The 14th reincarnation of Avalokitesvara, better known as the Dalai Lama, has been both the driving force and the symbol of the Tibetan movement. He spoke to Anirudh Mathur at his tranquil residence in McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala, shortly before leaving to teach in Bodh Gaya. Considered the “ocean of wisdom” by millions of Buddhists, he spoke about the protest movements of 2011, China, the future of the Tibetan movement, and Anna Hazare. Excerpts:
The defining feature of 2011 has been protest and democratisation. Will this soon extend to China?
Freedom of speech, freedom of religion and the rule of law are much desired. In China, more voices are being heard for these things. I have met a number of Chinese people, even from the mainland, who express such desires. But it’s difficult to say whether it (the protest movement) will soon extend to China. China’s premier Wen Jiabao has even said that China needs a western style of democracy, but there hasn’t been much effect. I met someone from mainland China who said that if this view of the Chinese premier is wrong, then he deserves punishment. But if his view is right, then it is right to implement it.
You have previously commented on the role that political personalities play in China, even over the strength of institutions. How do you see the forthcoming changes in the Chinese politburo standing committee affecting Tibet’s future?
Individuals make a difference, but dictatorship, unlike in Burma or Pakistan, is institutionalised in China. The person can change, but the system will remain unless the next leader is very strong, like Deng (Xiaoping).
Do you think India has done enough to help the Tibetan movement?
The fields where the (Indian) government can do something, it has done the maximum. Education, settlement.... for all these, we have to thank them. But the areas where the government has limitations, then, of course, we have to appreciate that the government must think of other factors.
Do you fear that help from India will decline after your current incarnation departs, and as the ‘Gandhian/Nehruvian’ spirit in India continues to diminish?
The relation between India and Tibet does not depend on me. Also, for thousands of years we have been linked, not economically, but culturally and spiritually. Culturally and spiritually, we are the students of India.
"Corruption is a form of violence, whilst truth and transparency are forms of non-violence.... Ahimsa is still very relevant today."
Both you and Anna Hazare admire Gandhi’s methods. Does Anna’s campaign reflect such methods?
Yes, I am very much impressed with it, particularly the support it has received from the people. Some people have reservations about the methods, but the goal (of removing corruption) is very necessary and important. I have expressed many times that the most ‘populated democracy’ with the rule of law has created a peaceful and stable nation in comparison to neighbouring states. But like many parts of the world, the disease of corruption is serious. It (Anna Hazare’s campaign) has been a timely method of reminding people of corruption and ending complacency. The campaign has also consulted politicians and awakened them.
How does graft reflect on India?
At the beginning of the year, I was in Mumbai and Rajasthan. Students told me that survival was not possible without acts of corruption. I was very shocked. India is a very healthy nation and should pay more attention to eliminating corruption. After all, India does tread the path of ahimsa, which is still very relevant in today’s world.
Corruption is a form of violence, whilst truth, honesty and transparency are forms of non-violence. After all, the corrupt hide! That shows it is wrong, it is violent. India is religious, and this means there are only two choices: either worship God, accept God and pray to God and don’t be corrupt; or don’t care for God and worship money.
How will Tibetans of the next two generations, whose grandparents may not have even seen Tibet, carry forward the momentum of the Tibetan movement?
Till now, the movement has been very strong and satisfactory. The future depends on education and awareness of Tibetan culture and Buddhism. There is promise. Interest in Tibetan culture and Buddhism is increasing in many places like Europe and even China. Scientists are showing interest in Buddhist philosophy and ethics and that is reflected upon the younger generation. Today’s Tibetan youth are more spiritual than those of similar age were in the 1960s and 1970s.
"Some have reservations about his methods, but Anna’s goal is important. It has been a timely reminder to end complacency."
You have previously said that issues like climate change are more important than Tibetan autonomy. Doesn’t this undermine the momentum of the movement?
No, no! I mentioned Tibetan ecology. Politically, once we develop some kind of understanding and Chinese leaders become more mature, our problems are easily solved. But ecologically, the damage is already there, from mining and dams and other such things. Policy cannot change ecological damage that has already occurred. Therefore, the political problems can wait, as the ecological damage will remain forever.
How does your Holiness deal with the frustration he must feel regarding the situation of those in Tibet?
We are followers of the Indian tradition. Gandhiji, in most situations, remained smiling. Very occasionally, he’d shout, but mostly he stayed peaceful. That didn’t mean there wasn’t a problem. He’d look at the problem and believed that if the problem could be solved, the effort to solve it should be put in. If it can’t be solved, then it’s possible to be frustrated. I believe the same.
If an uprising were to break out in Tibet, would you feel comfortable promoting it?
Never, as in 1986 and 1987 (previous uprisings). Now, if things go out of control with violence, my only option would be to resign.
If the uprising is non-violent and the Chinese repress it with arms, would you be comfortable promoting it?
That is quite difficult. I see myself as a spokesperson and not a leader: from March, I handed over political power to the new Tibetan PM. Therefore, it wouldn’t be my responsibility; the decision (to promote it) is the boss’s, and the Tibetan people are the boss.
Is western capitalism’s stagnancy a vindication of a simpler way of life?
Overall, I feel that—and not just because of this crisis. There is a huge rich-poor gap around the world; also overpopulation. This year, we had the seventh billion person come into the world, next eight billion, and then nine billion. Resources are not sufficient. Ultimately, our stomach needs grain, not more factories and machines. Recently, near Delhi, I saw fields being turned into factories. China has this problem also.
The US and others have to think very seriously too about lifestyle and sustainability. We can’t let the gap continue; those under the poverty line, we must lift. But most importantly, with overpopulation, we can’t all have a US lifestyle.
Do you worry that an economically stagnant West compromises the Tibetan movement since it gives China more leverage?
Of course, the West considers good relations with China important, which therefore may create inconveniences for us. But overall, the free world is very sympathetic—the West always mentions Tibet to Chinese counterparts. And many Chinese are starting to really believe in democracy, openness and transparency now. These Chinese are also very supportive. Will this change in the Chinese itself cause change? Immediately? No. In the long run? Yes.
How do you maintain such an active and demanding lifestyle at your age?
Eight to nine hours of sleep. I go to bed at 6.30-7 pm and wake at 3.30 daily.