His Holiness Dalai Lama interview - New York Times
←Older revision | Newer revision→
Source: The New York Times, 11/28/1993 Written by: Claudia Dreifus
The last place one expects to find His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, the exiled secular and religious leader of the Tibetan people, the winner of the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize, the world's leading exponent of nonviolent political change, is at a glitzy Tucson, Ariz., golfing resort called the Sheraton El Conquistador. Yet there he was on a recent autumn morning, dressed in his traditional maroon robes, surrounded by Buddhist monks and non-Buddhist bodyguards, astonishing tourists as he rushed past the snack bar.
The Dalai Lama had come to this unlikely corner of the world to give a series of interpretive readings from "A Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life" by Shantideva, an eighth-century Buddhist saint. For five full days, 1,500 attendees risked bad backs and cramped hands to sit for hours taking notes on the nature of patience. For them, participants in the expanding Buddhist movement in the Western world, this was a rare opportunity to study with the head of the faith -- the equivalent of taking Bible classes from the Pope. Moreover, many of the aspirants were more secular types, veterans of the 1960's who'd come to regard the Dalai Lama as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Mahatma Gandhi of this political moment. It is a forum the Dalai Lama clearly enjoys, a needed break from routine as head of the Tibetan government-in-exile in India. "I am a simple Buddhist monk -- no more, no less," he often says of himself. At the teachings, he gets to be that.
Yet his life has been anything but simple. Born in 1935 to a peasant family in northeast Tibet, he was, at the age of 2, identified after the death of the 13th Dalai Lama as the 14th reincarnation of the Buddha of Compassion. That recognition brought a new name; Lhamo Thondup now became Jetsun Jamphel Ngawang Lobsang Yeshe Tenzin Gyatso (Holy Lord, Gentle Glory, Eloquent, Compassionate, Learned Defender of the Faith, Ocean of Wisdom). Taken to Lhasa to be educated, he grew up in a 1,000-room palace, surrounded by doting monks who tutored him in subjects like philosophy, medicine and metaphysics and gave him a childhood of pure magic.
The magic ended in 1950 when the 15-year-old Dalai Lama was called upon to assume full powers as head of state. This, at the very moment the People's Liberation Army of China was invading Tibet. For the next nine years, the young ruler attempted to negotiate with Mao Zedong and Chou En-lai, who were intent on absorbing Tibet into China. Then, in 1959, after China brutally "quelled" a Tibetan civilian uprising against Chinese rule, the Dalai Lama fled to India; some 100,000 Tibetans have since followed him across the Himalayas.
In India, he was permitted to set up a government-in-exile in a small village, Dharamsala, a long day's drive from New Delhi. "His Holiness reconstructed a viable Tibetan community in India, preserving the culture of Tibet," says his close friend Robert Thurman, professor of Indo-Tibetan studies at Columbia University. "He held the Tibetan people together in exile and gave them hope during the very severe, even genocidal oppression in their homeland. He's also the first leader of Tibet to become a world leader, even without a political base -- just on his moral force."
In Tucson, a day after his teachings were completed, the Dalai Lama met in his suite with the interviewer. As would be expected from someone who has been worshiped as a demigod since age 2, he greets strangers with a mask of pleasant formality, which soon melts as he becomes engaged in ideas and conversation. An hour and a half becomes three; formality turns to laughter. One senses he's a little bored by the adulation that is his daily fare. The most striking thing about the Dalai Lama is his capacity for joy -- how widely he smiles, how amused he is by his own contradictions, his own human foibles. The journalist William Shirer once said of his interviews with Gandhi in the 1930's, "You felt you were the only person in the room, that he had all the time in the world for you." This is true of Tenzin Gyatso also.
Q: Your Holiness, you seem such a happy person. Have there been moments in your life when your faith in human goodness was tested?
The Dalai Lama: No.
Q:You've never felt in danger of becoming cynical?
A: No. Of course, when I say that human nature is gentleness, it is not 100 percent so. Every human being has that nature, but there are many people acting against their nature, being false. Certainly there have been sad moments for me. The Chinese suppressions in Lhasa in 1987, 1988, now that was sad. A great many people were killed. I am sometimes sad when I hear the personal stories of Tibetan refugees who have been tortured or beaten. Some irritation, some anger comes. But it never lasts long. I always try to think at a deeper level, to find ways to console. Q: I understand that you were very angry during the 1990 gulf war, as angry as you've ever been.
A: Angry? No. But one thing, when people started blaming Saddam Hussein, then my heart went out to him.
Q: To Saddam Hussein?
A: Yes. Because this blaming everything on him -- it's unfair. He may be a bad man, but without his army, he cannot act as aggressively as he does. And his army, without weapons, cannot do anything. And these weapons were not produced in Iraq itself. Who supplied them? Western nations! So one day something happened and they blamed everything on him -- without acknowledging their own contributions. That's wrong. The gulf crisis also clearly demonstrated the serious implications of the arms trade. War -- without an army, killing as few people as possible -- is acceptable. But the suffering of large numbers of people due to a military mission, that is sad.
Q: Did you say that killing sometimes is acceptable?
A: Comparatively. In human society, some people do get killed, for a variety of reasons. However, when you have an established army, and countries with those armies go to war, the casualties are immense. It's not one or two casualties, it's thousands. And with nuclear weapons, it's millions, really millions. For that reason, the arms trade is really irresponsible. Irresponsible! Global demilitarization is essential.
Q: In Tibet, from the late 1950's until the early 1970's, one of your brothers was involved in leading a guerrilla movement against the Chinese. In fact, the guerrillas were supported by the C.I.A. How did you feel about that?
A: I'm always against violence. But the Tibetan guerrillas were very dedicated people. They were willing to sacrifice their own lives for the Tibetan nation. And they found a way to receive help from the C.I.A. Now, the C.I.A.'s motivation for helping was entirely political. They did not help out of genuine sympathy, not out of support for a just cause. That was not very healthy.
Today, the help and support we receive from the United States is truly out of sympathy and human compassion. In spite of their desire for good relations with China, the Congress of the United States at least supports Tibetan human rights. So this is something really precious, genuine.
Q: To change the subject, you have spoken, as few religious leaders have, of the dangers of global overpopulation.
A: Well, the population problem is a serious reality. In India, some people were reluctant to accept birth control because of religious traditions. So I thought, from the Buddhist viewpoint, there is a possibility of flexibility on this problem. I thought it might be good to speak out and eventually create more open space for leaders in other religious traditions to discuss the issue.
Q: How do you feel, then, about Pope John Paul II's continued opposition to birth control?
A: That's his religious principle. He is acting from a certain principle -- especially when he speaks about the need to respect the rights of fetuses. Actually, I feel very touched that the Pope has taken a stand on that.
Q: Can you also understand the needs of a woman who might not be able to raise a child?
A: When I was in Lithuania a few years ago, I visited a nursery and I was told, "All these children are unwanted." So I think it is better that that situation be stopped right from the beginning -- birth control. Of course, abortion, from a Buddhist viewpoint, is an act of killing and is negative, generally speaking. But it depends on the circumstances. If the unborn child will be retarded or if the birth will create serious problems for the parent, these are cases where there can be an exception. I think abortion should be approved or disapproved according to each circumstance.
Q: I understand you've experienced a major change in thinking about the role of women in the world.
A: It's not so much a change. I've gained an awareness of the sensitivity of women's issues; even in the 1960's and 1970's, I didn't have much knowledge of this problem. The basic Buddhist stand on the question of equality between the genders is age-old. At the highest tantric levels, at the highest esoteric level, you must respect women: every woman. In Tibetan society, there has been some careless discrimination. Yet there have been exceptional women, high lamas, who are respected throughout Tibet.
Q: In a recent issue of the Buddhist magazine Tricycle, the actor Spalding Gray asked you about your dreams, and you said you sometimes dreamt of women fighting.
A: Women fighting? No, no. . . . What I meant was that, in my dreams, sometimes women approach me and I immediately realize, "I'm bhikshu, I'm monk." So you see, this is sort of sexual. . . .
Q: In your dreams, you realize this and you "fight" the feeling?
A: Yes. Similarly, I have dreams where someone is beating me and I want to respond. Then, immediately I remember, "I am monk and I should not kill."
Q: Do you ever experience rages? Even Jesus had rages.
A: Don't compare me with Jesus. He is a great master, a great master. . . . But as to your question, when I was younger, I did get angry. In the past 30 years, no. One thing, the hatred, the ill-feeling, that's almost gone.
Q: So what are your weaknesses and faults?
Q: It is said that you get up at 4 in the morning. How can you be lazy?
A: It's not that kind of laziness. For instance, sometimes, when I visit some Western countries, I develop an enthusiasm to improve my English. But when I actually make the effort to study, after a few days, my enthusiasm is finished. [Laughs.] That is laziness. Other weaknesses are, I think, anger and attachments. I'm attached to my watch and my prayer beads. Then, of course, sometimes beautiful women. . . . But then, many monks have the same experience. Some of it is curiosity: If you use this, what is the feeling? [Points to his groin.]
Then, of course, there is the feeling that something sexual must be something very happy, a marvelous experience. When this develops, I always see the negative side. There's an expression from Nagurajuna, one of the Indian masters: "If you itch, it's nice to scratch it. But it's better to have no itch at all." Similarly with the sexual desire. If it is possible to be without that feeling, there is much peace. [Smiles.] And without sex, there's no worry about abortion, condoms, things like that.
Q: Sir, your laugh is world famous -- what makes you laugh?
A: There is something in my family . . . a tendency to laugh a lot. One brother, Gyalo Thondup, doesn't laugh too much. Another, Lobsang Samten, was very fond of cracking dirty jokes. A third, Taktser Rinpoche, he also laughed a lot. And Tibetans generally are very good-natured. In my childhood, I had a religious assistant who always told me, "If you can really laugh with full abandonment, it's very good for your health."
Q: What do you do for leisure, to relax?
A: I like to let my thoughts come to me each morning before I get up. I meditate for a few hours and that is like recharging. After that, my daily conduct is usually driven by the motivation to help, to create a positive atmosphere for others. I garden . . . gardening is one of my hobbies. Also, reading encyclopedias with pictures. [Laughs.] I am a man of peace, but I am fond of looking at picture books of the Second World War. I own some, which I believe are produced by Time-Life. I've just ordered a new set. Thirty books.
Q: Really? Why does the Reincarnation of Compassion have such a fascination with one of the most terrible events in human history?
A: Perhaps because the stories are so negative and gruesome, they strengthen my belief in nonviolence. [Smiles.] However, I find many of the machines of violence very attractive. Tanks, airplanes, warships, especially aircraft carriers. And the German U-boats, submarines. . . .
Q: I once read that as a little boy in Lhasa, you liked war toys.
A: Yes, very much. I also had an air rifle in Lhasa. And I have one in India. I often feed small birds, but when they come together, hawks spot them and catch them -- a very bad thing. So in order to protect these small birds, I keep the air rifle.
Q: So it is a Buddhist rifle?
A: [Laughs] A compassionate rifle!
Q: Let me ask you a difficult question in that regard. You are indispensable to your movement. Are you ever afraid you might suffer the same fate as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.?
A: The thought sometimes crosses my mind. As far as being "indispensable," people can carry on without me.
Q: Asian scholars say that the Tibetan nation wouldn't have survived after 1959 if you had not been such a skilled political leader. That being the case, aren't you concerned that the Chinese might try to finish off the Tibetan independence movement by killing you?
A: Some Chinese have frankly said to Tibetans: "You only have one person. If we take care of that, the problem is solved."
Q: Have you prepared yourself for the possibility?
A: Not really, although in general, as a Buddhist, my daily meditation involves preparation for death. Death by natural causes, I'm fully prepared for. If sudden death comes, that is tragic -- from the viewpoint of practitioners.
Q: In September, the Palestinians accepted a compromise for regional autonomy. If the Chinese offered such a deal, would you accept?
A: Actually, for the past 14 years, my basic position has been very similar. There is one difference: in the Palestinian case, virtually every government viewed the Territories as occupied and showed concern. In the Tibetan case only the U.S. Congress and some legal experts consider Tibet an occupied land with the right of self-determination.
Q: What was your feeling when you watched the recent signing of the Middle East peace agreement?
A: It's a great achievement. This issue is just one year older than the Tibetan issue. Our problem started in 1949, theirs in 1948. In those years, a lot of hatred developed. Imagine: Palestinians were taught to hate from childhood. That was seen as good for the national interest. In fact, it was rather negative; a lot of violence took place. Now, both sides came to an agreement in the spirit of reconciliation, in the spirit of nonviolence. This is wonderful.
Q: Are there any signs that the Chinese might accept a compromise?
A: [Quickly] No.
Q: You once wrote that the Chinese want to rule the world. Do you still think so?
A: I didn't mean it that way. The remark was related more to the Marxist world intention, rather than Chinese national historical expansionism.
Q: Do you think that still is the case?
A: It's changed, I think. That kind of spirit . . . perhaps in the 1960's, with the Cultural Revolution, it was there. On the Soviet side, Khrushchev realized around 1956 that that kind of goal was not realistic. By the end of the Cultural Revolution, in the 1970's, the Chinese realized that it was out of the question. Now I think the issue is Chinese nationalist historic chauvinism. To them, all other people are barbarians.
Q: Including you?
A: Oh, certainly! Of course! They are a proud nation. With Marxism gone, the strategy is to reach the economic levels of Western countries. They consider themselves a champion of the third world, particularly after the Soviet Union collapsed. They see Russia as having become a part of the West. So what you have is the most populous nation, the worst kind of totalitarian system, the rule of terror -- with nuclear weapons and with an ideology that force is the ultimate source of power. Their economy was poor, but now it is improving -- without changing those other things. Time magazine has called them "the super-power of the next century."
Q: Does that scare you?
A: We already lost our country. But I'm concerned about the world! The world community has the moral responsibility to see democracy in China. Now, how to bring it about? The Chinese intellectuals and the students, they are already a strong political force, and very essential. The world community must give every encouragement to that force. We should not indulge any act which discourages them.
Q: Did you think at the time of the Tiananmen Square uprising that the democracy movement would succeed?
A: Yes. Actually, the events of the 4th of June shocked me. I did not expect them to fire on their own people.
Q: But if the Chinese Communists have been as ruthless against Tibetans as you charge, why not against pro-democracy demonstrators?
A: Because it was their own people! How could they shoot them? During the Cultural Revolution, this was understandable. Tiananmen Square proved that a regime that would have no hesitation to shoot their own people, such a regime. . . . There should be no doubt about their attitude towards other nationalities.
Q: Given that not-so-optimistic assessment, what possible scenarios for China and Tibet do you see?
A: Basically, the Chinese Communist regime, it's only a matter of time: it will change. Worldwide today, there is a growth of freedom and democracy. And the democratic movement, inside and outside China, is still very active. Once the Chinese are willing to listen to others' problems, the Tibetans will not be against the Chinese nation. My approach is in the spirit of reconciliation. Certainly we can have an agreement.
In the meantime, the international community must support Tibet and put pressure on China. Without that, our own approach, according to the last 14 years of experience, has no hope of response.
Q: In closing, I read somewhere that you are predicting that the 21st century, unlike the 20th, is to be a century of peace and justice. Why?
A: Because I believe that in the 20th century, humanity has learned from many, many experiences. Some positive, and many negative. What misery, what destruction! The greatest number of human beings were killed in the two world wars of this century. But human nature is such that when we face a tremendous critical situation, the human mind can wake up and find some other alternative. That is a human capacity.