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Sunday, Dec. 2, 2007



Ocean of wit and wisdoms

Staff writer

Lhamo Thondup was born on July 6, 1935 in Taktster, a small village in the Amdo region of northeast Tibet. But neither his parents — farmers who grew barley, buckwheat and potatoes — nor his three elder brothers and one elder sister (a younger sister and brother came later) were to discover his true identity until a few years later.

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama plays with a Japanese kendama (cup-and-ball) toy presented to him by his interviewer during a recent interview with The Japan Times
His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama plays with a Japanese kendama (cup-and-ball) toy presented to him by his interviewer during a recent interview with The Japan Times. RAJU THAKRAR PHOTO

Then, when the little boy was 4, a party of senior Buddhist monks and officials from the distant capital of Lhasa arrived in the village searching for the reincarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama — the spiritual and temporal leader of Tibet, whose title means "ocean of wisdom." The party was led by Kewtsang Rinpoche, a respected monk who had chosen to head northeast as that was the direction in which the face of the embalmed 13th Dalai Lama (known as "the Great 13th"), who died on Dec. 17, 1933 was said to have mysteriously pointed.

Apparently, when these strangers visited the Thondup household, little Lhamo ran up to Rinpoche and grabbed the rosary belonging to the previous Dalai Lama that he was wearing around his neck, saying, "It's mine, it's mine!" The little boy also unerringly chose other items that belonged to the previous Dalai Lama from a mixed assortment of artifacts.

In the winter of 1940, Lhamo was taken to Tibet's seat of government, and the Dalai Lamas' winter seat, the 17th-century Potala Palace in Lhasa, to be officially installed as the 14th Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso, thereby carrying on a lineage dating from 1391, when the first Dalai Lama was born. Since then, all Dalai Lamas — including the third one, who was born in Mongolia — have been considered to be manifestations of the Bodhisattva of Compassion.

However, the 14th Dalai Lama's "reign" over Tibet — a country the size of Western Europe that is often referred to as the "roof of the world" due to its average altitude of 3,500 meters — was rudely interrupted in 1950 when the country was invaded by the Chinese army.

After that, despite his intense wish to stay with his people, conditions for the Dalai Lama became increasingly difficult — as they were for Buddhism throughout the country. Finally, with fears for his safety growing, on March 17, 1959 the Dalai Lama was forced to flee the Potala Palace by night with his mother, younger brother and younger sister, senior teachers and advisers.

Guided by Tibetan guerrillas, and constantly in fear of a Chinese ambush, the party — with the Dalai Lama at times disguised as a common soldier with a rifle across his back — made the long, arduous trek over the Himalayas to India. Once there, and granted sanctuary (much to China's ire) by India's first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, the Dalai Lama set up his government-in-exile in the former British hill station of Dharamsala in the northern state of Himachal Pradesh, where it remains to this day.

From this "capital in exile," the Dalai Lama has furthered the democratization he started while still in Tibet. In 2001 and again in 2006, the academic and monk Samdhong Rinpoche was chosen as prime minister in elections stipulated to take place every five years. Hence the Dalai Lama says of his current status, "I am currently semiretired politically and act like a senior adviser.''

Nevertheless, he continues to tour the world campaigning for Tibet and its Tibetan inhabitants, as well as for his 130,000 fellow exiles. In 1987, he dropped his demand for full independence, and this October restated in his U.S. Congressional Gold Medal acceptance speech that he "is seeking a meaningful autonomy for the Tibetan people within the People's Republic of China.''

However, during the Chinese occupation to date, some 1.2 million people — many of them monks and nuns — have reportedly died due to torture, starvation or imprisonment, and around 6,000 Buddhist temples and monasteries have been destroyed. Additionally, in the last decade in particular, there has been such a huge immigration of Han Chinese, the ethnic majority in China, to what Beijing calls the Tibet Autonomous Region (of the People's Republic of China) that the 3.6 million Tibetans must now share their homeland with around 7.5 million Chinese. The threat of cultural annihilation intensified with last year's opening of the Quinghai-Tibet railway line providing a cheap and easy way into Lhasa.

When he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, the Dalai Lama said, "I believe the prize is a recognition of the true values of altruism, love, compassion and nonviolence which I try to practice." This policy, however, has come under fire from Tibetans both inside and outside Tibet, especially the radical nonreligious Tibetan Youth Congress, for not being proactive enough.

At present, one of the most contentious issues between Dharamsala and Beijing is the selection of the reincarnation of Panchen Lama, who is second only to the Dalai Lama in the hierarchy of Tibetan Buddhism. Though the Chinese deny the legitimacy of the Dalai Lama's choice, he says that the Chinese themselves refer in private to their own selection as "the fake Panchen."

The Japan Times caught up with the Dalai Lama while he was on a bullet train from Nagoya to Shin-Yokohama during his recent nine-day visit to Japan that ended on Nov. 23. A "simple Buddhist monk" he may be by his own account, but shy and retiring he certainly isn't, and throughout the interview he spoke enthusiastically to this reporter and another from Japan's vernacular press in a voice robust enough to fill the entire carriage. But no matter how serious the subject about which he spoke eloquently in his idiosyncratic but very good English, His Holiness always smiled, laughed or cracked a joke along the way.

* * * * *

You say you are semiretired, but will you ever retire completely? And how would the next leader of the Tibetan people be chosen if you did?

Retirement from the Dalai Lamaship? I cannot retire. (Laughs.) I think when the majority of people do not consider me as the Dalai Lama, then I will retire. (Laughs.) I'm kind of joking.

Since 2001, we have had an elected political leadership; every five years elections take place. So since then I have been semiretired politically. When we were in Tibet, around 1952, I started some changes. That was the beginning of democratization. But we could not carry out these programs inside Tibet because there were a lot of complications. Then after we came to India in 1959 as refugees, we were fully committed toward democracy. In 2001 we achieved an elected political leadership. So since then the main decisions have been in the elected leader's hands and not mine, and I am acting like a senior adviser. Last year Samdhong Rinpoche was re-elected, and there is a limit of two terms, so in four years a new person will come — through elections.

I don't consider that it is important to preserve the Dalai Lama institution. I think it is very important to make clear that the preservation of Tibetan culture and Tibetan Buddhism, and the preservation of the Dalai Lama institution, are totally different. This institution, like any other institution, at certain times it will come, and at certain times it will go. But Buddhism, and the Tibetan cultural heritage, will remain as long as Tibetan people remain there.

Then in 1992, I stated that when the time comes for our return to our Tibetan homeland with a certain degree of freedom — that means genuine autonomy — then I will hand over all my legitimate authority as the Dalai Lama to the local Tibetan government.

We have arranged it so that the Tibetan struggle does not depend on one person, but depends on the people. So the people elected their own leadership. That's logical.

You have reportedly said that your successor can be decided while you are alive. He can be chosen from a group of senior monks, rather than through the centuries-old process of reincarnation. Can you tell me how you will decide your successor?

There have already been casual talks on this issue among the spiritual leaders of Tibet's top religious sects, of which there are five or six major traditions, each with its own spiritual leader. From time to time we gather. I also casually mentioned this issue, but we have not yet had serious discussions about it. Eventually, we will have some discussions.

The dominant Liberal Democratic Party in Japan's ruling coalition is trying to overturn the war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution. How would you feel if the Buddhist-backed New Komeito Party that is the LDP's coalition partner supported such a policy?

That is up to the Japanese. It is not my business. Everybody knows my basic position that I am totally against war. My dream of the future is a demilitarized world. I always say that everywhere I go, although I don't think this will be achieved in our lifetimes. But we should have a blueprint or vision for the future. The ultimate goal is to have the whole planet demilitarized.

But if you say the world should be demilitarized, how do human beings have to change for that to become a reality?

We human beings have to become more realistic. That is the only way. At present, many of our viewpoints are unrealistic. That's my view.

What do you mean by unrealistic?

What do you gain through war?

Power, land . . .

Silly! Today, the whole world belongs to 6 billion human beings. If you go into deep space, there are no marks of different national boundaries on Earth, except some rivers and mountains. And actually in our life, there's a global economy and a global environment. Individual nations cannot solve these things. We have to look at these issues as global issues.


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