Tuesday, April 17, 2012

New York Times Interview with the Dalai Lama - Part 1

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.

Read Part 2!

Interview by Claudia Dreifus, 11/28/93