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New York Times Interview with the Dalai Lama
World Tibet Network News
Sunday, December 5, 1993
1. New York Times Interview with the Dalai Lama
Source: The New York Times, 11/28/1993
Written by: Claudia Dreifus
The last place one expects to find His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th
Dalai Lama of Tibet, the exiled secular and religious leader of the Tibetan
people, the winner of the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize, the world's leading
exponent of nonviolent political change, is at a glitzy Tucson, Ariz.,
golfing resort called the Sheraton El Conquistador. Yet there he was on a
recent autumn morning, dressed in his traditional maroon robes, surrounded
by Buddhist monks and non-Buddhist bodyguards, astonishing tourists as he
rushed past the snack bar.
The Dalai Lama had come to this unlikely corner of the world to give a
series of interpretive readings from "A Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of
Life" by Shantideva, an eighth-century Buddhist saint. For five full days,
1,500 attendees risked bad backs and cramped hands to sit for hours taking
notes on the nature of patience. For them, participants in the expanding
Buddhist movement in the Western world, this was a rare opportunity to study
with the head of the faith -- the equivalent of taking Bible classes from
the Pope. Moreover, many of the aspirants were more secular types, veterans
of the 1960's who'd come to regard the Dalai Lama as the Rev. Dr. Martin
Luther King Jr., the Mahatma Gandhi of this political moment. It is a forum
the Dalai Lama clearly enjoys, a needed break from routine as head of the
Tibetan government-in-exile in India. "I am a simple Buddhist monk -- no
more, no less," he often says of himself. At the teachings, he gets to be
Yet his life has been anything but simple. Born in 1935 to a peasant family
in northeast Tibet, he was, at the age of 2, identified after the death of
the 13th Dalai Lama as the 14th reincarnation of the Buddha of Compassion.
That recognition brought a new name; Lhamo Thondup now became Jetsun Jamphel
Ngawang Lobsang Yeshe Tenzin Gyatso (Holy Lord, Gentle Glory, Eloquent,
Compassionate, Learned Defender of the Faith, Ocean of Wisdom). Taken to
Lhasa to be educated, he grew up in a 1,000-room palace, surrounded by
doting monks who tutored him in subjects like philosophy, medicine and
metaphysics and gave him a childhood of pure magic.
The magic ended in 1950 when the 15-year-old Dalai Lama was called upon to
assume full powers as head of state. This, at the very moment the People's
Liberation Army of China was invading Tibet. For the next nine years, the
young ruler attempted to negotiate with Mao Zedong and Chou En-lai, who were
intent on absorbing Tibet into China. Then, in 1959, after China brutally
"quelled" a Tibetan civilian uprising against Chinese rule, the Dalai Lama
fled to India; some 100,000 Tibetans have since followed him across the
In India, he was permitted to set up a government-in-exile in a small
village, Dharamsala, a long day's drive from New Delhi. "His Holiness
reconstructed a viable Tibetan community in India, preserving the culture of
Tibet," says his close friend Robert Thurman, professor of Indo-Tibetan
studies at Columbia University. "He held the Tibetan people together in
exile and gave them hope during the very severe, even genocidal oppression
in their homeland. He's also the first leader of Tibet to become a world
leader, even without a political base -- just on his moral force."
In Tucson, a day after his teachings were completed, the Dalai Lama met in
his suite with the interviewer. As would be expected from someone who has
been worshiped as a demigod since age 2, he greets strangers with a mask of
pleasant formality, which soon melts as he becomes engaged in ideas and
conversation. An hour and a half becomes three; formality turns to laughter.
One senses he's a little bored by the adulation that is his daily fare. The
most striking thing about the Dalai Lama is his capacity for joy -- how
widely he smiles, how amused he is by his own contradictions, his own human
foibles. The journalist William Shirer once said of his interviews with
Gandhi in the 1930's, "You felt you were the only person in the room, that
he had all the time in the world for you." This is true of Tenzin Gyatso
Q: Your Holiness, you seem such a happy person. Have there been
moments in your life when your faith in human goodness was tested?
The Dalai Lama: No.
Q:You've never felt in danger of becoming cynical?
A: No. Of course, when I say that human nature is gentleness, it is not
100 percent so. Every human being has that nature, but there are many people
acting against their nature, being false. Certainly there have been sad
moments for me. The Chinese suppressions in Lhasa in 1987, 1988, now that
was sad. A great many people were killed. I am sometimes sad when I hear the
personal stories of Tibetan refugees who have been tortured or beaten. Some
irritation, some anger comes. But it never lasts long. I always try to think
at a deeper level, to find ways to console.
Q: I understand that you were very angry during the 1990 gulf war, as
angry as you've ever been.
A: Angry? No. But one thing, when people started blaming Saddam Hussein,
then my heart went out to him.
Q: To Saddam Hussein?
A: Yes. Because this blaming everything on him -- it's unfair. He may be
a bad man, but without his army, he cannot act as aggressively as he does.
And his army, without weapons, cannot do anything. And these weapons were
not produced in Iraq itself. Who supplied them? Western nations! So one day
something happened and they blamed everything on him -- without
acknowledging their own contributions. That's wrong. The gulf crisis also
clearly demonstrated the serious implications of the arms trade. War --
without an army, killing as few people as possible -- is acceptable. But the
suffering of large numbers of people due to a military mission, that is sad.
Q: Did you say that killing sometimes is acceptable?
A: Comparatively. In human society, some people do get killed, for a
variety of reasons. However, when you have an established army, and
countries with those armies go to war, the casualties are immense. It's not
one or two casualties, it's thousands. And with nuclear weapons, it's
millions, really millions. For that reason, the arms trade is really
irresponsible. Irresponsible! Global demilitarization is essential.
Q: In Tibet, from the late 1950's until the early 1970's, one of your
brothers was involved in leading a guerrilla movement against the Chinese.
In fact, the guerrillas were supported by the C.I.A. How did you feel about
A: I'm always against violence. But the Tibetan guerrillas were very
dedicated people. They were willing to sacrifice their own lives for the
Tibetan nation. And they found a way to receive help from the C.I.A. Now,
the C.I.A.'s motivation for helping was entirely political. They did not
help out of genuine sympathy, not out of support for a just cause. That was
not very healthy.
Today, the help and support we receive from the United States is truly
out of sympathy and human compassion. In spite of their desire for good
relations with China, the Congress of the United States at least supports
Tibetan human rights. So this is something really precious, genuine.
Q: To change the subject, you have spoken, as few religious leaders have,
of the dangers of global overpopulation.
A: Well, the population problem is a serious reality. In India, some
people were reluctant to accept birth control because of religious
traditions. So I thought, from the Buddhist viewpoint, there is a
possibility of flexibility on this problem. I thought it might be good to
speak out and eventually create more open space for leaders in other
religious traditions to discuss the issue.
Q: How do you feel, then, about Pope John Paul II's continued opposition
to birth control?
A: That's his religious principle. He is acting from a certain principle
-- especially when he speaks about the need to respect the rights of
fetuses. Actually, I feel very touched that the Pope has taken a stand on
Q: Can you also understand the needs of a woman who might not be able to
raise a child?
A: When I was in Lithuania a few years ago, I visited a nursery and I was
told, "All these children are unwanted." So I think it is better that that
situation be stopped right from the beginning -- birth control. Of course,
abortion, from a Buddhist viewpoint, is an act of killing and is negative,
generally speaking. But it depends on the circumstances. If the unborn child
will be retarded or if the birth will create serious problems for the
parent, these are cases where there can be an exception. I think abortion
should be approved or disapproved according to each circumstance.
Q: I understand you've experienced a major change in thinking about the
role of women in the world.
A: It's not so much a change. I've gained an awareness of the sensitivity
of women's issues; even in the 1960's and 1970's, I didn't have much
knowledge of this problem. The basic Buddhist stand on the question of
equality between the genders is age-old. At the highest tantric levels, at
the highest esoteric level, you must respect women: every woman. In Tibetan
society, there has been some careless discrimination. Yet there have been
exceptional women, high lamas, who are respected throughout Tibet.
Q: In a recent issue of the Buddhist magazine Tricycle, the actor
Spalding Gray asked you about your dreams, and you said you sometimes dreamt
of women fighting.
A: Women fighting? No, no. . . . What I meant was that, in my dreams,
sometimes women approach me and I immediately realize, "I'm bhikshu, I'm
monk." So you see, this is sort of sexual. . . .
Q: In your dreams, you realize this and you "fight" the feeling?
A: Yes. Similarly, I have dreams where someone is beating me and I want
to respond. Then, immediately I remember, "I am monk and I should not kill."
Q: Do you ever experience rages? Even Jesus had rages.
A: Don't compare me with Jesus. He is a great master, a great master. . .
. But as to your question, when I was younger, I did get angry. In the past
30 years, no. One thing, the hatred, the ill-feeling, that's almost gone.
Q: So what are your weaknesses and faults?
Q: It is said that you get up at 4 in the morning. How can you be lazy?
A: It's not that kind of laziness. For instance, sometimes, when I visit
some Western countries, I develop an enthusiasm to improve my English. But
when I actually make the effort to study, after a few days, my enthusiasm is
finished. [Laughs.] That is laziness. Other weaknesses are, I think, anger
and attachments. I'm attached to my watch and my prayer beads. Then, of
course, sometimes beautiful women. . . . But then, many monks have the same
experience. Some of it is curiosity: If you use this, what is the feeling?
[Points to his groin.]
Then, of course, there is the feeling that something sexual must be
something very happy, a marvelous experience. When this develops, I always
see the negative side. There's an expression from Nagurajuna, one of the
Indian masters: "If you itch, it's nice to scratch it. But it's better to
have no itch at all." Similarly with the sexual desire. If it is possible
to be without that feeling, there is much peace. [Smiles.] And without sex,
there's no worry about abortion, condoms, things like that.
Q: Sir, your laugh is world famous -- what makes you laugh?
A: There is something in my family . . . a tendency to laugh a lot. One
brother, Gyalo Thondup, doesn't laugh too much. Another, Lobsang Samten, was
very fond of cracking dirty jokes. A third, Taktser Rinpoche, he also
laughed a lot. And Tibetans generally are very good-natured. In my
childhood, I had a religious assistant who always told me, "If you can
really laugh with full abandonment, it's very good for your health."
Q: What do you do for leisure, to relax?
A: I like to let my thoughts come to me each morning before I get up. I
meditate for a few hours and that is like recharging. After that, my daily
conduct is usually driven by the motivation to help, to create a positive
atmosphere for others. I garden . . . gardening is one of my hobbies. Also,
reading encyclopedias with pictures. [Laughs.] I am a man of peace, but I am
fond of looking at picture books of the Second World War. I own some, which
I believe are produced by Time-Life. I've just ordered a new set. Thirty
Q: Really? Why does the Reincarnation of Compassion have such a
fascination with one of the most terrible events in human history?
A: Perhaps because the stories are so negative and gruesome, they
strengthen my belief in nonviolence. [Smiles.] However, I find many of the
machines of violence very attractive. Tanks, airplanes, warships, especially
aircraft carriers. And the German U-boats, submarines. . . .
Q: I once read that as a little boy in Lhasa, you liked war toys.
A: Yes, very much. I also had an air rifle in Lhasa. And I have one in
India. I often feed small birds, but when they come together, hawks spot
them and catch them -- a very bad thing. So in order to protect these small
birds, I keep the air rifle.
Q: So it is a Buddhist rifle?
A: [Laughs] A compassionate rifle!
Q: Let me ask you a difficult question in that regard. You are
indispensable to your movement. Are you ever afraid you might suffer the
same fate as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.?
A: The thought sometimes crosses my mind. As far as being
"indispensable," people can carry on without me.
Q: Asian scholars say that the Tibetan nation wouldn't have survived
after 1959 if you had not been such a skilled political leader. That being
the case, aren't you concerned that the Chinese might try to finish off the
Tibetan independence movement by killing you?
A: Some Chinese have frankly said to Tibetans: "You only have one person.
If we take care of that, the problem is solved."
Q: Have you prepared yourself for the possibility?
A: Not really, although in general, as a Buddhist, my daily meditation
involves preparation for death. Death by natural causes, I'm fully prepared
for. If sudden death comes, that is tragic -- from the viewpoint of
Q: In September, the Palestinians accepted a compromise for regional
autonomy. If the Chinese offered such a deal, would you accept?
A: Actually, for the past 14 years, my basic position has been very
similar. There is one difference: in the Palestinian case, virtually every
government viewed the Territories as occupied and showed concern. In the
Tibetan case only the U.S. Congress and some legal experts consider Tibet an
occupied land with the right of self-determination.
Q: What was your feeling when you watched the recent signing of the
Middle East peace agreement?
A: It's a great achievement. This issue is just one year older than the
Tibetan issue. Our problem started in 1949, theirs in 1948. In those years,
a lot of hatred developed. Imagine: Palestinians were taught to hate from
childhood. That was seen as good for the national interest. In fact, it was
rather negative; a lot of violence took place. Now, both sides came to an
agreement in the spirit of reconciliation, in the spirit of nonviolence.
This is wonderful.
Q: Are there any signs that the Chinese might accept a compromise?
A: [Quickly] No.
Q: You once wrote that the Chinese want to rule the world. Do you still
A: I didn't mean it that way. The remark was related more to the Marxist
world intention, rather than Chinese national historical expansionism.
Q: Do you think that still is the case?
A: It's changed, I think. That kind of spirit . . . perhaps in the
1960's, with the Cultural Revolution, it was there. On the Soviet side,
Khrushchev realized around 1956 that that kind of goal was not realistic. By
the end of the Cultural Revolution, in the 1970's, the Chinese realized that
it was out of the question. Now I think the issue is Chinese nationalist
historic chauvinism. To them, all other people are barbarians.
Q: Including you?
A: Oh, certainly! Of course! They are a proud nation. With Marxism gone,
the strategy is to reach the economic levels of Western countries. They
consider themselves a champion of the third world, particularly after the
Soviet Union collapsed. They see Russia as having become a part of the West.
So what you have is the most populous nation, the worst kind of totalitarian
system, the rule of terror -- with nuclear weapons and with an ideology that
force is the ultimate source of power. Their economy was poor, but now it is
improving -- without changing those other things. Time magazine has called
them "the super-power of the next century."
Q: Does that scare you?
A: We already lost our country. But I'm concerned about the world! The
world community has the moral responsibility to see democracy in China. Now,
how to bring it about? The Chinese intellectuals and the students, they are
already a strong political force, and very essential. The world community
must give every encouragement to that force. We should not indulge any act
which discourages them.
Q: Did you think at the time of the Tiananmen Square uprising that the
democracy movement would succeed?
A: Yes. Actually, the events of the 4th of June shocked me. I did not
expect them to fire on their own people.
Q: But if the Chinese Communists have been as ruthless against Tibetans
as you charge, why not against pro-democracy demonstrators?
A: Because it was their own people! How could they shoot them? During the
Cultural Revolution, this was understandable. Tiananmen Square proved that a
regime that would have no hesitation to shoot their own people, such a
regime. . . . There should be no doubt about their attitude towards other
Q: Given that not-so-optimistic assessment, what possible scenarios for
China and Tibet do you see?
A: Basically, the Chinese Communist regime, it's only a matter of time:
it will change. Worldwide today, there is a growth of freedom and democracy.
And the democratic movement, inside and outside China, is still very active.
Once the Chinese are willing to listen to others' problems, the Tibetans
will not be against the Chinese nation. My approach is in the spirit of
reconciliation. Certainly we can have an agreement.
In the meantime, the international community must support Tibet and put
pressure on China. Without that, our own approach, according to the last 14
years of experience, has no hope of response.
Q: In closing, I read somewhere that you are predicting that the 21st
century, unlike the 20th, is to be a century of peace and justice. Why?
A: Because I believe that in the 20th century, humanity has learned from
many, many experiences. Some positive, and many negative. What misery, what
destruction! The greatest number of human beings were killed in the two
world wars of this century. But human nature is such that when we face a
tremendous critical situation, the human mind can wake up and find some
other alternative. That is a human capacity.
Articles in this Issue:
- New York Times Interview with the Dalai Lama
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