The Dalai Lama's China Experience and Its Impact

04/15/2015 12:04 pm ET | Updated Jun 15, 2015

By now it is an open secret the degree to which respect for the Dalai Lama is growing in China within the leadership and business circles and amongst the ordinary people. The BBC's exclusive report on China's super-rich communist Buddhists is the latest proof.

An aspect of the Tibetan leader little noted by scholars is the extensive contacts he had with the revolutionary leaders who created modern China. The Dalai Lama was in China for almost a year from 1954 to 1955. During this period he learnt Chinese and the ideals of socialism as explained to him by his Chinese hosts. More importantly, the Tibetan spiritual and political leader met with the top echelon of the Chinese communist leadership, including Chairman Mao Zedong, who, according to the Tibetan leader, treated him as a "father would treat a son." His Chinese hosts took the Dalai Lama in a grand tour of new China to bring home to the Tibetan leader the benefits of socialism. He witnessed the effective governance these leaders provided to turn their vast and impoverished country into a modern and egalitarian society.

How did the new socialist China affect the views and shape the thinking of the Dalai Lama? Did this experience later resurface in his worldview and the governance he provided in exile?
At the time for the Dalai Lama and for China the world was fresh and new. He was 19, in the prime of youth and open to the new world he saw being re-created in China. For China the period was a fresh start, after a century of humiliation under Western imperialism, enervating warlordism, civil war, Japanese invasion and pervasive and crippling corruption. The Dalai Lama visited China at a time when the country's revolutionary zeal was at its height, when its collective determination to create a just and equal society was unsullied by the ideological madness and physical carnage that followed. It was a time when new China showed the Tibetan leader its better side.

New China in the person of Mao Zedong also showed Tibet's political leader and its foremost spiritual master its ambivalence to Tibetan Buddhism. The Dalai Lama recounts this episode in his autobiography, My Land and My People,

A few days later I had a message from Mao Tse-tung to say that he was coming to see me in an hour's time. When he arrived he said he had merely come to call. Then something made him say that Buddhism was quite a good religion, and Lord Buddha, although he was a prince, had given a good deal of thought to the question of improving the conditions of the people. He also observed that the Goddess Tara was a kind-hearted woman. After a very few minutes, he left. I was quite bewildered by these remarks and did not know what to make of them.

The comments Mao made during their last meeting shocked the Dalai Lama beyond belief. My final interview with this remarkable man was toward the end of my visit to China. I was at a meeting of the Standing Committee of the National Assembly when I received a message asking me to go to see him at this house. By then, I had been able to complete a tour of the Chinese provinces, and I was able to tell him truthfully that I had been greatly impressed and interested by all the development projects I had seen. Then he started to give me a long lecture about the true form of democracy, and advised me how to become a leader of the people and how to take heed of their suggestions. And then he edged closer to me on his chair and whispered:

I understand you very well. But of course, religion is poison. It has two great defects: It undermines the race, and secondly it retards the progress of the country. Tibet and Mongolia have both been poisoned by it.

Marx's dictum that religion was the opiate of the people rode roughshod over whatever personal regard or sensitivity Mao might have had towards Buddhism. Before and during the Cultural Revolution religion was the target of communist wrath. Monasteries were reduced to ruins, temples were destroyed and monks were disrobed. This was an attempt by new China to prevent the fumes of opiate from sullying socialism. In Tibet the destruction of Tibetan Buddhism had an overwhelmingly political overtone. There could not be two suns in the same sky. Buddhism must melt under the rays of the socialist sun.

Despite these, the ideas of socialism the Dalai Lama learnt in China stayed with him. One is his articulation of the concept of universal responsibility, of acting locally but thinking globally. As he says,

In Buddhist practice we get so used to this idea of nonviolence and the ending of all suffering that we become accustomed to not harming or destroying anything indiscriminately. Although we do not believe that trees or flowers have minds, we treat them also with respect. Thus we share a sense of universal responsibility for both mankind and nature.

Anyone would think this kind of thinking comes entirely from his Buddhist background, from the Buddhist concept of the interdependence of everything. No, the Dalai Lama said in 2007 during a visit to Australia. The idea also came from communist international, from the toiling workers and peasants of the world expressing their solidarity with other suffering workers and peasants.

In 1979 the Dalai Lama blessed the founding of a Tibetan Communist Party (TCP) in exile by a group of young educated refugees. He hoped that the Tibetan Communist Party in exile would serve as a bridge to those Tibetans in Tibet who shared the ideas and ideals of a socialist Tibet. But this ideological bridge between the Tibetan exiles and their compatriots in Tibet collapsed when the TCP decided to close its communist shop.

But the most far-reaching of the China experience which stayed with the Dalai Lama was his ability and willingness to reach to the Chinese people. The need to reach out to the Chinese became especially acute when in the wake of the peaceful uprisings that erupted throughout Tibet in 2008, the Chinese authorities used its awesome media firepower to stoke ethnic hostility between Tibetans and Chinese. The Chinese authorities, as a part of the state repression, were literally using the enormous public anger of the Chinese on the hapless minority Tibetans. In view of this, the Tibetan leader found it necessary to go out of his way to explain to Chinese scholars and students the nature of the Tibetan people's struggle. The Middle-Way Policy did not seek independence for Tibet. It sough real autonomy under a single administration within the scope of the constitution of the People's Republic of China. His efforts to reach out to the Chinese paid off. He was able to win the trust and respect of a growing number of Chinese netizens. In fact, there are some Chinese who are amplifying the Dalai Lama's voice in China. Beyond the radar of China's censors and whispered in the din of China's Internet chatter are expressions of Chinese support and sympathy. A film, The Dialogue, posted on YouTube and premiered in Hong Kong late this March, reveals that an increasing number of young Chinese on the mainland are embracing the Dalai Lama's message of reconciliation and mutual respect.

The Dialogue is made by Wang Lixiong, a writer who is based in Beijing and married to Tsering Woeser, a tireless blogger for Tibet. The film grew out of the two conversations that Wang Lixiong organized between the Dalai Lama and netizens on the Mainland in 2010. Later, he organized a videoconference between the Dalai Lama and two Chinese human rights lawyers,Teng Biao in Shenzhen and Jiang Tianyong in Beijing.

The questions the two Chinese human rights lawyers and their compatriots put before the Dalai Lama are the concerns and anxieties of Tibetans on both sides of the Himalayas grapple with. The Tibetan leader answered questions on his likely spiritual successor, whether Tibetans would be faithful to non-violence after his passing away, how the issue of Tibet could be resolved, the nature of Tibetan autonomy and relations between Tibetans and Chinese. 1,543 Chinese submitted more than 300 questions. 12,771 Chinese voted for the 10 best questions before the censors moved in.