaction many millionaires who don’t share their wealth have in their heads is fictitious and not real. Rich people should help reduce poverty.
Some managers earn 10, 20 or even 30 million euros per year. You really don’t have a problem with this?
Just like in the music industry or sports there are exceptions. They can earn as much as they want, as long as it remains transparent and traceable why they earn so much money. Unfortunately there are only few such people. It is, however, unacceptable if a chief executive continues to increase his wealth while the company is sliding into bankruptcy, the shareholders lose their savings and the employees lose their jobs or don’t earn enough to afford a decent standard of living.
Let’s assume a chief executive discovers that he can develop a software in India for a tenth of the price it would cost in Germany. In order to do so, he must cut 1,000 jobs in Germany and create new ones in India. The owners of the company are pushing him to do this. What should the manager do?
The manager should consider the situation from all possible angles – the shareholders, the employees, the clients and society. Yes, even global society. A good manager must have a clear image of the problem. This sounds self-evident, but it doesn’t happen that often. Most of the time it is about maximizing profits.
Companies can’t survive without profits.
Yes, but companies are living, complex organisms and not profit machines. The profit should therefore not be the object of a company, but rather a result of good work. Just like a person can’t survive for long without food and water, a company can’t survive without profits. Not that I would ever reduce the purpose of a human to that, as eating and drinking are the only prerequisites for a meaningful life.
How do you feel about western companies investing in low-cost countries? Is that exploitation or does it help the national economy of these countries to close the gap with industrialized nations?
It depends on the investor’s incentive. I don’t think that many of the companies to invest in Indian or Chinese businesses are really interested in the Indian and Chinese people’s well-being. Quite often the interest lies in exploiting cheap labor, which I disapprove of. Yet if a company has a moral responsibility to improve the quality of life and to help China as a whole, then it is fine to profit from cheap labor. Global businesses can help China to become more democratic, help it to achieve an independent legal system and help to ensure a freedom of the press.
You won’t make many friends among those against globalization with your argument.
I am essentially a supporter of globalization. In the past societies and countries could seal themselves off from the rest of the world, but today this has become impossible. When we search for organizations that have the capacity and ability to improve our world, global companies are at the top of the list. In particular integrated global corporations are in an ideal position to support developing countries to close the gap to leading national economies.
Do you not have sympathy for anti-globalists?
I do when they remind leaders and companies that it is about more than just making profits. At the same time the growing opposition to globalization is dependent on our reluctance to accept the principle that everything is perishable: Meaning, the fact that everything is subject to permanent change. For Buddhists this is one of the basic pieces of wisdom that one must accept.
These liberal attitudes don’t really fit to someone who once called himself a Marxist monk. Do you still see yourself as one?
Yes, I still believe I am a Marxist monk. I don’t see a contradiction here either. In the Marxist theory the focus lies on the just allocation of wealth. From a moral perspective this is a correct claim. Capitalism, on the other hand, values the accruement of wealth – the allocation of it doesn’t matter here initially. In a worst case scenario the rich will keep getting richer while the poor keep getting poorer.
Why is it then that you are so against communism and socialism?Yet you used to be a long-time admirer of Mao Zedong. How could you be so wrong?
I am still convinced that Mao Zedong was a Marxist, who wanted to help workers and farmers, in his early years up until the mid-1950s. In the mid-1950s I spent six months in Beijing and another four months in many other parts of China. The party leaders, to me, seemed really dedicated to their cause.
What impressed you about Mao?
He always looked like a farmer – his clothes were old and ruined. And when he spoke, he did so very slowly, so every word had an importance. He never beat around the bush, never said niceties; he always came straight to the point. All of his party members that I met back then were like that, which impressed me.
How did Mao fail, in your opinion?
Mao once told that the communist party must endure criticism, and that self-criticism was very important. Without criticism every system of power is like a fish without water. But then, in 1957, suddenly all party officials who dared to criticize were eliminated. That was the end of Maoism. The system failed because of its own arrogance and a lack of self-discipline. The abolishment of private property led to many belongings ending up in the hands of a state that devolved into a party elite which exerted an authoritarian reign – much like aristocrats of the past.
What role does the state play for you in the economy?
That is a very hard question. I don’t think that equality can be established on a national level. Nations can cause a lot of damage. This is why I warn against expecting too much from governments when it comes to the redistribution or regulation of the financial markets. People will always find ways around rules and laws – even if they are the best rules or laws. Or do you think it was the lack of regulations that lead to this financial crisis? The rules in the United States were good; but responsible action demands more than law-abidance.