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‘The Struggle Is Good for Neither China Nor Tibet’

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The Dalai Lama, the spiritual and temporal leader of Tibet in exile, has frequently toured the United States as a Buddhist religious leader and advocate for Tibetan self-government. The Nobel Peace Prize laureate, while visiting Los Angeles, spoke this week with Times editors and religion writer John Dart.

Here are some of his remarks:

Question: After all of the changes in China, are you today more optimistic or less optimistic?

Answer: More optimistic. First, I think the Communist totalitarian systems from the Cold War have changed very much. [The only ones left are] in Asia, and Cuba to some extent. . . . Since the mid-1980s, it has been clearly demonstrated that Chinese people want democracy. At the same time, for the ruling regime the whole issue of democracy and democratic movements remains so very sensitive. . . . They feel that even a tiny opening could lead to a flood.

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In the case of Tibet, more and more Chinese people are showing their sympathy and concern. A few years ago, some Tibetan students studying at Harvard University said that they came into contact with visiting scholars from China who were there. These scholars were all very, very critical of Chinese policy. The struggle is good for neither China nor Tibet. My main aim is to start to bring China to the negotiating table . . . [but] I feel our Chinese brothers and sisters, particularly the officials, use only two organs--their eyes and their mouth, but never this. (points to his ear) They are just lecturing us; they never listen to our viewpoint.

Q. Attention in this country has been drawn to persecution of Chinese Christians--those who are not part of officially approved churches. Do you have a sense of identification with them, and do you have any contact with them?

A. I have no contact with Chinese Christians. We certainly have a concern about their right of religious freedom. Muslims in China, except for those of a different ethnic group, I think, have better relations with the Communists. But Christianity and Buddhism are both very restricted.

Q. You have done a remarkable job in maintaining your love for other human beings, your willingness to forgive the murders of over a million of the Tibetan people, and yet you remain optimistic, caring and kind. What advice would you give to people in Los Angeles when they are offended by one of their neighbors?

A. Despite some atrocities that take place, looking from the wider perspective--whether we like it or not--we have to live side by side with our Chinese neighbors. It is always possible to live happily.

But [that is true] anywhere. If your neighbor creates some trouble, you should look at it from a wider angle: “I have to live with this neighbor.” For instance, if an incident is a source of major friction between neighbors, it is wise on your part to go and meet your neighbor and get it out in the open. Clear the air rather than keeping it inside. If you or your neighbor move away as a result, you may find the new neighbor is worse!

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Q. The American Buddhist Congress, meeting this weekend in Los Angeles, plans to adopt a consensus statement on basic beliefs apart from ethnic and sectarian varieties of Buddhism. Many hope an American Buddhism can develop down the line. Do you think this effort has much chance of success?

A. Buddhism started from India and went to many different regions. There is Chinese Buddhism, Japanese Buddhism and so on, so American Buddhism, I think, is a possibility. If there is going to be emergence of what could be called American Buddhism, it will probably arise in an evolutionary process, naturally. It cannot be defined or dictated.

All Buddhists, for instance, accept basic Buddhist teachings such as the Four Noble Truths. Often the problem in this great diversity is the impression is that there is fundamental difference. That may have more to do with the different styles of teaching. Although I cannot claim to have knowledge of the entire dimensions of Buddhist thought, I try to give the overall picture in my presentations. Sometimes I, too, find certain kinds of Buddhist teaching unrecognizable.

Q. What about people who say they are both Buddhist and Christian?

A. Initially, it is possible for one individual to be both Buddhist and Christian in the sense that one obtains nourishment from the teachings of these masters. But as you go deeper in religious life, then I think it is difficult.

In Tibetan Buddhism, for example, it is very difficult to accept the concept of creator. Of course, God in the sense of infinite love and God’s presence everywhere, that’s OK. The Buddhist can accept that God of ultimate reality or infinite compassion. But if all our existence depends on the creator, it is difficult to accept that idea.

Q. It’s been reported that as a young man you enjoyed John Wayne movies and, to the dismay of your mentor, you liked “MASH” episodes. What you have learned in recent years from Hollywood and from supporters such as Richard Gere?

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A. Some individuals in the Hollywood community take an interest in Tibet and Buddhism. Harrison Ford really feels concerned about Tibet. I consider him a good supporter. Also, Richard Gere is starting sincere practice of Buddhist dharma. I appreciate when these people explain the circumstances of Tibet. Their words can reach more people, and that is very good.

Q. Walt Disney Co. said last November that they were going ahead with plans to distribute a film about you being directed by Martin Scorcese--despite any displeasure from China. What is your role, if any, in the movie?

A. Apart from when I told my story to the screenwriter in the initial stage of writing, I have no control. Of course, I admire the firm stand taken by Disney on the film. And also I think I will be very happy if the Chinese protest it--that will mean more publicity.

Q. What effect do you think the peaceful changes in Hong Kong might have on China’s view of Tibet?

A. I feel the Chinese leaders may learn the importance of freedom once they gain control there. Once they give more liberty without much risk . . . they may adopt that experience to other problems. In any case, the next few months are very crucial.

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