Last fall I was interviewed on ABC’s “Nightline” in connection with Ted Koppel’s conversation with the Dalai Lama (aired September 13, 1995). The producer asked me what I thought the role of the Dalai Lama would be if Tibet ever regained its independence. “If and when Tibet regains its independence . . . ,” I began, and with those seven words out of my mouth, the following thoughts began inside my head: “’If and when!’ I hope they don’t use this part. I should have just said, ‘When Tibet regains its independence,’ not ‘if.’”
If and when, head and heart. As a “scholar” I know that at the present moment, the possibility of Tibet regaining its independence appears rather dim; whatever disagreements exist in the inner circle of Chinese leaders on other issues, the recent Panchen Lama affair suggests that there is no disagreement that Tibet must remain under Chinese control. At the same time, as a “friend of Tibet” I hold the hope—as, I feel, should all people of goodwill—that Tibet will regain its independence soon, that the Dalai Lama and the exile population will be able to return to their homeland, and that the millions of Tibetans left behind in Tibet will be liberated from decades of Chinese oppression.
Still continuing to answer the question, I recalled my first visit to Lhasa in 1985. One of my teachers, a prominent Tibetan geshe, had told me that an old friend of his, a fellow monk and classmate, was serving as the abbot of the Jokhang, the “Cathedral of Lhasa,” and that I should try to see him when I was there. I eventually found him and was escorted into his rooms on the second floor, where I was seated across from him on a cushion and was served buttered tea. He was an old man, and quite thin, but he seemed in good spirits and was delighted to reminisce about the old days before the Chinese invasion and to ask about the whereabouts and circumstances of various Tibetan monks and lamas living in the West. Throughout the conversation there was the typical group of young monks going in and out of the room, refilling the teacups, sweeping the floor, or just eavesdropping. At the end of our conversation, he unexpectedly ordered everyone else out of the room and then gestured for me to come closer. He leaned forward and whispered in my ear, “I’m an old man. I have what I need. I don’t have any complaints myself. The Chinese can’t hurt me. But I wonder about one thing: Will Tibet regain its independence?” Not knowing what to say, I thought it was best to give my honest opinion, so I answered, “It will be difficult.” He looked sad but asked me to visit him again before I left, something I was not able to do.
Back in States, I had occasion to see another one of my teachers, a prominent abbot of one of the exile monasteries in India, himself a friend of the old abbot, and I related our conversation. When I told him what I had said in answer to the old abbot’s question, he became quite upset: “How do you know whether Tibet will regain its independence? Are you clairvoyant? Do you understand the inconceivable powers of His Holiness the Dalai Lama? When you go back to Tibet you go see him again and tell him that you were wrong.”
The next fall I was able to return to Lhasa. I was afraid that the old abbot might have died since the year before, but when I went to the Jokhang, he was still serving as abbot and I was able to see him. We talked about the same things we had the year before. I told him how happy his friends in India and in the United States were to hear that he was in good health. As I rose to leave, I stepped close and whispered in his ear, “Tibet will definitely gain independence.” He smiled broadly.
By that point the “Nightline” interviewer was on to another question: “Is the Dalai Lama a buddha or a bodhisattva?”
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