Pico Iyer Journeys

A Hell on Earth

Over the decades I’ve known him, the Dalai Lama has always been adept at pointing out, logically, how Tibet’s interests and China’s converge–bringing geopolitics and Buddhist principles together, in effect–and at arguing, syllogistically, for how the very notion of enmity is not only a projection, nearly always, but, in today’s globally interconnected world, an anachronism. But now, with the skill of one trained for decades in dialectics and personally familiar with the last few generations of Chinese history, he seems more and more to be holding the Chinese government up to its own principles. “Chairman Mao, when I was in Peking, said, `The Communist Party must welcome criticism. Self-criticism as well as criticism from others,” he noted pointedly in Tokyo. But now the party seemed to be all mouth and no ears. Deng Xiapoing, he reminded another audience, always stressed “seeking truth from facts,” the very empiricism the Dalai Lama would love to see more thoroughly deployed. “When President Hu Jintao talks of a “Harmonious Society,’ I am a comrade of his,” he told the Chinese scholars. “Even today I have points of agreement with Marxist thought.”

His argument, unexpectedly, was that Communists in China today are not Communist enough, as they ignore Marx’s ideas of ethics and equality (which the Dalai Lama has long admired) and move ever further from the purity and self-sacrifice of their early years. “Mao Zedong was a true idealist, a real comrade, initially,” he told the Chinese students (who got up, one after another, and offered passionate testimonials to the Dalai Lama and, in the case of one spiky-haired young woman, a passionate challenge, until she was shouted down by her elders). “But in ‘56, ‘57, that disappeared.” The result, he said, was that “the Communist Party in China today is something very special; it is a Communist Party without Communist ideology.” At one point, he even said to his Chinese listeners, “Maybe in some ways I’m more `red’ inside than the Chinese leadership!”

In recent months, the Dalai Lama seems to be returning more and more to the extended meetings he had with Mao and other Chinese leaders when he spent several months in Beijing and traveled around China in 1954 and 1955, so impressed by much of what he saw that “I actually said that I wanted to join the Communist Party” (as he told the Chinese intellectuals). He remembered Mao treating him almost as a son, feeding him with his own chopsticks, and in 1955 a time when “Mao looked at me and said, `Tibet in its past history has been a powerful nation. But now it is weak. We are keen to help you. After twenty years, Tibet will be a powerful, great nation. It will be your turn to help us.’ ” Especially when Chinese are around, he recalls Mao pointing to two generals, and telling the Dalai Lama, “I sent these two to Tibet in order to help you. If they are not doing well, or acting according to your wishes, then let me know, and I will drop it.”

“Past history is past history,” he acknowledged more than once in Japan. And, as he put it to the intellectuals, it is ultimately “something legal experts and historians can talk about, and it’s for them to decide.” Yet by giving his own first-hand account of what he remembers, more and more, and by stressing his admiration for what those on the Long March and Mao in his early years achieved, he seemed to be asking the current leadership in Beijing what would sustain its people beneath their thoughts of money and control. In the course of his sixty-nine years in power, the Dalai Lama has seen one country after another–in the West and more recently in places like Japan and Taiwan–gain prosperity and modernity and then come to him asking what to do with their sense of emptiness, their broken families, their shut-in kids. At some point, clearly, China is going to have to find something to support it at some deeper level than just growth rates.

It is common, especially in recent months, to hear people asserting that the Dalai Lama is a wise and even heroic spiritual leader who is nonetheless a little out of his depth in the cut-and-thrust of Realpolitik, which observes rules and priorities very different from the monastic ones. And indeed, to the surprise of many, he has long maintained that Tibet should, in the future, separate church and state, one reason why, were he to return to Tibet, he would not seek any political position. Yet listening to him in Japan–and in India, America and Europe in recent years–I’ve been struck at how much more practical and concrete his proposals sound than those of the Chinese leaders or of the Tibetans around him.

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