The Dalai Lama, Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, photographed at his home in Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh, India, August 2013
The Dalai Lama, Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, photographed at his home in Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh, India, August 2013

I arrive in Dharamsala, the Indian home of Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, groggy after an overnight train journey from New Delhi and a two-hour drive into the Himalayas. The weather is grey and drizzly but the mood is festive as crowds flock to Tsuglagkhang Temple, where the Dalai Lama is giving a three-day public teaching on a 14th-century Buddhist text about the path to enlightenment.

Stopping briefly at my hotel, I hear the voice of the world’s most famous Buddhist monk echoing over loudspeakers from the temple nearby. Typically when he speaks to audiences in English, the Dalai Lama is light-hearted, chuckling in the midst of sentences. But today the 78-year-old, who fled to India in 1959, nine years after China’s People’s Liberation Army occupied his homeland, is speaking in his mother tongue. His tones are hushed and serious, though gentle.

Soon, I am among Tibetan refugees, Indians and westerners – the devoted and the curious – thronging towards the temple through an alley strewn with reminders of Tibet’s discontent under Chinese rule. A huge banner – emblazoned “Sacrifice of Life for Tibet” – honours more than 100 Tibetans who have immolated themselves in the past two years in despairing, solitary protests in their repressed homeland, many using their final moments to call for the Dalai Lama’s return.

Photos of each – with their names, ages and dates when they set themselves ablaze – are surrounded with images of flames. Another banner has grisly photos of Tibetans allegedly shot by police in China’s Sichuan province while celebrating the Dalai Lama’s birthday on July 6. A black marble triangle is engraved with the words “Tibetan National Martyrs Memorial” and a museum details Chinese human rights abuses.

But politics is not the sole offering. A Tibetan man in a Brazilian football jacket is selling the Dalai Lama’s books, including his Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World (2011). A monk from the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives appeals for donations to translate and preserve sacred Buddhist texts. A flier touts “Tibet Power Healing”, promising to “free your mind from stress and worry” in 30 minutes of “Chakra Healing”. A table is laden with lemon tarts, brownies and carrot cake.

Inside the temple, the 14th Dalai Lama, revered by many Tibetans as a living god and a manifestation of the Bodhisattva of Compassion, sits atop an elevated throne, a large golden Buddha behind him and a sea of humanity around him. Maroon-robed monks, shaven-headed nuns, weathered elders fingering prayer beads and families with children in traditional dress, as if for a school pageant, sit cross-legged on the floor. Those without a direct view watch their spiritual leader on flat-screen TVs.

Foreigners, including Americans, Europeans, Koreans and Japanese, round out the crowd of thousands, a reminder of how the Dalai Lama – who went into exile as the virtually unknown leader of an isolated country – has become a global household name, with more than eight million Twitter followers and celebrity acolytes such as the actor Richard Gere.

Analysing the “Song on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment,” the Tibetan spiritual leader offers a taste of the universalism that has made him a popular prophet for a secular age. He urges avoidance of Buddhism’s 10 specified non-virtuous acts – killing, lying, stealing, divisive talk among them – but then observes that shunning such actions is not exclusively Buddhist.

“If people are Christian, it can be a Christian practice; if they are Muslim, it can be a Muslim practice, and if they are Buddhist, it can be a Buddhist practice,” he says. “I respect other traditions for the help they bring their followers.”

At noon, he ends the day’s session, apologising, “I feel exhausted if I teach too long.” Leaning on two aides, the Dalai Lama follows a monk – who carries a brass bowl of billowing incense – down a flight of stairs to the temple courtyard, where a car waits to ferry him to his adjoining residence. He blesses a few devotees and eases into the car. Then, the vehicle pulls away, and His Holiness is gone.

A few days later, I am walking across the temple courtyard, now peopled by vigorously debating monks and children playing under parents’ watchful eyes. I am bound for the Dalai Lama’s home, hoping to talk to the Nobel Peace Prize-winner not about spirituality but something more temporal – the plight of China’s restive Tibetan population, and its prospects for greater religious and political freedom under Xi Jinping, China’s new leader.

A security clampdown across Tibet has prevented a replay of the mass protests that swept the Tibetan plateau in March 2008. But the recent wave of self-immolation hints at despair below the surface of apparent Tibetan quiescence. Communist authorities swiftly remove all traces of these suicides – and those disseminating information about them face harsh punishment. But the immolations have caught global attention and appear to be rattling Beijing’s leaders.

In June, Jin Wei, an ethnic minorities scholar at the elite Central Party School, urged Beijing to take a “creative” new approach to Tibet, and talk with the Dalai Lama, normally reviled by Communist authorities as a “jackal in monk’s clothing”.

Her groundbreaking appeal was published in a Hong Kong magazine, suggesting high-level backing. But a leading Politburo member has subsequently sought to squelch speculation of a change in tack, vowing to deepen the crackdown on what he calls “the Dalai clique”. More recently, a government white paper endorsed Beijing’s “correct” policies in Tibet, saying Beijing’s approach had brought economic development and political progress to a “backward, primitive state”.

I have been warned the Buddhist cleric may not be keen to answer political questions. In March 2011, the then 75-year-old declared he was retiring from active politics. Within months, Lobsang Sangay, a 43-year-old Harvard legal scholar, was installed as the head of Tibet’s exile administration, after an election within the 150,000-strong refugee community.

But Tenzin Gyatso cannot so easily cast off his political role. A farmer’s son, he was recognised as the 14th incarnation of the Dalai Lama at just two years old, swept off to study Buddhist philosophy and enthroned as Tibet’s spiritual and temporal leader at the age of 15. Today, he remains the living embodiment of Tibetan aspirations for dignity, and cultural and religious freedom – a role no elected official can easily fill. Beijing’s blustering rhetoric against him only reinforces that sense of where true power lies.

In the flower-lined drive of his hilltop home, the Dalai Lama, looking sprightly and fresh, is welcoming about 20 visitors in a receiving line, held regularly when he is in Dharamsala. Among the Tibetans are a wheelchair-bound monastery cook; a family immigrating to America; an epileptic teenager; and a couple whose 12-year-old daughter died in an accident.

After he goes inside, I am taken to a receiving room, where the Dalai Lama stands at the door. He warmly takes my hand and, holding it, guides me inside to a sofa, settling into a chair next to me. His two private secretaries – both secularly educated laymen – and a translator are also in attendance. Unsure how to start an interview with a Bodhisattva – a person believed to have attained enlightenment but who postpones nirvana to help others – I begin as I do with most interviews, by presenting my business card.

Tibet’s spiritual leader studies my name, repeats it several times and turns to his aides to ask where I am from. “California,” I say. “But the name is eastern European. Polish. Jewish.” He chuckles. “Chosen people,” he says. “We are chosen people too – by Avalokiteshvara (the Buddha of Compassion) – but we suffer a lot.”

The Dalai Lama has an abiding interest in how Jews maintained their faith and culture over 2,000 years in exile. But my interest is whether the six million ethnic Tibetans on the Tibetan plateau – who are facing intense pressure to assimilate into Chinese society – will see their suffering ease, or end, soon. I ask how he interprets China’s conflicting signals – calls for change and simultaneous crackdowns.

“Like many other people – confused,” he says, laughing. Then he offers his take on the “eras” of Communist China: Mao’s era of excessive, “unrealistic” ideology; Deng Xiaoping’s introduction of “capitalism to a socialist country”, Jiang Zemin’s shift to allow the Communist party to represent wealthy businessmen and intellectuals, along with the working class; and finally Hu Jintao’s pursuit of a “harmonious society” amid widening social and economic fissures.

“Judging these events, [we see] the same party – totalitarian system – has the ability to act according to new realities,” he concludes. Yet Hu’s quest for a harmonious society “more or less failed”, he says. “The method to promote harmony [was] through tight control and relying on use of force. That is the mistake. Logically, harmony must come from the heart … Harmony very much based on trust. As soon as use force, creates fear. Fear and trust cannot go together.”

“What do you think?” His Holiness suddenly asks the FT photographer clicking away. “You are listening; therefore, I am asking. This is common sense, isn’t it? Even an animal, if you show genuine affection, gradually trust develops … If you always showing bad face and beating, how can you develop friendship?”

So does the Dalai Lama believe China’s leaders may be more willing to negotiate with him over conditions in Tibet than in the past? Beijing has long accused him of covertly seeking independence for about one-quarter of China’s land mass, despite his insistence that he only wants autonomy for ethnic Tibetans within China. Hardliners believe Tibetan religiosity, identity and resistance to Beijing will fade once the ageing monk leaves the scene.

“I am optimistic,” he says. “Whether they love me or not, the Tibetan problem is there.” He laughs. “It’s not only the Tibetan problem, but it’s the problem of the People’s Republic of China. They have to solve this. Using force failed. So they must now carry out a policy to respect Tibetan culture and Tibetan people.”

The Dalai Lama and the FT’s Amy Kazmin
The Dalai Lama and the FT’s Amy Kazmin

It’s a far cry from the Dalai Lama’s bleak mood when the FT interviewed him in 2008, after protests had swept Tibet. Then, the Nobel laureate mourned his waning influence over a younger, angrier generation. Today, he seems relaxed and confident, insisting he can convince most Tibetans – even independence advocates – to accept Chinese rule if genuine autonomy is granted.

“I have some moral authority among Tibetans. I can use it to persuade those Tibetans who want to separate,” he says. He suggests China’s leaders have far greater need of him than he of them.

“Talk with Chinese government for my interest? No,” he says. “I am just a monk. Major portion of my life already gone. Remaining 10, perhaps 15 years, I can manage. I have a lot of friends in Europe, America, Canada.” Again, he laughs. “I consider myself a citizen of the world.”

In reality, the Dalai Lama’s world is shrinking, as China uses its economic clout to isolate him. East Asian countries – even those that once received him, such as Buddhist Thailand – are now too terrified of upsetting Beijing to permit him on their soil. Japan is the lone exception. The year-long deep freeze of Beijing’s diplomatic relations with the UK after David Cameron’s 2012 meeting with the Tibetan leader was a warning to other western governments.

I ask if the international failure to take a stronger stand on Tibet reflects global leaders’ moral bankruptcy. “It’s a reality,” he says. Later he explains, “my main interest is not meeting leaders. If I have some political agenda, then it is important to meet leaders. In most cases, my visits to the west are for promotion of human values and religious harmony.”

The Dalai Lama has another constituency he increasingly wants to reach, one which some critics say is long overdue: China’s opinion-makers and the Chinese public. Every week, 10 or 20 Chinese citizens make the arduous journey to Dharamsala to see the Buddhist monk their government so deeply despises. Others snap up his books – many of which have been translated into Chinese – on overseas trips.

“These days, we are meeting with many Chinese – intellectuals, writers, students and retired officials,” he says. “I have met thousands in the last few years. I am trying for closer understanding of what we want, what we are thinking. It’s very helpful.”

If he could return to Tibet, I ask, what would be his priorities there? I hope for a hint of personal nostalgia – or perhaps the first outlines of a policy agenda.

The answer reflects his mastery of the Buddhist philosophy of non-attachment. “Nothing special,” he says. “Rest of my life, two things – promotion of human values, and promotion of religious harmony – until my death, I am committed. Regarding Tibet, political side, I have already retired. Preservation of Tibetan culture, I am fully committed. I consider Tibetan culture a culture of peace, non-violence, compassion. It’s really worthwhile to preserve.”

Coming from a Jewish tradition, I wonder whether the essence of Tibetan Buddhism can be preserved outside Tibet. The Dalai Lama has overseen the re-establishment of major Tibetan monasteries in India, and Tibetan Buddhism has ever more western adherents. Can’t the essence of the faith flourish in exile? He is sceptical. “Difficult. For preservation of Tibetan Buddhism – Tibetan Buddhist culture – the main responsibility is on the shoulders of six million Tibetan people.”

Most young monks in India’s Tibetan monasteries were born in Tibet, not exile. But since the 2008 unrest, China has clamped down on the Tibet border, and just a few hundred Tibetan refugees reach India each year now. Tibetan monasteries are struggling to find novices, and increasingly looking to other Tibetan-influenced Himalayan regions, such as Bhutan and Ladakh. But the Dalai Lama does not see non-Tibetans as filling the void. “Different language. Completely different culture. Not easy,” he chuckles.

I turn to Tibet’s wave of self-immolations. Beijing has accused the Dalai Lama of instigating the suicides, and his statements walk a fine line: neither encouraging, nor condemning them. I ask if his refusal to appeal to Tibetans to stop the immolations can be construed – as Beijing claims –as tacit endorsement?

The Dalai Lama seems upset. “If I created this, then I have the right to say, ‘No, don’t do,’” he says forcefully. “This is their own creation: Tibetan people – inside Tibet. These people, I consider my boss. I am carrying their wish. I am not demanding, ‘You should do this, you should not do this’ … The causes of these things are created by hard-line officials. They have the responsibility. They have to find ways to stop this.”

I wonder if he ever rues going into exile, and whether Tibet’s story might have played out differently if he had stayed with his beleaguered people? “There is one clear example: the Panchen Lama,” he shoots back. “The Panchen Lama remained there. What happened?”

Born in 1938, the 10th Panchen Lama, the second-highest-ranking lama in Tibet’s spiritual hierarchy, originally supported Chinese rule but grew highly critical of its destruction of Tibet’s religious institutions, economy and social fabric. In 1962, aged 24, he presented China’s top leaders a petition detailing Communist mistakes in Tibet. Initially he won concessions but was later purged as an “enemy of the Tibetan people” and spent 14 years in prison and house arrest. After his release, he kept pushing China’s leaders for cultural relaxation and moderate policies in Tibet, until his death in 1989.

“Many messages from Tibet – verbal messages, written messages, some old people, ask me, ‘Please come back, the sooner the better,’” the Dalai Lama says. “But sensible people – writers, students, some retired officials – express that they prefer I should live in a free country. They feel, ‘We have one representative in a free country.’ That is their message.

“Many Chinese, particularly Chinese Buddhists, every week are now coming here. Many ask, ‘Please don’t forget us and please come back.’ I tell them, ‘Up to now, Chinese government considers me as a demon. So if a demon returns at airport, demon may well be put in handcuffs and bring to demon’s palace – prison.’”

My allotted time is running out, so I turn to the question of his spiritual successor. In 2011, the Dalai Lama warned of potential political meddling in the search for his reincarnation after his death. But he said he could instead manifest himself as “an emanation” in another body while still alive, and such an emanation would be recognisable though “karma and prayers” or even through his direct blessing.

Complex metaphysically, this suggests the Dalai Lama could pick a spiritual successor – almost certainly an adult – in his lifetime, rather than reincarnating in a child born after his death. The monk says he will make a final decision at the age of about 90, a time frame one US-based scholar has likened to “playing poker with death”.

He sees no urgency. “Judging my body, next 10 years are OK. I think, most probably, in that time there will be some change in the Chinese thinking. I always pray the Chinese leadership should develop more common sense. Wider perspective. Holistic thinking.”

If conditions do not improve, does he expect more serious unrest in Tibet? “In my lifetime, I don’t think. I met one Tibetan working for a Chinese office. Very emotionally, he told me, their generation – age 30 or 40 – often say, ‘Until the Dalai Lama remains we have to follow his path. Once he is no longer there, we have to find various methods.’ I told him, ‘Don’t think that. We are Buddhist. We must follow non-violence.’ In our case, violence is almost like suicide … In these self-burnings, such people could easily harm others.”

He tells of a brawl in which one Tibetan stabbed another but the wounded man refused to retaliate – or even take his assailant’s money for his medical bills. “These are Tibetans – once they are determined, they can truly implement non-violence,” he says. “Clear?”

With that, my time is up. I am presented with a white prayer shawl, and sent back into the streets of Dharamsala. But the next morning, the Dalai Lama’s private secretary calls. His Holiness feels he was not clear about his position on the self-immolations, I am told, and wants to better explain himself. Hours later, I am back in the residence, and the maroon-robed monk strides in.

“One word,” he says, firmly. “Those self-burnings: these people, not drunk. Not family problems … The overall situation is so tense, so desperate, so they choose a very sad way … It is difficult to say, ‘You must live and face these unbearable difficulties.’ If I have some alternative to offer them, then I [can]say, ‘Don’t do that. Instead of shortening your life, please live long, and we can do this and this and that.’ But [I have] nothing – no alternative. Morally, [it’s] very difficult. There is no other choice but to remain silent, and prayer. Clear?”

He rises, and so do I, but he continues speaking. “Historically Tibet was an independent nation,” he says. “But we must look forward and according to the reality. It is our own interest to remain within the People’s Republic of China. Tibet is backward … and also wants to modernise … A number of Tibetans illegally went to America and Canada, not to seek spirituality but to seek dollars. Tibetans also love money. For that reason, remain in People’s Republic of China. Plenty of money.

“Our main concern is preservation of Tibetan culture – culture of peace, non-violence, ultimately a culture of love, compassion. That is really relevant in today’s world,” he says. “Millions of Chinese also need culture of love. Once there is a culture of love, honesty and transparency [will] come. Police and death sentence will not solve these things. Only if things change here,” he says, pointing to his heart.

“The very meaning of autonomy is look after your own culture,” he says. “Once that is fully implemented, we are very much willing to remain within People’s Republic of China … We Tibetans are historically separate. Doesn’t matter. We can live together.”

My audience is over. Leaving, I walk past five Chinese men – with short-cropped hair, wearing dark, ill-fitting polyester blazers – waiting to meet the Dalai Lama. I can’t help but wonder what they will say to each other, and whether a new era of Tibetans and Chinese living together harmoniously could finally be poised to begin.

Amy Kazmin is the FT’s south Asia correspondent.

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