Dalai Lama: Tibet Wants Autonomy, Not Independence

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The Dalai Lama's schedule is usually set seven years in advance, but the Tibetan spiritual leader made a rare change to his plans in order to attend a San Francisco conference convened by Muslim leaders to discuss religious tolerance. His Holiness, as Tibetans call him, spoke with Time's Amanda Bower about Islam, his hopes to return to his homeland after 47 years in exile, and his hobby of tinkering with timepieces.

TIME: What was so important about this conference that you changed your schedule to attend?

THE DALAI LAMA: I have two major commitments. Number one is the promotion of human values — not because of religious belief, but because of biological reasoning. We need peace of mind. Peace of mind is good for health, good for community, good for family, and also for physical growth. A peaceful mind is more proper. A disturbed mind, harmful. My number two commitment, as a believer, is for harmony among the different religious traditions. In the last 20, 30 years, I made these two commitments whenever I had the opportunity. As far as the promotion of religious harmony is concerned, I think I made some contribution, at least between the Tibetan Buddhist community and our Christian brothers and sisters. I think we have very good, close understanding. For example, there are many Christian practitioners now showing their respect and understanding about Buddhist concepts, as there is among Buddhists now an appreciation of Christian contribution for the betterment of the world and humanity.

Personally, from my childhood, there is a Muslim community in Lhasa [Tibet's capital] for the last four centuries. Very peaceful. Very gentle. No quarrels. Nowadays, in the outside world, sometimes people get the impression Muslims are more militant. I think that is wrong. I think these wrong impressions must be eliminated. They are no good for the world. [Islam] is one of the important world religious traditions that we must respect.

But everyone gathered here is a moderate. Do you think the extremists who have been giving Islam a bad name will listen to what you have to say?

[Laughs] I don't think they will listen. In my Buddhist community, the radicals don't listen... But our attempt is to try to explore the same values, send messages, and make them known to other people. Some mischievous people always remain. Doesn't matter. It's a mistake to generalize the behavior of a few individuals to the whole tradition. Since 11th of September, some Muslims really carry some violence, including terrorism. This should not be considered representative of the whole Muslim faith. A few mischievous individuals are everywhere, among the Hindus, among the Christians, among the Muslims, among the Buddhists.

China's President Hu Jintao is visiting the U.S. at the same time as you are, and you have urged your supporters here not to demonstrate against him. Why?

Since we already have some official contact with the Chinese, we believe it is very important to create impressions that we are very sincere, we are fully committed.

Two weeks ago, the Chinese government said it would allow you to visit your homeland, which you fled in 1959, if you abandoned your pursuit of independence for Tibet. But haven't you long said that you want autonomy, not independence, for Tibet?

Oh yes. The world knows the Dalai Lama is not seeking independence. The world knows. Still the Chinese do not know. [Laughs]

Do you have any heaviness of heart about giving up hope for Tibetan independence?

No. It's not necessary. Of course the present situation, in reality, I think that 99% of the Tibetan population is very, very unhappy. Every year, I think more than 10,000 Tibetans come to India. Some escape, some with permission. Every single Tibetan, when you meet them, is crying, complaining, including some Tibetans who have high level positions and are party members. I think many foreigners who visit Tibet and who have some close contact with local Tibetans also get the same impression. There are a large number of police forces there. Why? Too much suspicion, too much fear. If what the Chinese government claims is true, there's no need for security like that. This is very bad, not only bad for Tibetans, but also for the People's Republic of China as a whole.

As far as the future is concerned, look at the European Union. In the past centuries, those nations talked most about their sovereignty. Now, today, the common interest is more important than each individual nation's sovereignty. Tibet is a landlocked country, a large area, small population, very, very backward. We Tibetans want modernization. Therefore, in order to develop Tibet materially as a modern nation, Tibet must remain within the People's Republic of China. Provided Chinese give us a full guarantee of preservation of Tibetan culture, Tibetan environment, Tibetan spirituality, then it is of mutual benefit. [Besides] foreign affairs [and] defense [are] all the things which Tibetans can manage by themselves. Tibetans should have the full autonomy.

As a hobby, you like to collect and repair watches. It seems an unusual thing for a Tibetan monk to do.

Many Tibetans, including many monks, like wristwatches. I think monks are more fond of watches than lay people. Lay people have a lot of other things. [Laughs] I don't buy them for myself, they are all presented by other people.