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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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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