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The Dalai Lama and the Realpolitik of Spirituality

Robert Thurman interviews the Dalai Lama


Professor Robert A. F. Thurman:
Your Holiness, this is a two-part question. Is independence a realistic goal for Tibet? And if so, could the leaders of the other world religions do more than they already have  to help Tibet realize that goal?

His Holiness the Dalai Lama: Today Tibet, with its unique cultural heritage which incorporates Buddhist spirituality, is truly facing the threat of extinction. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, some kind of cultural genocide is taking place. Time is running out.

I believe my responsibility is to save Tibet's unique cultural heritage. The best way to save this nation with its heritage is through dialogue, dialogue with the Chinese government. That's the only way. We need some kind of political solution, which can only come through dialogue in the spirit of compromise, in the spirit of reconciliation.

Therefore, I'm speaking for genuine self-rule, not for independence. It is certain that historically Tibet was an independent nation. However, the world is always changing. Politically speaking, Tibet is a landlocked country, materially backward. So in order to develop Tibet materially, it is possible that if we join with another big nation we may get greater benefit.

Concerning the second part of the question, the various religious leaders have privately expressed a feeling of concern. That's quite clear. Recently the Jewish and Christian brothers and sisters made a resolution, which I think was very encouraging. One of the problems in Tibet now is that there is too much repression of religious life, so naturally, these religious leaders have serious concerns. I think it is very useful for them to express these concerns and we feel very grateful.

Robert Thurman: If independence is not practical, what is the best the Tibetan people can hope for? What is the best arrangement for the Tibetan people?

His Holiness the Dalai Lama: I believe it is genuine self-rule. In the education field, we must be able to work for the preservation of Tibetan culture. In the economic field we must develop industry, using the vast Tibetan mineral wealth. It is essential for the Tibetans to have the full responsibility, taking care of the environment, conserving the resources, and looking out for the interests of Tibetan workers, nomads and farmers.

The Chinese have shown a consistent concern to get profits as quickly as possible, regardless of the effect on the environment. Unfortunately, they simply have the intention to make money quickly, with no consideration of whether that industry benefits the local Tibetans or not.

Therefore it is important that responsibility for the development of Tibet must be carried by Tibetans themselves. There must be genuine self-rule, for the protection of Tibetan culture, economy and environment.

In other fields, such as foreign affairs and defense, perhaps we cannot carry all the responsibility. Buddhism became so central for Tibetans that, for the last two centuries, we have had some kind of general demilitarization. We have paid no attention to war and have kept no effective defenses on our borders. So practically, it is easier for us to let the Chinese government assume these responsibilities. So that's my main proposal. I think it's very practical and realistic and achieves the basic things that we consider important.

Robert Thurman: If Tibet remains part of China can the Tibetan religion and culture survive into the foreseeable future?

His Holiness the Dalai Lama: The Indian government has always expressed the idea that Tibet is an autonomous region of the People's Republic of China, not a part of China itself. That, I think, has some historical basis. On that  basis, China must respect our genuine autonomy.

Robert Thurman: And that includes a complete Tibet, so that the eastern parts of Tibet, Amdo and Kham, which have been incorporated into China proper, are once again recognized as Tibet, the truly autonomous region?

His Holiness the Dalai Lama: In my Strasbourg proposal, I made it clear that the entirety of Tibet should be considered as one entity. That is because my main concern, my main interest, is the Tibetan Buddhist culture, not just political independence.

If my main concern were the political independence of Tibet, then it would be enough for just the present Tibet Autonomous Region to be independent, leaving out Amdo and most of Kham. But my main concern is the protection of Tibetan culture, and I cannot exclude the four million Tibetans in these areas. Historically and even today, most of the top scholars are from Kham and Amdo. Lama Tsong Khapa came from Amdo.

Robert Thurman: Your Holiness comes from Amdo!

His Holiness the Dalai Lama: Yes...(laughter). So, my main aim being the preservation of Tibetan culture, if Tibet is divided into separate parts and the other regions of Tibet have their cultural heritage assimilated with Chinese culture, then there is no hope.

So my proposal treats Tibet as something like one human body. The whole Tibet is one body. If it were just a question of political independence, then even one part could be a separate nation. Furthermore, if my main goal were independence, then talking about other parts of Tibet could be considered as a kind of expansionism.

But my position is that we are willing to remain within the People's Republic of China. Concerning the danger of the extinction of Buddhist culture, I think the situation is even more delicate in these areas that have been absorbed into Chinese provinces-Amdo into Qinghai province, and Kham into Yunnan, Gansu and Sichuan provinces. There it is very difficult for Tibetans to maintain their cultural heritage.

Robert Thurman: I see what you mean, Your Holiness. Those who harp on political independence as the only goal never think about this dimension.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama: Since my main aim, my main concern, is spirituality, the special Tibetan cultural heritage, I have to speak out on behalf of these people of Kham and Amdo. And since I accept staying within the People's Republic of China, there is no implication of expansionism. Clear?

Robert Thurman: Very clear. So what does Your Holiness ask us to do, in the West, to effectively support the Tibetan cause?

His Holiness the Dalai Lama: According to our past experience, I consider public opinion the ultimate source of our hope. If public opinion increases in a favorable way, then it is automatically reflected in the media. And that gives inspiration for more support, more concern, in Parliament or Congress. It certainly gives the government a new enthusiasm.

I have found this in many countries, very much in Europe. Because public opinion is so favorable, so strong, the media is very favorable, very supportive. So ultimately, it gives the government enthusiasm to want to help in a practical way. At this moment we are appealing to various governments to pursue the Chinese government to start meaningful negotiations without preconditions. That's my main thrust at this point.

After 1959, the early sixties, the U.S. government supported the Tibetan cause. But without public grassroots support, governments can easily change their policies. Now the public support we are receiving is very considerable. And it actually comes from the public. This cannot change overnight. Government policy always has the possibility of change, but public sympathy remains there.

So in the long run, I feel public opinion is very important. People can help if they increase the activities of Tibetan support groups in various parts of the world and in the United States. Just now, there is a very important movement beginning among the university students.

Robert Thurman: Yes, Students for a Free Tibet.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama: This, I think, is very important, very good.

Robert Thurman: Yes, we were working with Adam Yauch at his concert for Tibetan freedom. Adam asked me to speak to that huge crowd of young people-and all they wanted was more singing! So I had to talk quickly. I asked the kids if they wanted peace in the next century. They made a huge shout, "Yes!" Then I told them that they should speak out right now against policies of our government or the Chinese government or anyone that they can see will bring violence and war in the future. Because their next century could be ruined by war. Words now could stop war then!

His Holiness the Dalai Lama: Okay! (laughter)

Robert Thurman: So popular support is the key, and the education about Tibet of the young people all over the country is very crucial for long term support.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama: There are several issues that draw public interest to Tibet.

One is Tibetan Buddhist culture. Buddhist culture has great potential to create peaceful human community, not only in Tibet, but also there is a possibility, already happening historically, in the whole of northern India, then in Mongolia, Outer Mongolia, some parts of Xinjiang, where the Torgut Mongols are also Tibetan Buddhists. Then, Buddhist culture is now helping to revive a number of republics in the Russian federation, such as the Buryat, Kalmyck and Tuva republics. The local people were historically Buddhist, with the same Tibetan Buddhist tradition, but their culture was nearly lost.

The most important people our Buddhist culture can benefit are the Chinese themselves. I want to tell you two stories. Kusho Bakula Rinpoche, a lama from Ladakh who serves as Indian Ambassador to Mongolia, often stops at Peking airport. He wears monk's robes, and once, some high-ranking Chinese military personnel noticed him. Without hesitation, they approached Rinpoche and asked for his blessing. Rinpoche himself told me this.

The second story is about an Amdo Lama who lives in Peking. He has been giving Buddhist courses to small Chinese audiences for ten or fifteen years. Recently a Chinese journalist brought me a picture of a Chinese high military commander in full uniform, just sitting very seriously in meditation.

So from these stories we can see that when the situation in China proper becomes more open, with more freedom, then definitely many Chinese will find useful inspiration from Tibetan Buddhist tradition.

Tibetan Buddhist culture, I am quite sure, has a great potential to serve many human beings in that part of the world. Therefore, the importance of preserving Tibetan culture becomes very clear. From this perspective, some people get more involved, become more concerned for Tibet.

Then for some, the Tibetan environment is important. Some environmentalists believe that the natural balance and climate in the Tibetan plateau is very important for normal monsoon in the lands surrounding the Himalayas. Indiscriminate mining without precautions and massive deforestation brings a lot of erosion. There is also the problem of the dumping of nuclear wastes. There is a danger of contaminating all the major rivers in that part of the world; the Ganges, Brahmaputra, Yellow River,  Yangtze and Mekong Rivers, all these have their ultimate source in Tibet.

So if something happens on the roof of the world, then a vast area in east, southeast and south Asia is affected. According to ecologists, the high altitude and dry climate is more delicate, and once damage happens, it takes a longer period to recover. The Tibetan environment is a very, very serious matter. So this also, for some people, draws real concern.

Third, there is the population transfer of Chinese colonists into Tibet, without a real welcoming attitude from the local people. This is another issue.

Therefore, when explaining to the public about Tibet, there are these three main issues; not only human rights violations, great suffering and destruction, but also the benefit of the Tibetan culture, the importance of the ecology of the Tibetan plateau, and the dislocations caused by mass Chinese immigration. These facts should be highlighted, so that different people in different fields may take a  serious look at the Tibetan issue from their perspective. The Tibetan issue has many different aspects.

Robert Thurman: Does Your Holiness believe that increased economic growth in China will be helpful to the cause of the Tibetan people?

His Holiness the Dalai Lama: In the long run, yes.

Robert Thurman: Does Your Holiness believe that western governments and companies have chosen profit and trade over support for human rights and democracy?

His Holiness the Dalai Lama: That's a really complicated issue. When the Clinton administration first came to power, I supported putting conditions on China's Most Favored Nation trading status. Then the effectiveness of that policy failed, since a unified position with the European Union and Japan did not emerge. Without such a unified position, I think it is difficult to really have any effect on China.

Then without much effect on China, American relations with China eventually become more confrontational. That also is not healthy. Not good. Confrontation only has some real effect through force. That is something different. So there is either friendly and gentle persuasion, or the extreme use of a show of force, such as sending the aircraft carriers to show protection of Taiwan's election. But between the two, I think there's not much use. Here we need a lot of wisdom about how far you can apply pressure while staying connected. There must be a delicate balance, keeping good relations by maintaining a friendly manner, and, at the same time, showing real strength in certain crucial matters. That is the approach we need.

Robert Thurman: What is the reason that the Chinese government at this point is repressing the Tibetan religion and people so especially hard? With the Panchen Lama imposition and taking Your Holiness' pictures down, why the special pressure?

His Holiness the Dalai Lama: First, as communists or radical atheists, they never appreciate and understand the value of religion. Second, one Chinese document admitted that Tibetan case is similar to that of the Polish Solidarity movement, where the Catholic religion and the democratic movement come together. So the Chinese make a comparison with Poland, where they see the Tibetan Buddhist tradition combined with the freedom struggle.

Robert Thurman: What does Your Holiness think will happen in Tibet following the death of Deng Xiaoping?

His Holiness the Dalai Lama: I don't think there will be immediate change. The last two or three years, the emerging leadership has already carried the full responsibility. Other hand, on the emotional level, the death of Deng will have impact on the Chinese masses. So eventually....

Robert Thurman: Outside Tibet, can the Tibetan people preserve their culture for generations in the face of the difficulties of exile and the temptations of materialism?

His Holiness the Dalai Lama: I think they can maintain it for one or two more generations, and then I don't know.

Robert Thurman: Do Westerners generally have a naive view of Tibetans and Tibetan society? Do they idealize it in an  unrealistic way?

His Holiness the Dalai Lama: I think so, particularly in the early part of this century, and also in the early part of our refugee period. Now people are getting more information, and I think that feeling is changing. Like you yourself, there is new generation of more realistic, authentic Tibetologists coming.

Robert Thurman: On the other hand, many Westerners, especially some social scientists who don't understand religion, have an excessively negative view of old Tibetan society, in my opinion. They tend to the Chinese view that Tibetans were superstitious and stupid. Like the whole language of "feudal" and "serfs." It's a little extreme. Your Holiness even uses "feudal" sometimes. But I don't agree (laughter).

His Holiness the Dalai Lama: The category of "feudal" perhaps fits our system, but it was a bit different from the feudal system that existed in Europe, India, China and former Tsarist Russia. If you compare the societies as a whole, ours was a more compassionate society.

Robert Thurman: That's right. But not just because of compassion. It was not a vague difference of atmosphere; there was a major institutional difference. In Europe and Russia there was a constant militarism, so the peasant or serf was always a potential soldier. His life was owned by his lord and military commander. Tibetan society did not have much military; it was more or less demilitarized since the 17th century. This is a huge difference. After all, the "feud" in "feudal" refers to constant fighting.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama: Interesting. Then you should write something about this.

Robert Thurman: I have written something which will come out soon. I hope it won't cause a feud! (Laughter.) Last question. Does Your Holiness believe you will return to Tibet in this lifetime?

His Holiness the Dalai Lama: Oh yes, certainly.

Robert Thurman: What's the schedule?

His Holiness the Dalai Lama: I don't know. I believe that within a few years' time, some favorable change will come. That is my feeling. In any case, with hope and determination, we are making every effort. With that effort, if something fails, there is no regret. That is my feeling.

Robert Thurman: I have been saying publicly two to four years, Your Holiness. Please don't make me wrong!

His Holiness the Dalai Lama: (Laughter) I always say that. Some time ago, I think I said ten years. Now it is down to two or three years.

Robert Thurman: I'm down to that too. If it's wrong, I'll have to run away.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama: (Laughter. Rising to leave....) Thank you.


The Realpolitik of Spirituality, Robert Thurman, Shambhala Sun, November 1996.

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