Buddha Would Have Stood By Myanmar Muslims: Dalai Lama

BANGALORE:- Venerated by Tibetans and respected the world over, Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, has the most infectious smile that breaks into a hearty laugh at the slightest excuse. He wears his 80 years with all the weight of expectations for instant solutions to the world’s many problems lightly on his able shoulders. Unruffled by anything thrown at him, it’s easy to see why he’s a Nobel Peace laureate. In a no holds barred conversation with Elizabeth Jane, for the Trans Asia News Service (TANS), the Dalai Lama puts into a nuanced perspective a range of issues that bedevil the human condition. Be it Tibet, the disconnect between the real nature of Islam and the contemporary image of the religion, the eerie parallel between this and the teachings of Buddhism and radical Buddhists, or feminism or the nature of India and the intolerance debate, Dalai Lama enlightens us over all these issues with perspicacity, vigour and insights laden with profundity.

DALAI LAMA explains why he’s keen to go on a pilgrimage to China as a Buddhist monk despite advice from “some retired Chinese officials,” that he “better remain outside China”. 60 years, into the struggle for “genuine autonomy for Tibet” from China, the Dalai Lama generously calls President Xi Jinping “realistic, more open minded”, and the “Chinese people”, “wonderful”. But he says “the system is (a) closed society”, which is experiencing “the lowest moral ethics in 5000 years”. He says, “Their only hope is Buddhism. Buddhism can help to uplift moral standards”, which is why despite being a Communist country, there are “400 million Chinese Buddhists now… In order to successfully eliminate one thing, you must replace another one”, he says. He also calls himself a “true Marxist and Socialist,” compared to the Chinese who are “totalitarian”. Drawing a parallel between hardline Buddhists in Burma and Sri Lanka to Islamist radicals, the Dalai Lama says, “the fundamentalists…may be very very faithful, but… their action is very bad for the image of Islam. If they really love Islam, really love Mohammad, then their activity is actually very very harmful, like these Burmese Buddhists. They may have some sort of faith towards Buddha and some kind of attachment with Buddhism. But if they have, then their action is totally (a) disgrace to Buddha dharma.” One solution to the problem of radicalisation, could be to explain that if people behave in one way, this will be the result, whereas cultivating harmony, another approach, will yield a different result. Generally speaking, it’s down to “human nature, human mind” he said, which not only resists being told what to do, but is curious about what is forbidden. 

With his trademark candour, the Dalai Lama also accepts the many historic “mistakes” made by Tibetans over the centuries, to end up in their current predicament. He is dismissive when asked about the ongoing ‘intolerance debate’ in India saying, “99% of Indians still have the tradition of religious tolerance and religious harmony. And 1% is possible…I think overall, India is very much alive with religious tolerance. That’s what I believe, and its important- it reminds the public, India’s tradition. That it’s not only India’s tradition but very very relevant today.” The Dalai Lama also clears up his position on the recent controversy following his comment that although a female Dalai Lama is likely in future, she would have to be “very beautiful”! The Dalai Lama spoke exclusively to TANS, on the sidelines of the launch of ‘Tawazun India’, an intellectual think tank which held its inaugural session of the day long “Peace For Economy” conference on Sunday, 6 Dec in Bangalore.

The Dalai Lama who fled to India in 1959 after a failed uprising against Chinese rule, continues to be shunned by Beijing as a die-hard separatist. Latest reports in Chinese state media, say the head of the Communist Party in Tibet has urged its chosen Panchen Lama, Gyaltsen Norbu, to reject the exiled Tibetan leader, the Dalai Lama, currently the highest figure in Tibetan Buddhism. Gyaltsen Norbu was installed as the 11 Panchen Lama by Beijing following Dalai Lama’s recognition of another boy, Gendun Choekyi Nyima, as the Panchen Lama in 1995. Lobsang Sangay, the political head of Tibet’s government-in-exile, based in Dharamsala, India said, Beijing’s bid to involve itself on the issue of reincarnation had no moral or legal standing. “Beijing authorities or the atheist communist party of China have neither legitimacy nor credibility on this matter,” Sangay has said. But even as Beijing continues to accuse the Dalai Lama of being a violent separatist, the monk keeps his calm saying all he wants is genuine autonomy for Tibet. He still plans to travel through China as a pilgrim, visiting sites holy to Tibetans. “As soon as the Chinese government shows some green light, I’m ready to go there” he says. 

Dalai Lama says, the plan to launch his pilgrimage through China is recent. “Since 1954, when I was in Peking (Beijing)… Sept ’54, I went to Peking, then I think around May, June, I returned. While I was in Peking I requested, I want to go as a pilgrim to Wu Tai Shan. We Tibetan’s consider that as a very sacred place. I think you know- Madhushree – manifestation of Buddha’s wisdom. The sixth Dalai Lama (and) the 13th Dalai Lama also visited there on pilgrimage”, he reveals. Gradually, the secret behind his keenness to go emerges when he says, “actually, the 13th Dalai Lama when he visited, he received one Chinese monk. And that mysterious monk offered a rosary… after he received that rosary, he wanted to see the Chinese monk and he enquired, where is that Chinese monk? But he had disappeared.” So, the Dalai Lama is hopeful that like his predecessor, he will also “have the opportunity”, to “receive another rosary from Madhushree’s manifestation.” On a practical note, he adds, “If nothing happens, then I’ll be in a way disappointed. But in a way, I’m modern, scientific-minded, so ok, no problem!”

The Dalai Lama admits that he often thinks of returning to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet and reentering the Potala, his main residence before he escaped to India, now a museum and World Heritage Site. It is named after Mount Potalaka, the mythical abode of the bodhisattva Avalokite?vara. “As a Tibetan and particularly whenever I met some Tibetan from our homeland, most of them cry. They plead to me, please come, please come,” he says, describing what draws him closer. “I still have the desire to visit, if possible I feel very happy. If not possible, ok”, he says, a wistful, faraway look in his eyes. 

On the ground, formal talks between the Chinese government and the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) reached a stalemate in 2010, following leadership changes in Beijing and a crackdown in Tibet. The Dalai Lama has had unusual success in the past 25 years in getting the Tibetan issue onto the agenda of Western governments and the Western media, and has met at least 71 national leaders since 2000 alone, according to Robert Barnett, the Director of the Modern Tibet Studies Program at Columbia University, New York. This, with other factors such as the popular support he received when first allowed to visit Taiwan in 1997, led the Chinese to hold ten rounds of talks with his representatives over the eight years from 2002.

But after 2008, when major unrest broke out in Tibet, policy in China became much more reactive and conservative, China’s diplomacy in Western Europe became more aggressive and successful, the talks with the exile Tibetans ground to a halt, and the number of western leaders ready to receive the Dalai Lama dropped to around two a year.

So, is there a line of communication still open between China and the Tibetan government in exile? The Dalai Lama admits, the communication is now informal. There is “no formal sort of meeting with Chinese officials but through some private individuals, Chinese businessmen/ women and some retired officials, and some professors, quite regularly they come to see me and some of them, they say they have a close connection with the President Xi Jinxing. They also express that I should come to China to give teachings to over 400 million Chinese Buddhists now”, he says. 

Regardless of the apparent hardening of the Chinese position, the Dalai Lama and his officials take the view that Xi Jinping will turn out to be more open to negotiation than his predecessors, perhaps because of reports that his mother was Buddhist, his father was friendly towards the Dalai Lama in the past, and rumours that his wife or others near him might be sympathetic towards Buddhism. It isn’t clear whether or not Beijing will move towards serious talks with the Dalai Lama in the future, or if western support will make this outcome more likely or less. 

There have been reports that when President Xi Jinping seemed to be about to take a more conciliatory view of Tibet, hardliners strongly opposed it. “Xi Jinping himself seems more realistic, more open minded, but you see among the establishment, still, the key officials are hardliners. Whether true or not, I don’t know. But there was information, stories or gossip”, the Dalai Lama says. “When Xi Jinping indicated some positives, the hardliners very strongly opposed. So that’s the present situation. So, I don’t know. But yes, now in India, I’m very happy.” He also appears to value the advice of well-wishers in this regard. “Some retired Chinese officials told me, you better remain outside China…and go to different countries- Europe, America… It will also be helpful to the image of China. When a closer understanding develops, then, still, you better remain outside China…This I think is practical,” he says. 

The European Union raised with China the issue of human rights in Tibet during the 34th round of the EU-China Dialogue on Human Rights in Beijing, on 30 November and 1 December 2015. A range of issues including the rights of persons belonging to minorities, especially in Tibet and Xinjiang, freedom of religion or belief, off-line and on-line freedom of expression, freedom of peaceful assembly and association, the due process of law, arbitrary detention, torture and the death penalty were discussed. The European Union also articulated its concern at the ongoing detention of a number of human rights lawyers and activists who were arrested in July and August 2015. In response, China, reportedly asked the EU to fully, objectively, look at China’s achievements in Human Rights. Asked if he believed China was being honest, the Dalai Lama said a resounding “No.” However, describing the lack of flow of information within a Communist establishment, he said, “always it’s distorted information. It’s sad. Can’t blame the Chinese officials. It’s the whole system. Over 60 years, they are in a habit. I’m totally against this feudal system. So, therefore, I really, I’m a Socialist.  And then, as far as social economic theory is concerned, I’m Marxist. I’m true Marxist. Those Chinese I think, are totalitarian- not genuine Marxist or Socialist”. 

Liking Terror to Islam

Asked about the scourge of violent terror linked to Islam gripping parts of West Asia, spilling over into bloody incidents in various parts of the world, the Dalai Lama took a philosophical view to explain the concept of “inter-dependency, ‘pa?iccasamupp?da’, everything is inter-related, interlinked.” He said, “I think the September 11th event and the American’s starting this Iraq war…is also one cause for the rise of these hardliner Muslims.” 

But he does not feel the Islamic State (IS) or Daesh is driven by religious motives. If it was a sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims, all Muslims would be killing each other, which they are not, he said. “If it is truly religion, then…in Ladakh, a small group of Sunni and a little bit bigger group of Shia, they must kill each other if the problem comes from religious faith. There’s no such record in this country (India). And also in Malaysia. I have been in Malaysia, I think one or two times. The Muslims, they live amongst Hindus and particularly Buddhists, so they’re open minded. And in Indonesia also, I think there are many ancient Buddhist temples. So young Indonesian Muslims, when they have some knowledge about past history, they realise in their area there are a lot of Buddhists, so that makes a difference,” he pointed out. 

Muslim Persecution in Myanmar

How does he react then to the puzzling rise of hardline Buddhists in both Burma and Sri Lanka, where a generally peaceable and small minority of Muslims are being targeted? What justifies the sudden display of violence and hate amongst Buddhist monks, supposedly the good guys of religion, who are meant to be non-violent and pacifist? 

“If Buddha was there, he would have definitely, 100% protected those Muslims- brothers and sisters. No question”, says the Dalai Lama still in shock. “When I first heard that, I was in Washington. Some media asked me about the incidents in Burma. Then I expressed that I was very sad, firstly. Secondly those Buddhists should imagine Buddha’s face”, he said. 

The Dalai Lama has also raised the issue with Aung San Suu Kyi on at least two occasions, though he remains dissatisfied with her response. “Yes, I mentioned. I think the second time in Prague where there was a meeting of Nobel laureates. First time, I think in London- very short (meeting). Second time, I mentioned this problem to Aung San Suu Kyi as a Nobel laureate. I said something should be done. And she told me, its very complicated. The military is supporting it. So she said it’s very complicated situation. Since then for a few years she completely kept quiet. I have little disappointment. She already has the Nobel laureate name- that is itself quite sufficient position to say something. To serve, to help these poor Muslims. But of course, that’s her business”, the Dalai Lama said with regret. 

But why does he think this is happening in the first place? The Dalai Lama says, the reasons may be power and money. “I think economy. More Muslims and their number increases… I think economy.  The local famers, the Buddhist community find some difficulties. And otherwise these monks, no direct connection, I think. But local farmer, Buddhist, Muslim…but I don’t know you see. We need detailed research work on the spot- what’re the real causes. But the general impression, I feel… of course not only here, but in many cases, I think the main factor for conflict is power or economy. Not just today’s conflict but even in the past, over a thousand years, there’s been conflict in the name of religion. I think often the reason is power or economy.”

Does he see a frightening parallel then in the trend of radicalisation of impressionable minds, cutting across the lines of religion, from Buddhism to Islam? Again, the Dalai Lama takes a philosophical approach. He thinks the problem of ‘radicalisation’ begins with “rigidity” of thought, and lack of exposure to other points of view. So he advocates the “Nalanda-tradition”. One of the features of Nalanda University, he said, “was that a wide range of views were expressed and explored. People were able to study and compare them, drawing their own conclusions, without having to follow any rigid line of thought.” The Nalanda-tradition is evident in the work of its master “Nagarjuna’s follower, Bhavaviveka’s writing- all the existing (different) Buddhist schools of thought… Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, all different philosophical views, you see mentioned in one text. So at that time, the Nalanda tradition, study all sorts of available texts, or schools of thought… So therefore, I have the courage to introduce the study of modern science in our different monastic institutions,” the Dalai Lama said. 

Female Successor?

Recently, the Dalai Lama himself ruffled some feathers amongst gender equality activists when he told the BBC that a female Dalai Lama would have to be ‘very, very, attractive’ or be ‘not much use’. He was promptly denounced as “misogynistic” and even “anti-feminist”. When asked to clarify what he really meant, the Dalai Lama admitted that he had been caught off-guard by the response to his “common-sense” comment. Three years earlier he had stated the same view to a French reporter and then repeated it this time, as a “Half joke”, but “then I received some sort of letter or something”, he said. Concerned, that he had unknowingly offended people, he wanted me to clarify, “What is the reason? Just I mentioned attractive. What is the negative impression to feel? Why?” 

When told that his remark was seen as superfluous and sexist, he tried to set the record straight. The Dalai Lama said, “actually in Buddhist literature, in order to get effective life, human being, (even male),” needs the following qualities: “attractive face, long life, sharp mind, and nice voice- these are effective in serving others. It’s because of these things that I mentioned that.” In effect, ‘looking good’ is a gender-neutral prerequisite for a leadership role, that has been codified in Buddhist literature.  The Dalai Lama’s comment was not meant to be derogatory or demeaning to women, as it appears to have been construed.

He also clarified that the likelihood of a female Dalai Lama is indeed possible and cited the established precedent of Samding Dorje Phagmo, a line of female reincarnations almost as old as the line of Karmapas, the first reincarnate Lama in Tibet. “In Tibetan tradition- reincarnation, one very very high reincarnated Lama was a female- Samding Dorje Phagmo, who was from the 7th Century. One of the oldest, much earlier than the Dalai Lama’s institution…almost the same time period as the Karmapa. Because you see the earliest Karmapa at the time of his death, he clearly mentioned my next life will go on- such such time, such such area and parents- such such name- very clearly,” he said. 

As Tibet’s most respected spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama gave up asking for independence twenty years ago. He  formally relinquished his political and administrative powers in 2011, devolving his political responsibilities to an elected figure. He along with the Lobsang Sangay, prime minister of the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) have repeatedly reaffirmed their commitment to the “Middle Way” approach of engaging the Chinese government through dialogue to achieve what they call “genuine autonomy” for Tibetans within the country. But the Chinese argue that the Dalai Lama asked for autonomy in the early 1950s, but then changed to seeking independence in the 1960s and 1970s. Then, in the late 1980s, he stopped calling for independence, but still asked for “association” between Tibet and China, which is a form of independence. Chinese officials argue that these precedents are signs of duplicity. 

Asked whether the Middle Way Approach remained a practical option, the Dalai Lama said, “Yes, we’re not asking for separation, independence. But it’s in our own interest, because you see, materially we are backward.”  He said, “Let China build Tibet, provided they protect its ecology and natural resources… And also, we have a unique cultural heritage and unique language, unique script. So, you see, autonomy is right. Preservation of our culture, including our language and our philosophical knowledge. All this, we have a right to preserve. That’s mutual benefit.”

Lost Opportunity

But what about the notion that perhaps Tibet’s destiny might have been rather different if Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru hadn’t accepted China’s suzerainty over Tibet in 1954, when Tibet was not even a part of China? Wasn’t the situation further complicated when in 2003, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee went further than any predecessor and formally surrendered India’s Tibet card? In a statement he signed with the Chinese premier, Vajpayee used the legal term “recognise” to accept what China calls the Tibet Autonomous Region as “part of the territory of the People’s Republic of China?” Did these Indian ‘mistakes’, cost Tibet dear? 

The Dalai Lama was reluctant to blame India for the state of affairs. Instead he listed out a series of missed opportunities and turning points in Tibet’s history that have charted its rise and fall over the centuries. “Our issue, I think goes (back to) the 9th century, 7th century, 8th century,” he said. According to him, a Columbia University research based on Chinese ancient history shows that during these three centuries there were three empires- Chinese empire, Mongol empire, Tibetan empire. The assassination of the Tibetan Emperor in the 9th century was a regretful turn of events, he said, because “then Tibet disintegrated.”

Talking about more recent history, the Dalai Lama said, “Then, I feel very strongly, I think in 1900, the British expedition, led by (Francis Edward) Younghusband, the (British) military force reached Lhasa”. Perhaps if the 13th Dalai Lama has remained in Lhasa at the time, things might have turned out differently. “Younghusband, he was the leader of the military expedition. Actually after he reached Lhasa, saw the atmosphere of Lhasa, he very much accepted Buddhism. So, soon after he returned (to) England, he started one small, spiritual organisation…So then, Tibet, at that time I think (if), they talked with British-India’s representative, or England, I think picture (would have) been different.” 

Recalling other lost opportunities in 1946, he talked about the advice of a high Tibetan official who had taken a “pilgrimage to India, privately. He saw India’s independence movement led by Gandhiji. Later, I appointed (him) as one a high official. Wonderful person. He wrote a long letter to the Tibetan government,” but that advice was ignored. He had suggested to the, “Tibetan government to contact new leaders in India, including Mahatma Gandhiji. But nothing happened. That also, one mistake,” he said. In 1948, likewise the government of India, sent a message, to (the) Tibetan government about the rising power of Communist China, asking the Tibetan government to “prepare, for new a reality… At that time, Sardar Patel (was) there, and Nehru also… But then, Tibetan government said, you see, Tibet protected by God! So, will not come. Then, in 1950, I think, God went to some different planet! So, Tibet lost”, he said laughing, knowing fully well, that this event marked the start of his own life on the run.    

“So, you see, pray to God, is empty, wishful thinking. We should be practical. Our action is more important. So, we (put) too much emphasis on prayer, puja, puja, puja, nothing happens.” Once the Chinese forces had occupied Eastern parts of Tibet in 1950/ 51, the Tibetan government tried to raise the issue at the UN, “but (it was) too late”. 

“I don’t feel Pandit Nehru really made a big mistake. I don’t think that. The circumstances became such. Then, very difficult. The Indian government tried to warn Tibetans, but the Tibetan government’s side failed,” the Dalai Lama conceded.  

“So sometimes, I jovially say, that at that time you see, Tibetans, cold climate, so we remain like that (Dalai Lama covers his head and ears with his shawl, in mock gesture of blocking outside influences), we not hearing different opinions or different suggestions… So I think, the real mistake is with ourselves. Not me, fortunately. My previous generation. I can blame on them” (laughs heartily). 

Intolerance in India

Commenting on the intolerance debate in India, whether he sees any real damage to the secular fabric of the country he has lived in for almost six decades, the Dalai Lama expressed genuine surprise. He said, “On one occasion in Delhi, at the Gymkhana club… after my talk, as usual I take some questions and one young lady asked me, now there’s a tendency to send Indian Muslims to Muslim countries. I was surprised. I told, now some individuals, mischievous people, is possible, but recently in Chennai one reporter asked me, I mentioned 99% of Indians still have the tradition of religious tolerance and religious harmony. And 1% is possible. Still I believe that. Some politicians may express some different things, but that’s individual expression. I think overall, India is very much alive with religious tolerance. That’s what I believe, and in the meantime, it’s important- it reminds the public India’s tradition. That it’s not only India’s tradition but very very relevant today.” Addressing a larger audience at Tawazun India, the Dalai Lama said he has been suggesting to successive Indian governments, including the present one, to host a major international inter-faith conference, inviting all-round participation. This would lead to talks and further discussion in the right direction he said.  TANS

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