By Dekyi Sharchitsang Dekyi Sharchitsang is an intern at the International Campaign for Tibet and a student at Emory University.
The Dalai Lama reaches safety in India on March 31, 1959. (Tibet Museum)
In March 1959, as he approached the Indian border after a two-week journey disguised as a common soldier, His Holiness the Dalai Lama looked back at Tibet for the very last time, leaving behind everything he had ever known and entering into a world of absolute uncertainty. He had successfully escaped Tibet as Chinese forces were violently suppressing the national uprisings unfolding in Lhasa. Unbeknownst to His Holiness, this was the beginning of a lifetime in exile.
Upon reaching India, he was swiftly received by border authorities, who led him to a town in the present-day Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. He had been granted political asylum by Prime Minister Nehru and the Indian government, as had the many thousands of Tibetans who followed him into exile with no knowledge of what would become of them.
That was 63 years ago. He was only 23 years old.
His Holiness is now 86 and has not returned to Tibet since his fateful escape. This is not by choice. He has often expressed his desire to see Tibet once again with his own eyes, yet China remains intent on denying him this homecoming. Although he is optimistic, returning to Tibet remains a distant dream.
Since his escape in 1959, His Holiness has led a remarkable life in exile. For many newly arrived Tibetan refugees, who had lost everything to Chinese occupation, their only consolation was the spirit of His Holiness. Although all else was gone, either left in Tibet or lost along the way, His Holiness’ grace and guidance remained constant. As tens of thousands of stateless Tibetans now looked to him for direction, he was confronted with an immense challenge: rebuilding a nation.
From the very beginning, he prioritized the well-being of the Tibetan people. Within his first year in India, His Holiness established various institutions that remain intact to this day, beginning with the creation of a central government consisting of several administrative departments such as Information, Education, Religious Affairs and Security, among others. Realizing the importance of a modern education, His Holiness also oversaw the creation of Tibetan schools for the thousands of refugee children who would now be brought up in exile.
On the first anniversary of the Tibetan People’s Uprising in March 1960, His Holiness made a statement to the Tibetan people, reminding them to remain hopeful even in the face of adversity:
“On this first occasion, I stressed the need for my people to take a long-term view of the situation in Tibet. For those of us in exile, I said that our priority must be resettlement and the continuity of our cultural traditions. As to the future, I stated my belief that, with truth, justice, and courage as our weapons, we Tibetans would eventually prevail.”
Bearing the weight of a wounded nation at 23 years old, His Holiness, through his selflessness, compassion and dedication to the Tibetan cause, lifted thousands of Tibetan refugees out of despair and transformed them into a thriving exiled community.
For many young Tibetans like myself who’ve grown up in the US, Tibet is a place that lives in our minds, but America is the only home we’ve ever known. My identity as a Tibetan American has always been plagued by feelings of cultural alienation and detachment, especially considering that, after six decades in exile, I am two generations removed from Tibet. This experience is hardly unique. It has instead come to define the Tibetan diaspora, as there are now entire generations of Tibetans who have not known a life other than one in exile.
Today, it is no secret that the state of Tibet remains precarious. Assaults on human rights and religious freedoms, severe censorship and surveillance, and violent suppression of dissent occur regularly with little international attention. Despite this, Tibetans are resilient, finding strength in each other and in the teachings of His Holiness, just as they have since 1959.
I am now almost the age that His Holiness was when he escaped Tibet, and just like him, I too wish for a swift homecoming. As a Tibetan American, I have been afforded the tremendous privilege of living in the free world. I can attend March 10 protests every year, speak Tibetan, express my political views and practice Buddhism, all without fear of retribution. Unlike the Tibetans living under Chinese occupation, and unlike the generations of Tibetans who came before me, I have the luxury of opportunity, and the freedom of choice. I stand on the sacrifices of these Tibetans who paved the way for my generation of Tibetan youth to be able to live freely and as our authentic selves.
Sixty-three years have passed since 1959, but the spirit of the Tibetan people remains alive. Our collective resistance to injustice and occupation persists with vigor.
The Dalai Lama had his first meeting with a sitting US president on April 16, 1991. Here he is with President George H.W. Bush and First Lady Barbara Bush.
“America is the nation for championing liberty, democracy and freedom. America should stand on those principles … in international relations.”
Those words, admiring and assertive, come from an interview the Dalai Lama gave at the threshold of a historic event: his first meeting with a sitting president of the United States.
That auspicious gathering took place April, 16, 1991—30 years ago today. That evening, President George H.W. Bush welcomed His Holiness to the White House for a discussion about Tibet, the Himalayan homeland the Chinese Communist Party had forced the Dalai Lama to flee during a brutal conquest more than three decades earlier.
First Lady Barbara Bush took part in the meeting, as did several US and Tibetan officials, including the late International Campaign for Tibet Executive Chairman Lodi Gyari, who was the special envoy of His Holiness, and ICT’s founding President Tenzin Tethong, who was then the Tibetan foreign minister. Afterward, White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater told reporters, “They discussed the general situation in Tibet … [The Dalai Lama]’s the religious leader of the country. The president felt it was appropriate to see him.”
The meeting—which the Chinese government tried furiously but futilely to prevent—only lasted about half an hour. But it was the start of something special. Over the next 25 years, every US president, regardless of their political party, spoke with the Dalai Lama in the White House, sending a clear signal to Beijing, and the world, about America’s enduring, bipartisan support for His Holiness’ vision of dialogue with China and meaningful autonomy for Tibet.
As Lodi Gyari said in “My Personal Words of Gratitude” upon his retirement: “This was the first meeting between His Holiness and an American president and it set the precedence for subsequent meetings between His Holiness and other world leaders.”
President George H.W. Bush, Special Envoy Lodi Gyari, Foreign Minister Tenzin Tethong and His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
Political and personal
I have no doubt that His Holiness meeting routinely with the most powerful person in the world helped elevate the Tibetan movement. Although he only met Bush—who lost reelection the next year—that one time while he was in office, the Dalai Lama convened in the White House four times each with Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
Each of them publicly voiced support for His Holiness’ efforts to resolve the Tibetan issue peacefully. They also spoke up for the Dalai Lama with Chinese leaders, most notably when Clinton pushed Chinese President Jiang Zemin to engage His Holiness in dialogue during a news conference that aired live on TV in China in 1998.
But the Dalai Lama’s relationship with the presidency appears to have been a two-way street. Commander-in-chief may be the most influential job in the world, but even presidents need personal guidance. His Holiness, a spiritual leader for countless people around the globe, seems to have provided that.
His Holiness in the White House with President Clinton in 1998.
In one of ICT’s Tibet Talks during the 2020 election, Greg Craig, the first special coordinator for Tibetan issues, revealed a surprising detail about one of His Holiness’ trips to the White House during the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, the earliest political controversy that I can remember living through.
At one point, Craig recalled, His Holiness asked if everyone could leave the room so he could be alone with the president and first lady. “He stayed on and talked to Mr. and Mrs. Clinton for another 25, 30 minutes,” Craig told ICT. “So not only was he a great leader of a great religion and venerated around the world, but he became a very special marriage counselor, I think, at that particular moment.”
His Holiness appears to have played a similar role as a source of wisdom for Clinton’s successor, George W. Bush. Paula Dobriansky, the special coordinator from 2001-09, also appeared in an ICT Tibet Talk, during which she said she witnessed the relationship between Bush and the Dalai Lama “not only come together firmly but truly grow.” “The two of them are very compassionate about the importance of democracy,” Dobriansky said.
After his presidency, Bush famously exhibited a portrait he made of the Dalai Lama, calling him “a very sweet man, and I painted him as sweetly as I could.” When His Holiness turned 85 last year, Bush sent him a video message saying, “I admire you, I care for you, and I love you.”
Which one is real? The Dalai Lama stands next to President George W. Bush’s portrait of him.
President Obama also seems to have maintained his respect for the Dalai Lama post-presidency. Recently, the Skimm’ asked Obama which world leaders he would want in a group text. His first response: “Dalai Lama. Love that guy.” Obama later added Pope Francis, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Queen Elizabeth to the list.
In December 2017, about a year after he left office, Obama again met with His Holiness in New Delhi. Kasur Tempa Tsering, an ICT board member and the India and East Asia coordinator for His Holiness’ office, said the two Nobel laureates “both spoke about promoting compassion and altruism in human beings.”
An embrace between Nobel Peace laureates: the Dalai Lama and President Obama in 2016.
Past and future
Even though Obama was the last sitting president so far to meet with His Holiness, the Dalai Lama’s contacts with the White House began long before his visit with the senior President Bush 30 years ago.
In fact, Franklin Roosevelt, who won an unprecedented third term in the White House the same year as the Dalai Lama’s enthronement in 1940, sent the young Tibetan leader a Patek Philippe gold watch when he was just 7 or 8 years old. Decades later, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., shared an image on Facebook of His Holiness holding the watch during a visit to the US Capitol in 2016.
The Dalai Lama and former President Jimmy Carter in 2002.
It’s too soon to tell yet whether the present-day commander-in-chief, Joe Biden, will revive the tradition of US presidents welcoming the Dalai Lama to the White House. There are more logistical challenges now, including the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and His Holiness’ advancing age.
I’m sure this will come as no surprise, but I hope Biden and Vice President Harris will be able to meet with His Holiness, either in the White House, in India or through some kind of virtual gathering. I desire that not just as a member of ICT’s community of compassion, but as an American citizen.
Despite all that, his meeting with Bush came as a surprise. According to The Washington Post, the president’s supporters in Congress only found out about it one day in advance (Bush had previously declined to speak with the Dalai Lama two years earlier). The meeting did not appear on Bush’s public schedule, nor was there a public report afterward. Fitzwater, the White House press secretary, appeared to downplay their talk, emphasizing His Holiness’ role as a religious leader over his then-role as the political head of the Tibetan people. Subsequent administrations have used the same tactic.
No doubt part of the reason for that has been the enormous pressure China puts on any country whose leaders dare to host His Holiness. As a result, several countries have shamefully backed away from the Dalai Lama and Tibet altogether.
His Holiness addressing the Congressional Human Rights Caucus in 1987, his first political speech outside India.
“What America is supposed to be”
China’s pressure was also there 30 years ago when His Holiness first visited the White House. At the time, a senior Bush administration official told The Washington Post, “Of course, we have heard from the Chinese on this, and of course they would prefer no meeting.
Before his meeting with Bush, the Dalai Lama was surprisingly (to me anyway) blunt in his criticism of US policy, labeling it “unequal and unfair” for assisting some countries like Kuwait (remember that this was the time of the Gulf War) while not doing as much for a place like Tibet. As an immigrant and a man of color, I’m unhappily aware of the injustice this country is capable of. But I feel my background also gives me greater appreciation for America’s highest ideals. And I see those ideals come to life whenever our leaders embrace His Holiness.
Looking back on the 30th anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s first visit to the White House, I couldn’t help but think of something our ICT Chairman Richard Gere said during this year’s State Department reception for “Losar,” the Tibetan New Year. The event was itself a positive sign about US support for Tibet, as it marked the first time a secretary of state had taken part in the holiday celebration.
But Gere made it even more special by recalling that glorious day in 2007 when the Dalai Lama received the Congressional Gold Medal in the US Capitol Rotunda. (President George W. Bush spoke at the ceremony, the only time a sitting president has met with His Holiness in public.)
“When His Holiness spoke, I think everyone was in tears,” Gere recounted. “Again, this feeling that this is what America is supposed to be. In that moment, the Dalai Lama was the first among Americans. And I think we also maybe reclaimed our ideals.”
ICT Chairman Richard Gere discusses American ideals at the State Department’s 2021 Tibetan New Year event.
Thirty years ago, as he was about to make his first visit to the White House, the Dalai Lama said America should stand on its principles in international relations. As we mark the anniversary of that happy, historic event, we should continue to push our country to follow His Holiness’ advice by standing as Americans with the Dalai Lama and the people of Tibet.
I have just watched a fascinating interview with His Holiness the Dalai Lama by Qin Weiping, a US-based Chinese blogger, who visited Dharamsala in October 2016. The interview (conducted in Tibetan and Chinese) is interesting not only because His Holiness shares his thoughts on how China could become a compassionate nation, but more so because he says that such a transformation should be, and can be, led by the Chinese Communist Party. His Holiness believes that through such a transformation China has the opportunity to alter the current negative perception of Communism in the world.
In the interview, the Dalai Lama (speaking in Tibetan) says he has been calling for the world to become more compassionate and says that scientists maintain that mankind is inherently compassionate. So, when he is calling for the world to be compassionate, he feels that China, a traditionally Buddhist nation, has the possibility and the opportunity to do so.
The Dalai Lama says when he addresses Western audiences on the need for compassion, there is some slight discomfort on his part as he is basing himself on an inherently Buddhist approach (although he has never thought of proselytization). But in China the situation is different as almost all Chinese have a closer relationship with Buddhism, he says.
He feels it will be good if the Chinese Communist Party can take the lead on this. His Holiness gives a theoretical reason why this should be done. He says it is a known fact that in terms of his socio-economic belief, he calls himself a Marxist. When Marx is talking about the rights of the working class, there is the talk of kindness. The Dalai Lama opines that Karl Marx’s theory was, however, ruined by Lenin. Therefore, he says while he believes in Marxism, he is against Leninism.
The Dalai Lama feels many of the problems that China has faced in the past may have been due to the influence of Leninism and Stalinism. He refers to an opinion of the former Israeli President and Nobel Laureate Shimon Peres, who, as a socialist, had positive feelings towards China. However, when he had asked Mr. Peres some years back whether China is a socialist nation or not, the response was negative, with Mr. Peres saying that China is a capitalist nation. However, in Western capitalism there are rule of law and free media, which are absent in China, the Dalai Lama adds alluding to these as serving as checks and balances.
The Dalai Lama refers to Deng Xiaoping, who had, with great courage, changed the economic system through his open door policy, which benefited China greatly. Now if Xi Jinping can bring about a bit of a change in the political system, the Dalai Lama thinks it will be beneficial. He says by change in the political system, he is not referring to changing from Communist Party rule. He says Deng Xiaoping changed the economic system under the leadership of the Communist Party. Therefore, it is possible that under the leadership of the Communist Party, there can be efforts at spreading compassion in China.
The Dalai Lama thinks it would be interesting if there was a new Cultural Revolution in China, based on kindness this time, as the earlier Cultural Revolution was based on hatred.
The Dalai Lama refers to Communism as being organized and says that if it can be liberal as well it will be good. He said today Communism is considered something negative in the world. But a situation can be created so that the world can start looking at China saying its form of Communism is something special. The Dalai Lama adds that maybe he is dreaming.
The Dalai Lama feels he could make a contribution, if there is such an opportunity, toward spreading compassion in China, and that he could do so in earnest. As a follower of Buddhism who has been talking about the issue in Western countries, he says he could do so in China, a Buddhist country. He clarifies that he has no desire for any privileges or position, adding that in 2011 he had completely ended the historical tradition of the Dalai Lamas serving as both spiritual and temporal leader.
In order for that to happen and for China to be a powerful and effective nation, His Holiness feels it is essential that it earns trust and respect, particularly of its neighbors. Taking it to a personal level, His Holiness refers to Chinese leadership’s attitude of castigating him and asks how China was benefiting by doing so. He says that only makes the possibility of his visiting China become more remote. He says under the current situation, he wonders how much use he can be if he were to go to China. Therefore, he thinks that it is better that he be in a place where he can be of benefit.
The Dalai Lama concludes (switching to English) saying he is an 81-year-old Buddhist monk and might have another 10-15-20 years. “My life should be something useful to humanity,” he says, adding that this was his commitment.
So there you have it, a possibility of a compassionate China with Dalai Lama characteristics, if I may!
Mongolian Buddhists waiting to welcome the Dalai Lama in the capital UlaanBaatar on November 19, 2016. (Photo: Tenzin Taklha, OHHDL)
One of the outcomes regarding the Dalai Lama in the post-1959 period is the clarity that has emerged about the nature of his followers. The conventional thinking about the Dalai Lama being merely the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people has changed. He has not only gained thousands of followers in both the Eastern and Western world, but more importantly the traditional followers of Tibetan Buddhism outside of Tibet, along the Himalayan region as well as in Mongolia and present-day Russian Federation, have become more visible.
This can be clearly seen at the very many teachings that the Dalai Lama has been giving in India and elsewhere, particularly in Bodh Gaya, where we see an intermingling of Bhutanese, Monpas, Sherpas, Sikkimese, Ladakhis, Mongols, and more.
His Holiness has spent the past several decades spreading his message urging traditional Buddhists to become modern; to devote more of their attention to the all-round study of Buddhism and not merely be consumed by the ritualistic aspect of it. He also feels modern Buddhists should be able to utilize the knowledge of Buddhist science to interact with modern science.
Ladakhi Buddhists in northern India waiting to welcome the Dalai Lama in the regional capital Leh in July 2016. (Photo: Tenzin Choejor, OHHDL)
His Holiness had the same messages during his four day visit to Mongolia.
In adding to giving Buddhist teachings, the Dalai Lama also participated in a Buddhist and Science conference in Ulaan Baatar, the capital of Mongolia. During this conference, he said: “Buddhist scholars and practitioners have benefited from learning about physics, while modern scientists have shown a keen interest in learning more about what Buddhism has to say about the workings of the mind and emotions.”
His Holiness also mentioned his pleasure in the conference being held for the benefit of the Mongolian Buddhist community. Among speakers at the conference were Helen Y. Wang, a neuroscientist and a clinical psychologist at the University of California, San Francisco, spoke about Contemplative Neuroscience and Socially Engaged Buddhism; B. Boldsaikhan from the Mongolian University of Science and Technology who spoke about medicine and logic; K. Namsrai, a senior scholar in physics, who talked about relations between Quantum Physics and Buddhist philosophy; and Dr. Fadel Zeidan, Associate Director of Neuroscience at Wake Forest School of Medicine in North Carolina, spoke about the Neuroscience of Mindfulness, Meditation and Pain.
In general the Dalai Lama visiting Mongolia should not be a surprise, considering the nature of country and its people. The Mongolian people have had a special historical connection with the Dalai Lama. Many are followers of Tibetan Buddhism, and their devotion to His Holiness was clearly visible during this visit. Some people traveled hundreds of miles in the current harsh wintry climate merely to have a glimpse of a spiritual leader they revere. In fact, there were even Buddhists from neighboring Russian Federation, who after hearing about His Holiness’ visit at short notice, made arrangements to be able to participate in the teachings. A New York Times report on November 19 described two such individuals: Daritseren, 73, an ethnic Mongolian from Russian Siberia, who had heard only on Friday (November 18) that the Dalai Lama was visiting Mongolia. “She traveled with 40 other people for 15 hours overnight to make it just in time for the sermon,” it said. Another individual, Boldbaatar, 75, a herder, had traveled 125 miles. “I’m an old man,” the New York Times quotes him as saying. “Maybe I’m seeing His Holiness, the incarnation of Lord Buddha, for the last time,” he added.
However, China has for long been misunderstanding the person of the Dalai Lama, considering him a problem rather than a solution, and has been using economic clout to prevent countries from welcoming him. In fact, many countries far bigger than Mongolia have succumbed to Chinese pressure. The fact that Mongolia did not do so is a testimony to its leaders’ ability to uphold their principles and traditional values. The Mongolian government did not let this undue pressures from China get in the way of enabling Mongolian Buddhists to receive His Holiness’ teachings. Reactions in the Mongolian media that I monitored clearly regard this development positively. I hope such developments will even lead to a time when Chinese Buddhists in China, too, can avail themselves of the wisdom imparted by His Holiness, just as the Mongolians were able to do this time.
Then Secretary Hillary Clinton receiving the Dalai Lama at the State Department in February 2010. (Photo: Michael Gross, State Department)
As the November 8, 2016 US Presidential elections draw near, there are those who are predicting a very close race between Republican candidate Donald Trump and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.
Tibetan Americans and friends and supporters of the Tibetan people are watching the developments closely. In past elections, Tibetan Americans have shown themselves to be single-issue voters; with Party affiliations being regarded secondary to how the candidate has shown his (and now her) support to Tibet. During President George W. Bush’s re-election in 2004, quite many Tibetan Americans said they voted for him even though they identified themselves as being Democrat. This was because President George W. Bush clearly spoke out in support of the Dalai Lama and Tibet.
American politicians have noted this small but influential voting constituency. During the 2008 elections, Republic presidential candidate John McCain paid a special trip to Aspen to meet with the Dalai Lama, who was on a visit there. Not to be outdone, a few days later, the then Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama sent a personal letter to the Dalai Lama in which he said, “I regret that our respective travel schedules will prevent us from meeting during your visit to the United States this month, but I wanted to take the opportunity to reassure you of my highest respect and support for you, your mission and your people at this critical time.”
Presidential Elections and Tibet
In general, both the Democratic and the Republican parties do have a reference to Tibet in their respective platforms.
In 2012 the Democratic Platform had said, “We will consistently speak out for the importance of respecting the universal human rights of the Chinese people, including the right of the Tibetan people to preserve their cultural and religious identity.”
The Republican Platform references to Tibet is somewhat different. It says, “Meanwhile, cultural genocide continues in Tibet and Xinjiang, the promised autonomy of Hong Kong is eroded, the currency is manipulated, our technology is stolen, and intellectual property and copyrights are mocked in an economy based on piracy.”
The Republican formulation in 2012 was the following: “The Chinese government has engaged in a number of activities that we condemn: China’s pursuit of advanced military capabilities without any apparent need; suppression of human rights in Tibet, Xinjiang, and other areas.”
Irrespective of who wins the presidency, there are certain fundamental positions on Tibet that the next American President will have to uphold. These are all incorporated in Tibetan Policy Act of 2002. As the Congressional Research Service says in a report, “The Tibetan Policy Act of 2002 (TPA) is a core legislative measure guiding U.S. policy toward Tibet. Its stated purpose is “to support the aspirations of the Tibetan people to safeguard their distinct identity.”
This legislation outlines practical initiatives with a firm expression of support for the Tibetan people. The Act provides for the appointment of a Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues in the State Department: “The central objective of the Special Coordinator is to promote substantive dialogue between the Government of the People’s Republic of China and the Dalai Lama or his representatives.”
To date, both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have not made any statements on Tibet, except for the casual reference by Clinton to the Dalai Lama at the US Mayors’ Conference in Indianapolis on June 26. It remains to be seen if either of them makes a more substantive reference to Tibet in the coming months before the elections.
The Tibetan Americans and friends of Tibet will be watching.
The publication of an interview with His Holiness the Dalai Lama in the German media has led to some sensational headlines derived from an interview that included questions on the refugee crisis in Europe.
These representations, focusing on the Dalai Lama apparently warning against ‘Arab domination’ and Europe taking in ‘too many’ migrants are ultimately inconsistent with the well-known and compassionate approach of the Dalai Lama, who has been a refugee himself for more than half a century, and the longer-term perspective he seeks to convey.
Nobel Peace Prize Laureate the Dalai Lama has for decades advocated tolerance, inter-religious dialogue and has rejected the concept of a clash of civilizations, calling it “false and dangerous.” It is ludicrous and clearly out of context to assert that the Dalai Lama would seriously state that Germany is at risk of becoming ‘Arab’ as a result of the refugee crisis.
Over the years, violent conflicts across the globe have forced a staggering 60 million people from their homes, many of whom, like the Dalai Lama, have little realistic prospect of returning home. According to the UN High Commission for Refugees, the number of refugees and internally displaced people has reached its highest point since World War II.
The Dalai Lama has consistently called on the international community to both provide assistance to those in imminent danger and need, and at the same time, to work to solve the violent conflicts and man made disasters that are the root causes of the humanitarian crisis.
As he continues to praise the countries that act responsibly and with compassion towards refugees, including Germany, the Dalai Lama has not shied from stressing that the only long-term solutions to this crisis would be to work more effectively to solve the conflicts that are forcing people to flee from their homeland. He has consistently stressed that all of us must do everything we can to restore peace to the lands these refugees are fleeing.
Every refugee yearns for the day in which he or she can go back to his or her homeland without being in danger. Helping to achieve this goal is the primary responsibility of the international community and of responsible nations.
Acknowledging this reality means in no way endorsing the idea that refugees should not be welcomed to Europe.
The Tibetan term for compassion, ‘nying-je’, means love, affection, warm-heartedness. But also, more importantly, it denotes a feeling of connection with others. As the Dalai Lama pointed out to The Big Issue, a newspaper for the homeless: “As a refugee myself, I naturally feel a connection to those fleeing Syria and other places due to the crisis engulfing these countries.”
Last week, I had the privilege to have an audience with His Holiness the Dalai Lama in Washington DC with my colleagues Bhuchung and Tencho from the International Campaign for Tibet.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama gave an audience to ICT’s President Matteo Mecacci, Vice President Bhuchung K. Tsering, and Assistant Director Tencho Gyatso this morning in Washintong, DC while he is in town to attend the National Prayer Breakfast.
Meeting His Holiness on behalf of the 100,000 worldwide members of ICT was a special honor. In advance of our meeting, it was with a great sense of responsibility, that we discussed in detail the issues we should bring to his attention.
As some of you know, ICT was established in 1988 as a result of discussions between His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Tibetan leadership in exile and supporters in the United States. We recognized the need for an organization that could help spread the Dalai Lama’s message of peace, nonviolence and reconciliation, and help bring a better future for the people of Tibet.
For ICT leadership, this is still our number one priority. We are fully committed to continue this crucial work in all the countries and regions where ICT operates. It was our responsibility and duty to convey this message to the Dalai Lama.
I am happy to say that meeting His Holiness was a great encouragement for us to continue the work and programs we are doing. We felt his sincere appreciation of our efforts.
We went into the meeting being aware and mindful that the bond between ICT members and the Dalai Lama is particularly strong. As a confirmation, a recent global opinion poll clearly shows that the love for the Dalai Lama’s wisdom, humility, and strong sense of hope is on the rise, despite the biggest challenges a man of peace can face – the occupation of his homeland – and China’s relentless and desperate attempts to tarnish his image.
You, as an ICT member and person of goodwill, have been and continue to be a pioneer in this global movement. You and I believe that Tibet is not important just for Tibetans but also for us: people who believe that the preservation of the Tibetan environment is crucial for the survival of our planet; people who believe that the preservation of the genuine and free Tibetan culture of peace and tolerance is part of a global heritage that should not be dissipated; people who believe that Tibetan land should not be used for China’s geopolitical or military calculations, but should serve as a source of stability and peace among China and India and for the entire Asian continent.
We are humbled and thankful to be able to contribute in any possible way to accomplish the vision of peace carried out by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. We are confident that you will continue to join us in this adventure, and become part of this global movement. Our ideas are on the right side of history; you will not regret it!
At the same time, in what was the biggest public relations failure by Papa Bergoglio since he ascended to the seat of San Pietro in Rome in 2013, the Vatican did not grant to His Holiness a meeting. Instead he issued a public statement saying that the Pope holds the Dalai Lama “in very high regard”, in a recognition of the high opinion that hundreds of millions of Catholics all over the world have for the Tibetan spiritual leader.
So why not meet him? The answer is simple. The Chinese Government uses the “Dalai Lama card” to put pressure on all its international partners, both to put them on the defensive (typical behavior of aggressive negotiators) and most importantly because it fears that the moral authority and legitimacy that His Holiness has gained worldwide might be transformed in pressure to implement much-needed political reforms in China and Tibet.
Contrary to China’s calculations – betting that isolating him politically will resolve the Tibetan question – the Dalai Lama anticipated China’s aggressive campaign by voluntarily and willingly choosing to abdicate his political authority in 2011. This, among other long-term factors, including China’s bullying, has not undermined, but rather increased the popularity in the west of the 14th Dalai Lama.
With this decision and a step forward to dedicate himself to promote peace and interreligious dialogue, the Dalai Lama had hoped to facilitate a meaningful political dialogue between the Tibetan and the Chinese sides. Unfortunately, China continues to act aggressively, hoping that the problems in Tibet will be solved through their current policies.
Certainly, as a Tibetan, the Dalai Lama remains concerned with the deterioration of human rights and individual freedoms in Tibet, but it must also be noted that the he tries all the time to highlight potential positive developments that are taking place in China. Furthermore, in regards to the foreign leaders who have stopped meeting him in Europe, he continues to repeat that he does not want to create any inconvenience to the countries that are eager to make business or have good relations with China. The problem is, clearly, what kind of long-term relations can be established with an authoritarian country that does not apply the rule of law and whose judicial system is highly corrupt?
With this in mind, the way China continues to pressure everybody in the world not to meet His Holiness tells us a lot on how insecure Beijing is about its policies in Tibet, and shows its failure to grow as a responsible partner for democratic governments on the world scene. Getting away with bullying the Tibetans is only going to encourage the hardliners in Beijing to do this on other issues and to other peoples and countries.
For Pope Francis, who has courageously challenged the Vatican bureaucracy on many fronts (from its shadowy finances to the cover up of sexual abuses within the Church, from a renewed dialogue with Muslims and the Russian Orthodox to recommit the Church to help the poor and shelve luxury living styles), to give up on the promotion of interreligious dialogue with the Dalai Lama is a striking contradiction with what he has been preaching from the pulpit.
While tactically this move might bring some benefits to the Vatican in its dealing with China – the Vatican has been trying hard for decades to establish diplomatic relations with Beijing and the Chinese Foreign Ministry had a positive comment in response to the – this choice makes clear that the promotion of religious freedom for all in China is not a priority for this papacy. This is a stain that will not fade until urgent remedial measures are taken.
On December 10, 2014, lovers of peace, friends, well-wishers and followers of His Holiness the Dalai Lama celebrate the 25th anniversary of the bestowal of the Nobel Peace Prize to him. His Holiness is of course is in Rome to participated in the Nobel Peace Laureates Summit, which has now been relocated there.
It is a cliché to say what a difference 25 years can make. But in the case of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, these two and a half decades have indeed cemented his place as a statesman and a conscience of the world. Today, the Dalai Lama and peace/compassion have virtually become synonymous.
In 1989, I was working in Dharamsala and so was part of the collective Tibetan rejoicing of the event. We, at least I, then interpreted the prize solely in the context of Tibet, and Tibet alone. We saw this as Tibet’s day in the sun. Fast forward to 2014 and I reread His Holiness’ acceptance speech (of December 10, 1989) as well as his Nobel lecture (of December 11, 1989), and the Presentation Speech by Mr. Egil Aarvik, Chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee. I now have a fresh perspective of the expanse of the Dalai Lama’s impact.
His Holiness’ remarks in Oslo in 1989 appear to me as the germinating ground for the philosophy for which he has become well-known today. This includes his dialogue with the scientific community, his adherence to nonviolence, and, above all, his three main commitments: promotion of human values, promotion of religious harmony and promotion of Tibetan culture.
Let me expand.
By the very awarding of the prize to him, the Nobel Committee acknowledged the Dalai Lama as a proponent of peace and nonviolence. In his Award Presentation Speech, Mr. Egil Aarvik, Chairman of the Nobel Committee, said, “In view of this, fewer and fewer people would venture to dismiss the Dalai Lama’s philosophy as utopian: on the contrary, one would be increasingly justified in asserting that his gospel of nonviolence is the truly realistic one, with most promise for the future. And this applies not only to Tibet but to each and every conflict. The future hopes of oppressed millions are today linked to the unarmed battalions, for they will win the peace: the justice of their demands, moreover, is now so clear and the normal strength of their struggle so indomitable that they can only temporarily be halted by force of arms.”
In the Tibetan cultural context, the Dalai Lama is also referred to as Zamling Shidey Depon ( “pilot of world peace”) and he continues to be one today.
The Dalai Lama’s stress on the need for religion to have dialogue with science can also be perceived in his Nobel remarks.
In his Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech on December 10, 1989, the Dalai Lama said, “With the ever growing impact of science on our lives, religion and spirituality have a greater role to play reminding us of our humanity. There is no contradiction between the two. Each gives us valuable insights into the other. Both science and the teachings of the Buddha tell us of the fundamental unity of all things. This understanding is crucial if we are to take positive and decisive action on the pressing global concern with the environment.”
Today, the Dalai Lama has established a strong foundation for dialogue between religion and science through the Mind & Life initiative. In the process, he has had an impact on the thinking of the scientific community, particularly those working in the field of neuroscience, through his sharing of the Buddhist perspective.
I also want to believe that through his Nobel remarks, the Dalai Lama was also crystalizing his now well-known three commitments.
His Holiness began his Nobel lecture, delivered on December 11, 1989, by saying, “Thinking over what I might say today, I decided to share with you some of my thoughts concerning the common problems all of us face as members of the human family. Because we all share this small planet earth, we have to learn to live in harmony and peace with each other and with nature.”
He continued, “The realisation that we are all basically the same human beings, who seek happiness and try to avoid suffering, is very helpful in developing a sense of brotherhood and sisterhood; a warm feeling of love and compassion for others. This, in turn, is essential if we are to survive in this ever shrinking world we live in. For if we each selfishly pursue only what we believe to be in our own interest, without caring about the needs of others, we not only may end up harming others but also ourselves.”
In another words, His Holiness was stressing on the fundamental human values that all human beings share.
The Dalai Lama was addressing the issue of religious harmony when he said in the same lecture, “As a Buddhist monk, my concern extends to all members of the human family and, indeed, to all sentient beings who suffer. I believe all suffering is caused by ignorance. People inflict pain on others in the selfish pursuit of their happiness or satisfaction. Yet true happiness comes from a sense of brotherhood and sisterhood. We need to cultivate a universal responsibility for one another and the planet we share. Although I have found my own Buddhist religion helpful in generating love and com-passion, even for those we consider our enemies, I am convinced that everyone can develop a good heart and a sense of universal responsibility with or without religion.”
As for Tibet, the Dalai Lama said this in December 1989, “The awarding of the Nobel Prize to me, a simple monk from faraway Tibet, here in Norway, also fills us Tibetans with hope. It means, despite the fact that we have not drawn attention to our plight by means of violence, we have not been forgotten. It also means that the values we cherish, in particular our respect for all forms of life and the belief in the power of truth, are today recognised and encouraged. It is also a tribute to my mentor, Mahatma Gandhi, whose example is an inspiration to so many of us. This year’s award is an indication that this sense of universal responsibility is developing. I am deeply touched by the sincere concern shown by so many people in this part of the world for the suffering of the people of Tibet. That is a source of hope not only for us Tibetans, but for all oppressed people.”
So, 25 years later what is the lesson that we can take from the bestowal of the Nobel Prize to the Dalai Lama. I can only repeat what the Nobel Committee Chairman said in 1989, “ In awarding the Peace Prize to H.H. the Dalai Lama we affirm our unstinting support for his work for peace, and for the unarmed masses on the march in many lands for liberty, peace and human dignity.”