Dr. Robert Thurman, professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist studies at Columbia University and president of Tibet House US, a cultural preservation nonprofit. Author of Why the Dalai Lama Matters: His Act of Truth as the Solution for China, Tibet, and the World.
The exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama turned seventy-five years old yesterday. The Nobel Peace Prize winner addressed a crowd of thousands gathered to celebrate the occasion at a temple in the Indian Himalayas, where he has lived since fleeing Chinese rule in Tibet in 1959. At a recent event in New York, Amy Goodman asked him his thoughts on the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the status of Tibet. We also speak with Dr. Robert Thurman, professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist studies at Columbia University and president of Tibet House US. [includes rush transcript]
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: The exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, turned seventy-five years old yesterday. The Nobel Peace Prize winner addressed a crowd of thousands gathered to celebrate the occasion at a temple in the Indian Himalayas, where he’s lived since fleeing Chinese rule in Tibet in 1959. The Dalai Lama expressed regret that his followers in Tibet would be unable to pay tribute, for fear of reprisal.
In a few minutes, we’ll be joined by Dr. Robert Thurman, professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist studies at Columbia University, president of Tibet House US. But first we turn to the Dalai Lama in his own words. In May, he held a series of public lectures here in New York. Thousands gathered at Radio City Music Hall to hear his teachings. On the last day, he spoke at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine before a crowd of 2,000 people. He was joined by Eboo Patel, the founder of the Interfaith Youth Core, and Sakena Yacoobi, the founder of the Afghan Institute of Learning. I attended the talk and had a chance to ask the Dalai Lama a question.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask Your Holiness two questions. One is, you’ve come to a country that has been engaged in war on two fronts for almost a decade now, in Afghanistan and in Iraq. I wanted to ask if you feel there is another way? And my second question is, are you still pursuing a path to independence for Tibet, or have you given up on that?
DALAI LAMA: Now, I can sense violence already has been implemented, so that also creates a new reality, so I don’t know. I don’t know. But at the beginning, I feel there was possibility to avoid that — that is, just before Iraq crisis happened. Some people asked me, I should go to Baghdad and do something. That is unrealistic. But I felt at that time, including some Nobel laureates and some respected and trusted people, who no one’s represent, just good human being, and morally speaking, can be representative of humanity. Otherwise, you see, even a United Nations representative, you cannot develop trust, the other side. So these things are very much based on trust. So someone who really well known, honest person, and as a group, go to Baghdad, meet Saddam Hussein, and tell him the sort of serious danger of war, unavoidable, then I don’t think — Saddam Hussein was not such a foolish person — war with America, he can win, I don’t think. So, whether he loves peace or not, he’s also in a position of survival. So there, I feel — still I feel, at that time, maybe one possibility, if some people go there and tell him the reality and the danger and the consequences. That, I feel. Now I don’t know.
Second part. Actually, according international jurist comission or something, you see, there are reports that 1959 was a day — two reports: one about human rights violation, one report about the status at that time. They mentioned when 1950 Chinese army and Tibet, at that time Tibet was de facto independent nation. However, we, after, came to India —- actually, 1951, Seventeen Point Agreement signed. So, at that time, Chinese leaders, and wise leaders like Chairman Mao, Zhou Enlai, all these people, choose peaceful liberation rather than just send army. So liberation army already reach eastern [inaudible] under Tibetan government jurisdiction, some portion of the east part, already reach Chinese military forces. About 8,000 Tibetan soldier eliminated. So then liberation army can go up to Lhasa very easily. But Chinese leader prefer stop there and liberation of Tibet through peaceful means, so that they pursue liberation of Tibet through agreement. So Seventeen Point Agreement, 1951, signed, 1951 May, signed that. But then, initially, they respect that agreement.
Then, around mid—'50s, they said they don't care about that agreement. So things have been a little more difficult. Then uprising started since ’56. So, in any way, after '59, we came to India. Next, I think almost two decades, we are very busy about rehabilitation, resettlement and education. As you mentioned, right from the beginning, we become refugee. We made every effort for education for Tibetan children. The government of India's help immense. Then Pandit Nehru die, like that.
So then, then around ‘73, ‘74, we finalized. Sooner or later, we have to talk with some Chinese government. So, question of independence is out of the question. So we have to work [inaudible] the point which we can mutually agree with. So they usually call the Middle-Way Approach, that is not seeking independence, but the present sort of system. Present condition is that Tibetan actually no authority. So, education in many fields, they’re ultimately controlled by Han Chinese who have no idea about Tibetan culture, about Tibetan spirituality.
So — and the worst thing, about more than ten years ago, one party secretary at one party meeting, he actually mentioned the source of threat of Tibet being separate from mainland China is Tibetan Buddhism. So, from then, in education field, he changed many things. All the books in education, in school, changed. All of those book which is refer to some Tibetan classical — classical texts banned. Only textbook translated from Chinese. And then, meantime, in monasteries, not — I think this is not relevant. So, anyway, since ’74, you see, we are not seeking independence. We are trying to find a mutually agreeable solution.
AMY GOODMAN: The Dalai Lama, speaking in May at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine before a crowd of 2,000 people. Among them, Dr. Robert Thurman, professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist studies at Columbia University, president of Tibet House US, author of Why the Dalai Lama Matters: His Act of Truth as the Solution for China, Tibet, and the World. He’s joining us via Democracy Now! video stream from Woodstock, New York.
We only have a few minutes, Professor Thurman. Your thoughts on the Dalai Lama’s comments and on this — well, yesterday, his seventy-fifth birthday?
ROBERT THURMAN: Good morning, Amy.
Certainly, it seems like a remote thing after the drama of the Gulf, a terrible disaster there, and the other, Israel, and so forth, that you’re addressing. But it’s nice that you give His Holiness a moment to talk on the day after his birthday.
And I think what he meant when he — his answer was a little bit hedged, of course, in the context that it was given. Of course, he was utterly against not only the invasion of Iraq, but also the first Iraq war. At the time, I remember he told me that he thought it would have a lot of very bad unintended consequences, and he really thought that there should be another way of getting Saddam Hussein to retreat from Kuwait, other than that huge war that the Bush Sr. engaged in. And that goes without saying, I think he’s assuming that you know that he is an advocate of nonviolence and didn’t want that war to happen.
And the story that he told was a story where he expressed willingness to go to talk to Saddam Hussein, if some other Nobel laureates would join him and especially if some Muslin leaders — when he said very trusted people, he meant some Ayatollahs or some mullahs, you know, Muslim important leaders who were respected by the Muslim community, would go with him. He said he would go, but by himself, as a Buddhist from Tibet, he didn’t think he would be much use. And therefore, it ended up where he didn’t go, and he could not, in a way, get Saddam Hussein to stop pretending different things and prevent — you know, deprive Cheney and Bush of an excuse of that invasion. So that was the first question.
And then, the second one, I’m not sure why he launched into the whole story of the Tibet situation, but basically, he certainly has not given up with his Middle-Way Approach. He has been pursuing autonomy within the Chinese government since 1988 — 1987, when he gave his Five-Point Peace Plan for the Tibetan region, and then when, in the Strasbourg talk in 1988, he said he would accept autonomy within the People’s Republic of China as one country, two systems, without Chinese colonization, with their own local government, as had been originally put in the situation with — before the — in the Seventeen Point Agreement, and so on.
AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Robert Thurman, we’ll have to leave it there, but I hope to talk to you again, author of Why the Dalai Lama Matters. This Democracy Now! Thanks for joining us.
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