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A Conversation with the Dalai Lama

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Let's start by talking about the day, in 1950, when you became head of government in Tibet. You were only 15 and the Chinese had invaded your country.
It was a very, very difficult situation. When people asked me to take the responsibility, my reaction is, I am one who wants to follow the Dalai Lama traditions, which was to be enthroned at age 18. Age 15 is too early. Then they again asked me. Chamdo [a mountainous region in eastern Tibet] had already been taken over by the Chinese. There was a good deal of anxiety. So I took responsibility. When the Communist Liberation Army reached Lhasa, my first act was to escape from Lhasa to the Indian border. So I think, bad omen or good omen? Almost my first act after I took responsibility is to escape from Lhasa! [Laughs]

So here we are 61 years later, and you've just retired as head of government. You have, in a real way, been preparing for this retirement — a separation of church and state — since you were a child. How was the seed first planted?
As a teenager, around 13 or 14, living in Lhasa, I had very intimate sort of contact with ordinary people. Mainly, the sweepers at the Potala Palace as well as at Norbulingka [the Dalai Lama's summer residence in Lhasa]. I always played with them and sometimes dined with them. I got the information from the servants as to what was really going on in Lhasa. I often heard of the injustices the people experienced. So I began to understand that our system — the power in the hands of a few people — that's wrong.

So soon after you took power, you decided you wanted to implement reform to the old system?
In 1952, I think, I set up a reform committee. I wanted to start some kind of change. But I faced a major reform obstacle — the Chinese officials wanted reform according to their own pattern, their own way, which they had already implemented in China proper. The Chinese felt that if Tibetan reform was initiated by Tibetans themselves, it might be a hindrance to their own way of reform. So it became difficult.

You traveled to China in 1954 and saw firsthand what Communist reform looked like. Was it what you had envisioned for Tibet?
I went to China as one of the members of the Tibetan delegation at the Congress of the People's Republic of China. The parliament in Peking was very disciplined! I noticed that all the members barely dared make a suggestion. They would make a point, but only little corrections in wording [laughs]. Nobody really discussed meaning.

Then, in 1956, I had the opportunity to come to India. And here, too, I had the opportunity to visit Indian Parliament. I found big contrast. In Indian Parliament, lots of noise. No discipline. This was a clear sign of complete freedom of expression. Indian parliamentarians, they love to criticize their government. So I realized, this is the meaning of democracy — freedom of speech. I was so impressed with the democratic system.

You liked the messiness and noise of democracy?
In 1959, when we decided to raise the Tibetan issue at the U.N., I asked Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru if he would sponsor our cause. He declined. He felt there was no use to raise Tibetan issue. He told me that America will not carry out war with China over Tibet. Later, I met with Nehru again, and I was a little bit anxious [laughs]. But when I met him, he was completely normal! I learned, yes — this is a leader practicing democracy. Disagreement is something normal.

In 1960, after I reached India, many Tibetans came to Bodh Gaya for my teaching. It was there we decided on a representative government — the first step for democratization. Since then, as refugees, we go step by step toward full democratization. In the past 10 years, I have continued acting like a senior adviser. I called mine a semiretired position. Since 2009, on many occasions, I expressed, "Now I'm looking forward to complete retirement." This year, on March 10th, I officially stated that now the time has come for me to retire; I'm going to hand over all my political authority to the Tibetan administration.

Most people around the world are anxious to get rid of their leaders. But the Tibetans have been very reluctant to let you retire. Why?
Emotionally, spiritually, still they look up to me. After I announced my retirement, they requested that I should carry responsibilities as I have, continuously. I declined. Then they asked if I would consider at least carrying a title, like a ceremonial sort of head.

A ceremonial role? I don't like it. To be like the British sort of queen. Of course, I personally very much admire her. Wonderful. But the system? [Laughs] If you carry some sort of ceremonial head, then you should do something! Otherwise, I would just be a figurehead. A statement is written by someone, then I just read? I know the word — a puppet.

Only since the fifth Dalai Lama, 350 years ago, has the institution taken on real political responsibility. The early incarnations were only spiritual leaders. I always believe the rule by king or official leader is outdated. Now we must catch up with the modern world.

So now I have handed over my political authority to an elected government. I feel happy. They carry full responsibility. I want to be just a pure spiritual leader. But in case my services are needed, I am still available.

Do you also have personal reasons for retirement?
I always tell people that religious institutions and political institutions should be separate. So while I'm telling people this, I myself continue with them combined. Hypocrisy! [Laughs] So what I am telling others I must implement for myself.

Also, a more selfish reason. Before the Dalai Lama became a political figure, there was almost no controversy. Since the fifth Dalai Lama, some controversy — because of the political aspect, not spiritual. Now, after my retirement, the institution of the Dalai Lama is more pure, more stable. I felt we must separate political responsibility. The Dalai Lama should not carry that burden. So that is my selfish reason — to protect the old Dalai Lama tradition. It is safer without political involvement.

I have full conviction that Tibetans can carry all their work. Therefore I voluntarily, proudly decide this four-century-old tradition should end.

That does not mean the Dalai Lama ends. The institution remains, as a spiritual role. And not only for my generation. If the Tibetan people want the institution to remain, it will remain continuously.

Does your retirement mean your long-term goals have changed?
The rest of my life, I am fully committed to these things: Promotion of religious harmony. Promotion of human values. Human happiness. Like that.

So you will keep up with your daily routines? I know that every morning you say a prayer for all sentient beings. When you pray for us, what is it that you want for us?
I often tell people that this century should be century of dialogue. Peace will not come from thought or from Buddha. Peace must be built by humans, through action. So that means, whenever we face problem — dialogue. That's the only way. For that, we need inner disarmament. So our work should make a little contribution to materialize a peaceful, compassionate world later this century. That's my wish. It will not come immediately. But we have to make the effort. This moment, it looks only like an idea. But every corner must make the effort. Then there is possibility. Then, if we fail in spite of that effort, no regret.

It might surprise people to know that you really are what you say: a simple monk.
A few days ago, in this very room, the Tibetan political leadership came together to see me. They brought all the amendments to the charter [regarding his retirement]. They explained what was written, and then they asked me please to read it. I responded, "Oh, even if I read it all, I will not understand fully. So, it doesn't matter." I just asked them, "Where I should sign?" [Laughs]

That's very dangerous!
That's a sign of a simple Buddhist monk!

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