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Pico Iyer on Tibet, China and the Dalai Lama

Posted on May 10, 2008
Pico Iyer and Open Road

Author Pico Iyer and his new book, “The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama.”

By Jon Wiener

As opening day of the Beijing Olympics approaches, the Chinese government and official media have intensified their attacks on Tibet’s Dalai Lama, blaming him for the recent violent demonstrations in Lhasa, where Tibetans have been protesting against China’s restrictions on their religion and culture. The Tibetan government in exile, based in India, says the Chinese have killed more than 200 people in these protests, which started in March. Pico Iyer has been following the story—his new book is “The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama.” He spoke recently with Truthdig’s Jon Wiener.

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Jon Wiener: The Dalai Lama is the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, and the international media personification of Tibet. But some Tibetans are criticizing him because he does not support the “Free Tibet” campaign, which seeks an end to the Chinese occupation of Tibet. Why doesn’t he support independence?

Pico Iyer: For 21 years he has said “Save Tibet” rather than “Free Tibet.” He asks for autonomy rather than independence. The last time I saw him, five months ago in Japan, he was reminding me that Tibet has a lot to gain from being part of China—materially. It is still an underdeveloped and impoverished place. He says that the more interconnection between cultures, the better. 

Wiener: The Dalai Lama didn’t support the street protests of the past two months, led by monks. Why not?

Iyer: After those demonstrations he made the symbolic act of threatening to step down, which was his way of sending a message to the monks, saying: “Please, please, please don’t practice violence. Speak out on behalf of Tibet, keep championing the freedoms you deserve, but don’t demonize or antagonize the Chinese in the process.”


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Wiener: And yet China’s President Hu Jintao has blamed the Dalai Lama for inciting the protests in Lhasa. Recently, Hu said, “We hope the Dalai will stop acting to separate the homeland, stop orchestrating the inciting of violent acts.”

Iyer: It’s so bitterly funny that the Chinese are accusing him of fomenting violence when he’s doing everything he can to try to restrain it. When he led prayers after those disturbances, the first people he prayed for were the Chinese individuals who had been the victims of that violence. 

Wiener: The official line in China is that the Dalai Lama is a “splittist.”

Iyer: It’s ironic that the Chinese accuse him of creating divisions, because he always works from the core Buddhist principle, which is interdependence. Everything is connected. It’s an example of how gratuitous their insults are. He says we have to keep extending the hand of friendship until the Chinese government wakes up to its better self.

Wiener: When and how did you first meet this Dalai Lama?

Iyer: I met him when I was 17. My father had met him the first year he came out of Tibet into exile, 1959-60—my father was an Oxford professor of philosophy interested in Buddhism. He sailed from England back to India because he realized this was the first time in history this great repository of centuries of wisdom was available to the outside world. When I went back to India as a teenager, my father thought I should go and meet this celebrated teacher, so I did. And I’ve been returning ever since.

Wiener: When you met him as a teenager, what was your attitude? Were you a Buddhist?

Iyer: No, and I’m afraid I’m not a Buddhist to this day—although I’ve learned a lot from many Buddhists, including the Dalai Lama. In those days I was a typical teenager. I wanted to meet Keith Richards or Jerry Garcia. I didn’t want to meet a colleague of my father’s. But one way or another, that initial meeting made enough of an impression on me so that, as soon as the Dalai Lama started coming to this country five years later, I always went to hear him, and each time I heard him I learned and understood a little more than before.

Listen to audio of the full interview in mp3 or podcast format.

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By Lester Ness, May 13, 2008 at 4:01 pm Link to this comment
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The charge could be reversed; how do ordinary readers know if you are not an employee of the Bush propaganda machine?  Demonizing China in preparation for a war with Iran or even (Buddha forfend) an invasion of China?

Lester Ness

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By dihey, May 13, 2008 at 2:34 pm Link to this comment

Anyone who has read “Seven years in Tibet” by Aufschnaiter and Harrer understands the fundamental issue there. They predicted that the theocratic rule of Tibet could not possibly endure and that the land would eventually fall to the Han Chinese just as the “Indian West” of America eventually fell to the European settlers. It is simply a matter of technical and economical superiority.
When one considers what future a young Tibetan has it must be obvious that it is much better under the tutelage, however harsh, of the Han Chinese than under a Dalai Lama who has nothing to offer them but prayer wheels and reincarnation.

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By ender, May 12, 2008 at 8:05 am Link to this comment

China is determined to destroy the tibetan culture and cannot let tibetan buddhism stand.  They have starved, displaced or murdered more than 50% of the pre occupation population, and will not stop until the Tibetan people no longer exist as a culture.  They have not destroyed the last 10% of the remaining temples because they like the tourism income, and fear the international rage directed at them for inhuman acts of cultural genocide.

These anti tibet posters here are quite probably paid by the racist gov’t of China.

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By Douglas Chalmers, May 10, 2008 at 2:49 pm Link to this comment

That is utter crap, jatihoon. In speaking of China today, we can no longer excuse ourselves from imagining the old Maoist era of the 1950s-60s.  There has been a quiet revolution within the ranks of the CCP and the last of the “long march” group and their associates are long gone.

But it would be interesting to check this dual review on The Times website as regarding books on the DL by both Pico Iyer and Alexander Norman…...

Several Dalai Lamas were murdered at a young age, and one was a notorious seducer who drank hard, wore his hair long and refused to take monastic vows. Norman seems at times to be shocked by the fruits of his own research…..

Iyer is careful not to offend anybody in his writing, skirting sensitive issues such as the shoddy treatment of new arrivals in Dharamsala by the established Tibetan exiles, who regard the refugees as too “Chinese” in their language and behaviour…...

He avoids tackling the central question thrown up by the Dalai Lama’s decision to become a lama to the globe: has his strategy of being a ubiquitous man of peace while simultaneously encouraging the western pro-Tibet lobby brought any real benefit to the 6m Tibetans who continue to live under Chinese communist rule, or has it alienated the hard-faced men in Beijing still further…..

I was hesitant to express this reservation until I read a splendid piece of philosophy in Iyer’s book. He says, “Why despair, indeed, when you can change the world at any moment by choosing to see that the person who gave your last book a bad review is as intrinsic to your wellbeing as your thumb is?

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By Douglas Chalmers, May 10, 2008 at 1:18 pm Link to this comment

Actually, the DL was losing control over what happened in his government-in-exile and particularly in what the monks and others did in Tibet. he has bee directly challenged by the revolutionaries in his own regime and they have demanded that he step aside so that they can spill as much blood as they please.

The rock-throwing young monks who incited the March riots in Lhasa were no kind of genuine Buddhists and one would have to as ke where is their dedication to Buddha? Emotionalism is not spirituality. Then again, the weakness may have started with the DL himself as he has been a celebrity and a politicain for too long already. Is he still really a spiritual person himeself?

The Chinese have their reasosn for blaming the DL as he is in charge of what was once at least a CIA funded organization. The original move into Tibet by the Chinese was by agreement with the Tibetan regime at the time and was not intended to be an oppression of Tibetans. It was to stop the country being taken over by India or any Western power.

Now, the Chinese have simply chosen to resume talks with the DL as it is easier to deal with things with him in control more or less rather than having to negotiate with the agitators and revolutionaries in Tibet. That also gives the DL a chance to reassert his own authority amongst his own people.

All that the March riots have achieved is to set back the good work and diplomacy of the past two decades and spit in the face of China in return for what development they have brought to Tibet. No wonder then that China needs a military here.

But the timing of the riots was meant to influence the voting in the elections in Taiwan primarily. The disruptions that occurred with the Olympic torch relay were co-ordinated from outside Tibet although they were synchronous. Essentially the agitators’ strategy failed and the West has proven itself to be as racist and as bigoted as ever it was.

What Westerners prefer to believe either about China or their ludicrous Shangrila fantasies about Tibet is decreasing in significance by the day. What 1.3 billion Chinese think is becoming more and more significant and so it should. As a growing economic power they will speak to the West in terms of their choices in future to their own advantage as their purchasing power increases.

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By tres, May 10, 2008 at 10:02 am Link to this comment

You are right, action speaks louder than words, and that’s why the Chinese government considers Dalai Lama is personally responsible for the violence. He is the Head of State of the Tibetan Government in Exile. (BTW, what happened to the western idea of separation of State and Religion ?!) It doesn’t matter what he says publicly, Dalai Lama has control over what happens, and the coordinated attacks on civilians and businesses, including many non-Chinese businesses was timed and aimed to cause controversy, disrupt Olympics, and ultimately to give the Military Industry Complex in the USA to hype China Threat therefore to get more funding and more businesses. Which organization is the most active in the recent anti-Olympic/Free Tibet movement? (Reporter without Borders - funded by CIA). And if you do a little research, you will find the Tibetan government in exile is also funded AND started by CIA.

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By jatihoon, May 10, 2008 at 9:11 am Link to this comment

Wisely spoken. He who thinks first and then act,{Meditation}, or one who acts first and then think,{Conflict} that is the difference between Dalai Lama and Chinese way of thinking.

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By Jonas South, May 10, 2008 at 7:01 am Link to this comment
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I have at home a relic from Tibet, the cranium of a holy man encased in silver and jewels, used as a ceremonial vessel. This branch of Buddhism dwells in fantastic legends, including the fact that a temporal ruler is also the spiritual ruler, and that he is the same man who has inhabited hundreds of young men’s bodies through the ages.

One of the earliest of such rulers came to power after he sought military support from the Chinese Emperor during the Yuen Dynasty. Such supplications were repeated multiple times through history, and codified the theocracy’s relationship with China. It was, and is, that of a vessal state to a higher administrative authority.

My study of Buddhism leaves me deeply puzzled, by those who admire Eastern mysticism, while caring little for the teachings of Sikjarmorni, the Buddha. To seek such knowledge, one would have to look in northern India, in Sri Lanka, in China, in Myanmar, in Thailand, and in Japan. Tibet hosts but a small branch of Buddhism, and one muddied by a long history of power politics at that.

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By American Tibetan, May 10, 2008 at 6:44 am Link to this comment
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This is not a truthdig, this is a biased view.any person support Dalai should show be responsible to the truth.If you follow Dalai’s address to different audience,You will find this Monk is not honest at all.Dalai Lama’s historic crime make him deserve lifetime behind the bar. Of course, if you ingore that part, that’s fine, I support all people’s bright view of life.

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