Orville Schell: One of the most important things in my life, without a doubt, has been to know and be a friend of His Holiness for twenty-seven years. As far as I am concerned, there is no other world leader who represents such a moral force. Along with Bishop Tutu and Mahatma Gandhi, the Dalai Lama’s quest for peace and nonviolence in the face of terrible adversity has been unparalleled. While some hard-liners in Beijing still call for merciless repression as a policy for Tibet, the Dalai Lama responds continuously by espousing dialogue and nonviolence. It is my distinct honor and great pleasure to introduce His Holiness the Dalai Lama. [Applause]
When you were a young boy in Lhasa and you thought of the outside world, what was in your mind? How did you imagine the world beyond Tibet?
The Dalai Lama: Since my childhood, I have been very curious about the world outside of Tibet, and I spent a lot of time looking through picture books. I was especially interested in the mechanical and technological wonders of the world. When I was young, we had a movie projector at the palace in Lhasa, and after the monk who kept it running passed away, I took on the job of repairing this old machine. I was very fascinated by how electricity worked.
When I was small I also had a great interest in picture books of the First and Second World Wars, and especially in all the different guns—big ones, machine guns, even the smallest pistol. [Laughs] People call me a man of peace, but I was very fond of looking at those destructive instruments. I think many young American boys are also fascinated by guns. These instruments are very destructive but also reveal great intelligence.
Once when I was visiting China, in 1954 or 1955, I remember very clearly one museum had pictures of the Japanese surrender to General MacArthur on the U.S. battleship Missouri. It was all familiar to me from picture books, but the Chinese didn’t know that. When I asked my Chinese hosts which country the battleship came from, they told me it was from Russia. I had to laugh a little at that.
OS: You once told an audience that they may have a mistaken impression of you as a mysterious person from a faraway place. You said that was wrong and that we are all the same human being. How do you deal with this notion of being somehow extra-human?
DL: Some people really believe that I have some kind of magic power. Partly this is due to the titles that are sometimes used to refer to me, such as “living Buddha,” or “god-king,” which I think are originally Chinese titles for me. There is no such meaning in the Tibetan word “lama,” which simply means somebody worthy of respect. In any case, I simply describe myself as a simple Buddhist monk. No more, no less.
OS: As the leader of the Tibetan government in exile, what are you currently trying to negotiate for your country and people with the Chinese government in Beijing?
DL: I am not seeking independence. I am only seeking genuine autonomy for the Tibetan people. Historically, I think Tibet was a separate nation, but the past should be left to historical and legal experts. If we dwell on the past we will only see the problems. Better to forget the past and look forward. History is history.
OS: Do you think the situation can be solved peacefully?
DL: That is my belief, and I am committed fully to that path. Furthermore, I think some positive resolution of the Tibetan issue would be very good for the image of the People’s Republic of China in the eyes of the world. The U.S./China relationship would also improve. So indirectly I am helping bring about stability in the People’s Republic of China.
OS: What is the situation now in Tibet?
DL: Despite the cultural genocide and the large-scale environmental damage such as massive deforestation, I am basically optimistic. Why? Because the world is changing very rapidly, and awareness about Tibet is growing in Europe, America and many other places. Perhaps most importantly, there are a growing number of Chinese intellectuals, writers and artists who are aware and concerned about the Tibetan situation. More sympathy is now coming from the Chinese people.
I also believe that the People’s Republic of China is changing rapidly. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Chinese totalitarian system was much too rigid. At the same time, their goal and philosophy did have some value.
I still believe in some of the Marxist ideology. It is a philosophy that is not only concerned about how to create money, but also how to distribute it. That is very important. When there is a big gap between the rich and poor in one country, it creates a very sad situation. Here in the United States, for instance, you see poor and homeless people, and also many older people who look very sad. When I see these things my devotion to socialism increases. [Applause] Sometimes I even describe myself as a half-Marxist, half-Buddhist.
I don’t think people in China today believe anymore in the positive aspects or goals of Marxist ideology. There is no clear goal of a classless society or socialist state. There is now only a new class of rich people. I think this is very sad. Sometimes I wonder to myself, “What is the real ideology of China’s Communist Party? What is their real goal?” If they just want to make money, then what is the difference between capitalist and socialist? Now their credibility as a Marxist state is in question. So, it is only a matter of time before things will have to change in China. I think that the leaders of the People’s Republic know this. For now they are already compelled to follow the free market economic model, and they are letting the gap between rich and poor grow and grow.
Meanwhile, I think I can see the minds of the Chinese leaders, who figure that if they allow for more political liberalization, then what happened in the former Soviet Union will also happen in China. If that did happen in China, I think it would be very bad, not only for the Chinese, but for all of Asia. I think, however, that there will inevitably be some difficult consequences of the economic changes in China, because there are millions of very poor people living there. So I prefer gradual change—and especially change from within the Communist party.
Meanwhile, the Tibetan spirit is very strong. The generations have changed, but the younger people seem to be have an even stronger spirit than the older generation. They are also getting help from the outside world, especially from the younger people in colleges and universities in America. This is very, very encouraging. So I feel it is only a question of time. Whether it is blind faith or not, I think things will change. [Applause]