Dalai Lama takes steps to bolster his political role: Tibet's exiled leader tells Andrew Brown about his hearts and minds campaign

Click to follow
THE Dalai Lama's visit to Britain marks a considerable step up for his position as a political leader: two years ago, the Hong Kong government would not let his aircraft touch down there for fear of offending the Chinese.

Now, in his capacity as the exiled leader of Tibet, he has been received by John Major, and in his capacity as a Buddhist teacher he has been giving lectures on compassion at the Wembley conference centre in London, which have sold out.

The reverence due to him as a monk and the 14th incarnation of the Boddhisattva of Compassion is the base of his political authority.

For the duration of his lectures, he has been staying in a large suburban house in Reading, belonging to a pious Nepalese. Its hall and front drive were thronged with a mix of monks and men in suits; the object of their reverence was dressed as a monk in scarlet and saffron robes, but on his feet were socks and brown leather shoes with the laces undone.

He talked for half an hour, on politics mostly in English, and on spirituality through an interpreter in Tibetan. When he finally got around to tying his shoelaces, it signalled the end of the conversation.

As a believer in non-violence, he hopes to influence hearts and minds. But could he influence the Communist Chinese by such means?

'The Dalai Lama, not only being a spiritual leader, but also a temporal leader, on that basis does actually bear some responsibility,' he said.

'I consider that every human action, including politics, carried by sincere moderation and the right goal, is part of my spiritual practice. And then regarded as a Tibetan - every Tibetan has a responsibility to think, or to do, or to make a contribution regarding our own future. If we are to benefit the future of our community, each member of the community literally has a responsibility. Now, in that sense, I am involved. I am committed to the political change, because I am a Tibetan.'

So what was it about human nature which led him to believe he could reach the Chinese, who have ruled Tibet with savage repression since 1959?

'My basic belief, is, you see, that human nature is gentleness,' he said. 'But human beings have such sophisticated and highly skilled brains that often we create a sort of illusion. It is human nature. But the human brain, human nature, also has the capacity to make judgements, to judge what is right and what is wrong. So the important thing is to let the individual people have choice, freedom. That is important.'

The most difficult thing, he said, when dealing with totalitarian negotiators, was to see that 'individuals, deep down, feel something different. Sometimes, while they are explaining the official line, their eyelids are a little bit different. Sometimes. It happens. I have actually witnessed it.'

He then changed tack to talk about how suffering had no independent existence, even if its effects were real enough, and laughed a great deal at the difficulty of translating Tibetan theology into English. Afterwards, he walked into the back garden, where stone buddhas sat by a satellite dish, and an old Indian man waited for a blessing: he was wearing a crimson prayer scarf wrapped around a pinstripe suit, with a bracelet of prayer beads.

If such simple devotion can withstand the materialism of the West, what chance do the Chinese have?

The flicker that the Dalai Lama detected in his opponents' eyelids may yet be a harbinger of their collapse.

(Photograph omitted)