Having struggled for half a century to free his country from China's grasp, the Dalai Lama knows better than anyone that it's not going to happen. Even though he's been coming to recognize this near certainty for some time, he had held out hope until lately that as Beijing's hard-core communist leaders die, their more worldly successors might consider granting Tibet its independence.
Visiting Taiwan recently, the realization that virtually all ethnic Chinese, communist and capitalist, consider Tibet a rightful part of China was driven home for him. "All Chinese, even those I met in Taiwan, even those educated in the United States, think of Tibet as a part of China," he said, when I spoke with him in the comfortable stucco building that is his home and office in Dharmsala, a booming tourist town in the Himalayan foothills of India.
The best the Dalai Lama hopes for now is that the next generation of Chinese leaders will deliver some of the autonomy Tibet was supposed to receive after being declared an autonomous region in 1965. He bases this hope on a belief that Chinese politics will eventually follow its economics into a closer resemblance of the outside world. This would mean improved human rights for Tibetans as well as ethnic Chinese, he said. "China will have to follow the world, whether they like it or not."
While some might disagree, the Dalai Lama's judgment is to be taken seriously. Single-handedly he has recast Tibet from an obscure geopolitical issue into one of the great moral dilemmas of our time: either to side with the Chinese behemoth or to support a tiny group of impoverished people in their struggle to regain independence. Like the U.S., most countries have chosen to avoid publicly interfering while quietly backing the Dalai Lama’s quest to improve China's bleak human rights record in Tibet, which includes banning free speech and arresting Buddhist monks and nuns.
In his pursuit of better conditions for Tibetans, the Dalai Lama, seen here visiting Tashi Lhunpo monastery in southern India, is rarely in one place very long. Celebrated as a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, moral arbiter, public speaker, author, and spiritual leader, he's as at home in New York City or Paris as in Geneva or Tokyo. Some younger Tibetan exiles allege that the older generation has lost its fervor for returning to the homeland and has become bogged down in nepotism and other forms of corruption. Before meeting with the Dalai Lama, I asked his personal secretary, Tenzin Geyche Tethong, about these claims. "Yes, we've heard these charges before," Tethong said. "But there's never been a major allegation of corruption. I feel we've been successful in avoiding corruption."
I also asked Tethong about claims by China that Tibetan monks were in the habit of sexually abusing young boys and did so during the present Dalai Lama’s rule. "There may have been some instances, but it was never widespread," he replied. Tethong added that he questioned the practice of admitting children as young as eight into monasteries—banned by China but still going on quietly. "In reality we find that some of the best scholars began as children," he said, "though I acknowledge that children don't really know their own minds at that age."
Moments later the Dalai Lama strode into the sitting room. We exchanged white silk scarves, a formal Tibetan greeting, and took chairs catercorner from each other. Tethong and the Dalai Lama's American-educated nephew, Tenzin N. Taklha, fielded translations when he stumbled over a word or thought, which he does with some frequency.
This was the fourth time in 30 years I'd interviewed the Dalai Lama—whose title means "ocean-wide" and implies vast wisdom—and on each occasion I have found him tranquil and almost tangibly spiritual. This time we spoke mainly of change: in Tibet, in China, among Tibetan exiles, in himself. I told him about the new breed of entrepreneurs I met in Tibet and asked what he thought of their effort to rebuild temples and stupas. I expected him to endorse their efforts. Surprisingly, he did not.
"I wish those wealthy Tibetans would spend their money on schools and clinics and on living Buddhism better," he said. "Certainly these people have a very important role in the preservation of Tibetan culture. But when I think of culture, I think of internal things, like the quality of the mind, honesty, compassion, peacefulness. These are the qualities of our culture."
These are the qualities he himself drew on after escaping to India in 1959. He was 24 years old, the 14th Dalai Lama in a line stretching back to the end of the 14th century. Although he had traveled to China and India, he was largely sheltered from the rough and tumble of politics and remained naive of the world beyond the Himalayan barrier. He'd been raised to be a demigod, worshiped from afar by his people. To Tibetans he was divine, the direct reincarnation of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, the ancestor of the Tibetan people. As far as the outside world was concerned, the Dalai Lama, like Tibet itself, was more myth than reality.
While his earthly power then was based on the immense army of monks he commanded, the Dalai Lama said he disagrees with those who argue that the smaller number of monks today prevents them from strengthening religion. "I always emphasize quality over quantity. Numbers are not so important." He readily acknowledged that during his time in Tibet "too many people became monks just to earn a living."
Although at 66 he appears healthy and vigorous, the time is coming when a successor must be found. In accordance with tradition, after a Dalai Lama dies, he is reincarnated in an infant who is sought out by a team of senior lamas. In the interim a regent has run Tibet. Since years may pass before the reincarnation is discovered, and still more before the boy reaches maturity and is enthroned, the regents have always wielded great power.
Over the centuries China periodically inserted itself into the selection process to increase its control of Tibet. It's a foregone conclusion that it will do so the next time, with China choosing its own candidate while the exile government selects another. Such interference could unleash a level of turmoil never known before in Tibet.