Chatting with the Dalai Lama

Feel free to export to China, he says–but sell them on your democratic values too

<p>The 14th Dalai Lama gave a public talk at the Ottawa Civic Centre on Saturday, April 28, 2012. (Photo by David Kawai for Maclean&#8217;s Magazine)</p>

The 14th Dalai Lama gave a public talk at the Ottawa Civic Centre on Saturday, April 28, 2012. (Photo by David Kawai for Maclean’s Magazine)

Photograph: David Kawai

The Dalai Lama was in Ottawa to speak to 7,000 people at the Civic Centre. He did not intend to bring controversy. It follows him anyway. For days there was speculation about whether Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader would meet Prime Minister Stephen Harper. It would be their first meeting since 2006, when Harper was in the business of snubbing China’s ruling regime and gave His Holiness honorary Canadian citizenship.

Now, Harper is conspicuously in the business of cozying up to China’s rulers. He has steered clear of the ageless Buddhist cleric whose continued existence vexes Beijing. But in the end, wary of upsetting allies who used to like the old, anti-Communist Harper, the prime minister welcomed the Dalai Lama for a private “courtesy visit.”

The next morning as he prepared to address the crowd at the Civic Centre, the Dalai Lama dismissed the whole business with a trademark chuckle. “I don’t think about controversy,” he told Maclean’s. “I think some people, out of their fear or anxiety, create a sort of controversy. To me, no differences: Queen, prime minister, president, beggar, AIDS patient. No differences. So there is no basis for controversy.”

Richard Gere, the Hollywood actor and practicing Buddhist who was travelling with the Dalai Lama, had publicly complained that the meeting wasn’t public. The Dalai Lama disagreed. “No differences” between a public and private meeting, he said. “Meeting. Person to person. That’s important. Talk. I don’t like formality. Formality, no help. Chinese leaders, too much formality. Even to the point of not knowing how to breathe.” That laugh again.

He takes great pleasure in needling Beijing, when stronger emotions do not get the better of him. The International Campaign for Tibet says 34 Tibetans have set themselves on fire since 2011 to protest conditions there. He still believes he will see Tibet again. He has not been there since 1959. “Of course, situation in Tibet is very sad. Really desperate. But the new generation’s Tibetan spirit is getting stronger, stronger.”

Canada’s role? He has no patience for any notion of isolating China. “It is extremely important, close ties with Chinese government, for economy reasons. It’s mutual benefit. Canada needs Chinese market. China needs Canadian resources.” But also Canadian values. “Western nations, democratic nations, your principles — democracy, freedom, liberty — these must stand firm.”

Harper is still trying to find his way as he engages more closely with China. The political headaches are as potent as the economic payoff. On this Saturday morning, the Dalai Lama sounded like an ally, not another problem. “I think fairly speaking, whom to meet by prime minister is your business, not China’s business. Chinese control over who you can meet, that’s interference into your own affairs. After all, the Canadian government made me honorary citizen of this country. So prime minister meeting another Canadian person.”

How does he feel about his Canadian citizenship? “OK.” A shrug. “I always consider myself a citizen of the world. And then Canadian people, Canadian government decided to give special treatment to me. Happy. And also: Canadians, land of snow. We Tibetans: also land of snow.”