By Qin Weiping
January 31, 2014
New York City was still wrapped in slumber when I arrived at the Hotel Beacon, near Central Park, at six a.m. on October 20, 2013.
I had been invited to meet a legendary figure: the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet. Despite his worldwide renown as a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, he is excoriated in the official Chinese media as an arch-villain the likes of Chiang Kai-shek. In Chinese propaganda, he appears as an “enemy” Tibetan separatist conspiring in exile with his “clique” to gain Tibetan independence and fragment the motherland, while instigating Tibetan unrest and self-immolations within China to further his plot.
As a young person born and raised in China, I opposed Tibetan independence. Frankly, I had a rather low opinion of the Dalai Lama, after having had it drummed into my head all my life that he was a criminal ring-leader. My eyes were first opened to other possible viewpoints while I was attending an international scholarly conference in America in May 2013. There I heard Mr. Kunga Tashi, Chinese Liaison Officer at the Office of Tibet in New York, explaining the Dalai Lama’s “Middle Way Approach.” Instead of independence for Tibet, he said, the Dalai Lama advocated only that Tibet be accorded the rights guaranteed to Autonomous Regions under the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China. This contradicted all that I had ever been taught. I wondered why I had never heard mention of the Dalai Lama’s “Middle Way” during my time in China. Whom should I believe?
My curiosity aroused, I made an appointment with Mr. Kunga Tashi in June. He was the first Tibetan I had ever met, and he impressed me as a modest, reasonable, and scholarly individual. He told me how the Chinese military had occupied Tibet, unleashing a chain of events involving the Dalai Lama, who had fled into exile in India in order to preserve the unique Tibetan religion and culture, followed by more than 100,000 Tibetans. After leading his exile government into the modern democratic fold, he had retired from his political duties in 2011 and now functioned only as a religious figurehead, traveling the world to promote Buddhism, ecumenical human values, and religious tolerance.
I resonated deeply with Mr. Kunga Tashi’s account of the tragedy of modern Tibetan history, and I remarked to him that historical materials had recently come to light documenting the starvation deaths of tens of millions of Han Chinese during the endless turmoil of Communist political campaigns. Moreover, it was clear that the Tibetan people had only worsened their plight through their valiant attempts to resist Chinese suppression, and that the Chinese Communist Party had deliberately driven a wedge between Han Chinese and Tibetans as part of its “divide and conquer” strategy. Official Chinese claims that Tibet sought outright independence had alienated Han Chinese who would have supported the more limited Tibetan goal of autonomy within China, with its laudable aim of preserving the Tibetan linguistic, cultural, and religious heritage.
Nonetheless, in the free atmosphere of the West I had also heard calls for Tibetan independence, particularly from the Tibetan Youth Congress. Realizing that the Tibetan diaspora was divided, it occurred to me that the Dalai Lama’s “Middle Way” might be a mere expedient. To allay my misgivings, Mr. Kunga Tashi arranged an opportunity for me to meet the Dalai Lama and assess his sincerity firsthand, which I accepted eagerly. I was a former news reporter, and history makers fascinated me.
At the Hotel Beacon on that dark October morning, I underwent a rigorous security inspection and proceeded into the lobby, which was bustling despite the early hour of the day. There were about a dozen Tibetan Buddhists of all ages, who smiled at me politely, although I was unable to communicate with them in Tibetan. There was also a young Han Chinese woman exchange student from out of state, who had squeezed this trip to New York into her demanding schedule. With her was a young Tibetan woman for whom an encounter with the Dalai Lama was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.
Finally, the Dalai Lama appeared in his monk’s robes, with a radiance and vigor that belied his advanced age of seventy-eight. Following the Tibetan custom, I presented him with a white silk ceremonial scarf, and he shook my hands warmly and inquired where I was from. I replied that my home was Guangji, in Hubei, birthplace of Sima Daoxin, the Fourth Patriarch of Zen Buddhism. The Dalai Lama thanked me in Chinese for coming, winning my heart with his kind, unassuming demeanor. The young Tibetan woman beside me had burst into tears at the mere sight of him, a reminder of Tibetan suffering under the draconian religious policies of the Chinese Communists.
Our morning meeting with the Dalai Lama was necessarily brief, because he was on his way to conduct a Buddhist ceremony. However, I knew I would hear more about his doctrine of nonviolence, love, and compassion at his public lecture on “The Virtue of Nonviolence” at the Beacon Theatre that afternoon. I arrived at the theater a couple of hours ahead of time, and found crowds already milling around in front. Tickets were scarce and expensive, but throngs of pious Tibetans in traditional dress had come nonetheless, believing that proximity to the Dalai Lama would bring them supreme joy and glory, even if they did not manage to catch a glimpse of him.
A full-house audience of almost three thousand—an approximately equal mix of Tibetans and Americans—had passed the security clearance and awaited the Dalai Lama in the theater. Thanks to the educational system the Dalai Lama had established in Dharamsala, many of the Tibetans spoke fluent English.
At two p.m., the Dalai Lama entered to a standing ovation from the audience. After starting off with a few humorous remarks, he moved on to the heart of his message, which overturned the usual definitions of “violence” and “nonviolence.” Nonviolence, he said, was any altruistic, compassionate act, even a harsh or seemingly violent one. Conversely, true violence was the failure—through selfishness—to take righteous action or to speak out against injustice. According to this Buddhist wisdom, then, silence in the face of Chinese Communist tyranny counted as an act of violence!
The Dalai Lama stated that the twentieth century had been excruciatingly painful, as its two world wars had exacted a staggering human cost. Regrettably, stubborn conflicts persisted in the new century, but violence was entirely counterproductive. As the world population soared toward ten billion, each ethnic group, nation, and individual needed to stop thinking in terms of “us” and “them,” learning instead to regard all humanity as a single human community faced with shared problems: climate change, degradation of the environment, and the gap between rich and poor. Every human being, no matter how destitute, deserved the basic social guarantees that would enable him or her to strive for progress. The Dalai Lama wholeheartedly endorsed former Chinese Communist Party Secretary Hu Jintao’s ideal of a harmonious society. However, he cautioned that China had fallen short of its proclaimed goal: true harmony was not merely external, and could not be secured by the use of force.
The Dalai Lama stood and lectured extemporaneously for an hour in English, exuding the vigor of a man half his age, and interacting constantly with his spellbound audience. After hearing him declare humbly that he was “just one of the seven billion beings who inhabit this planet,” subject to the same physical, mental, and emotional problems as anyone else, it was easy to forget that he was an exalted religious leader lecturing from on high. He seemed more like a wise, humorous, grandfatherly figure explaining his simple credo that “warm-heartedness” was the “real source of a happy life.” Suddenly I saw why he was so popular in the West: he addressed concerns that far transcended the borders of Tibet or China.
During the question-and-answer session, dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei asked the Dalai Lama (via Twitter) if he had any hope of returning to China. He replied that he had always wished to do so, but the Chinese government had denied him permission. He had not completely given up, and especially hoped to make a pilgrimage to Mt. Wutai, a sacred Buddhist site.
In response to questions about Tibetan independence, the Dalai Lama affirmed that he neither sought it nor considered it a feasible option. True autonomy, on the other hand, with its preservation of Tibetan language, culture, and religious traditions, would be advantageous to both China and Tibet. Moreover, he added, most Tibetans in the diaspora supported his “Middle Way Approach,” with only a small minority demanding complete independence. This group was merely exercising its right to freedom of speech, he felt, as it had neither the capital nor a realistic strategy for achieving its goal. He said that he had discussed his “Middle Way” repeatedly with the Chinese since the 1970s, but they had shelved his proposal for reasons of their own. As he recalled his interactions with Mao and other Chinese Communist leaders, he seemed well disposed toward them and even called Mao a great revolutionary. I, however, saw things rather differently: I believed that Tibet would never have real autonomy unless China achieved true democracy.
I hope that the Dalai Lama will live long enough to see both dreams come true, for he is the key to solving the question of Tibet, and we who advocate democracy for China wholeheartedly share his respect for nonviolence. Han Chinese and Tibetans, both in China and abroad, must forge friendship through mutual understanding. We are, after all, fraternal peoples. And I now understand that the Dalai Lama, esteemed worldwide, is a font of wisdom for the entire human race.
NOTE: Qin Weiping, penname Qin Bang, was born in Hubei Province in February 1980. A former news reporter, young entrepreneur, and independent economist, he is an advocate of nonviolent democratic revolution in China. He maintained the officially registered micro-blog @QinBang on Sina and NetEase, totaling 9,000 entries and 320,000 followers, but it was silenced after tens of thousands of people within China responded strongly to an impassioned plea he made at a rally for human rights and democracy in China in Times Square, New York in 2013. The above article has been published in several Chinese news portals and it was translated into English by Susan Wolf.