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"For a happier, more stable and civilized future, each of us must develop a sincere, warm-hearted feeling of brotherhood and sisterhood."

Dalai Lama - 21st-Century Monk

September 23, 2007

COMMENTARY: THE WEEKEND INTERVIEW

By MARY KISSEL
The Wall Street Journal
September 22, 2007; Page A11

DHARAMSALA, India -- "So, Rupert Murdoch is buying your newspaper?"

It's unclear whether the Dalai Lama's private secretary is making small
talk about News Corporation's impending takeover of Dow Jones, or if
he's obliquely reminding me of Mr. Murdoch's oft-quoted reference to his
boss as "a very political old monk shuffling around in Gucci shoes." I'm
momentarily flummoxed -- how does one reply when surrounded by monks? --
but I recover as we make our way through clouds to the Dalai Lama's
residence here in the Himalayan foothills.

For more than 40 years, the man better known as "His Holiness" -- or, if
you're in China, the "splittist," "separatist" or -- the ultimate slight
-- "politician" -- has been waging a peaceful campaign for a free Tibet,
which was invaded by Communist China in 1949 and has been brutally
suppressed ever since. His "middle way" diplomacy, a
talk-and-talk-some-more approach, has produced distinctly middling
results. In the leadup to next summer's Beijing Olympics, the atrocities
in Tibet have barely been mentioned -- overshadowed by China's weapons
sales in Darfur, a world away.
[Dalai Lama]

Over the border, China is tightening its vise. The State Administration
for Religious Affairs declared last month that all Buddhist
reincarnations must get government approval, a move that sets the stage
for Beijing to name its own Dalai Lama once this one passes. The Party's
"Go West" campaign is flooding Tibet with Han Chinese, marginalizing the
native Tibetans. And a wave of recent political crackdowns has been left
largely unnoticed in the Western press.

But the Dalai Lama seems unperturbed, even buoyant. He emerges from the
mist, shuffling down a footpath to minister to a waiting line of
devotees. He chats with a group of former Tibetan special forces
personnel who helped whisk him over the border in 1959 ("let's take a
photograph"); then he tends to the sick ("visit a doctor"), and blesses
visiting Buddhist pilgrims.

In the line also stand two teenage Tibetan schoolgirls whose father was
imprisoned last month for standing up at Tibet's annual Lithang
horse-racing festival and denouncing the local monks for cooperating
with the communists -- sparking sympathetic protests and subsequent
crackdowns all over the province. "Your father is a brave man," the he
tells the ponytailed girls, who look simultaneously awed and sad. (The
secretary is translating for me in a jarringly perfect American accent;
he spent time in New Jersey as a youth.)

The girls had trekked over the Himalayas to Nepal, and later, to India
and freedom. Like many of the approximately 3,000 refugees who come here
every year, they may never see their family again. The Dalai Lama, the
private secretary whispers in my ear, grants each of them an audience
upon his arrival in Dharamsala. Moving into a sitting room, we leave the
misty courtyard behind.

There is room for cautious optimism for Tibetans that things will
improve in their homeland, but perhaps not in the Dalai Lama's lifetime.
As China gets richer and citizens search for spiritual fulfillment,
underground religious movements are budding across the country. Last
year, more than 500 mainland Chinese trekked to southern India to hear
the Dalai Lama preach, according to the Tibetan government-in-exile.
Others now come to Dharamsala to learn Buddhism and then return to
China. When Zhao Ziyang, China's former premier passed away, his family
asked the Dalai Lama for a blessing.

"Chinese society is now ruled by autocrats," the Dalai Lama says with a
laugh, as we start our formal interview. "But the society is still
Chinese society." (The New Jersey-infused private secretary sits nearby,
helping with translations when necessary.) "Chinese society built many,
many Buddhist temples. . . . Now with a little liberalization, or
lenient policy, their religious faith is now, khare-zego-re, (Tibetan
for 'what is the word?') returning, reviving, including the Buddhist
faith." I must have looked surprised at his cheerful optimism. "Mmm," he
murmurs, shifting slightly in his chair.

Authoritarian, closed societies are "unpredictable," but the Dalai Lama
insists that he's taking the right approach. "We are not seeking
independence," he says. "We want a solution according to the Chinese
Constitution." The Constitution, as his negotiators often remind
Beijing, says "all nationalities in the People's Republic of China are
equal," and adds "the state protects the lawful rights and interests of
the minority nationalities and upholds and develops the relationship of
equality, unity and mutual assistance among all of China's nationalities."

Beijing, of course, insists that this the "splittist" wants
"independence," not autonomy. That was true -- 30 years ago. Through the
upheaval of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, there
wasn't much dialogue to be had with Beijing. In the early 1970s, as the
Cultural Revolution was peaking, the Dalai Lama decided to shift to a
call for autonomy, not independence, as a sign of good faith. At the
time, he described it as a "middle approach."

Since then, the monk who's never been far from politics has tried to
separate himself from the process to give it real legitimacy. The
Tibetan government-in-exile founded a parliament in 1960. But in 1991, a
new constitution, the Charter of Tibetans in Exile, transferred the
power to select its members to the Tibetan people. In 2001, the charter
was amended to allow the direct election of the prime minister --
Samdhong Rinpoche, a reincarnate lama himself. "I have no longer any
political status," the Dalai Lama emphasizes. "I remain just a simple
Buddhist monk," he says, "quiet!"

Beijing hasn't responded in kind to these gestures. If anything, the
relationship has deteriorated over six rounds of talks. Last year
President Hu Jintao's administration launched an intensive round of
attacks against the Dalai Lama, calling him "unworthy" of being a
religious leader. China's rhetorical venom has created a growing sense
of fury in the Tibetan exile community. Many Tibetans worry that the
Communist Party is playing a waiting game, stringing along the Tibetan
negotiators until the Dalai Lama passes -- a fear that the Buddhist
leader acknowledges.

"There's certainly more and more signs of frustrations, not only on our
side, but inside," the Dalai Lama admits. A Tibetan youth tried to
immolate himself when Mr. Hu visited Mumbai last year; another tried
last month. In Tibet, violent tendencies have been crushed by the
communists, but that doesn't mean they won't surface. "The suicides, the
bombings, these things . . . it's possible," the Dalai Lama
acknowledges, sighing slightly, with his hands now open. "But then, we
always ask people to keep, keep peace."

One way of doing that is to institutionalize the Tibetan cause in the
younger generation. Through private donations, the Tibetan government
funds the Tibetan Children's Village, a network of schools for refugee
children. Others are educated at Indian government-funded institutions.
All teach Tibetan language, culture and a version of Chinese history
that would never see the light of day on the mainland.

"In the past, Tibetans, particularly the nomads and also the farmers,
they simply carried their centuries-old way of life . . . completely
ignorant about the current world," the Dalai Lama says. "We Buddhists
must be Buddhists of the 21st century." (Maybe that's why the secretary
is following Mr. Murdoch's purchases so closely.)

Another way to perpetuate the movement -- especially inside China -- is
to debunk the Communist Party's characterization of religion as a
destabilizing force. The Dalai Lama preaches what he dubs "secular
ethics" -- the idea that there are common experiences that all people,
regardless of religious faith, share. In his view, all spiritual
traditions talk about basic concepts of love, compassion, forgiveness,
tolerance, contentment, self discipline. While these ideas may come
packaged in different philosophies, the message is the same.

"The main thing is some kind of usefulness to others." He pauses.
"That's the meaning of life," he says, leaning forward and pointing his
finger at me gently.

Despite his optimism, there's little chance that the "middle way" will
spark a breakthrough anytime soon. From Beijing's perspective, the Dalai
Lama's return to Tibet would galvanize Tibetans to rally behind their
leader and push for independence -- an example that China, which has
suppressed other ethnic groups, such as the Uighurs, could not tolerate.

For the Communist Party, Tibet remains the third rail of politics -- a
topic so sensitive that it turns mild-mannered Chinese bureaucrats red
in the face at a mere mention. The party toyed briefly with
liberalization of the region in the 1980s, only to find Tibetans
gleefully displaying the Dalai Lama's image and calling for
independence. In 1989, a crackdown ensued, overseen by now-President Hu,
then the party secretary of the Tibet Autonomous Region. Since taking
office, Mr. Hu has installed a loyal hard-liner to oversee the area.

China's economy is increasingly providing political cover for its
suppression of Tibet; it's too big and important to let a little bright
light shine on human-rights abuses in a far away land. The Dalai Lama's
cause is especially lonely in Asia, given China's economic rise and its
rapidly accruing military clout. "Very few" democracies in the region
publicly support Tibet, with the notable exception of India -- which
comes under pressure frequently from Beijing. The silence is deafening,
given that many Asian democracies, including those in Japan and South
Korea, are home to large populations of Buddhists.

Even Western democratic nations come under intense pressure from
Beijing. Belgium cancelled an official visit with the Dalai Lama before
an EU-China meeting in May this year. Australian Prime Minister John
Howard hesitated to meet the Buddhist leader in June, but after intense
lobbying from Washington, acquiesced. Germany's Angela Merkel is proving
braver -- she's hosting the Dalai Lama's first-ever visit to the German
chancellery on Sunday.

"When we look at Tibet issue locally, then almost hopeless," the Dalai
Lama concedes. But from a "wider perspective," the Tibet cause is
"always hopeful." Recalling how the Soviet Union changed, he muses for a
moment on how China is developing. "China is communist without communist
ideology -- only power," he declares. "So logically, no future!" The
"only future" for China is "democracy, rule of law, free press,
religious freedom, free information. China's future depends on these
factors." That's something, he adds, that President Hu must know. "I
really feel sympathy" for him.

The U.S. has always proved a strong supporter of the Tibetan cause -- a
close relationship that makes the Dalai Lama feel "proud." America, he
says is a "champion of democracy, freedom and liberty. So their full
support means they recognize our struggle as a just cause and a moral
issue." Next month's Congressional Gold Medal award ceremony has sent
the Chinese embassy into high defensive gear. But that hasn't stopped
President Bush from scheduling a private audience with the Dalai Lama.

"Of course, sometimes I have disagreement with . . . President Bush, but
as a person, I always made clear, personally, I like him. He's very
straightforward," the Dalai Lama recalls, "down to earth." House Speaker
Nancy Pelosi is a "close friend of me personally and, I should say, a
close friend of Tibet."

As we end, the Dalai Lama drapes a traditional white katag scarf around
my neck and presents me with a pin depicting Potala Palace in Lhasa, his
ancestral home. Then, like a child might, he throws his arms around me,
and whispers into my ear: "We are passing through a difficult period,"
he says. "One ancient nation, with a unique heritage in a way, dying. So
support from the free world is very much appreciated."

But will the free world follow through?

Ms. Kissel is The Wall Street Journal Asia's editorial page editor

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