The Rolling Stone interview: The Dalai Lama (Rolling Stone)
New York May 24, 2001 Author: Robert Thurman

Abstract: Despite the [Dalai Lama]'s prestige around the world and the persistent embarrassment to China concerning revelations about its genocidal oppression of the Tibetans, the Chinese leaders still hope to avoid having to negotiate with him over the fate of Tibet. Intensely frightened by the unraveling of the Soviet Union in the early Nineties, the dying leader [Deng Xiaoping] made stubborn toughness on the Tibet issue the litmus test for whoever would succeed him.

Copyright Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. May 24, 2001
Dalai is Mongolian for "ocean", Lama is Tibetan for "spiritual teacher," hence Dalai Lama


The Dalai Lama is believed by Tibetans to be the fourteenth in a line of reincarnations of the All-Compassionate Divine Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara ("Chenraysee" in Tibetan), who have appeared in Tibet for centuries in order to serve the Tibetan people as teacher and ruler. He is a Buddhist monk, an accomplished scholar of Buddhist philosophy, psychology, history, art and liturgy, a creative philosopher in his own right, an adept contemplative a "holy man" in the classic sense - and also an experienced diplomat, a head of state in exile and a Nobel-laureate peace activist. He is sixty-five years old.

In 1950, when the Dalai Lama was fifteen, he was entrusted to lead the Tibetan nation after China's army invaded with 80,000 troops. In 1959, he was forced into exile in India. During the first twenty years of his exile, his movements and utterances were severely restricted. While China took steps behind the scenes to suppress all knowledge of Tibet around the world, Western governments chose not to publicly intervene. In 1965, China annexed Tibet. By that time, the army had completed its brutal assimilation of Tibet into the "motherland" of China, which resulted in the deaths of more than 1 million Tibetans, the destruction of more than 6,000 monasteries, and the settling of millions of Chinese colonists on Tibetan lands. In the Eighties, after the Carter administration granted the Dalai Lama a visa to the U.S., he became much better known and began to tell his people's story more openly to sympathetic audiences around the world. In 1989, his nonviolent efforts to free his people from Chinese oppression were rewarded with the Nobel Peace Prize, after which he has continued to generate an even more powerful movement for Tibet. With the collapse of the Soviet empire and the liberation of Eastern Europe, Tibetans were buoyant with optimism that they too would soon taste liberty. Sadly, the international business community has so far prevented governments from putting any real pressure on the post-Deng Xiaoping rulers of China, and the Tibetans' hopes are still unrealized. November 2000 marked His Holiness' fiftieth year of leadership of his people and his cause - nine years in Tibet and forty-one years in exile. The colorful and heartfelt ceremonies in Dharamsala, India, the capital in exile, were necessarily bittersweet.

Robert Thurman first got to know the Dalai Lama in 1964. Every week for a year, Thurman and the twenty-nine-yearold Dalai Lama would hold a conversation about Thurman's Buddhist studies as he was preparing to become a Tibetan Buddhist monk in Dharamsala. Often the conversations would turn to Western topics, as the ever-curious Dalai Lama would question Thurman about constitutional democracy, nuclear physics, Western psychology, philosophy or whatever. Ever since, Thurman has worked closely with the Dalai Lama on translation projects, preservation of Tibetan culture and speaking out about the truth of the Tibetan holocaust.

In your recent book "Ethics for the New Millennium," you called for a "spiritual" and then an "ethical revolution." Are you now willing to emerge as a prophet?

I just am speaking out on behalf of the millions of people who still suffer so much. Some are killed because of the arms trade. Some starve because of extreme poverty. Some suffer because of the ruined environment - things like that. Such people, I think, because of their own harsh experience, have a strong feeling of sadness, bitter resentment. Yet they are forced to remain silent. So I feel for these people, and I am just expressing my feelings as a spokesman for so many millions of silent people. That's all I am doing. I have no desire for power or status as some sort of prophet. I have no courage to challenge anyone. I have no desire to confront the world.

Also, today, this is not the business of any one individual. Everywhere there are all sorts of organizations that are concerned with these things. Everyone has the same responsibility now - I think it's the democratic way. With increased awareness, with a stronger sense of concern, every person must come forward and join together as one body, each one cooperating with every other. There are some individuals - some intellectuals, some religious persons and quite a few scientists - who all have real awareness of the critical situation in the world. But one problem is that they each just express their own view and then let a few organizations carry the burden as best they can. Now, if we could more often come together, discuss the problems in depth, make some appeals for positive action or even offer stronger criticism of wrong actions, and even tell the U.N. or some important governments - then that's the way to have some positive effect.

It's not a matter for just one lone Tibetan who comes from a very faraway, remote area to assume some sort of extraordinary responsibility and seek out some special confrontation. That would just be silly!

Just look at my age. I think it is my time, soon, to say goodbye. Nowadays, I really wish for more time to think things over more deeply, to meditate and gain a more profound experience. That's my real wish.

In the meantime, on these important issues my commitment will remain unwavering until my death. I'm certainly ready for any international conference, and even for some kind of movement - though soon I think I will arrive in some sort of wheelchair [laughs! But I will still keep on coming, even that way, continuing until my death, because of my commitment - and even in my next life.

Right now, the gap between rich and poor is increasing more and more. At least 500 new billionaires have come up during the last twenty years. Five hundred!

Yes, up from twelve in 1982, and now almost 600. But out of those, more than 100 have come up in Asia. Though we think of Asia as poor, there are billionaires in Asia, and at the same time so many poor people in the West - so it's more like a worldwide system of rich and poor that has gone beyond East and West. You have said that the communists failed miserably in their attempt to force the rich people to share.


So then what is the alternative in trying to get a better balance?

People have to decide on their own that it is good to share what they have, at least to some degree. I think that this can only happen through education, through increasing their awareness. In the long run, when there is one rich family surrounded by poor people, mentally they will not be happy. Their children will always receive some harassment from the poor community, so physically also they will constantly feel some sort of fear or threat. So in the long run, not only will they be morally unhappy but also they will be practically unhappy.

Then, you can think in terms of the murder rate or senseless violence in the community; in some cases an overly polarized economy can become one cause of a civil war. When there is too much of a gap, some agitators can easily organize the poor people, as they can claim to be fighting for equality or for justice. So therefore, if we return to an ever more huge gap, then due to such condilions within societies, many troubles are bound to come. That being the case, in the long run it is in the interest of the richer people themselves to make sure that there is a less-extreme gap between themselves and the poor around them. In this way, they will realize their enlightened selfinterest in sharing.

Then also they can think more carefully about their own lifestyle. For example, except for the fact that richer people can think, "I am really rich!" - except for being able to hold this concept in their thoughts, I doubt if there is that much difference in the actual quality of their living, if they become more mindful of its actual details.

Except, as you already mentioned, on the physical level.

Even on the physical level, how much can anyone put into one stomach? Except perhaps you, as your belly seems quite expansive [laughs]! That being so, really, even in the practical, material facts of living, there's not that much special about being really rich. For example, you can drink a lot of wine or liquor, some really expensive kind, or you can eat very costly food. But if it is too rich, or if you eat too much, it will hurt your health. Then some people who don't work physically fear they are getting too unhealthy, so then they expend a tremendous amount of sweat doing strenuous exercises. Like me, I don't get out to walk very much, so I have to ride on my exercise bike every day! When you think about it, there isn't that much to it, is there?

As you say.

But in the thinking "I am rich, really rich!" - just the excitement of that concept gives a little energy. But this is really very little of a benefit, for some sort of self-image. Just for this, is it worth it to engage in all the stress of amassing huge wealth? Within one's family there will be unhappiness, within society there will be so many people feeling jealousy and malice and wishing you ill. And you will feel anxiety about that. And so one develops a more clear awareness of the realities of the state of extreme wealth.

On the other hand, if they instead think, "I'm so rich. If I help these poor ones in front of me, if I help their health, if I help them develop skills and good qualities, then these poorer people will really like me. Even though I'm rich, they will really feel friendly toward me." That way, the rich person will find real happiness, don't you think so? For example, if there is some tragedy in the thoughtless rich family, then the ordinary people might actually enjoy it. But in the opposite case, if something tragic happens to the generous rich family, then everyone is genuinely sorry. So if you get richer and richer and still share nothing, and the people around you really dislike you, how can you feel good?

Fundamentally, we are social animals, so when the surrounding people become more genuinely friendly, we feel more mutual trust and we are much, much happier. So the rich should make a conscious decision, on their own volition, to make their contribution, share the wealth that has come to them from their past good karma. When they increase their awareness of others' perspectives, they will naturally realize, "Helping others more, they will be happy, and then I will be happy myself!" That's what I am thinking.

Now for a really simple question: What is the essence of Buddhism?

Respect all forms of life, and then compassion and affection toward all sentient beings, with the understanding that everything is interdependent - so my happiness and suffering, my well-being, very much have to do with others'.

What prevents people from understanding this?

When people think it's all about doing tantric visualizations and rituals.

When I talk about the Buddhist dharma, I'm not talking about just chanting and rituals. If it's thought to be a philosophy, it's not that, either. The dharma, it's just the mind. I'm afraid that among the Tibetans, the Chinese and also some Westerners - the new Buddhists - in many cases they consider the practice of Buddhism is simply to recite something and perform some ritual, putting false expectations on the esoteric magic of tantra: "Oh, if I do this, I may get something amazing!" So they neglect the basic instruments that actually transform our mind. These instruments are the altruistic spirit of enlightenment [bodhichitta], the transcendent attitude, renunciation, the realization of impermanence, the wisdom of selflessness. People who think they have a magic gimmick neglect these things. So their inner world, their inner reality, remains very raw.

Sadly, use of ritual can feed that neglect. Knowledge of philosophy can also feed that. It's a great tragedy. If Buddha came here, if Nagarjuna [a great Indian Buddhist philosopher, circa the second century C.E.] came here, I think they would feel very critical about this; they would give us a big scolding. Nagarjuna would say that all our complex philosophies are not meant just for academics, our elegant rituals are not just for theatrics.

What about those who think Buddhism is simply an unfair rejection of the world? Even today, the pope thinks Buddhism is too depressing and negative.

Most importantly, those people who consider themselves Buddhists must practice the Buddha's dharma sincerely - that will be the proof of the value of Buddhism. Some Tibetans today also say that in the past, the way of life was that the dharma almost served as a livelihood or a routine profession. The Buddhist was not thinking of nirvana, not caring for liberation, just how to make a living. Officials used it for their lives, monks, nuns and lamas for their lives. Inside, in their inner world, they were like ordinary people, lusting and hating. So the dharma became a poison in this way.

When there is too much focus on the Buddhist institution, and the country goes to waste, that's what it means when people say Buddhism ruined the country. According to that reality, these accusations become true.

Therefore, the best answer for this criticism is for ourselves to practice sincerely. We can aim for nirvana and Buddhahood. But in the meantime, we can be practical, develop the education field and improve the worldly life in various ways to benefit society and humanity. In this way, we can be fully engaged.

Are there particular dharma teachings that are especially useful for people at different ages -for example, for younger people filled with turbulent emotions or for older people worrying about death?

I don't think so. Buddha dharma is dealing with emotions. Young and old, the emotional world is the same. Some feelings closely associated with the physical body may differ in emphasis.

Then would you say that young persons benefit from meditating about death as much as older persons do?

Yes, in general. However, just to think about death alone, don't know how useful it is. For a materialist who doesn't believe in future life, meditating on death might develop a bit more contentment, but it won't bring great benefit. In Buddhism, meditation on death is important in the context of the matter-of-fact expectation of limitless lives and the sense or the possibility to transform our mind while evolving through those lives. The time of this life with liberty and opportunity becomes very important, actually the most precious time; wasting such a lifetime is a great tragedy. So we concentrate and meditate on death and impermanence until we powerfully feel that our precious lives with liberty and opportunity might get wasted if we don't practice. In this case, since through ultimate wisdom yor can attain ultimate freedom and ever, the exalted state or Buddhahood, you are energized by meditating on impermrhence and death. Otherwise, just to do it in a materialist context might just make someone feel demoralized. That would be wrong, don't you think?

What do you think about the relationship of religion and politics?

I think politics is a technique or method to serve the community and to lead society. And what is the meaning of "religion"? Broadly speaking, religion is the warm heart. All human activities are furthered by the warm heart - the compassionate heart. Every human activity can be positive and also can be a religious activity. As for politics, unfortunately, some people consider that, in politics, there is no morality it's just ties, bullying, cheating. That's not genuine politics. It's just savagery. Even religious teaching, when conducted with motivation to deceive, exploit or dominate, is also quite immoral. On a general level in the West, religion means to believe in God the Creator, and with the motivation of serving God, one serves society and engages in politics, serves humanity or society morally as well as politically, and so there is no contradiction.

So in the Westen dialogue about church and state...

Ah! That's different. "Church" means the religious institution. Of course that should be separate. Combining them causes too many difficulties. The spirit of democracy, competition and contest, as in the United States, is very important, so if religious leaders were to engage in such contests, it would lead to difficulties. Religious institutions should not get involved in the democratic competition - only individuals.

Turning to Tibet: You have said that Tibetans are basically more jolly and content than most of us in the West. Why?

There are many factors. First, Tibet maintained a small population, so generally speaking survival was not very difficult. The nomads have plenty of meat, plenty of cheese, plenty of milk, no problems. So it seems they can lie down all day; then, when they get hungry, they just get up and kill one yak. Of course, they have plenty of pasture, no boundary at all, everywhere. Then there are the farmers: perhaps they have to work more, but again, there is sufficient land for a small population, So these are economic factors for their contentment.

Then, Tibet had a lot of Buddhist teaching: the teaching of karmic evolution: the teaching of rebirth and the concept of the nature of suffering of the samsara [endless cycle of unhappy lives]. So no matter how difficult this life gets, still we put a lot of hope in the future. In daily life, at least some portion of our mind is thinking about the long-term future, just beginning with the next life. So when you face some difficulty in this life, since your whole mind is not focused only on it, even tragic things can happen, and you're not so disturbed. When your whole mind, your whole hope, is concentrated on something within this life, then when something happens, you have much more worry, much more anxiety. We often say, when some tragedy happens, it's all due to karma. In that way, we lay less blame on others; we feel at least less bitter.

Despite the Dalai Lama's prestige around the world and the persistent embarrassment to China concerning revelations about its genocidal oppression of the Tibetans, the Chinese leaders still hope to avoid having to negotiate with him over the fate of Tibet. Intensely frightened by the unraveling of the Soviet Union in the early Nineties, the dying leader Deng Xiaoping made stubborn toughness on the Tibet issue the litmus test for whoever would succeed him. This caused his successors, Jiang Zemin and Li Peng, to turn hardline in the early Nineties. They imprisoned the boy whom the Dalai Lama recognized as the authentic Panchen Lame reincarnation, (the number-two spiritual leader of Tibet) and substituted their own chosen boy as a puppet; returned to the Maoist policies of open religious persecution, antiDalai Lama propaganda and forceful pressure for communist ideology; and intensified the pace of Chinese colonization. But the Dalai Lama continued to offer the olive branch, called for dialogue through various intermediaries, including Bill Clinton; openly considered entering into real federation with China: and dropped his insistence on recovering Tibet's traditional independence, thereby risking the alienation of many Tibetan patriots, for whom union with China remains unthinkable. Appalled by the Chinese treatment of the six-year-old Panchen Lama and his family, he also vowed that, should he himself die in exile, he would reincarnate in exile, so the Chinese would not be tempted to put another puppet in his place. As witnessed by their treatment of the Falun Gong movement and their persecution of Christians, the Chinese leaders seem unreasonably terrified by religious elements in general. On top of that, Tibet is a huge territory, almost a million square miles, rich in resources, which they don't want to give up. The Dalai Lama says he wishes to help the leaders develop new sources of legitimacy now that communism has failed, by inspiring them to become patrons of religion, as successful Chinese leaders have done historically. He also feels that they would gain enormous prestige worldwide by dealing justly with the Tibetans and other subject nations, such as the Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang, a province north of Tibet, and thus reassure all-important Taiwan and the ring of other nervous neighbors such as Mongolia, South Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, India and the Muslim Republics of central Asia, and bringing an era of true stability and peaceful prosperity throughout East Asia.

Turning to politics again, what exactly is your "middle path" proposal for Tibet? People are confused. They say you have given up independence for Tibet. The Students for a Free Tibet are worried you have abandoned freedom. On the other hand, the Chinese say, "Oh, the Dalai Lama has changed nothing, he just wants independence by another name." So what exactly is your middle way?

I consider my immediate responsibility, under the present very fierce, very critical circumstances, to be the long-term protection of the Tibetan nation and its unique culture and history. As a person who believes in democracy, who believes in people, I am working for the Tibetan people, not just for my own institution or my own life. What I'm doing now is trying to protect my people against the immediate serious danger to their existence. Let us create a union with China, happily and peacefully. Whether that is achieved or not depends on many other factors, mainly on the attitude of the Chinese leaders, on their internal politics, which is beyond my responsibility.

As for those who say that I am throwing away independence, if Tibet now had any kind of independence, that might be the case. My thinking is based on the fact that we do not now have independence. In that context, my aim is to get a real autonomy, a workable self-rule, within which we can develop our country, develop our own civilization and live our lives. This we can make happen. Let us try to achieve it. If it fails, then in the future our policy will depend on the Tibetan people. That is the middle-- path proposal.

If this attempt should fail within your lifetime, you said after the tragic imprisonment of the Panchen Lama - that you would make sure to reincarnate among the Tibetan exiles and not in Tibet under the control of the Chinese. Do you still maintain that position?

Oh, yes. Providing the Tibetans want another reincarnation...

Of course they do.

Then, naturally, logically.

OK. Now you have often said that restoring justice, peace and freedom to Tibet, either autonomy or whatever, would not be a loss for China but will actually bring an immense benefit to China itself

Yes! Certainly!

Then the question is, why would it be in China's best interests to restore justice and freedom to Tibet? How would the Chinese leadership benefit? How would the Chinese people benefit?

If the leadership really follows a policy that comes from facing reality, accepting reality and trying to find a realistic solution, everybody will be pleased. Then the most precious thing - trust - will increase: Trust within the Chinese community, trust within the world community, will grow tremendously. The popularity of the leadership will increase dramatically. And the outside world will feel sincere admiration.

Nowadays many Chinese are praising Deng Xiaoping. Why? Deng Xiaoping at least gave more freedom in the economic field. He brought more liberty and the Chinese veople appreciate it; the outside world also. If the present leaders would increase freedom in the political field, then they would feel a more positive appreciation. Such sincere appreciation in the people would be an immense help to stabilize the government and support the party. The leaders very much want to assure the party's power, but now they are doing just the opposite. They focus on the negative factors, try to stop all negative criticism and suppress the people. That's the foolish way. How can it succeed? It will get more and more difficult.

For example, due to the way the government is handling the Falun Gong movement, it has only become more widespread. The Falun Gong followers were originally innocent, not against the government at all. Now, since they have been suppressed, they have turned against the government. If it was handled more peacefully, more humanely, then the Falun Gong followers would have no reason to develop negative feelings.

Real unity and stability can only come from fairness and peacefulness. Such heartfelt unity will have an immense positive effect on the minds of the people and will provide a very important positive factor for reunification with Taiwan. And of course the international image of China would change positively overnight.

China is a great nation. Logically, it should have an important role in determining the future of humanity - the whole world. In order to carry this important responsibility, they need moral authority with their own people and moral respect from the rest of the world. Without that, just creating more and more force, it just makes more fear.

Why do the Chinese leaders persist in a policy that is against their own interests? Why do they pursue a selfdefeating policy?

Why? From their own feeling of weakness and fear.

What can we do?

In this situation, again, awareness is the key. We must try to increase awareness among Chinese students, professors, businessmen, writers and reporters. We must make more friends and tell the truth. We have nothing to hide the truth is our support, right? We have confidence. The Chinese leaders' problem is that they have no confidence. So that's where scholars professors and intellectuals can help. Through dialogue, they can present a clearer picture of reality and so reassure the leaders, help them gain enough confidence to take a more practical course of action.

This makes the next question very important. You have said that if the situation is settled in a positive way, you would be very interested in helping the Chinese people, the leaders, the followers, rekindle their inner good feelings, their warm heart, their spiritual life. What is your vision of new China after some positive change? The positive change Tibet wants, Taiwan wants, Hong Kong wants, the Chinese people want.

Hmm.[Pause] China was once a nation where Buddhism very much flourished. Many Chinese have strong faith toward mystery, toward the spiritual, including their own ancestors and deities; and, also, the Chinese are quite practical. Buddhism is spiritual, of course, and yet also a scientific religion. its spiritual practice and scientific philosophy are based on simple, gentle human values - so it is very practical.

Today in the Chinese community, there is a lot of corruption which created a tense atmosphere during the last few decades. Before that, there was the ruthlessness of the civil wars, the Japanese occupation and the -evolution. Before that, they were in the hands of outside powers, who bullied and brutalized them. So they have a long-pent-up hatred; they themselves cannot manage well, but at the same time they keep a lot of negative feelings toward outsiders.

In their minds, all these negative imprints are too much; so the human, gentle side, 1 think, has had no chance, and the last halfcentury has been too rough. So as the economy develops more, as there is more information about the outside world, more communication, then China can relax, return to its own inner balance, rediscover its own inner resources, and so become a genuinely peaceful society, productive and peaceful. That's where we Tibetans wouid like to try to be of help - from our own experience, from having coped with our own suffering, using our own Buddhist resources - try to help in that process of helping Chinese people rediscover and implement their own time-tested inner resources for peace and happiness.

That's an excellent, hopeful vision, In Eastern Europe- in Romania, for example-the Communist Party gave up power to a multiparty democratic syste, but again returned to power through the electoral process, after ten years or so. So in fact even the Communist Party in China doesn't have to lose everything, if it liberalizes soon enough without too much violence. As a Buddhist leader relating to a new China, you wouldn't necessarily be against the Communist Party. Is that correct?

Oh, yes. This is a very important point. I definitely prefer the change in China to be gradual, not sudden and chaotic. If changes are suppressed for too ong and then become explosive, there will be terrible bloodshed again, wars - countless people will suffer.

As for the Communist Party, or communism, I still believe there are good things in the Marxist ideology. I do not consider the collapse of the Soviet Union to be the collapse of Marxism. It is the collapse of a Marxist authoritarian system, not Marxist socialism. In China, all the negative things come from their authoritarian system, not their communism. For example, there are Tibetan communists who strongly believe that Marxist ideology has no room for racial chauvinism or nationalistic colonialism. From the Marxist viewpoint, the Tibetans have every right to be free of Chinese exploitation.

Theoretically, they should support democracy. However, why is it that so many millions of people have been killed - in Russia, China, Cambodia, Tibet, so many places - in the name of Marxist theory?

Marxism was spoiled in practice because Karl Marx's personal experience placed more emphasis on hatred and not on human compassion. Then he allowed limited violence against the richer class. Though in theory, exceptional or surgical violence can be necessary to prevent greater violence, if you combine the emphasis on hatred and the lack of compassion with the license for violence, it can become limitless. Then there were many negative circumstances, imperialist interventions, civil war, harsh personalities of the leaders. I never say Marxism is a hundred percent correct. But capitalism is too focused on money, and even in a free country, elements of the socialist giverning system are necessary to protect the weaker people.

Last question. So many journalists have misunderstood your answer to the questtion "Are you the last Dalai Lama?" They report that you have announced that you are the last. If the situation is still unsettled when you make the next transition, you have already pledged to reincarnate in exile. If, on the other hand, things work out and there is a glorious return to a free Tibet, then there will at least one or two generations of difficulties in forging the new Tibet. Is it safe to say that, barring a radical change of mind on the part of Tibetan people, there will be in fact more Dalai Lamas?

That's not the right wording. If the Tibetan people, when we return and the Dalai Lama makes a complete separation of his institution from the government and becomes an ordinary Buddhist monk - even then, if a majority of the Tibetan people want to maintain the Dalai Lama institution, then surely the reincarnation will appear.

Whatever the wording, it is very unlikely that the Tibetan people would not want the institution to continue. As you have said, you are the most popular Dalai Lama in history, thanks to Mao and his oppression of the Tibetan people.

In any case, I feel that on my part there is no need to make any effort to preserve the Dalai Lama institution.


But as long as it is something beneficial, something useful, then why not?

Why not? And even it the Tibetans didn't want it, we will want it, so we will make the Dalai Lama institution for the world, and we will request your teachings in the Future.

[Laughs] Oh, yes, so I suppose Tibet House New York would become my residence.

Yes, absolutely - it already is! [Laughs] Thank you very much!