Talking With the Dalai Lama

Talking With the Dalai Lama
by Lingxi Kong
Posted July 30, 2008

Ten students are gathered round a table in a seminar room at Columbia University discussing whether greeting scarves should be presented with one hand or two. Six of the students in the group, including me, are Chinese. We are getting a crash course in basic Tibetan etiquette from four Tibetan students because the next day all of us are going to meet privately with the Dalai Lama at a hotel in New York.

I had been at Columbia for three years, studying Latin and Greek as an undergraduate, when I became interested in Tibet. After the riots in Tibet this spring, I wanted to know more about the thinking of Tibetans, and I was able to meet the Dalai Lama shortly afterward, a meeting that I found impressive and informative. So together with a Singaporean Chinese student at Columbia, Kiat Sing Teo, I asked the Dalai Lama’s office if we could bring a larger group to meet him. This time we wanted to include Tibetan students as well as Chinese, so the two sides would get to know each other as well as the person who some officials in my country have described as “the wolf in monk’s clothing.”

The Dalai Lama was passing through New York this month on his way to Aspen, but as soon as we asked, he changed his schedule so that he could meet us in the hour before leaving the city for the airport. We had only a few hours to form a group of Chinese and Tibetans who would want to join us.

Although the world’s press has been full of stories about “angry youth” in China railing at the Western media, and the Chinese press has been full of talk about Tibetan “terrorists,” by the end of the day many Chinese and Tibetans had asked to come with us to the meeting. Some couldn’t get to New York in time for the meeting, but others went to considerable lengths. One Chinese undergraduate booked a flight from Chicago just to be with us; he returned the same day. A young Tibetan schoolboy, barely 16 years old, postponed a flight out of New York so he could accompany us and help discuss the issues with us afterward.

All the students in our group were diligent and well-informed. The Tibetan students were open-minded, receptive, keen to know us and to exchange ideas and experiences. One left Tibet eight years ago and has been studying mathematics in the U.S.; two are still at high school in New York, but eager to learn more about their own country. Among the Chinese, Henry Hu is a doctoral student in political science who grew up in a well-to-do family in Anhui Province; Thomas Huang, who finished his high school as the top one student in Guangdong Province, is a fourth year undergraduate studying political science and physics at Grinnell College in Iowa. Shanshan Zheng, after her high school in Wuhan, came to New York with her immigrant parents, and is in her fourth year studying British literature at Hunter College. Vivian Liu, a psychology major, is the daughter of a leading official in China who deals with Tibet policies — she has met Tibetan officials in the Chinese Communist Party many times at her home, but this was the first time she met an exile official, let alone the foremost Tibetan leader. Vivian told me even among her friends in China, people have very limited ideas about the Tibetan issue. She wants to help them know what’s really going on. She called it “closing the gap of misunderstanding.”

Our meeting with the Dalai Lama lasted over an hour. We spoke mostly in English, to save time, though his Tibetan-Chinese translator, Kunga Tashi, was there to help us if we wanted to speak in Chinese. We asked him questions, some tough, some generous, and we made suggestions. His answers and comments ranged widely. He told us that he sees new hope behind the often disappointing news in the press of failing talks or angry public sentiment. He reaffirmed his life-long commitment to democracy and universal values. It is “our common goal,” he said, to have “an open society that enjoys rule of law and freedom of speech.” He thinks that Confucian ideas, starting with family values, are beneficial to our huge country of 1.3 billion people.

But most striking was his unfailing trust toward the Chinese people and his view that the future of Tibet does not lie in the hands of the current Chinese leaders nor in his own, but in the hands of the next generation of Chinese and Tibetan students who, born after 1980, will assume important roles in Chinese society – people not unlike those in our group. He even humorously suggested that “one of you may become Chinese prime minister, if possible [smiling at Vivian], one lady prime minister.”

In the short run, China’s government may claim triumph over this great, old sage: They might force him to live out the rest of his life in exile, or they might leave him with no option but to return to China as a private citizen, without even permission to live in Lhasa. He may well comply, perhaps to avoid large-scale bloodshed. But his life-long commitment to democracy and openness is sure to remain a creative force in the national life and thinking of our generation: It is planting seeds of hope and vision among the next generation of Chinese and Tibetan youths. In the future, though nationalism will still persist, I see in our small group and our brief meeting signs that young leading intellectuals and activists from this generation are emerging in China who will grow up with an active engagement in public life and with a lasting respect for reason, tolerance and cultural diversity.

Lingxi Kong is a Chinese inventor and classics graduate of Columbia University; he is currently doing research on ancient literary criticism


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