courtesy of Robert Thurman
courtesy of Robert Thurman







THE DALAI LAMA could have no more ardent supporter in the West than Robert Thurman, Jey Tsong Khapa Professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies in the Department of Religion at Columbia University and a cofounder of Tibet House. The two have been friends for close to 45 years, since Thurman’s days in India as the first American-born Tibetan Buddhist monk. Thurman’s new book, Why the Dalai Lama Matters, isn’t an intimate look at the Tibetan leader, however. No juicy insider stories, though Thurman obviously has more insight than most into the Dalai Lama’s multiple roles as Buddhist monk, reincarnate spiritual figure, pragmatic leader of the Tibetan people, and moral compass in today’s fractious world. For the most part, the book is an impassioned argument for why China needs the Dalai Lama—not least as a “goodwill ambassador”—and what China stands to gain from making Tibet a self-governing “zone of peace” and an environmental preserve within Chinese borders.

Thurman grounds his proposals in the Dalai Lama’s “Middle Way” plan, a “one-country, two-system” arrangement similar to that between China and Hong Kong; it is viewed by supporters as a win-win proposition that would give Tibet back to the Tibetans without loss of face—or territory—for China. Thurman parses the plan into five action steps for China’s President Hu Jintao and five for His Holiness in response, then adds some suggestions of his own.

Thurman is a persuasive advocate for Tibet with a gift for making a complex situation clear. A few of his proposals might raise eyebrows—for one, he suggests that if President Hu were to adopt the Dalai Lama’s plan, His Holiness would, in turn, nominate Hu for the Nobel Prize. But for anyone interested in the future of Tibet, (if disinclined to plow through the more scholarly China’s Tibet?, reviewed in this issue by Mikel Dunham), Thurman offers a lively overview. Thurman is optimistic: like the Dalai Lama, he believes the plan for Tibet is doable—and he is keen to have the book reach Chinese hands. Who knows? It might help convince China to mend relations with His Holiness and Tibet.

Though he had no hand in preparing Why the Dalai Lama Matters, the Dalai Lama told Thurman, “Make a really loud shout with it.” (The book was rushed into production after the uprisings in Tibet this spring.) Thurman is especially proud of an early review calling his argument “very commonsensical and wildly improbable.” In a recent conversation with Tricycle reviews editor Joan Duncan Oliver, he explained: “‘Commonsensical’ says that it should be done—it would help everyone. ‘Highly improbable’ means that we expect unsensible behavior from our leaders.'”

Here, more of Thurman’s thoughts:

So why does the Dalai Lama matter? Clearly I wrote the book in the context of the China situation. The subtitle is His Act of Truth as the Solution for China, Tibet, and the World. What I mean by “his act of truth” is like satyagraha, Gandhi’s teaching of “the force of truth,” and also the more ancient Indian tradition of ahimsa, or nonharming. There’s a famous saying that even if you seem to be in a hopeless situation, if you’re really standing on the truth, then the Ganges will flow backward. The Dalai Lama’s been saying for the past thirty, forty, fifty years, “We have no weapons. We are not many people. We have no country. All we have is truth.” I’m trying to say that the Chinese idea that they should wait for the Dalai Lama to die and then they’ll crush the Tibetans is a mistake on their part.

There are people within the Tibet movement who run around shouting, “Free Tibet,” but if you ask them, “Do you think Tibet will be free?” they say “Never. The Chinese will never give up. They’re much too big. There’s nothing we can do.” But His Holiness doesn’t think it’s a lost cause.

Obviously neither do you. Why not? I still see it as absolutely in China’s self-interest to have Tibet a free, autonomous part of China, by the Tibetans’ voluntary will. It’s the most practical thing that can be done for Tibet. And most of the Tibetans would support it.

From China’s perspective the occupation of Tibet is a disaster for everyone, including China. So I say, “Remove the People’s armed police and the colonists and settlers.” They won’t stay once they’re not subsidized. In fact, the Chinese government has been re-subsidizing the settlers to go back home.

My slogan is, if the Chinese could comfortably settle in Tibet, there would have been a hundred million of them there 500 years ago. It’s a big empty land that’s empty because the only people who can live there comfortably are semi-nomads like the Tibetans—people who can tolerate the high altitude because they have adapted over thousands of years.

What is China’s objection to the one-country, two-system plan? China is demanding that the Dalai Lama say, “Okay, I surrender. You always have owned Tibet.” Which is not true; that’s why he cannot say it. When the Chinese came in the 1950s they divided a little over half of Tibet into all these autonomous prefectures, which supposedly now belong to the Chinese states of Yunnan, Sichuan, Gansu, and Quinchai. But it’s still Tibet. The Chinese are saying, “The Dalai Lama’s demanding back a huge amount of our territory.” But it’s not Chinese territory; it’s Tibetan territory.

The Chinese should not think they would be giving back something. They should think that they are reunifying administratively. The Dalai Lama would then have the Tibetan people vote, and they would be unanimously behind him in his wish to join China voluntarily in a unified Tibetan plateau.

Why autonomy within Chinese borders? Why not independence for Tibet? The Tibetans are not stupid. Why would they vote, “Yes, we want to be independent” and provoke another invasion? Independence is not practical. Who could they join if China gave them a hard time and cut them off economically? The point is, the Tibetans would be happy to be a free part of China. International tourism would pick up hugely. People would be going to see free and happy Tibetans instead of something like a Chinese prison camp. You’d have dharma tourism. And great hiking—there are some beautiful areas in Tibet. The Tibetans managing it would restore the environment.
President Hu might agree to this plan, but what about future regimes?In the book you write that the Dalai Lama says trust would be the basis for this arrangement, but recent regimes in China don’t have a history of being trustworthy.
There are risks on both sides, clearly. After the Dalai Lama, the Tibetans could rise up and say, “The Dalai Lama gave away the farm. We really should be independent.” That’s a risk on the Chinese side. On the Tibetan side, the risk is that the Chinese could march back in. The Israelis could march in and take Sinai again; Egypt couldn’t stop them. Nothing is forever, but the current situation is terrible all around.

If Tibet flourishes, China benefits. So actually, the Chinese lose nothing and gain everything. They would realize, “This is enlightened self-interest. We can do this. Why do we have to behave like nineteenth-century colonialists?”

Where is the Dalai Lama in all this? The big thing now in the twenty-first century is overcoming racism. And who is the greatest possible bridge for that? The Dalai Lama. He was born right on the border of China and Tibet and Mongolia. His household was trilingual—they spoke Amdo Tibetan, central Tibetan, and Xining Chinese. He’s an ideal East-West bridge, mediating between China and the Western world. And Buddhism, of course, is a huge bridge.

China complains about having been exploited by the West. Marxism was the last wave of exploitation by the West, causing them to destroy all their own Chinese culture. Now someone like the Dalai Lama will help them bring back their Buddhist culture, their Confucian culture.

So this puts the Dalai Lama in a critical role at the center of things? That’s what I’m trying to say to the world. He is the leader of world leaders. But the only world leaders who don’t follow him are the closest ones to him, the Chinese. He was born right on their border.

The Dalai Lama acknowledges that the Tibetans need China for economic development, but wouldn’t it have to be economic development that’s sustainable for Tibet? Absolutely. He wants Tibet to be an environmental zone with no killing of endangered animals and no environmentally irresponsible mining, no nuclear-waste dumping. Tibetans live in a very low-impact, almost no-use state. So I was surprised that the level of glacial melt in Tibet is much faster than global warming would indicate. According to scientists in China and the U.S., that’s because of high population density in parts of Tibet and deforestation, which affects the climate. Even the Chinese scientists agree that Chinese land management is causing this terrible environmental crisis in Tibet, which hurts China, too.

What is your ultimate goal with this book? On the one hand, it’s to show the independence fanatics that the Dalai Lama is asking for serious freedom within a union that’s logical. He’s not being unreasonable and saying, “Let’s break free”—which would involve a war of independence—because he’s against violence. And on the other hand, it’s to show outside observers that his plan is not hopeless—that it would be easy and even in China’s self-interest.

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