A man at ease. Six million Tibetans and 380 million Buddhists look to Tenzin Gyatso for political and spiritual leadership. He seems to carry this burden lightly. As the 14th incarnation of the Dalai Lama, raised from the age of seven to be not a man but a symbol, perhaps this is to be expected. Rooms fall silent when he enters, and entire concert halls rise to their feet when he appears. Politicians and journalists alike hang on every word. Being treated as immortal must do wonders for your confidence.
So, too, must the very earthly fact of having been a Head of State for fifty-six years – nine years longer than Fidel Castro. Since his formal inauguration soon after China invaded Tibet in 1950, the Dalai Lama has established and run a government in exile, welcoming thousands of his weak and bitter countrymen who have arrived in India after a treacherous journey over the Himalayas to join him. He has met Presidents, Prime Ministers, and Popes, and debated with Chairman Mao. He has campaigned for peaceful justice in Tibet before a comprimised and slothful United Nations. If this was not enough, he has the moral trump card of a Nobel Peace Prize on his mantle-piece.
Not an arrogant demi-God, his manner is more that of an ex-President, the easy nature of a man with nothing left to prove. This is not so far from the truth. “We now have a fully elected Tibetan Government-in-Exile,” he says. “They handle many negotiations, so I am in a position of semi-retirement.” Some retirement: the Dalai Lama continues his arduous diplomacy and fact finding missions, such as his recent visit to the Scottish Parliament to assess its success in operating autonomously from its big brother in Westminster.
The comparison between Scotland and Tibet is perhaps forced, but there are pertinent points. The Dalai Lama repeats the need for ‘justice’ in Tibet, by which he means the need for genuine autonomy in the region, especially over cultural matters. Chinese immigrants in Tibet now outnumber the traditional Tibetan population, leading to the erosion of native customs. Perhaps these could be preserved through Devolution, rather than full Independence? So far as governments are concerned, the foundation of a solid ethical system to underpin the administration is most important, rather than the type of democracy in place. A country and culture may flourish, he says, when a people take responsibility for their democracy. This is what the Tibetan people desire.
For those campaigning for Tibetan liberation, this is hardly a universally accepted solution, and many are critical of the Dalai Lama’s essentially fundamentalist adherance to peaceful negotiations, over any kind of armed response. He has never endorsed any of the various groups of resistance fighters that have grown and withered over the years, some of whom received support, for a time, from the USA.
“Violence always creates more problems than it solves. It always has side effects. The alternative is indeed a compromise through negotiation and dialogue.” Few people have the patience for this approach, which is probably why he won the Nobel Prize. It is as if the achievement of a partial goal, or a goal achieved piecemeal over a long period is preferable to a quicker and more violent solution with untold side-effects. If you have been reincarnated fourteen times, it’s easier to play the long game. Everything the Dalai Lama says suggests he considers himself just a part of an ongoing historical narrative – a chapter in a longer story, not a whole book.
An answer to the problem of Chinese occupation of Tibet is, he says the first of three main focal points in his life. The second is the promotion of human value. If we see the whole of humanity, indeed, the whole living world as one body, then violence is merely violence against oneself. These are common values which underpin all cultures and religions, and a focus on human value is gaining ground.
“Compare the world today, with the world during the two world wars and the cold war. Although there is a problem with terrorism and despite the war in Iraq, there is more peace than in previous years”, he says. “War is the mobilisation of large numbers of people to violence. It legitimises and legalises violence.” He notes the anti-war protests that arose in 2003, and suggests that the ideal and philosophy of peace and negotiation is gaining ground. He suggests the promotion of peace, negotiation and non-violence from kindergarten upwards: “the spirit of dialogue” could invigorate societies in which neighbourly compassion is on the wane. Indeed, by being loyal to humanity as the whole, then conflict becomes not only an appalling way to operate, but also a ridiculously inefficient way to organise things. What he is saying (and what there is not enough acceptance of in the world) is that since we have a shared humanity, then any war should be considered a civil war between humans. The concept of wholeness and unity within Buddhism, and especially within the Dalai Lama’s writings, is probably his most important message for the rest of us.
What advice does he have for The West? Do we begin by adopting a more Buddhist way of life? “Not necessarily,” is the surprising answer. “Different people find different religions and spiritualities effective. Religion is like medicine for the mind, and not everyone needs the same medicine. So there is no particular need to be Buddist.”
“My opinion is that the West has its own religious tradition, which is Judaeo-Christianity (and to some extend Muslim). So I always say it is better to keep your own religion, it is not easy to change your own religion. So I say that westerners should be sincere Chrisitians.”
What if you are not Christian? Even if there is a strong Christian tradition running through our culture, many people do not have faith and it could not be said that they practice any religion at all.
“Of course, if you have no interest in a particular religion, then OK, but be a good human being.” Most ethics and values, he says, come from common sense, not religious text or religious leaders. It is therefore possible for everyone to adopt the idea of secular ethics. “The meaning of secular has two different interpretations. My understanding of the English word is that ‘secular’ means the rejection of religion. But in Indian, secular means the respect of all religions, including the non-religious approach.”
“People everywhere want a happier life, a happier family, a happier community and society. Our inner values, such as a sense of responsibility, a sense of compassion and the oneness of the entire humanity, are values that you can reach without religion as such, and I think these are the basis of values that will bring about a happier humanity. So, with secular ethics, we do not talk about God or the next life or salvation, but just about making this life a happy one.”
These ideas of a co-operation, and examining all faiths, seem to be the basis of interfaith dialogue, and in turn ideas of multiculturalism. What, I ask the Dalai Lama, does multiculturalism mean to him, and what should it mean for us? He says it is a difficult question.
“Actually, my rough impression is that in the UK, ‘multiculturalism’ means a society where there are people from different backgrounds: Multi culture, multi racial, multi religion. In this sort of society, it means we need harmony, respect for each other, and to recognise others rights.”
The Dalai Lama suggests that most cultures and the morals that underpin them are based on religious faith, so to talk of multiculturalism is really to talk of “multi-religious faith”. A religion has its own unity and consistency, offering different ways of live, so religion and variety of religion is important, providing a diversity of ‘medicines for the soul’. What is important is finding the common ground between religions and therefore cultures, identifying those common morals that can unite us all. Multiculturalism, then, is not so much about celebrating differences, but emphasising our similarities.
For the Dalai Lama, arguing over religion is pointless. “From a Christian view-point, I have a Godless religion, so strictly speaking, I am a nihlist. And from my view-point, since the Christian value system does not accept the concept of nirvana (among other things), I may call them nihlists. I might as well argue with you over whether to eat spicy food or not. There is no use in arguing like this. They have been doing so in India for three-thousand years and have not come up with an solution!” Religion is personal, and cannot be imposed on a plural society which has a heritage of many different religions. Multiculturalism is the acknowledgement of this pluralism. It is denying that other cultures are a threat, and instead seeking the earthly, secular common ground, on which we can all agree. And it is in the concept of secular ethics that we can find this commonality of purpose.
The Dalai Lama is fortunate that his fame has ridden the wave of advances in global communication. In his claret and saffron robes and thick glasses, he is a highly visible figure. The index specimen of a wise old eastern sage, he has written several books on self-help and spirituality. One half expects expects him deliver life changing words of wisdom with every breath. Perhaps it is inevitable then, that his sentences seem to finish early, before the life changing bon mot has been delivered. This is, of course, an unfair expectation on the part of the listeners – the Dalai Lama never claims to have answers, just guidance from a the perspective of Buddhist philosophy. Nevertheless, the broadness of his approach has drawn criticism. The oneness of humanity and the need for unconditional peace may be self evident for a monk who has studied nothing else. But convincing other people, especially those who have been born into suffering under occupation, is a somewhat harder task.
This sort of persuasion may be beyond the Dalai Lama. In any case, it is probably not his goal and not the point of his office. His symbolical nature stands for something longer. He is a cypher for the long-term. When he invokes ideas of unity, the Dalai Lama is very aware that he is advocating a paradigm shift in our thinking. These ethics, he says, must be impressed upon children from a very young age, so a new generation of leaders will be born with “the ideas of peace and human value at their heart”. He, and we, will not live to see these ideas bear fruit. As it is with Tibet, so it is with lasting peace – a long term project.