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The Dalai Lama Talks with Chinese Leaders in New York

May 11, 2009

Matthew Weiner
Huffington Post
May 7, 2009

While governments negotiate about negotiations,
debate who they can talk to, and enforce hard
parameters for diplomatic discussions, the
world's preeminent Buddhist leader does things differently.

Yesterday in Midtown Manhattan His Holiness the
Dalai Lama met for over two hours with a group of
Chinese students and dissidents living here in
the United States. The Chinese Government accuses
him of being a demon and a separatist. They will
not talk with him. But this does not stop the
ever laughing monk from speaking with Chinese
people, every chance he has. It is both a
religious and spiritual practice for him, and something we can all learn from.

The audience stood as he entered. While people
didn't bow the way devotees do when he teaches
Dharma, they were very polite. Then he sat and
discussed issues of history, culture, and current
politics as they relate to the situation of his
homeland. He emphasized the need for Tibetans to
have autonomy, not national freedom; he also said
that the Chinese government needed to be helped
out of its political problems by the Tibetan and
Chinese people themselves. When the meeting was
over, groups clustered around him for photographs.

Ever since The Dalai Lama fled Tibet as Chinese
government forces invaded, the world's most
famous monk has concentrated his diplomatic
efforts on the gaining the backing of western
nations, most notably the United States. Indeed,
the Tibetan Government in Exile has offices here
in New York, but also in Washington, and through
out Europe. This leads him to be attacked by the
Chinese government as a Western Imperialist. He
laughs often at the accusation, as has his own
problems with capitalist democracies.

His efforts have had considerable effect. Besides
tons of money being donated to the Tibetan cause,
and helping their refugees in India, The Dalai
Lama is by far the world's most famous Buddhist
leader and perhaps the world's most respected
religious figure. Except, that is, for the
billion plus people living in China, the country that took over Tibet in 1959.

Until recently this decision, to focus on the
western audience, seemed to be a necessary
choice. Tibetans and their friends in the west
have freedom of speech and a democratic process,
not to mention capitalist dollars, to help their
important non-violent cause. Meanwhile how to
communicate with the Chinese people under a
dictatorship? Besides, the Tibetans have never
had a problem with the Chinese, but with their government.

Or so the line went. Yet with the latest Tibetan
uprising that took place a little over a year
ago, besides the horror of monks and civilians
being killed, the most shocking aspect was the
popular Chinese response, which was
overwhelmingly anti-Tibetan. Even when the Dalai
Lama came here, he was confronted with angry Chinese students.

He said as much in this meeting. "I was shocked
at their anger." He said. "Maybe some were paid
by the Chinese government. But some were really
angry. So now I think it is best for me to meet
them, whenever I can. Now things seem to cool down."

The power of the Dalai Lama's ability to engage
Chinese citizens, even the ones here, should not
be underestimated. While engaging Hollywood will
not affect the Chinese government, perhaps their
own citizenry will. Things have changed in China
in the last decade. There are now human rights
lawyers in China who openly represent Tibetan
clients who are under arrest from the uprising.
And there are many cases of the government
responding to the growing force of their new
civil society. Yes this response to civil society
is in its infancy, yes the government remains
brutal, but as its citizenry grows, the Tibetan's
opportunity for change grows, if they engage with
the Chinese people anyway that they can.

In this meeting, without being explicitly
Buddhist, the Dalai Lama continued to use
Buddhist ideas. That anger could be dispelled
through honest discussion. That honest discussion
and questioning was critical to problem solving.
That having an equanimous mind was important for
political leaders as much as for religious
leaders. That religious freedom was essential for all of China, and for Tibet.

In fact, though Tibetans have played down their
relationship with China as a way to emphasize
their unique culture, there were deep
relationships between the two nations, through Buddhism.

As Gray Tuttle, a scholar of Tibetan History at
Columbia University has said, "For over 700 years
these (Buddhist) connections have been the prime
means of intercultural contact, and even in the
past 100 years when national politics have come
to the fore in Asia, Buddhism has consistently
been the one area where the two cultures had the
most promising developments. For peace to be
restored in the troubled Chinese-Tibetan
relations, respect for Buddhism is probably the key element."

With the resurgence of Buddhism in China, and the
powerful allure of the Dalai Lama as a spiritual
leader, Tuttle may be right. One student leader
in attendance said that he had originally
organized an anti-separatist meeting when the
Dalai Lama visited Michigan last year, but now "I
am somehow in the middle. I am not against the
Dalai Lama. This is a good meeting to see." When
asked why, he said, "Well, I'm a Buddhist."
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