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His Holiness the Dalai Lama Interview: On His Own Reincarnation

YoWangdu’s Yolanda O’Bannon interviewed His Holiness the Dalai Lama at his residence in Dharamsala, India on February 16th, 1996. In the interview His Holiness discusses an issue that has more recently become critical to the future of Tibet, his reincarnation.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama

The morning of the interview dawned clear and February cold, the Dhauladhar range of the Himalaya shining bright white from several days of heavy winter storms.

The schedule went somehow haywire, and His Holiness’ press secretary, Tenzin Geyche, hustled me and Gerardo Stansky, an Uruguayan journalist who had asked to sit in on the interview, into the spacious audience room, a blend of sedate western furniture with the riotous colors of Tibetan religious art.

Flustered and out of breath from literally running up the stairs, Gerardo and I were still fumbling with tape recorders and cracking nervous jokes when His Holiness’ entrance caught us by surprise.

He was halfway across the room before we even realized he was there, and I was struck for a moment by his height and dignified bearing, having always seen him stooped in humility in his public audiences.

His face lit up in greeting as we scrambled to our feet, and he bowed over his clasped hands, smiling up over his fingertips before shaking our hands with a kind of grave pleasure.

In an instant all the noise and activity stopped, as His Holiness settled into a chair, adjusted his robes, and after a few pleasantries, leaned his large head to one side and narrowed his chocolate-brown eyes in focus, indicating his readiness for the interview to begin.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Photo by YoWangdu, taken in Palo Alto, California, October 2010.

YO: You’ve said several times that you might be the last Dalai Lama, or that the next Dalai Lama might be chosen differently than you were chosen. Does that mean you would choose not to re-incarnate?

His Holiness: No…no…my own rebirth you mean? Whether I like it or not [laughter] as a Buddhist believer, my re-birth always takes place. In my own case, of course, there is some voluntary…or deliberate [aspect of rebirth]. You see, my one most favorite prayer is: “So long as space remains and suffering of sentient beings is there, I will remain in order to serve.” It is that sentence which gives me inner strength.

You see time does not matter. Eons and eons…limitless eons…don’t matter so long as in your life…there is some fulfillment…some purpose. And the purpose means helping others, supporting, serving others.

Many Tibetans inside Tibet physically and mentally undergo very much that is difficult. I cannot do much, but in their minds, they feel, “Oh, the Dalai Lama is still there,” so there is some kind of consolation…some usefulness.

Now regarding the institution of the Dalai Lama, whether that institution should remain or not is not my business, not my concern. The people of Tibet, they have the right. If they want to keep it — OK — it will remain. If for them it’s not relevant — all right — it will cease.

YO: Your Holiness, I’ve been hearing from Tibetans that you and the Tibetan government-in-exile are encouraging Tibetan refugees to return to Tibet. Do you believe that if they return that they won’t be in danger or have…?

His Holiness: Of course… oh, danger! Recently, I think since the summer of last year, the Chinese “stepped up” their control, made more tight controls… so those Tibetans who study here [in exile], sometimes when they return, some of them are arrested, but then after a few months, generally they are released.

So, some danger is always there …. but of those who recently come from Tibet there are those young ones who join our schools to study for several years, and monks, who join our monasteries here. In principle these we encourage to eventually return to Tibet and serve there.

GS [Gerardo Stansky, an Uruguayan journalist who had asked to sit in on the interview]: If Tibet is not returned to Tibetans in the short or mid-range future what do you think will be the consequences for Tibetans?

His Holiness: The danger is if the present situation remains for another 10-15 years. Then you see Tibet would most probably become truly “Chinese” territory, “Chinese” land. Then, there could be areas where out of several thousand people there might be only a few Tibetans here and there.

If such things happen, then there is no hope. And that is not only unspeakably unfortunate for Tibetan people, but also a great loss for the Chinese, for in the long run, the negative consequences of this present policy will remain.

It’s like what Nazi Germany did to the Jews in the Holocaust. Now more than 50 years have passed but still, everywhere people consider Hitler as — “Oh so awful, Hitler.” The whole German nation gets some kind of uncomfortable feeling because of their past. This is a similar situation.

So you see the extinction of Tibetan Buddhism with Tibetan culture is, I think, a great loss for the Chinese people also. And the whole Himalayan region. And, I think, to some extent to the world at large, a great loss. [As would be the loss of] any ancient culture, any ancient living culture.

Then there is the small number of Tibetan refugees. We try our best to preserve our culture and our identity, and we have the help of our friends in many different part of the world. But I don’t know how can they succeed, I don’t know.

You see, there are about 100,000 refugees, and even I think if we multiply faithfully [laughter], I think we could be 200,00 or 300,000 . That’s a very small number, and [since we live] in different countries, in different environments, after a few generation, then I think it may be very difficult to preserve Tibetan culture.

YO: In the struggle for the freedom of Tibet, what was the best thing that happened in 1995?

His Holiness: [Laughter] I don’t know….Oh…the European Parliament…I think there was some support from the international community. Although since a few years ago the European Parliament has been quite active in terms of the Tibetan issue….But in the very last year… for example, in the case of the Panchen Lama, they passed some resolution… and a very good one… it seems very good.

Also, the European Parliament also mentioned something about the Tibetan right of self determination. So I think international community support in the last few years, year by year, has been increasing. I’m hoping this year will have the same trend of increased support.

YO: And what has been discouraging or difficult in the last year?

His Holiness: What has been discouraging in the last year is that the Chinese overall attitude has become much harder, not only on the Tibetan issue, but say, towards Hong Kong also, and Taiwan. When anyone creates a little inconvenience for the Chinese government, they always fire back very harshly.

Overall, I think, understandably, you see, it’s due to their own…I think…domestic problems. Due to that they pretend that– they act as if–no one can challenge them. Besides that, their attitude towards Tibet is also much harder, and they have also intensified the criticism of the Dalai Lama personally… much intensified it.

Then, with that, comes the issue of the Panchen Lama’s re-incarnation … After I announced my final choice for the Panchen Lama’s re-incarnation, the Chinese government reacted very negatively, then eventually they chose their own re-incarnation. It did create some problem. So that also was difficult.

But then again, I feel the Panchen Lama problem is, as I mentioned earlier, related to overall Chinese hard-line thinking. If the overall Chinese attitude became a little bit more reasonable, more open, more soft, then the Panchen Lama problem could also be solved.

YO: Some Tibetans speak of being worried about the rising juvenile delinquency in Tibet. Some of the young people don’t have jobs and are unable to go to school and so they are just hanging around playing pool or going to karaoke.

His Holiness: Among the refugee community, overall, our younger generation is quite good, quite encouraging. But then, still, often I’m telling people, we need more effort right from the beginning. We need advise, encourage or pay more attention about the development of the — what to say? — personal heart.

Actually we are neglecting that a little bit. So in terms of morality or enthusiasm or decency, the quality is a little, I think, degenerating. This is outside, in the exile community.

Now, inside Tibet (pause) there is [some problem] nowadays, since the Chinese liberalized in the economic field…. It also seems that the Chinese are ignoring or deliberately [encouraging] these activities, and even some crimes. In the political field they are very firm and very watchful, but in these fields, whether they are neglecting or deliberately [supporting the social problems] I don’t know.

YO: What part of your regular responsibilities, what part of your job do you most enjoy?

His Holiness: Discussion. Dialogues, meeting, debates, seminars…. These give me the opportunity to think more — so they are good. And then of course, I enjoy the teaching, provided the audience is very alert. I’m very happy, sometimes…[laughter].

You know, Western audiences are very, I think, alert. Everything, they write down. Now Asians, including Tibetan and some Chinese, and Indians, are very faithful, very respectful but at the same time, when I try to explain some…important thing, sometimes they [mimics sleeping….laughing].

YO: Is there any part of your job that you find useless or difficult or boring?

His Holiness: Useless? Although very rarely, we sometimes have some formality, which I find useless [laughter]. Otherwise, I don’t know. Oh yes … some sort of “sticky” politics, our own internal things. Nowadays, I give all these things to the responsibility of the parliament as well as our kashag [Tibetan government-in-exile’s cabinet].

Just 2 weeks ago I told them in a meeting that — for big issues, such as the power of the Chinese or raising interest in Tibet in the outside world due to my name — sometimes, I can do more than ordinary Tibetans. So of course, logically, I have to carry this work. But as for the rest of the work, which everybody can do even more effectively than me, our kashag and our Parliament should carry full responsibility, and they should consider me as a dead person.

I am getting older and I am not trained in these things. And it is much better that they handle it, much better. Especially, in some cases there is a, you see, a certain atmosphere. It is not sufficient to know what they say, sometimes it seems you need calculate what is behind these words, then I really don’t know. Also, it seems to me a silly thing, not important. We are facing, you see here, the danger of the extinction of the Tibetan nation….that is a more serious…a serious matter.

GS: Regarding violence, if this situation persists, do you think the world and the Tibetan people will have to use violent means against the Chinese? If the situation persists for years….

His Holiness: Yes. It is possible, yes. Even though many Tibetans presently have desperate feelings, there is still underlying some hope that a solution can be found… Under these circumstances some discipline is still possible. Once, you see, that the desperate situation becomes such that really there is no hope, no one to rely on, then you see the human emotion may become out of control. [laughter]

After the interview, which had run a little long, His Holiness stepped onto the sunny patio for a breath of fresh air, and Tenzin Geyche urged me and Gerardo to gather up the mountain of tape recorders, notebooks, cameras, and gifts quickly, as His Holiness had another appointment. We were scrambling to gather up everything, charged from the audience, and grinning from ear to ear.

In a year of living near His Holiness and attending numerous public audiences, I had long ago observed that wherever he goes, the Dalai Lama inevitably leaves behind a wake of beaming faces, folks of every age, race and creed smiling as tenderly as if they’ve all just fallen in love.

As I hastily stuffed my recorder cord into my bag, it kept falling out, until I felt someone stuffing it in for me and looked over to see that His Holiness had come back in and was laughingly giving me a hand. As if he, too, had to help clean up so some other great man could carry on with his schedule of important appointments. How very typical of him.


4 responses to “His Holiness the Dalai Lama Interview: On His Own Reincarnation”

  1. Harold F Cole Avatar
    Harold F Cole

    Very inspiring discussion, with an engaging subject, his Holiness is truly an exceptional human being that continues to stir our emotions on this very intriguing and concerning aspect of Tibetan people’s lives generally. The world community leaders need to support all Tibetans displaced, as we cannot afford to lose these remarkable, and inspirational people to history.

    1. Thanks very much, Harold. We appreciate your thoughtful comments. Best to you.

  2. Ron Fairfield Avatar
    Ron Fairfield

    A lovely interview, such a humbling experience. Thank you for doing this for all of us.

    1. Thanks so much, Ron! It was a highlight of my life and a beautiful experience for which I am eternally grateful! Yolanda

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