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Talking with the Enemy

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The Dalai Lama Talks with Chinese Leaders in New York

While governments negotiate about negotiations, debate who they can talk to, and enforce hard parameters for diplomatic discussions, the world's preeminent Buddhist leader does things differently.

Yesterday in Midtown Manhattan His Holiness the Dalai Lama met for over two hours with a group of Chinese students and dissidents living here in the United States. The Chinese Government accuses him of being a demon and a separatist. They will not talk with him. But this does not stop the ever laughing monk from speaking with Chinese people, every chance he has. It is both a religious and spiritual practice for him, and something we can all learn from.

The audience stood as he entered. While people didn't bow the way devotees do when he teaches Dharma, they were very polite. Then he sat and discussed issues of history, culture, and current politics as they relate to the situation of his homeland. He emphasized the need for Tibetans to have autonomy, not national freedom; he also said that the Chinese government needed to be helped out of its political problems by the Tibetan and Chinese people themselves. When the meeting was over, groups clustered around him for photographs.

Ever since The Dalai Lama fled Tibet as Chinese government forces invaded, the world's most famous monk has concentrated his diplomatic efforts on the gaining the backing of western nations, most notably the United States. Indeed, the Tibetan Government in Exile has offices here in New York, but also in Washington, and through out Europe. This leads him to be attacked by the Chinese government as a Western Imperialist. He laughs often at the accusation, as has his own problems with capitalist democracies.

His efforts have had considerable effect. Besides tons of money being donated to the Tibetan cause, and helping their refugees in India, The Dalai Lama is by far the world's most famous Buddhist leader and perhaps the world's most respected religious figure. Except, that is, for the billion plus people living in China, the country that took over Tibet in 1959.

Until recently this decision, to focus on the western audience, seemed to be a necessary choice. Tibetans and their friends in the west have freedom of speech and a democratic process, not to mention capitalist dollars, to help their important non-violent cause. Meanwhile how to communicate with the Chinese people under a dictatorship? Besides, the Tibetans have never had a problem with the Chinese, but with their government.

Or so the line went. Yet with the latest Tibetan uprising that took place a little over a year ago, besides the horror of monks and civilians being killed, the most shocking aspect was the popular Chinese response, which was overwhelmingly anti-Tibetan. Even when the Dalai Lama came here, he was confronted with angry Chinese students.

He said as much in this meeting. "I was shocked at their anger." He said. "Maybe some were paid by the Chinese government. But some were really angry. So now I think it is best for me to meet them, whenever I can. Now things seem to cool down."

The power of the Dalai Lama's ability to engage Chinese citizens, even the ones here, should not be underestimated. While engaging Hollywood will not affect the Chinese government, perhaps their own citizenry will. Things have changed in China in the last decade. There are now human rights lawyers in China who openly represent Tibetan clients who are under arrest from the uprising. And there are many cases of the government responding to the growing force of their new civil society. Yes this response to civil society is in its infancy, yes the government remains brutal, but as its citizenry grows, the Tibetan's opportunity for change grows, if they engage with the Chinese people anyway that they can.

In this meeting, without being explicitly Buddhist, the Dalai Lama continued to use Buddhist ideas. That anger could be dispelled through honest discussion. That honest discussion and questioning was critical to problem solving. That having an equanimous mind was important for political leaders as much as for religious leaders. That religious freedom was essential for all of China, and for Tibet.

In fact, though Tibetans have played down their relationship with China as a way to emphasize their unique culture, there were deep relationships between the two nations, through Buddhism.

As Gray Tuttle, a scholar of Tibetan History at Columbia University has said, "For over 700 years these (Buddhist) connections have been the prime means of intercultural contact, and even in the past 100 years when national politics have come to the fore in Asia, Buddhism has consistently been the one area where the two cultures had the most promising developments. For peace to be restored in the troubled Chinese-Tibetan relations, respect for Buddhism is probably the key element."

With the resurgence of Buddhism in China, and the powerful allure of the Dalai Lama as a spiritual leader, Tuttle may be right. One student leader in attendance said that he had originally organized an anti-separatist meeting when the Dalai Lama visited Michigan last year, but now "I am somehow in the middle. I am not against the Dalai Lama. This is a good meeting to see." When asked why, he said, "Well, I'm a Buddhist."