The Dalai Lama: In his own words

From a series of interviews with the Dalai Lama, conducted at various locations in his exile home of Dharamsala, India during February and March, 1996.

By Ron Gluckman/Dharamsala

THE DALAI LAMA ENTERS THE ROOM, but long before he does, it's filled with his presence, a warm, easy-going and genuine sense of good. But, even before that, the room is buoyed by his laughter, with comes deep, rich, radiant, and often. He rocks with laughter regularly and his face rarely is missing a smile for more than a few moments. His eyes, especially, sparkle with a mischievous excitement, like that of a young child.


On China:

"The Chinese openly criticize me. They call me the serpent's head," ha ha ha. "That's good. I think the problem with the Panchen Lama, the controversy happened because the basic Chinese government attitude is very, very hard-line, very harsh.

"Their attitude towards Tibet is very hard-line, and it's that way towards Hong Kong and towards Taiwan. And towards America. Towards anyone who has a critical view about certain activities of China. They always respond very harshly. That's because of their internal situation."

"Obviously the Chinese, for the moment, it seems if they are determined to eliminate the Dalai Lama's influence among Tibetans. I don't consider this to have much chance of success. It's very difficult. I think that's their main kind of effort.

"I feel, among the main Chinese leaders, I think there are some who have some reservation about the current Chinese policy, not only towards Tibet, but also towards other issues. But these individuals, at the present moment, it's very difficult for them. I think everyone is trying to be very cautious and trying to show mainly towards their own people their strength, that they are tough.

My position is, this situation cannot remain this way for long. This kind of attitude has neither benefit for the Chinese image nor truly the solving of these problems.

Also, they are very much concerned about stability. Stability must come from inner satisfaction. But, at the moment, their method for stability is using force. That is not healthy. Sooner or later, they will find that their present policy, that this present thinking is not helpful. They will have to find another way to solve these problems. There has to be dialog. Whether towards Taiwan or towards Hong Kong, or towards Tibet also."

So many people come from Tibet to see you, don't they risk a lot?

"Tibetans who visit me, they do face some danger, but still they come. I don't encourage it. Generally, those Tibetans, they fall into different categories. One category is that there main purpose is they come here to learn, to study. In that case, we encourage them, sometimes give them two years, sometimes two months, for some training or study. We help them. In another category is children, young children. Then, we put them in our school, maybe for 10 years, to study. The problem is, inside Tibet there is no place to study, particularly for monk students. In past years, more than 4,000 students have come to study.

"Then, there is another kind. They come purely to see me." Chuckles. "I don't know what to say. It's not only me, but they are on a pilgrimage, to see Dalai Lama... For me, I'm sad, of course sad. "

On the influence and importance of Deng, who died the following year:

"This present policy. as time goes, even the present leadership, they may find some different way. I don't think, whether Deng X is alive or not, I don't believe things will change immediately. I think the change of the present policy does not depend on Deng X life. Even in the last two or three years, there has already been some change, that a new leadership already carries the main responsibility, so government does not depend on whether Deng is alive or not.

But, in a few years time, maybe the same people will find, they have to find some other means to solve. That's why I feel that some change within the party (is better than the chaos that followed the dissolution of the USSR). Total collapse, too much chaos, bloodshed, then many people suffer.

On optimism about Tibet:

"Oh yes, I'm optimistic," he says, then explains. "Optimistic, that is to say, within the next few months there will be a solution, I have no hope. So, for the immediate time, I am not optimistic. But as time goes, in a few years time, I think things will change. From that aspect, I'm very optimistic."

Then he chuckles as he adds: "But I've been optimistic for 37 years."

On the Middle Path approach towards China:

Admits his Middle Path approach has been criticized, even by his cabinet. "As far as the actual negotiations with China, and with regards to some improvement inside Tibet. In these two areas, my Middle Way approach more or less failed." Then, he grows cheerful and adds: "But this doesn't mean permanent failure. No, no, no. This Middle Way eventually will reach some kind of negotiations with the government of China.

China may have been slow to negotiate, but MW approach has brought lots support international and even among Chinese. talks lot about interchange with Chinese students, journos, dissidents... "They almost unanimously told me, my Middle Way approach, with strict non-violence principles, that if the Chinese people have the opportunity to know this, they will support it without hesitation, they told me. As the time goes, the Chinese, not only outside but also inside China, more and more they realize there is a problem and they can only solve that problem through negotiation, through dialog.

"I'm very much committed to this Middle Way approach."

"Whether we like it or not, we have to find some proper solution between the Tibetans and the Chinese.

"Time is an important factor."


Will you walk again in Tibet:

"Certainly," he says without hesitation, voice crackling with the chirpy excitement. "Yes, I have strong feelings, no doubt."

"First, I want to see what has really happened. My main concern is Tibetan culture. Usually I call it Buddhist culture. It's not only ancient culture, but beneficial for now.... can promote friendship and harmony and peace. With a smile. That's good, useful.

"Even when we reach a difficult situation with a smile, it becomes much easier. We have less problems. If you are too serious, you just face more difficulty.

"Life is too serious. Sometimes. "

Do you have any doubts? Regrets?

"Almost None. When the first Chinese invasion came to Tibetan territory, in 1950, in 1949. Now, when I look back at the last 44 or 45 years, and I think about the major decisions, I have no regret. And I don't remember a time when my faith or the spirit was completely gone, or shaken.

"I personally think its part of my Buddhist culture, the attitude towards life, towards one's own life, towards life of humanity, life of the planet, it seems quite helpful to sustain the spirit of determination.

"Another important thing is my 100 percent belief that the purpose of one's own life is happiness. True happiness, genuine happiness comes when you see some usefulness of your life, Then you get some satisfaction. My life, this life, because of the circumstances, although my capacity is quite limited, still, I think my existence is at least of some benefit for 6 million Tibetan people, like those Tibetans who are in prison who are even facing the death sentence... That is purpose, that is life.

"There is no person, no single human being who has no worry." Chuckling, "Some kind of problem is always there. But, within that, if you find some sort of usefulness, that's enough to keep the spirit." (Laughs loudly)

"If you look at the negative side, you always find some negative things. But, at the same time, if you look at the positive side, again, you always find some positive things. Well, you see, it's your choice. Of course, at the practical level, you have to be very realistic. But for your spirit level, it's better to be positive and keep your determination. Whether you have success or not isn't important. As long as our own spirit is concerned, we must stay fresh. Effort, effort, effort. With every effort, fail, still no regret --- that's my philosophy."

How would an independent Tibet fare in the world?

"That's too far. My thinking, I visualize according to the Middle Way approach: self -rule. As for the economy, Tibet is a landlocked country, so more difficult to develop quickly. One thing here. I want Tibet to have more factories or industry, but at the same time, right from the beginning it is very important to keep the delicacy of the environment, particularly in term of exploring or exploiting the natural resources. If we just think about profits, that's dangerous.

"For the economy section, of course, I am not a specialist. Our wish is to keep some socialist concepts concerning the importance of benefits to the people, particularly the less privileged people. We will need some kind of control, social responsibility by the state to look after the less privileged. We will need a balanced economy, a mixed economy, a market-oriented economy system, but at the same time, keeping some socialist ideas.

"For many years, I very much want more involvement in the social welfare, particularly in the fields of education and health, by monks and nuns, like Christian brothers and sisters, too. That's very important. We are very much lacking..."

What role is there for the Dalai Lama in the future:

"Anyway, when the time comes, I will retire from these responsibilities. I will just be devoted for the uplifting of Buddhist culture, that's my main ambition, not only Tibetan, but also Chinese, and the northern Indian, and Mongolian. And also, I very much want to keep my close relations with some of our friends in the west and different parts of the world. We have developed genuine friendship, like genuine brothers and sisters. That I want to carry continuously, regarding harmony between the different peoples. In this respect, I feel a little bit proud that I have made some contribution between the Tibetan Buddhists and Christian brothers and sisters. We have fairly good relations and understanding.

"So, in the future, till my last day, I want to do something to promote harmony between peoples of these traditions.

"I describe secular ethics, that's the main force of happy life, happy family, happy community, not necessarily with religious faith... In order to develop your own family, your own community, your own country, you have to take your neighbor, that's the situation. If our interest has nothing to do with other's interest, than you can justify it to think only of one's self. But reality is not that way.

"In our own case, in order for Tibet to develop more prosperity, and more happy, more peaceful, and eventually Tibet should eventual develop as Zone of Peace. For that to happen, we have to take care of India's interest, and China's interest and our other neighbors. That's the situation. Even continent to continent are heavily dependent on this. It's reality. It's quite clear, still in the human mind, especially the leadership. But the reality, the concept of we and they. In that basis, there is still difference."

On anger:

"I get angry. Not today." Long pause as he counts back the days and thinks it over. "The day before yesterday, I think." There was a meeting, with an imp person. "I felt a little irritation. Why? That's our own business," he says, breaking into laughter.

Government in-fighting, he says "is silly. Petty politics."

"As far as ill feeling," he says, more serious, "there really is none. Of course, when I hear of torture, of discrimination inside Tibet, then of course, for a short time, I feel some irritation, some anger, but that comes and goes. Perhaps I can explain like this: the main mind is like an ocean; there is a certain thought, like anger, it comes and goes, comes and goes, like a wave. But that does not effect the main mind. That's because of Buddhist thought and Buddhist culture."

"Life is too easy.... you can lose your hope... or keep your spirit. then your mental thing becomes hardened, more strong."

On formality and his role as a leader

"Being the DL can be useful. I can make a contribution. On the negative side, in the past, there's too much formality. That, I don't like. These days, because I love informality. And, I believe I'm just a simple Tibetan person. So, usually, I talk and express on that basis. But sometimes people are too much serious. That discourages my talk...

"I like to communicate with the people. But if people are too serious, they get confused about my words, that causes some confusion. Some people manipulate my meaning." They get too serious about what Dl says. "That is too serious."

"I don't know, I don't know. Sometimes, because I'm the DL, I feel a little bit distanced. Mentally, I always feel with the ordinary people, but because of the DL's position, you see, some kind of isolation comes.

"When I was young, sometimes I do feel, or wish to join with the ordinary boys and girls. When I was in the Potala, where I stay in the winter, and my rooms are cold, dark.

"In particular, at sunset, when I see the sunset and my shadow grows bigger. Sometimes, I feel a little bit sad. Nowadays, that just gives me more opportunity for meditation. But, at that time, in the Potala, at the time of the sunset, and those boys and girls would came back from the pasture, singing, then maybe I think, it would be nice to be with them.

"Fortunately, at that time, I had very good playmates, although the age difference was very great, they played with me like they were the same age. My childhood, I feel, was very happy."

When do you find time to meditate?

"In the morning, even when I travel. Usually, at 4 or 5. Here, usually 3:30, and sometimes 4. When I travel, sometimes 5, if the previous day is late, then I start at 4:30 or 5. Usually the day program starts at 8:30 or 9, so at 3-4 hours for meditation in that case.

"Sometimes in a long journey, by car, that's the best time for meditation. Also the aeroplane, if there is no turbulence. If there is too much turbulence, then... HAHAHA. Previously, I never could sleep in airplanes. I was scared. Very much!

"When we enter the airplane and they draw the door, then there is no choice. Hahahaha. "


On personal health

"I do my prostration. I try for 10 minutes per day on exercise on bike. Also, some jumping. "But according to my own limited experience, state of mind seems one major factor for health. One doctor describes my blood pressure as baby blood pressure.

Before, I had problem of jaundice and (stomach). Even before coming to India, not very good. But I took medicine, years and years ago. Now, much improved. Now, I can take some cold drink, previously no. Before, orange juice, no. I have thunderstorm, ha, ha. Thunder in my stomach. Hahahah."

On other Dalai Lamas

Fifth DL, many great masters consider him as a manifestation of the God of Wisdom. Another explanation, like Buddha, or the personal being who reaches the very highest level of spiritual experience, such people can perform reincarnation millions of times at the same time. In the case of the reincarnation of the 2nd DL, there were a hundred reincarnations at the same time. One boy was eventually recognized as the reincarnation.... lots more...

"The important thing is to carry the work that the previous life started. The main purpose isn't just coming back as the same purpose, but continuing the work of that person. . .

"My case, I have dreams of meeting the 5th DL for some discussions. When I met the 5th DL, I have deep respect. When I meet the 13th DL, I have some kind of sympathy for him. On one occasion, in my dream, I ask what the most difficult situation was for him. The answer, unfortunately, is not very clear. Hahahah.

On Reincarnation as a method of choosing a leader

"Up to now, reincarnation is very mysterious. But in the future, we made very clear, the leader, in terms of temporal power should be an elected one. We've made that very clear."

But Tibetans in Tibet won't agree, they haven't voted on this change and would surely elect the DL. "Yes, yes. But this is the danger. Time is gone and according to our own experience, in this situation, there are positive, but also distinct disadvantages.

"In my own life, I want to do other things, spiritual, not just administrative things. In administrative, it can be carried from someone elected other than me. In other fields, because of my name, like promotion of human value or Buddhist values, I think I can do more. The elected one cannot carry such things.

"I feel these are my, certain tasks, certain fields cannot be carried by other ones, ordinary people. These are my responsibilities. Until my death, I will carry. I don't want others to face hindrance about their task if I remain as head of the government... It's much better to carry things, small things, by someone else.

"Naturally, at the initial stage of democracy, we will face a lot of problems. So during this stage, if I am there, if I am alive, as a third person, I can help to smooth things."

Will you be the last Dalai Lama?

"Now that, you see, is TRULY up to the Tibetan people. As early as 1969, I mentioned in my formal statement of 10th of March, I mentioned whether the institution of the DL should continue or not is up to the Tibetan people. As to my responsibility, the political responsibility, now that, for the next Dalai Lama, I don't know. If the Tibetan people want the next Dalai Lama, and whether the next Dalai Lama is involved in politics, that's up to that person.

"As far as my concern, I'm already 61. Perhaps, in a few years time, if we have the opportunity to return and I'm already 65 or something like that, then the rest of my life, I truly want to devote to some different kind of field. So in that, I have made my mind. The Tibetan people pressure me, but I also have this right too."

But will you come back, as the Dalai Lama, in your personal view?

"Not necessarily as the Dalai Lama. You see, my reappearances, that's definite. Of course, whether I like it or not, I have to! (crackling with humor). It is (somsara??) I do not consider myself as a high person. I am still in somsara. So my future destiny is not in my own hands. As a practitioner, I also pray...

My most favorite prayer: "So long, space remains. So long, suffering of sentient beings remain there, I will remain there to make some contribution for the benefit of others." This verse gives me inner strength. So therefore, even if I reach nirvana, no longer a compulsory rebirth, even so, my reincarnation will always be there, that's my determination."

"If I die, even in the next few years, I think the Tibetans... If I die in the next few years, I think the Tibetan people, under these circumstances most Tibetans probably will want to have another reincarnation. If I remain another 20-30 years, then the whole situation is different, with new setup and the situation becomes normal or smooth, then its possible the Tibetan people now will no longer consider the importance of the DL institution. Then, in such a case, I will be the last Dalai Lama.

"But will my own rebirth end, no, certainly not. The Dalai Lama continues. But the people will no longer wish to designate a Dalai Lama.

"But as to your question, if I die in this short time period, it naturally will be a great set back for the Tibetan freedom struggle. But since this is a struggle of a nation, not just one sect or one small committee. So long that nation remains there with a legitimate struggle, then it will continue. Some Chinese, unfortunately, say everything depends on one person and that this person is now more than 60 years old, so once he is finished, you have no future. This is absolutely wrong. This kind of wishful thinking is short sighted. The Tibetan struggle will continue.

The real danger, is if the Tibetan population becomes a minority inside Tibet, among the millions of Chinese, that is the real death of Tibet. Although there is other danger, that's why I express sometimes that time is running out. "

On the spread of Tibetan Buddhism in the West

"I think, in the West as a whole, I prefer and consider as a Christian country. And I think it's better to follow your own traditional values, including your own spirituality.

"A few individual westerners like this about the Tibetans, the aspect of the rituals and ceremony. Sometimes I also feel it's too much and there is danger to forget or lose the essential while you are focused upon so many official things. The ordinary people, they love this.

"You need a substantial effort, real change here. This will take time The followers like festivals. It's easier. There's a real danger here of losing the real meaning, the wisdom, the real effect of changing mind, of changing life.

"Some westerners also, I notice, they also love the ritual and these things. This I'm sure will not remain long. It's like fashion, this interest. It comes and it goes. After some time, they find, through their own experience, there is not much effect, hahahaha. There are two kinds of people, I think, from the west, or those countries where there is no Buddhist tradition.

"One is very superficial. Just attracted by the ceremony, the color or something. That interest may not remain long. Another may be more intelligent (interest). ..

"I consider myself a Buddhist monk, but some of Buddha's explanations of the world, I do not believe at all. You see, we have the freedom to think, to investigate. Some things, like the distance of the sun and the moon... very difficult to believe. Proved the opposite...

"I say, in the beginning you should be open, in some cases its better to be skeptical. Then, if you have more skeptical attitude, then it is easier to carry out investigation. Then, through investigation, something is found, becomes clear, then you accept. If it's the opposite, then you have the freedom not to accept the scripture. Buddha himself made this clear. Buddha says, "My follower should not accept my word out of respect, but rather through investigation and experiment."

But why are you so popular among westerners?

"With westerners, I think it's a variety. Some are sincere, some are more curious. Then, also, I think Buddhism nowadays, I tell my friends, the important thing is to take the aspects of spirituality and not the culture side. Each country has a different culture. Eventually, it should be western Buddhism, European Buddhism, that should happen with the same essence, but different culture aspect.

"I'm a little critical of some things, like Zen practitioners in the West, their whole dress and furniture in the house becomes more Japanese. This is a little too extreme. Some westerner who follows Tibetan Buddhism and adopts the dress, this must change. Although I think the lady seems beautiful, ok. In some cases, with some western practitioners of Buddhism, also do it the Tibetan way and this is too extreme."

On the popularity of Tibetan cause, why so special?

"I don't know, I cannot say all the reasons, but obvious reason. In past, Tibet was the rooftop of the world, isolated, so it's something special for the outside world. Then, the Chinese themselves, due to their own behavior, there has been sympathy.

"In the 1960s, 70s, although a few people were very much in sympathy, supportive of us, but worldwide support came only after foreigners visited Tibet and saw, on the spot, what had happened there. This brought much sympathy and much support. So, it is really due to the Chinese, and also the Tibetan spirit.

"And now, in the 1980s, there is more awareness of Tibetan culture and art. That also brings more interest, more sympathy. Another important thing, Tibet, right from the beginning, we practice non violence. That brings some support from certain quarters. So it's a variety, including my own little contribution."

In a speech before the American Congress in 1992 you talked of the responsibility of the US to "make the world right." Should the US really police the world?

"Unfortunately, in the field of politics or international relations, nobody takes seriously the value of justice. As a result, many weaker nations suffer, and, eventually, even these bigger nations also suffer. So, it's the whole atmosphere that is not healthy. Sooner or later, somebody must make some effort to change that for the benefit of mankind, for the benefit of the world. The smaller nations may want to do something, but then because of the circumstances its difficult. Then, logically, those bigger nations, like the US, must do something. Must use the power to clean up, to reduce the negative atmosphere.

"I often tell people in the west, where domestically there is so much concern for democracy, that same spirit should prevail in international relations....

"Neighboring states should feel, we have a big neighbor, so we won't suffer, we have protection, but often it's the opposite."

How do you want to be remembered?

"I have no concern. You know, again, some friends want to write down my biography. I tell these people, what is important, while I am alive, I should utilize my energy, my existence for good, for the benefit of others. That's important. Then, I'm finished. Whether people say good things or bad things, doesn't matter. Let other people say, I have no special desire to record what I have done.

"When I reach nirvana, then I will tell people all! HAHAHA! "

Ron Gluckman is an American reporter who is based in Hong Kong, roaming the region for a wide variety of publications. Details from this series of interviews were used in his stories for Asiaweek Magazine, Good Weekend Magazine in the Sydney Morning Herald, Dagens Nyheters Manadsmagasin, and many others. Since the interviews were done, Deng Xaoping died, Hong Kong was returned to China, and Ron Gluckman left Asia for further wanderings, in Latin America and Africa. The Dalai Lama remains in India.

Other links for information on the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan cause:

The personal Dalai Lama - Ron Gluckman's full report on his visit with the God King

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