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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."

A chat with a god-king

October 29, 2007

The Dalai Lama on Canada, his health, his people, and why he opposes a boycott of the Beijing Olympics.
National Post
October 27, 2007

BLOOMINGTON, Ind.

Tashi Wangdi, the Dalai Lama's representative to the Americas, laughed at the question and shook his head.

"There is no protocol," he said as we walked in the chill of dawn, accompanied by a Secret Service agent, toward a Tibetan Buddhist temple on the forested outskirts of this college town in Indiana farming country,

home of the Hoosiers.

This was not strictly accurate. To be sure, the 72-year-old exiled Tibetan leader is famously informal, but his visit here this week -- a respite from a hectic tour through New York, Washington and Atlanta, continuing

next week in Ottawa and Toronto -- was steeped in protocol, both Buddhist and otherwise. It was evident from the offerings of rose petals, barley flour and butter when he cut a ribbon at the front gates, through to the

sniffing of cameras by a spritely State Department Labrador.

Even the monks gathered outside the door to the Dalai Lama's chambers above the temple lobby bowed in unison to a visitor, as if in ritual. With everyone else on their best behaviour, it seemed reasonable to ask how

to greet the god-king of the Himalayas.

But inside, in a rare private audience with the man they call Kundun, "the Presence," in which he expounded on everything from Burma and radical feminism to metaphysics and why he opposes a boycott of the Beijing

Olympics, there was nothing formal, nothing scripted, just a smile and a warm hand-shake that he held as we crossed the room, even passing on opposite sides of a coffee table.

He sat and crossed his legs, revealing beneath his robes a pair of sensible brown shoes, and at the very first question -- has Canada been a good friend to Tibet? -- he smiled and almost squealed his answer: "Oh yes!"

"My coming visit to Canada, like any other visit, is not political," he said in English that is stilted despite long practice. "Two reasons: Number one, promotion of human values. Number two, promotion of religious

harmony. So then, naturally, since Canada, Canadian people, Canadian government, for now more than 40 years [have been] very sympathetic and supportive, therefore it is our duty to express our thanks.

"And of course, since I became [an] honourary citizen of your country [last year], this is the first time to visit Ottawa, so my own Cabinet," he said, chuckling energetically at his own joke.

He had good reason to be at ease. It might have been the most relaxed morning of his North American tour, out in the country, in between his public appearance with U.S. President George W. Bush, which drew bitter

vitriol from Beijing, and his meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper, which is sure to draw more on Monday.

China, which invaded Tibet in 1950, regards it as a province, and its leader, exiled in India since 1959, as a "splittist" and "terrorist," even a "serpent's head" or a "cat's paw."

Tibetan Buddhists regard him as the 14th incarnation of Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva ("enlightened being") of compassion, and they call him "Precious Victor," or "Wish-fulfilling Jewel." He calls himself a simple

monk.

Whatever he is, he spoke with candour and grace, relying only a couple of times on a discreet interpreter for help remembering such words as "emphasis" or "CO2 emissions." At other times he tut-tutted at the man's

whispered interruptions.

His spirits had also been lifted by a visit the night before to his 86-year-old brother, Taktse Rinpoche, a retired professor of Central Asian studies at Indiana University, who established this temple and the adjoined

Tibetan Buddhist Cultural Center.

"We are not seeking independence," he says of his campaign. "We are trying to gain genuine autonomy, which [the] Chinese constitution itself provided that status. But in reality, all the decisions are in the hands of

Han Chinese [an ethnic group accounting for more than 90% of China's population,] who have no knowledge about Tibetan culture, Tibetan spirituality, Tibetan ecology, all these things. In fact, many of these Chinese

leaders, in particular the party secretary in the Autonomous Region of Tibet [the T.A.R., which is part of historical Tibet], they consider Tibetan religion, firstly, as Communists. They consider it opium [after Karl Marx,

who called religion the "opiate of the people"]. Chairman Mao also personally told me religion is poison."

The Chinese claim their sovereignty in Tibet dates at least to the Tang Dynasty in the seventh century, and was strengthened over the ages by a series of royal marriages, was eventually threatened by British

colonialism in neighbouring India, but was re-established after the 1911 Chinese Revolution.

Until 1950, Tibet remained largely as it exists today in the Western imagination, a mountain kingdom ruled by a peaceful adherent to an ancient, contemplative religion, its people isolated amidst the snows on the roof

of the world.

But since 1950, when Chinese troops invaded to "liberate" these "serfs" from the supposed tyranny of their Buddhist leaders, Tibet has become a global symbol of national victimhood, whose religious culture is being

gradually erased by an ascendant, secular superpower, to the vocal distress of everyone from heads of state to Hollywood actors.

This popular status is almost entirely the achievement of Tenzin Gyatso, the fifth of 16 children, who was identified as the Dalai Lama at the age of two, and enthroned at age 15 just after the invasion (the position of

Dalai Lama is not chosen, but "discovered" as a reincarnation based on a series of auspicious signs) and has since grown into a leader, both temporal and spiritual, who has been memorably described as a cross

between Gandhi and P.T. Barnum.

Since he fled over the mountains to India disguised as a soldier after a failed uprising in 1959, establishing a government-in-exile in Dharamsala, his people have endured much cruelty, and are now second-class

citizens to the ruling Chinese elite in Tibet. He said that since his exile, 500,000 Tibetans have been killed through military action, and even more through starvation. "So more than one million Tibetans [suffered]

untimely death," he said.

It is a pattern of oppression he sees reflected in the recent crackdown against Buddhist monks in Burma, or Myanmar, which he describes as "all the same, same."

"I think, actually, when I saw pictures of some Burmese monks beaten by police or military, I immediately remembered our own cases. So now, in fact, Burmese case, one occasion, short period, few weeks; Tibet

case, large scale, few decades," he said.

Asked if he believes his own life is at risk because of his status, he paused, and recalled the various times that Chinese propaganda has declared him dead or dying.

"There are some Chinese agents [who] create some rumours that Dalai Lama is cancer patient ... something like wishful thinking," he said and, asked if it is true, exclaimed, "I don't think so!"

He said he gets a medical checkup every six months, either in India, France or the United States. "They say nothing. Very good," he said. "So, [either my] physicians telling lies, then I don't know."

But he acknowledged assassination is a "possibility," though it is less likely to come from China than from a breakaway Tibetan Buddhist sect, which the Indian government believes has been plotting against him.

"Eventually, now they have developed some very close links with the Chinese," he said.

Although His Holiness says Canada has been and continues to be a good friend in his struggle for autonomy -- he says Mr. Harper "seems very concerned about human rights" -- it has been at times a shallow

friendship. There are, for example, the helicopter engines built in Quebec by Pratt & Whitney Canada, a subsidiary of a U.S. firm, that have ended up in Chinese anti-tank attack helicopters, prompting an investigation

by the U.S. State Department. And there is the railway from China into Tibet, completed last year by Canadian companies Bombardier, Power Corp. and Nortel, which the Dalai Lama says could be "really dangerous"

for his people.

"Tibet is a backward country, materially," he said. "Materially backward, spiritually very, very advanced. Meantime, every Tibetan wants a modern Tibet. So, as far as material development is concerned, if we remain

within the people of China, we get greatest benefit. [That is the]main reason we are not seeking separation. Therefore, the construction of railway link itself is positive, we welcome, right from the beginning. However,

that railway link used for military purpose, or indiscriminate exploitation of nature resources, and also to bring more Chinese settlers, then it is really dangerous. But that largely depends on political diplomacy."

Also, documents unearthed from Canadian federal archives and released this week by the Parliamentary Friends of Tibet, a cross-party group that is behind the Dalai Lama's current visit, show that in 1950, mere days

after the Chinese invasion, Canada's Justice Department formed the opinion that Tibet could be considered an independent country under international law, making China an unlawful aggressor. The government of the

day appears to have kept quiet, however, following the lead of Washington and London for fear of offending China.

"There is almost a sense, in some of the documents, that the West wrote Tibet off, on the basis that it is better that China is occupied fighting Tibetans than going into Vietnam or dedicating more resources to North

Korea. And I think that's one of the tragic stories in all this," said Dermod Travis, executive director of the Canada Tibet Committee. He also cited the famous 1972 handshake between U.S. president Richard Nixon and

Chinese chairman Mao Tse-Tung, and former prime minister Pierre Trudeau's 1971 opening of diplomatic relations with Beijing, as obstacles to the Tibetan cause.

In the years since, Canada has voted three times in support of Tibet at the United Nations, and has been part of an international diplomatic effort to grant China status at various bodies -- the UN, the World Trade

Organization, even the International Olympic Committee -- in exchange for concessions on Tibet and general improvement of human rights. With few exceptions, however, these overtures have had little effect.

The Dalai Lama said China now satisfies three of four conditions for superpower status: population size, military power and economic power. What it lacks is moral authority, he said, and Canada has a part to play in

fostering that.

"China should not isolate. China should bring into the mainstream of world community. So therefore, close relations, friendly relations with China is very essential. Meantime, in certain principles -- such as human

rights, religious freedom, freedom of speech and free media, rule of law -- in these issues you should stand firm. In the long run, there's more benefit to the Chinese people also," he said.

He said China deserves the Olympics that it will host next summer in Beijing, a controversial stance that goes against the call for a boycott from many human rights groups, some U.S. congressmen, and actor Richard

Gere, who leads the International Campaign for Tibet. The Dalai Lama said it was "reasonable and logical" to consider a boycott in the decision process, and the threat was a possible means of progress, but in the end

it is not worthwhile, and would create more problems than solutions.

He is not always so cautiously

diplomatic. He caused a major academic stir in 2005, for instance, by offering up monks for a neurological study of meditation by University of Wisconsin scientist Richard Davidson. The presentation of those results at

a neuroscience conference in Washington, at which the Dalai Lama gave a lecture, drew outraged protest from some scientists, who derided the presence of a "religious symbol with a controversial political agenda"

and said it was ironic that scientists would provide "implicit endorsement of a religious leader whose legitimacy relies on reincarnation."

Although the lecture went ahead, the opposition made it a bitter moment for a man who has made concerted effort to meet and learn from scientists, and write about science from a Buddhist perspective. He is uniquely

placed to do so, as leader of a religion that is closer to a philosophy, with none of the Judeo-Christian complications concerning a personal god.

He said neuroscience is perhaps the most important frontier in modern science, and offered a careful explication of Buddhist thinking on the relationship between consciousness and the brain.

"From the Buddhist viewpoint, in the mind, or consciousness, there are very different levels," he said.

The first is the awakened state, or normal consciousness. The second is the clear dream state.

As an aside, he recalled his first night in America on this visit, at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., when he dreamed of sharing a meal with his two childhood tutors and his late mother, Diki Tsering.

"I think maybe I feel hungry at that time, obviously with no dinner as a Buddhist monk. So we were getting some food [in the dream]."

The third level is a deep sleep without dreams, and the fourth the unconsciousness of fainting, "something like a coma," he said.

The scientific controversy, and the source of the Tibetan Buddhist belief in reincarnation, enters at the fifth level. He calls it the "clear light state of mind," which persists even after physical death, preserving the bodies

of Tibetan Buddhist monks for as much as a month after their hearts stop beating.

"In some cases, before they die, because of long illness [they had a] very weak body, their face also very weak. After death, after all brain function stops, at that stage, we say they remain in the clear light state of

mind.

"So, our explanation is, at that time, the lowest consciousness or subtlest consciousness, still in the body," he said. "According to our scripture and our tradition, that mind is more or less independent from the brain.

So that mind is the basis of our theory of rebirth from previous life."

At this point, someone knocks on the door of his chambers, signalling that his convoy is soon to leave for a public lecture, and the interview has to end after what seemed like a few brief minutes, but was actually more

than half an hour.

We have already said our goodbyes before he realizes his omission. There may be no protocol to this meeting, but there is "tradition," he said, gesturing to a handler to bring him a khata, a long white silk scarf. With a

few words of ceremony, he places it around my neck, and smiles broadly with a disarming warmth.

Then, feeling slightly guilty for turning my back on the Presence, I am led outside, past the cluster of excited monks and the Secret Service men, into the cool Indiana morning, comfortable in the knowledge that His

Holiness is not the Queen, nor the Pope, and he was surely not offended.
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