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I am a simple Buddhist monk: Dalai Lama

by Percy Fernandez, TIMES NEWS NETWORK, July 6, 2006

Dharmsala, India -- As a young boy of 25, the Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso arrived in India 46 years ago. He turned 71 on the July 6, 2006. Last year, three days after his birthday he delightfully spoke at length on Mao, his boyhood memories, his commitment to spreading human values and his admiration for the Chinese people in an exclusive interview.

Contrary to rumour mills that the Dalai Lama is ailing, this reporter found the spiritual leader hale and hearty, strong and robust and with a firm grip. He is swift, full of life, and laughs his heart out. He is undoubtedly awe-inspiring, yet most humble. Most importantly he has a great sense of humour.

Much has changed since 2005. Early this year, the Dalai Lama expressed his desire to visit China on a 'pilgrimage' and wanted to observe the changes from the time he fled Tibet as a young boy.

He was really happy with the Berne round of talks between Tibet and China in Switzerland last June since the resumption of direct contacts since 2002.

But he continues to be problematic for the Chinese leadership. They are irritated whenever he travels to the US or incensed whenever he visits Japan, China's historical enemy. Hundreds of students from Taiwan and other countries descend to McLeodganj, above Dharamsala to receive his teachings and blessings. Recently, India's foreign secretary Shyam Saran called on the Dalai Lama at his official residence and not much is known about what transpired between them.

Because of his peripatetic schedule his doctors have advised him rest and hence the Dalai Lama has cancelled his European tour beginning from Helsinki next week. Later this year, in September the Dalai Lama will attend the largest gathering of Nobel Peace Prize winners in Denver alongside Desmond Tutu, Rigoberta Menchu Tum, Aung San Suu Kyi among others.

Curiously, the tickets for the Denver gathering will go on sale on the July 6 and so is the reopening of Nathu La. And it happens to be the birthday of the Dalai Lama.

Many many happy returns of the day. You have just completed 70 years. How does it feel to look back?

Like any other human being, some painful experiences and some satisfactory. But it has been more of satisfaction even in a life of exile that has brought me and my people a lot of opportunities.

I have had a chance to meet so many people from various walks of life. It has been very helpful in enriching my own way of thinking. I think I have made a little contribution to the Tibetan issue, its people and Tibetan culture. These are sources of my satisfaction.

Promotions of human values, religious harmony and peace have been my three commitments to humanity. I have been able to promote them through my writings, lectures and speeches.

I carry different names like counterrevolutionary, god king, Nobel Laureate and splittist among others. In the sixties, the Chinese media described me a wolf in a Buddhist robe, a great honour for someone who practiced tolerance and patience.

Tibetans think that you are also a political leader apart from their spiritual head.

It is almost 400 years after the Dalai Lama became the spiritual and temporal head of Tibetans. In my case, at the age of 16, I took the responsibility of both.

After we came to India, during the early sixties, we adopted a draft constitution which says that the Dalai Lama's powers can be abolished by two-thirds of majority in the assembly.

Three years back, we already established an elected political leadership. Since then my position is one of semi-retirement. May be, I am an ex-politician. But you don't mix the kind of politics which I involve with party politics. My politics is one of nationalist struggle.

What lies at the core of your identity?

A simple Buddhist monk. In my dreams, I feel that I am a Buddhist monk, not the Dalai Lama. Most people describe me as a Nobel Laureate. Many invite me because I am a Nobel Laureate and not because I am a monk or the Dalai Lama. They do that may be to ward off the Chinese pressure.

Once Bishop Desmond Tutu told me that it was difficult for him to reach the White House and after he received the Nobel Peace Prize, the path was cleared for his visit. (Laughs)

The life of late Pope John Paul II and yours have been compared. The Pope fiercely campaigned against the Communist empire. Did your find similarities in the cause both of you were pursuing?

His Holiness Pope John Paul II was a man I held in high regard. His experience in Poland and my own difficulties with communists gave us an immediate ground.

The Pope was very sympathetic to the Tibetan problem. Of course, as the head of an institution trying to establish good relations with China and seriously concerned about the status of millions of Christians in china he could not express this publicly or officially.

But right from the start of our friendship he revealed to me privately that he had a clear understanding of the Tibetan problem because of his own experience of communism in Poland. This gave me great personal encouragement.

Do you think tolerance and non-violence succeeds in this world?

Ultimately yes. It depends on situations. It will take time. In spite of taking time, it is the only way. Every issue is a complex one. There is no easy solution.

In the twentieth century leaders like Stalin, Hitler or Chairman Mao, took the simple method of elimination but never achieved their goals. It is impossible to eliminate all your enemies because you eliminate one, another will be born. It is possible may be in animals, but not with human beings.

If a father is eliminated, his children and grand children may carry those memories.

They will carry a sense of revenge. Bin Laden, if we handle him with hatred and handle violently, there will be 100 Bin Laden in ten or twenty years. It is possible.

Gandhi's idea of non-violence was not only morally correct but also practically realistic.

This violence somehow has to stop. From where should it stop? It is very difficult to expect from the other side to stop. This side, we should create some positive atmosphere.

In our own Tibetan case, we are fully committed towards non-violence and the middle-way approach. Even though we have been victims, we have created a conducive atmosphere. Now the powerful side, the Chinese side, has to act.

The Chinese say development inside Tibet is necessary because of globalization. What are your views?

Whether you call it globalization or economic development, some form of development is necessary. We need development and it is most welcome. But the Chinese way of development is concentrated only in pockets, like in India. Everybody is concentrating in Bangalore.

The rural India is still undeveloped. India is predominantly agriculture based. I have a strong feeling that rural India must transform.

In Taiwan, the farming and agriculture is mechanized, all of them have good education and health and the standard of living is good. India should also develop in this manner.

This reminds me of one conversation with one Chinese leader in 1954-55 in Shanghai, then Mayor and later the Foreign Minister.

He told me one late evening that he has no interest in further developing Shanghai. The countryside is not developed in Tibet.

Skewed development may create a gap between the rich and poor which is not good. I was told by a Tibetan recently the present population in Lhasa is 300,000 and according to a plan, Lhasa city should expand to 800,000. Out of the 300,000, only 100,000 are Tibetans and the rest are Chinese.

The real economic development of the local Tibetans and their economy is really in question if you analyze in depth and look at the picture carefully and closely. The real picture will emerge when people will be able to speak without fear.

In a recent televised interview, you said you liked Chairman Mao, what made you say that?

Yes. He is quite calm and composed. When he speaks, each word carries some weight. Some people talk a lot and convey little. Each word of Chairman Mao's carried some meaning.

I was impressed with him. Though my knowledge of Chinese was limited, I could understand the importance of what he said through a good Chinese interpreter. Mao considered me almost like my son.

He was very close to me. I was impressed by his simplicity. He used wear worn-out clothes. Not like Zhou Enlai who looks to be very honest.

Later several books and documents have portrayed a different picture of Mao as a tyrant and one who was responsible for 800,000 deaths of Chinese in the recent book Mao: The Unknown Story by Jung Chang and her husband, Jon Halliday....

Do you think the current Chinese leadership has acquired a forward looking policy to find a solution for the Tibetan issue?

I think the Chinese policy on the Tibetan issue is linked to their overall policy. The current leadership has changed and the situation is different than what it used to be thirty years before.

Much has progressed. In the early fifties, they just emphasized the importance of ideology regardless of the reality. After Deng Xiaoping, reality has become more important, which I think has been a remarkable change.

It has been like two steps forward and one step backward, though I am not a specialist on China. On the Tibet issue, there has been no clear policy by the Chinese government. They also know 99% of Tibetans are against Chinese rule.

I think the Chinese government eventually will realize this. But then they themselves don't know how to tackle it. So the only way out for them is to politically tighten the grip and sanction lots of economic incentives.

They think this is the best policy. I don't think this will work. People in Basque (Spain) are economically well off but politically not satisfied.

Similarly in Quebec (Canada) in spite of a separatist movement, people want Quebec to remain in Canada. And also the case with Scotland.

They would want to remain with Great Britain provided they are satisfied. if people are satisfied, they would want to remain within Great Britain.

Political dominance will not succeed. Tibet will remain within People's Republic of China, that's my middle way of approach.

Give us meaningful autonomy, give us respect and trust us. In the meantime, economic development can continue and we will see what will benefit us. It is important a nation handles its citizens with respect.

The Chinese leadership seems to be unhappy because you keep meeting world leaders and going to countries who they don't like, for example Japan and Taiwan?

(Laughs) In that case, India should get protests on a daily basis. I am a guest of the Indian government for the past 46 years. (Laughs) The Indian Government has been taking care of the Tibetan community in the maximum possible way, including preservation of Tibetan culture.

The preservation of Tibetan culture, particularly Tibetan spirituality is quite successful. I think the most important part is Buddhist study and knowledge, it has been fruitful particularly in south India. They have major Buddhist learning centres. I gave some teachings last year to 12000 monks. Most of them were students which was very encouraging.

Do you think time is on your side when it comes to the Tibetan issue?

Oh.I don't think. I don't think. It is difficult to say although people from China as a whole are changing. In the transformation takes place quite rapidly, it will lead to a more positive outlook.

It will take time. May be 5 years, 10 years, or may be 20 years. If it should take 20 years then the survival of Tibet itself is in question. In Lhasa, the local population has become a minority.

The Tibetan language is not in use. Chinese is used in the shops, restaurants and everywhere. The official language is Chinese. Those students who have scored well in Tibetan are not promoted.

Only those Tibetans who speak Chinese get jobs easily. The present generation of Tibetans prefer to speak Chinese because of their job prospects.

Do you have something to say to the Chinese people?

Some of our Chinese brothers, even if they have a big letter in front of them can't read if they don't want to. Also they will only listen what they want to hear. Strange.

I have always admired the Chinese people and respect them. China is a great nation, the most populous nation and a very important member in the global community. They have an important role in the world.

Their 5000 year old history and civilization is equally important. There have been lots of ups and downs in the 20th century for them. Since 1949 there has been some stability.

But looking at stability alone is not sufficient. They must bring more openness, rule of law, democracy, religious freedom, human rights; these are important for their own interest and to be respected as important members of humanity. A closed society always creates fear amongst themselves and outside.

Take for example India and her big neighbour. It is a closed society, a nuclear power. Nuclear power is fine, but there should be freedom. It will be much better if it had religious freedom, transparency and rule of law, isn't? Perhaps I am conveying on behalf of India. What do you think?



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