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"On my part, I remain committed to the process of dialogue. It is my firm belief that dialogue and a willingness to look with honesty and clarity at the reality of Tibet can lead us to a viable solution."

Behind the Saffron Robes, a Savvy Politician

May 26, 2008

By Pico Iyer
The Washington Post
May 25, 2008

When most people think of the Dalai Lama, they think of his saffron
and maroon robes, his shiny shaven head, the mala beads around his
wrist, his puckish smile and cosmic insight. He is, after all, the
incarnation of the god of compassion. Yet part of the drama and power
of his life is that while his head may be in the clouds, for more
than half a century his feet have been firmly planted in the
unforgiving realm of realpolitik. Over the years, as I've reported
from El Salvador to Lebanon, from Ethiopia to Sri Lanka, I've come to
see the Dalai Lama as one of the most realistic, far-sighted
politicians in the world.

Soon after violence erupted in Tibetan areas in China last March,
restless young Tibetan exiles began clamoring for dramatic protests
against the Chinese government. The countdown to the Beijing Olympics
in August was their chance, they said, to force China to end almost
60 years of oppression in Tibet. People around the world joined in
their call for action. But the Dalai Lama continued to urge patience,
dialogue and tolerance. An agreement reached by people who are
jealous, territorial or angry, he often says, will last only until
the next fit of temper.

The Dalai Lama also opposes a boycott of the Olympics and recently
reminded Tibetans to forswear violence. Last Wednesday, he even
announced that if, by chance, he were invited to the Olympics, he'd
be "happy" to attend. And two weeks ago, he led a Buddhist prayer
service for the victims of China's massive earthquake.

I've been following the Dalai Lama and his ever more unsettled people
in their exile home in Dharmsala, India, for 33 years now, from the
foggy summer day when I met him as a teenager to the day after his
Nobel Peace Prize was announced in 1989 to our most recent visit in
Japan last year. Nearly all his positions come as unexpected to those
of us conditioned to politics-as-usual.

When his people understandably cry out in frustration and even rage
toward Beijing, the Dalai Lama reminds them that no one can be forced
to be reasonable. China, he knows, has a prickly and fearful
tradition of responding to the slightest resistance with violence.
Gestures of defiance may attract headlines or play well in Hollywood
for a few days, but in the long run, opposing a nation 215 times more
populous than your own is tantamount to suicide.

At heart, his position is both pragmatic and moral: China and Tibet
are neighbors, and their destinies are intertwined. He has taught his
followers that throwing stones at a neighbor's window -- or even
leading protesters to his front door -- can harm the entire
neighborhood for years to come.

Such clear-eyed realism, and such practical applications of monastic
principles, are not always what the world wants from the Dalai Lama.
When the head of Tibetan Buddhism offers philosophical teachings
outside his home in Dharmsala, thousands of foreigners join the monks
and ordinary Tibetans day after day in freezing weather amid a crush
of bodies. But as soon as he turns his attention to Tibet's political
situation, as he does every year on March 10 -- the anniversary of
the 1959 uprising during which he fled China -- his audience thins
out as his followers from New York, Dusseldorf and Sydney disappear.
We don't need another leader in the real world; we want someone who
can show us a better one.

It's easy to forget that the Dalai Lama, brought to spiritual power
as a 4-year-old boy, has been leading his people longer than any
other figure on the world stage -- 68 years and counting. He was
dealing with Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai 58 years ago, and in 1954,
against his people's wishes, he left for a year-long tour through
China that included a visit to Beijing. For decades, he has been
confronting radicals in China and within his movement. In the early
1970s, when CIA-trained Tibetan fighters continued a guerrilla war
against Beijing, he sent them a taped message asking them to lay down
their arms. The insurgents obeyed, but a few were so heartbroken that
they took their own lives.

In recent months, much of the world has awakened to the Tibetan
predicament and decided that now is the moment for a dramatic
response. But the Dalai Lama, who has long stressed that what matters
is what happens after the Olympics, keeps emphasizing the importance
of speaking with the Chinese rather than lashing out. China recently
resumed talks with representatives of exiled Tibetans, but the
leaders in Beijing remain curiously reluctant to meet with a monk
described by President Bill Clinton as "an honest man" and by
President Bush as "a man of peace."

With characteristic directness, the Dalai Lama confessed to me more
than a decade ago that his policy of maximum concessions -- calling
for "autonomy," not full independence from China -- had achieved
little, as China continued cracking down on Tibet. But that did not
make it a mistaken policy, if only because he was looking to the
future. As a pragmatist, he knows that mere gestures of resistance
are not going to sway the hard-nosed leaders in Beijing. And as one
who feels his people's sorrows as his own, he realizes that violent
attacks against, say, Chinese power plants or Chinese-owned
businesses will only bring more suffering to Tibetans in Tibet (and
to the Chinese as well).

For all the years I've known him, and especially in the last 15 or
so, the Dalai Lama has spoken of the importance of working with the
Chinese, who will realize in time, he believes, how much they have in
common with the Tibetans. I have sometimes thought this a quixotic
position or the last hope of a desperate man. But the last time I
visited the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, some of the Chinese I saw there
were making offerings at the Jokhang Temple in the heart of the old
city, seeking out lamas and reading Tibetan texts. And across China,
at least until the protests swept through Tibetan areas in March,
Tibetan Buddhism had become decidedly hip. If Americans and Europeans
and Japanese look to this tradition for a spiritual fulfillment that
their own cultures haven't provided, how much more so will many
Chinese, who with their newfound prosperity are searching for
spiritual richness, too?

During my week with the Dalai Lama in Japan last November, we walked
into a conference room in Yokohama, and the 60 or so people awaiting
his arrival began to sob. Chairs had been set out for them, but they
all threw themselves onto the ground, clustering around the holy man,
trying to get his blessing. Every one of the people so anxious to
touch him was a Han Chinese, from the People's Republic.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of recent weeks was the petition
released by more than two dozen Chinese intellectuals and writers
calling on their government to speak to the Dalai Lama, end
"suppression" in Tibet and allow an independent body to investigate
the recent disturbances. We might have expected Tibetans to risk
their lives by making such an appeal. But Chinese?

No one believes that Beijing will change overnight, but as the Dalai
Lama often notes, we should be ready when it happens. It's striking
that two of his longtime and most loyal champions are Vaclav Havel
and Desmond Tutu. One day Havel woke up in prison; weeks later, he
was unanimously elected president of Czechoslovakia. One day Tutu
woke up to a life of apartheid (though a Nobel laureate, he had not
been allowed to vote in all his 62 years); the next, he was free of
official racism.

If the Dalai Lama does receive an invitation to the Olympic opening
ceremonies, the Chinese can count on at least one monk who will
extend a hand of friendship at their coming-out party -- to remind
Tibetans, Chinese and the world that they have everything to lose by
seeing each other as foes.

Pico Iyer is the author of "The Open Road: The Global Journey of the
Fourteenth Dalai Lama."
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