BORN IN Oxford, raised in California, a resident of Japan, Pico Iyer has captured his itinerant life with books and essays that document his journeys to Nepal, Cuba, and most recently, Tibet. He speaks with Dissent’s Jon Wiener (“The Weatherman Temptation,” spring 2007) about his new book, The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama.
Jon Wiener: There are six million Tibetans. But you write in your new book that Tibet today is “slipping ever closer to extinction.” Those are chilling words.
Pico Iyer: I wish they were overstated words, but they’re not. The Tibet autonomous region is more and more a Chinese province. Lhasa is now 65 percent Han Chinese, so Tibetans are a minority in their own country. The Chinese are practicing what the Dalai Lama has called “demographic aggression”—trying to wipe out Tibetan culture through force of numbers. Two years ago they set up that high speed train, which allows 6,000 more Han Chinese to come to Tibet every day. I first saw Lhasa in 1985 just when it opened up to the world. It was still a classic Tibetan settlement—two story traditional whitewashed buildings, and the Potala Palace, the great residence of the Dalai Lama. If you go there now, sadly, it’s like an eastern Las Vegas—huge shopping malls, blue-glassed department stores, high rise buildings. From most parts of Lhasa you can’t even see the Potala Palace.
J.W.: Isn’t Tibetan Buddhism still practiced openly in Tibet?
P.I.: It is. But there is a limit on the number of monks allowed in each monastery. In old Tibet as much as 20 percent or more of the population was monastic. Now there’s a limit of 500 monks per monastery. These are monasteries that used to have 8,000 or 10,000 monks. They were the biggest monasteries in the world 70 years ago. Now they are just shells.
J.W.: Since 1959 the Tibetan exile community has been based in Dharamsala, India.
P.I.: Yes. A thriving Tibetan culture exists in exile, especially in India, where the Dalai Lama has done a good job of sustaining everything that is essential about Tibetan tradition and culture and religion, while getting rid of everything that is feudal or outdated. In exile, he’s set up a living, modern version of Tibet—you could call it “Tibet 2.0.”
J.W.: Let’s talk a little bit about the history of Tibet in exile: Shortly after Mao’s Red Army triumphed in China, China invaded Tibet in 1949-50. What happened when Tibet appealed to the UN in 1950 about the Chinese invasion?
P.I.: Tibet’s apparent sponsors at the UN were Britain and India. And both Britain and India asked the UN not to listen. Tibet never received an answer. Tibet suddenly realized it was completely friendless, and that no country in the world would rise to its defense. Ten years later, the US realized Tibet could be a pawn in its ongoing struggle against China. But the Dalai Lama told me many years ago that Tibet’s greatest mistake was to be too isolated. That’s why now he speaks out against isolationists and in favor of dialogue. Even with China. He says let’s not boycott the Olympics, because isolating any country is only going to bring problems.
J.W.: A guerilla resistance in Tibet was aided by the CIA starting in the 1950s.
P.I.: Yes. The CIA really moved in during the 1960s, when they trained Tibetans in Colorado, of all places, and set them up in Nepal. The CIA wasn’t concerned about Tibet; they were only concerned about trying to foil their great communist enemy China. It was a fitful resistance but the CIA was more than ready to help—until Nixon and Kissinger went to Beijing. At that point, the Dalai Lama realized that violent resistance would only bring more suffering to his people, so he sent a taped message to the guerillas in Nepal and told them to lay down their arms. They did, but some of them were so heartbroken that they took their own lives.
J.W.: The Chinese Cultural Revolution in the mid-1960s was a turning point for Tibet.
P.I.: They tried to destroy Tibetan culture—much as they tried to destroy their own culture, but even more brutally. According to Tibetan estimates, 1.2 million Tibetans died—that’s 20 percent of the population. All but 13 of the 6,000 monasteries were destroyed. Little kids were asked to shoot their parents. Most violently, the Chinese sought to tear apart every last shred of Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Monks were asked to use sacred texts as toilet paper. It was a brutal thing, which the Chinese government has since repudiated.
J.W.: In the Tibetan exile community today, is there a dream of return—the way there is for the Palestinians?
P.I.: There is a great dream of return. One often meets Palestinians visiting the Tibetan exile center in India to share ideas. The Dalai Lama has often talked to Jewish leaders about how they managed to keep their culture alive before 1948 even though they had no territory. Many of the young Tibetans are restless and say, “We’ve got to act now.” The Dalai Lama keeps trying to restrain them, pointing out how they’re outnumbered by the Chinese, pointing out that Washington and London are not likely to come to their rescue, and that if you confront China you’ll only bring more suffering on the Tibetans. The Dalai Lama’s message is aimed in part at Palestinians and Uigars and Kurds and the many exiles in the world, reminding them that “home” has to do with the values inside yourself, and those can flourish wherever you are. The Dalai Lama says, “I’ve lost my home, but I’ve gained the whole world as part of my community.”
J.W.: You are saying Tibet can exist outside of Tibet.
P.I.: Yes. One of the happier ironies of recent history is that even as Tibet is being wiped off the map in Tibet itself, here it is in California, in Switzerland, in Japan. All over the world Tibetan Buddhism is now part of the neighborhood. In 1968, there were two Tibetan Buddhist centers in the West. By 2000, there were 40 in New York alone.
J.W.: You write in your new book that the “second most urgent” task facing the Dalai Lama is to keep Tibetan culture and history alive for thousands of young Tibetan boys who dream about California.
P.I.: The Tibetans in India are in a poignant situation. They are 100 percent Tibetan but none of them have seen Tibet. They are living in a poor country in poor settlements, surrounded by beautiful young women and men from California and elsewhere. Like people all around the world in underdeveloped countries, they long to come to America, the land of freedom and abundance. They imagine that the grass is greener in California.
J.W.: There is a Tibetan government in exile. Is it run by the Dalai Lama?
P.I.: I’m so glad you asked that. One of the first things the Dalai Lama did went he went into exile was to draw up a democratic constitution, even with a clause allowing his own impeachment. He set up a democratically elected parliament and prime minister in Dharamsala which has full executive powers. That government is working smoothly. The only drawback is that he is regarded by the Tibetans as an incarnation of a god. So if it comes to listening to a prime minister or listening to a god, Tibetans will always defer to the Dalai Lama.
J.W.: You’ve written about the fourteenth Dalai Lama. Will there be a fifteenth?
P.I.: He knows that as soon as he dies, the Chinese government will alight on an amenable little boy, probably the child of Communist cadre, and reenact a kind of monastic search and declare, “This boy is the fifteenth Dalai Lama.” Of course he will be completely loyal to the communist party and probably be an enemy of Tibet. This Dalai Lama, the fourteenth, has been saying for 39 years now, since he was 34 years old, that if there is a fifteenth Dalai Lama, he’ll be born outside Tibet and China. But, he says, there may not be a fifteenth Dalai Lama. Or it may be a woman. It won’t be discovered in the same way. My suspicion is that he will depute someone to carry the weight and he will tell Tibetans, “This person speaks for me. Please listen to him.”
Jon Wiener teaches U.S. history at the University of California-Irvine; his most recent book is Historians in Trouble. Photo: Kundan Sen (wikicommons/gnu license)