The Dalai Lama, the leader of Tibet, went into exile in 1959. His country had been invaded (or liberated) by China at the start of that decade and after a few years of trying to work with the Chinese, he feared for his life and fled to India.
The idea was always to go back to a free country, and almost 60 years on, still is. What he said to me nearly 30 years ago is still relevant, perhaps even more so.
Question: If and when you ever go back to Tibet, what will happen to the people of Chinese origin who were born there?
Answer: There is a similar situation in Estonia, a part of the Soviet Union. The Estonians have said that those people who can speak Estonian and respect the culture can remain. Those people who have moved in and cannot speak Estonian, and do not show any respect, they may be happier to return to their own land. I think a similar situation may happen in Tibet.
So long as any human being respects and genuinely loves the country and the environment, culture and way of life of the majority of the inhabitants, then there will be no problem. There have always been Nepalese, Muslims and Chinese throughout Tibet. Those Muslims in Lhasa (the Tibetan capital) spoke the Lhasa dialect better than me! It was like this in the past and it can be like it in the future, so long as they show respect. Those who do not, they may not be happy. There is no reason for them to remain. They go back to their native land.
Question: What if they don’t want to?
Answer: It depends on the numbers. If numbers are small enough, you could lave Chinatowns like you have in New York or Los Angeles. But if the Chinese are in the majority — in my birthplace there are more Chinese than Tibetans — it is very difficult. You will have to find a solution. It is a different culture, different community. If the Chinese number is bigger than the locals, it will have to reduce.
Some kind of resettlement may have to be undertaken. The basic reality is that Tibet belongs to the Tibetans. The Chinese recognise Tibet is Tibet — they have set up the autonomous region. Nobody can say that Tibet does not belong to the Tibetans. The Chinese say Tibetans are one of the races of the people of China. Basically, they accept Tibet belongs to the Tibetans.
Question: Couldn’t it be argued that Tibet belongs to the people who were born there?
Answer: If there is value in Tibetan culture, and something worthwhile to preserve, not in the sense of the Tibetan culture, but as a culture of the world, one unique, ancient culture of the world, then the Chinese have the responsibility to preserve that. China also has one of the ancient cultures of the world, but there is a big number of people, so therefore it is not under threat.
Tibetan culture is also worthwhile to preserve. But there is a danger because it is a small community. The world has a responsibility to preserve that. As a human being, the basic feeling is the genuine human feeling. If there is a good citizen of a country, we can work together, no problem. But those of an antagonistic or aggressive nature, then in the long run the community finds some difficulty, as does the person themselves.
Question: Who decides who stays and who goes?
Answer: Times decides.
Question: In the years gone by, Tibet was seen as the forbidden country. No visitors were allowed. Yet travelling around India, I have been struck by the warmth, friendliness and openness of the Tibetan people in exile. This friendliness even extends to Your Holiness. Why the change?
Answer: I do not think the Tibetan nature is hostile, or afraid to have other people among them. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Christian missionaries visited Tibet and spent some time there. I have seen some of their writings. They very much appreciated the Tibetan attitude, which they thought was very friendly. That is the same.
It was different with the people in government and the religious leaders. It was not necessarily a negative attitude, I think maybe it was fear. It was nothing to do with the attitude of the Tibetan people.
Now we are refugees, everything had to change. When we came to India, many organisations, both in India and the West, helped and are still helping. And to some extent the factor of Buddhist philosophy. Under all these circumstances, I think it was easy for both sides to meet, and a friendly atmosphere to develop.
Chinese and western attitudes are different. Local Indians’ attitudes are different. They are not particularly interested in the Tibetans. They do not pay any special attention. They are very friendly, and are good neighbours, but there is no special feeling of curiosity to find out about the Tibetan culture.
Western tourists are trying to experience something new, and they want to gain a new experience. There is some sort of interest and motivation. So with both sides combined, this kind of atmosphere can be produced.
In the past there has been more formality. Since we are refugees there is no more formality. In also depends on the personality. I am the fourteenth Dalai Lama, but I am also the thirteenth Dalai Lama. Sometimes I think there are big differences in our personalities. (Laughs) I think formality was more suitable to the thirteenth Dalai Lama. To me, informality is more suitable, and circumstances have also changed.
Question: What can westerners who do not want to become Buddhists learn from Buddhism and the Tibetans?
Answer: There are a number of categories. Those who have a faith — Christians, Muslims, those who follow Judaism and so on — they can learn from the technique of meditation and the concentration on one point in the mind. The mental stillness. That is something that can be learned and is very useful — sharpening one’s own mind to increase love, compassion and forgiveness.
Those who simply think abut money, whose only interest is in enjoying life — those people have nothing much to learn from Buddhism.
The non-believer who thinks about human nature and what is the mind of the human being, the link between the mind and the body, and what is consciousness, there are certain things to learned from Buddhism.
A person who is always agitated, disturbed, feeling insecure, lonely; then from Buddhism I think you can learn something, and also learn something from Tibetan culture. This friendly, open, warm-hearted attitude is something very useful and very necessary. You can implement some Buddhist teaching to increase the friendliness.
Another category — scientists, physicists, neurobiologists, psychologists, cosmologists. There are certain things that can get some benefit from Buddhism. Tibetan medical science, for example.
Question: what have you learned from Westerners?
Answer: One thing I appreciate is the creative nature of the Western mind, and the desire to learn and do something. That is very good. The Western mind is not fixed, it wants always to do something more. This is the basis of all Western civilisation. In the East, as I have said, our philosophy is based on stillness. Our own way of life is also still, and that is why we remain materially backward.