Tucked high above a valley with snow-capped mountains surrounding it on three sides, the small town of Dharamsala, in northern India, is known worldwide as the home of the Tibetan leader, Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama.
Since he left Tibet in 1959, forced into exile after China’s brutal crackdown on a failed uprising, the Dalai Lama has traveled the globe, meeting with world leaders and serving as the identifying force for his homeland. The rallying cry “Free Tibet” has long been one of the most recognizable causes in the world, though its meaning varies from an end to Chinese oppression to outright independence from China.
ABC News correspondent Muhammad Lila traveled to Dharamsala and sat down for a wide-ranging interview with the spiritual and temporal leader of the Tibetan people. The Dalai Lama, who calls himself a “simple Buddhist monk,” touched on the new leadership in China, violence in Myanmar, Tibet, his successor, and whether it’s possible to live a perfect life.
New Leadership in China
“Now a new leader comes, I think we’ll see some few changes,” said the Dalai Lama about Xi Jinping, China’s recently installed president and head of the Communist Party. “He will have to think of a more realistic way to promote a harmonious society. Harmony must come from the heart. Harmony means friendship. Friendship depends entirely on trust and transparency.
“China can make a significant constructive contribution on the global level. Respect and trust are very essential. Now that is lacking. Transparency is very essential. A free media is very essential. 1.3 billion Chinese people have every right to know the reality. Once Chinese people know the reality, they also have the ability to judge what is right, what is wrong. So therefore, heavy censorship is actually self-destruction. The people lose trust.
“No matter how powerful, China is still part of the world. The change of the world is more openness, more transparency, a more democratic way. This is changed not by force but by a people’s popular movement. So you see China, sooner or later, will have to go according to that world trend. It cannot go this way.”
Violence in Myanmar
Deteriorating relations between Buddhists and the Muslim minority in the Southeast Asian country of Myanmar have resulted in increasing anti-Muslim violence which has claimed dozens of lives. Some of the attacks have been led by Buddhist monks.
“It’s very sad,” said the Dalai Lama. “Any conflict in the name of religion is very sad. All the major religions teach us the practice of love, compassion and forgiveness. So a genuine practitioner among these different religious traditions would not indulge in such violence and bullying of other people. Now we’re in the 21st century. I think people should realize that all problems must be solved through dialogue, through talk. Use of force and violence is outdated and never solves problems.”
If he could directly address the Buddhist monks who incited some of the violence, the Dalai Lama said he would tell them, “Firstly we are religious people. We are Buddhists. Buddha always teaches us about forgiveness, tolerance, compassion. So if from one corner of your mind, some emotion makes you want to hit, or want to kill, then please remember Buddha’s face. We are followers of Buddha. That I will tell.”
“We are not seeking separation,” said the Dalai Lama, reiterating a position he has held since the 1980s. China currently administers Tibet as an autonomous region, but a firmly entrenched part of the country.
“We are very much willing or committed for our own interest in remaining within China, provided we have our own culture, our own language, our own script. At the same time we should have meaningful right of autonomy.”
Though the last mass uprising against Chinese forces was in 2008, ahead of the Summer Olympics in Beijing, recent protests have taken the form of suicides. In the last four years, more than a hundred Tibetans, within Tibet and in exile, have burned themselves to death.
“This is a very, very political sort of issue,” said the Dalai Lama. “And very sensitive. The Chinese government always blames us, ever since the 2008 crisis.”
But the Dalai Lama refused to speak out against the suicides.
“I have already retired from political responsibility. That’s the No. 1 reason. The No. 2 reason is that right from the beginning, I consider myself as a spokesman for the Tibetan people. The people inside Tibet are actually my boss. I’m not their boss. Now these people, they choose instead of living in constant fear and under threat of arrest, they choose the shortest of suffering as better than a long period of suffering. How can I say they should not do that? So therefore, I am silent.”
The cause of Tibet has often been enthusiastically supported around the world, including in the United States. But the Tibet issue is politically contentious for the United States and China. For example, China spoke out against the Obama administration’s decision to have the president meet with the Dalai Lama two years ago during his visit to Washington, saying it had harmed Sino-U.S. relations.
“The Tibetan issue is not easy,” said the Dalai Lama. “Many are supporters in the government in the U.S. Despite some difficulties they really raised the Tibetan issue whenever they found the opportunity. So I want to appreciate that. Obama also. I like him and I consider him as a friend. I’m quite sure that whatever way they can do something, they will do it.”
“The very institution of Dalai Lama should continue or not, up to the Tibetan people,” said the Dalai Lama. “If the majority feels that the Dalai Lama institution is no longer much relevant, then ultimately it will cease. No problem. If, according to present circumstances, I die within the next few years, I think most probably the majority of the people want to keep this institution. Then there’s the question of reincarnation for the next Dalai Lama. So that also, I expect to see many possibilities. Like how a Pope chooses a successor. That’s also very healthy.
“When my age is around 90, there will be some final sort of meeting convened and then we’ll decide. Not at 80. That’s next year, or next two years. Too soon,” the Dalai Lama laughed. “There’s no hurry.”
A Perfect Way to Live Life?
“Perfect? One hundred percent perfect is difficult,” said the Dalai Lama. “But I think I can say, among 7 billion human beings, everyone has the potential for good quality. This is the most precious thing. If you keep affection, a sense of concern for others’ well being, that’s the ultimate source of satisfaction. That brings peace of mind.
“There is a Tibetan saying: ‘When things are difficult, then let yourself be happy.’ Otherwise, if happiness is relying on others or the environment or your surroundings, it’s not possible. Like an ocean, the waves always go like that but underneath, it always remains calm. So we have the ability as well. On an intellectual level, we may see things as desperate, difficult. But underneath, at the emotional level, you can keep calm.”