An Interview with His Holiness the Dalai Lama

David McGonigal discusses life and levitation, politics and overpopulation with His Holiness at his home in India.

Driving from Delhi to Dharamsala is the quintessential Indian experience. The narrow pot-holed road is an obstacle course of bullock carts, bicycles and hand trolleys. The verge is littered with wrecks provided by motoring manoeuvres that failed. As most of the world knows, Dharamsala is the address of the Dalai Lama, his home in exile since he fled from the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1959. So it's a disappointment to find that Dharamsala looks exactly like every other town one has passed through along the way.

However, one then climbs a steep road to McLeod Ganj, the small community perched on the mountainside that looms over Dharamsala. This village, with its tea shops, Buddhist temples and saffron-robed monks roaming the streets is distinctly Tibetan. Indeed, its architecture is a seamless melding of Kathmandu and Lhasa.

Upoin arrival in town we met the Dalai Lama's secretary who ushered us into his office. If McLeod Ganj is a world away from the rest of India, this office must represent the average Indian's view of an office-pod from the far-distant future. Fax machines whirr into life and banks of Apple Macintosh computers display the same screen savers you see in Sydney or Seattle.

"Your private audience with His Holiness is scheduled for tomorrow," I was told in faultless English. "But now would be a good time to go through your questions."

["Here it comes," I thought. "Don't ask about the Chinese and steer clear of the sometimes strained relationship between the Tibetan community here and the local Indian population. Just provide questions for which there are prepared answers. Basil Faulty's 'Don't mention the war' could be the mantra of the modern press interview."]

"Of course, you can ask His Holiness whatever questions you like," the secretary broke into my thoughts. "But try not to ask the same boring ones that he answers all the time. He likes ones that are different."

In every way, Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama is an exceptional man. As a little boy in rural Tibet he had been identified as the reincarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama. His predecessor had told fellow monks to seek out a house with strange gables in a certain part of the country. "My father had unusual ideas about house design," recalls the man who, as a boy had run up to the disguised monks seeking him out and correctly identified one who was from the venerable Sera monastery as a "Sera lama". In the intensive testing period that followed he recognised the personal possessions of the previous Dalai Lama and instantly knew his way around the vast Potala Palace.

As we sat nervously in the waiting room the following day, listening to a long winded Indian army officer take his leave, I reflected that no degree of prescience could have told the 14th Dalai Lama the direction his life would take. From being the traditionally reclusive, near mystical, figurehead of Tibet he had been thrust into the world of international politics. To most of us he is Tibet - its spokesman and symbol. I was looking at the Nobel Peace Prize he was awarded in 1989 when the man himself appeared in the doorway and ushered us into what could have been a modern Sydney lounge room.

Much has been made of the aura that some people observe surrounding the Dalai Lama. I looked hard but couldn't see it. Of course, there is that strange sense of unreality that one has whenever you meet someone who is a familiar figure on our television screens. In person his remarkably strong personality fills the room. For a celibate monk his is a very earthy presence. He has a handshake like weight lifter and his answers are often punctuated by deep, throaty chuckles. While some Christian orders exclude women (and thus temptation) entirely, he was equally unreserved with both Lynn, my wife, and I. When we asked if we could have our photographs taken with him, he took us both by the hand and led us outside. He ever directed the photo-shoot, instructing the young monk nervously holding my camera: "don't just take horizontals, take some verticals, too".

The Dalai Lama speaks good, if rather accented, English. He claims that he prefers conducting interviews with people who also speak English as a second language. Despite that disclaimer, he answered me directly throughout the interview - only referring to his secretary when he needed to fine tune a phrase or to check a shade of meaning.

To begin I asked if reports were true that he has said that he could be the last Dalai Lama.

"Some people are deliberately trying to create the impression that our activities here in Dharamsala are intended to restore the old system of government to Tibet. That's 100 per cent not true: there is not even a dream of restoring the old system. To show we are serious about this I have stated the continuation of Dalai Lama institution itself depends entirely on the wishes of the Tibetan people. If the majority feels that the Dalai Lama is no longer relevant the institution will cease. In that case, I will be the last one."

My next question produced surprising effect. "If you were to be the last Dalai Lama," I asked "would that mean that you had achieved Buddha-hood, moving beyond the cycle of rebirth?"

The Dalai Lama giggled and exclaimed "No, no, no" before giving way to laughter. "When I say I will be the last Dalai Lama, I mean the formal institution will finish. My rebirth will continue. In my daily prayers there's one particular verse that always gives me inner strength and determination. That verse can be translated as saying: 'as long as space remains, as long as suffering of sentient beings remain, I will remain in order to serve'.

Next we discussed his political role. I expressed doubts that a free and independent Tibet was even a possibility in a time when China is becoming more important, both politically and economically.

He replied: "My main concern is the future of Tibetan Buddhist culture. This culture is not only helpful for six million Tibetans but also to people throughout the whole northern Himalaya, perhaps about 13 or 14 million people in all. Tibetan culture also has potential to help millions of young Chinese. And it can serve as a peaceful attitude towards fellow human beings, towards animals, towards insects, towards the environment for the whole world. So therefore the survival of Tibetan culture is important."

"I see the only way to protect it is to deal with the Chinese government. Logically, we have to take Chinese interests into account so there's a chance they'll pay attention to ours. My way of approach is compromise, the middle way. However at the moment the attitude of the Chinese government is very, very hard. It has been so for 15 years. Back in the early 1980s there was a time of real hope but since then things have gone from bad to worse. Now is the very worst period. But I feel the Chinese communist totalitarian system is narrow minded and cannot remain. I think within a few years things will change. Once China becomes more liberal thinking we can work with them and there may be progress."

"Towards a semi-autonomous region?" I asked.

"That's right," the Dalai Lama declared. "My main objective is to achieve genuine self rule."

"If you decided that Tibet, even as it exists today, doesn't have a future, would you want the Tibetan people living there to leave - perhaps to come to Dharamsala?" I asked.

Again, he laughed: "That's probably even more difficult to achieve. I don't think so. However, over the past 37 years we have built a purer Tibetan cultural heritage here in India. And other parts of the world including Australia have some people who show genuine interest in Tibetan culture, Buddhism and Buddhist culture."

The interview took place around the time of the Dalai Lama's 60th birthday. I asked him: "has your life been one of joy or sorrow?"

He replied "A mixture I think, a mixture."

"Like everyone's then?"

"Yes, of course. In some ways it's been worse for me. At times there have been impossible responsibilities and a lot of difficulties. Then again, personally I'm quite [seeks word from interpreter] jovial with not much worry. I do my best - which is moderation - and failure doesn't matter."

"Do you see a change in your life in the coming years? Perhaps more meditation and less politics?"

"Oh yes. I think so. If the day comes when we return to Tibet." he said, then added with more confidence: "Certainly we will return. There are about 130,000 Tibetan refugees and I think most of them will return with me. I've stated that as soon as we set up interim government I will hand over all my legislative authority. Then I'll get more time for religious activities. If there was subsequently some national crisis beyond the abilities of the elected leader, I'm willing to help. Otherwise I look forward to a lot of time for meditation. Of course, by then I might be senile, too."

[During this part of the conversation His Holiness sneezed and we were left nonplussed by a matter of protocol: does one say "God bless" to a living god?]

In his books the Dalai Lama has dealt with trance states and the role of oracles very much from the position of a scientific rationalist. Yet the modern western world seems to be looking for mysticism. I asked if he had personally observed any elements in Tibetan Buddhism such as levitation and thought transference that can't be explained by science? At first he answered in the abstract:

"Recently I participated in a Christian seminar in London. Some stories of Jesus Christ seem miracles. But from the Buddhist viewpoint they are explainable through an inner element. There are five external elements but there are also five internal elements. Through meditation we can change things and influence one another. So miracles can be explained. When something happens that you feel is beyond ordinary understanding, you only have to know how this is possible and it becomes acceptable. A Tibetan wanderer would regard a jumbo jet - or television - to be a miracle. But to a scientist who knows how they work ther're not. Similarly there are certain things that be done through mental training. To those who have developed the skills it's nothing special."

He added that he has not personally seen anyone levitate. On the other hand, "not more than five years ago an old Buddhist nun of 80 or more came to see me just before her death. She had no reason to lie to me and people considered her very reliable. She told me that, when she was young in the high mountains of Tibet she studied with an old lama. While there, she once saw two of his 15 disciples flying from the top of one mountain to the other side of the valley."

While we shivered with delight, he added "She told me so. Then again, she may have been hallucinating. I don't know. There are such phenomena. Even within our generation there are reports of extraordinary feats."

Lynn is a genetic scientist working on endangered species. She has spent the past few years slaughtering fruit flies in the name of science. Knowing that Tibetan Buddhists hold all life sacred, it was with some trepidation she asked the Dalai Lama how he felt about the use of interventionist science like gene banks and controlled breeding programs to preserve Tibet's wildlife. His answer revealed great spirituality, knowledge and worldliness.

"It's difficult to say if these things are right or wrong. The direction in which something like genetic engineering goes can be both positive and negative. It depends so much on the motivation of the people who are able to do these things. If it is to benefit humanity as a whole then it's good. If human beings become more healthy with less illness through genetic engineering, it could be considered good and beneficial."

"Many advances are from experiments on animals. It would be good to stop all these experiments but I think that's almost impossible. And, there's some justification for the view that, in order to save more important life we may sacrifice less important life. So in order to save some human lives we must sacrifice some animals' lives. If we take that argument further . . . further . . . further then to save some person we could sacrifice some others. Of course, such an extreme is bad."

"Avoiding extremes is the whole issue for medical science. If animals must be used, their lives and pain can't be disregarded."

"A reporter once asked me what I thought of the Chinese plan to construct a railway to Lhasa. I told him it could be very positive or very negative, depending on Chinese government policy. Used for good it could develop Tibet overnight. But utilised the wrong way - to send in more Chinese military and ship out more Tibetan minerals - it would be very negative. Every human action must depend on the person's motivation."

The Dalai Lama is such a likeable person that one can see how his path of moderation avoids conflict. However, our final question revealed that he is not afraid to tackle difficult issues. We asked if he could see any way to balance the future needs of animals and plants worldwide with the needs of the humans? In his reply he divided the world into "northerners" and "southerners" which I have interpreted as "first world" and "third world" respectively.

"We need some way of checking human population. Overpopulation is a very serious world problem and birth control is very important. But some people even object to words like "control" so let's call it "family planning"."

"At present there is a gap between first world surplus and third world starvation (although in some cases the starvation is due to negligence by their own governments). Anyway this gap is not only morally wrong but is a source of practical problems. We have to remove it by raising the living standard of the third world - not reduce the first world's. According to some experts, if the third world was raised to the living standards that the first world now enjoys, it would be difficult to sustain major resources, even at the present population level of about 5.7 billion. Wouldn't 5.7 billion affluent people require two or three billion cars - plus petrol and roads?"

"Of course others say the human population level is okay and can continue to increase because science will meet our needs with new sources of energy and things like that. But even if we can sustain 10 billion people then as time goes it will become 15 billion then 20 billion. Impossible! So whether you call it birth control or family planning, we must check human population growth."

"From the Buddhist viewpoint human life is considered precious life. So one should avoid birth control because it's better if there's more precious life. But in reality there is now too much precious life so entire precious life is facing doom. Alternatively, all the people in the world could become like beggars - if we're willing to accept that option then it doesn't matter. But logically, if all precious life is facing a problem because there are too many of us then it's wise to check the population."

Although we concluded our audience by the traditional Tibetan exchange ceremonial scarves, it was obvious that we were seeing the Dalai Lama in his role as a world leader, equally at home in London or Melbourne as here in Dharamsala. In that context he is the most impressive human being I've ever met with a wisdom that goes beyond doctrine.

While we were in town, we also attended a public audience with His Holiness which showed him as a spiritual leader. The long line of people waiting to come in fleeting contact with him included several western trekkers. However, the majority were ragged refugees, recently arrived from Tibet. Most of these were completely overcome by emotion by the occasion. I found it impossible to tell if their tears were from sorrow or happiness. I asked one of the monks on the Dalai Lama's staff to explain what was happening.

"We are really spoiled in Dharamsala because we see His Holiness all the time and have become used to his presence," he explained. "That's far removed from the traditional role of the Dalai Lama in Tibetan society. Back then, the most that any of these pilgrims could have hoped for was that one day they would meet someone who had seen the Dalai Lama from afar. Even for those living in Tibet today he is simply an abstract symbol of hope. To actually meet him - and be touched by him - is beyond belief. This is the most important day of their lives."

One wonders what would have happened if China hadn't annexed Tibet and forced the Dalai Lama into exile. It's unlikely that Tibet would have continued unchanged. However, the Dalai Lama would not have been thrust onto the world stage and we may not have seen him in Australia. That would have been our great loss.

David McGonigal © David McGonigal Pty Ltd