Pico Iyer Journeys

A Hell on Earth

After the demonstrations in March spread with unprecedented speed and intensity across the Tibetan Autonomous Region and China proper, Tibetan hopes had been raised when Chinese Premier Hu Jintao called for a special meeting, for the first time acknowledging in public that the Chinese were holding talks with delegates from the Dalai Lama. Several world leaders were speaking then of boycotting the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympics in August and much of the world was looking to China to show some sign of good faith and loosening oppression in the months leading up to the Games. The Dalai Lama never supported a boycott, and appealed to Tibetans not to disrupt the carrying of the Olympic torch around the world, but he had reason to hope that the Chinese government might budge a little.

But when the two sides met for their seventh round of talks, in July, he told the Chinese professors, “there was nothing new from the Chinese side. It was the usual allegations against us.”

I happened to see the Dalai Lama later that month, at the Aspen Institute, and there he startled many of us by saying (for the first time that anyone could remember), “My trust in the Chinese leadership is this thin now” (he held his fingers a tenth of a centimeter apart). “I really don’t know what I can do.” In the meantime, as he often freely acknowledged in Japan, his “Middle Way” policy–of not seeking full independence from China for Tibet, but only a “genuine and meaningful autonomy,” whereby China could control Tibet’s defense policy and foreign affairs, while Tibetans might enjoy the freedom to take care of their culture, their religion and their special environment–was coming under more and more criticism. So, he said, he would step aside and allow others to come up with a “new, wiser, realistic” approach.

He might almost, with his transparency and candor–and frank self-criticism–have been reminding the Chinese of what they lack. Democracy has always been a particular passion of this Dalai Lama, as both one of the secular tools of the wider world that Tibetans can now usefully learn from, and an idea perfectly consonant with the Buddha’s own belief that all beings are equal, and each person should rule himself. Within his first year in exile, in India, he was beginning to draft a constitution for Tibetans to allow them democracy for the first time in their history (and to allow for the impeachment of the Dalai Lama). In the years since, he has systematically extended the possibility from a democratically-elected parliament to a democratically-elected Cabinet to, in 2001, a democratically-elected prime minister (currently the scholarly monk, Professor Samdhong Rinpoche). Even as the king of Bhutan, educated by some of the same Buddhist teachers as the Dalai Lama, more or less imposed democracy on his reluctant people last year, and even as Nepal next door edges a little away from monarchy, the Dalai Lama continues to hope (sometimes in vain) that his people will take responsibility themselves for shaping their own futures.

It is not always easy to appreciate from afar how radical this Dalai Lama is in dispensing with any tradition he feels to be outdated (sometimes more radical, as well as more open to other views, than the conservatives in his own community would like). “The Dalai Lama institution came about around 600 years ago,” he told the Chinese students in Japan, “and for more than 300 years the Dalai Lama has been spiritual and temporal head of the Tibetan people. But that time is gone.” A Dalai Lama might no longer be useful, he seemed to be implying, especially since, upon his death, China will likely produce a young boy of its own and pronounce him Dalai Lama. New times require new solutions. It now seems more than possible that the Dalai Lama will in some way, explicit or otherwise, designate his own successor from among the young lamas around him and ask Tibetans to treat him as their leader, whether or not he wears the name of “Dalai Lama.” Tibet no longer has the luxury of being able to look for a young child and then wait another fifteen years for him to come of age.

Still, I’ve always noticed that his pauses are longest whenever I ask him about how to break his people of their centuries-old habit of deferring to the Dalai Lama in everything. His government-in-exile can look after the 2% of Tibetans who live outside Tibet, and this March, in place of the teachings he usually offers to the public outside his home, in accordance with classic Tibetan custom, he is personally ordaining 1000 new Tibetan Buddhist monks in southern India. But, as he told me four years ago, “When I go, I don’t know. All depends on the respect of the Tibetan people for their popularly elected leader. One hundred per cent popular, impossible! But sixty, seventy per cent, and still thirty, forty per cent, opposed: it can create some problems.” As most observers note, it is in China’s interests to try to resolve the Tibetan situation now, if only because no other Tibetan is likely to be as forbearing or as open as the current Dalai Lama, let alone as intimately acquainted with the leadership and entire history of the People’s Republic.

Throughout his week in Japan–and even as he reiterated that this is the “darkest period in Tibetan history”–the Dalai Lama took pains to stress, over and over, his “great faith in the Chinese people” and his eagerness to spend an entire day just talking to regular Chinese individuals gave proof of that. “The Han Chinese are a hard-working people,” he told the Chinese professors. “Wherever they settle, they have Chinatowns; they have their own culture; they keep intact.” What, in other words, was the government in Beijing afraid of? Did it think that loosening up on Tibetan culture and religion would somehow erode the strength and integrity of a proud Han culture going back millennia?

“China’s ambition to have a superpower,” the Tibetan leader told some TV interviewers, as he sat calmly within a circle of cameras in his flip-flops, “is right! Theirs is a most important nation, an ancient nation.” Tibetans themselves stood to gain from these developments. “Every Tibetan,” the Dalai Lama said, as he often does, “is in favor of modernization.” None wishes to go back to the seclusion and backwardness of old. Yet to be a superpower brings with it certain obligations, having to do with democracy, rule of law and freedom of the press. “Manpower, military power, monetary power, that is already there in China,” he said. ” But moral power, moral authority is lacking.”

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