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Dalai Lama On Knowledge, Poisons And An Unlikely Father Figure

During a long sit-down in his Dharamsala residence, the Dalai Lama answers hard questions about the self-immolation of Tibetan monks and Chinese leaders, old and new.

The 14th Dalai Lama
The 14th Dalai Lama
Frédéric Koller

DHARAMSALA The great monastery of Dharamshala is a rough and charmless place, a raw concrete structure swept by the damp Himalayan winds that blow though the region in winter.

The contrast with the monasteries in Tibet is striking: On the "roof of the world," in the Tibetan plateau, religion is everywhere, in the multitude of niched statues in palaces with golden roofs.

But there is another difference between Dharamsala and Tibet. In the temples of Tibet, inside the borders of the People's Republic of China, fear reigns; Here instead, in eastern India where the Tibetan leaders-in-exile are based, freedom is all around.

And so too is Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama. After waking this morning at 4:00 am, the 77-year-old Buddhist leader spent his early hours in meditation, before welcoming Le Temps for an extensive interview.

Responding to questions about Tibetan protesters, new Chinese leader Xi Jinping and growing old, the Dalai Lama spoke with simplicity and directness.

LE TEMPS: More than 100 Tibetans have immolated themselves since 2009, and to this day, you have neither supported nor condemned these acts. How can Tibet’s spiritual leader remain neutral when faced with such insurrection against the Chinese occupation?
DALAI LAMA: This is a very delicate issue, with sensitive political ramifications. At the time of the first self-immolation, I voiced my sadness. Since then I have reflected on their actual cause and consequence -- and I decided not to encourage such acts. My position remains the same. These people have consciously decided to commit suicide. They are not drunk. They have no family problems. Yet they decide to sacrifice their lives. In Tibet, there are really desperate situations. These people chose to take their life rather than endure prolonged suffering... So I stay quiet.

Aren’t sacrifices in contradiction with the teachings of the Buddha, who preaches compassion, even for your enemies?
Everything depends on personal motivations. There is no general rule. During the Vietnam War for example, several monks set themselves on fire. According to Buddhist principles, if this was done in accordance with dharma and the well-being of people, then it can be considered virtuous. But right now, there is too much anger, too much hatred, things are bad. We must judge on a case-by-case basis.

The self-immolation of a single Tunisian changed the fate of the whole Arab world. Over 100 Tibetans have done so, to no avail… What do you make of it?
I doubt these acts can make a difference. Take another recent example: Syria, where more than 70,000 people have died, including many innocent women and children. This has the whole world worrying. But because of tensions between Russia and China, the United Nations’ hands are tied. It’s political. The same goes for Tibet -- China is very powerful now, that’s the problem.

You've known Chinese Communist leaders well. You met Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai and Xi Zhongxun, the father of the Chinese Communist Party’s current Secretary General Xi Jinping.
I met him in 1954 or 1955. He was a friendly, capable man. At that time he was considered a liberal.

You offered him a watch...
Yes. In 1979, when he was governor of Guangdong province, he welcomed a fact-finding delegation of mine and showed them the watch, telling them it was a gift from the Dalai Lama… Laughs

Was he carrying a message?
No. But he said he hoped to see me again before he died.

He died in 2002. Maybe his son, who is now at the helm of China...?
I don’t know. In 1979 and in the early 1980s, the beginning of the Deng Xiaoping era was a time of genuine open-mindedness. In 1980, Hu Yaobang – then General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party - visited Lhasa and publicly apologized for China’s past mistakes. It was then that the democratic movement began in China, around 1986. Then Hu Yaobang was dismissed. Zhao Ziyang replaced him, but he was weak. Li Peng, a radical, took over. Then there was the Tiananmen Square massacre, and China adopted a much harder political stance, including with regard to Tibet and the Xinjiang province.

More and more Chinese people come to see you…
I meet with Chinese people every week. Today, 15 of them came especially from China. Sometimes I give speeches to hundreds of Chinese at once. Last year, there was a meeting with more than 1,000 Chinese people. Three years ago, according to a study by a Chinese university, there were 300 million Buddhists in China.

What do you tell the young Chinese who ask for an audience with you?
I always tell them: Buddhism is not only about believing or praying – it is also about training your mind. Knowledge is essential. I tell them: all the books you need have been translated, so study! Praying, making money offerings and burning incense is not enough. You need knowledge.

Last year, your parliamentary secretariat revealed that a Chinese spy had tried to poison you.
We received intelligence that the Chinese secret services had hired a woman and instructed her to put poison in her hair or in a scarf. When you come in contact with this poison, it has no immediate effect. But you die two months later. Meanwhile, we received information from the Tibetan monastery of Kalinbo: a European woman had asked for an audience with the head monk, who is a follower of my teachings, and presented him with momos Tibetan dumplings. As he didn’t know her, he was a bit suspicious. He gave the momos to two dogs. Exactly two months later, the dogs died. In the autonomous region of Tibet, the saying goes among Chinese officials that if you want to get rid of a snake, you have to cut off its head.

Almost two years ago, you relinquished all temporal power. How do you look back on your time as head of state?
Around 1947-1948, even before I took temporal responsabilities, I already had the feeling that Tibet was being ruled backwards – mainly because power was concentrated in the hands of a few. In 1951, I officially became ruler of Tibet; in 1952, I set up a reform bureau. The Chinese were already around at that time, and they were not happy -- but it felt more relevant for us Tibetans to carry out our own reforms. Still, it was not a success. In 1954, I went to China. I came back in 1955 after spending a couple of months in Beijing, where I met with Chairman Mao several times. He was a wonderful man.

Wonderful, How so? Open-minded?
Always open-minded!

Did you two talk of democratization?
Democratization, no, not really. Laughs But of development, revolution, that sort of things… I was like a son to him. And he in turn became like a father to me.

Really. And I think he really trusted me. The last time we met, he told me: "Oh, you have a very scientific way of thinking. But know that religion is poison." He’d never have said that if he didn’t trust me. I’m a religious leader, I’m the Dalai Lama. To tell me that religion is poison… Laughs

But I understood that Chairman Mao had no real knowledge about Buddhism. A true Buddhist must practice. If you turn a blind eye to that, you only see monasteries, prayers, money: that’s exploitation. Chairman Mao was resolutely opposed to exploitation. At that time, I had full confidence in him, and he made many promises. I really thought that with the help of Chinese communists, the reforms I had proposed would be implemented, and that Tibet would be able to thrive.

But in 1956 armed conflict broke out in eastern Tibet. In 1958, things got from bad to worse. Eventually, in March 1959, when all hope was gone, I decided to leave Tibet. Then in 1960, refugees from all Tibet gathered, and together we started working towards democratizing our government.

In 2011, I decided that the time had come for me to retire completely. On that night, I slept particularly well, which is unusual. No dreams. I was freed from all these responsabilities.

It was the right thing to do.
Before that, whenever I had a long flight ahead of me, I would ask myself: what if something happened to me, what if I died, what would become of our organization? Now I am at peace. I know that if something happens to me, people have been elected to take care of everything. I can still contribute modestly, here and there. But right now, as a member of a community of seven billion people, my main interest is to promote human values. There is no difference between religions, between believers and non-believers, between the Eastern and Western world, between Africans and Asians. We are all the same human beings – mentally, emotionally and physically. You want to live a happy life, I want to live a happy life. My time and energy are entirely devoted to the quest of happiness and religious harmony.

Tibetans in Dharamsala say that you will live to be 113. Does being the reincarnation of Avalokiteśvara enable you to predict the day you will die?
According to my dreams and to predictions made by Tibetan monks 200 years ago, the 14th Dalai Lama could indeed live to be 113.

Meaning 2048…
He checks with his assistants Ah…

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