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Found in Translation

An enlightening exchange with the Dalai Lama's interpreter


Published October 22, 2003 at 4:00 a.m.

Few spiritual leaders have captured the imagination of the modern world like Tenzin Gyatso, better known as His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Believers consider him to be the incarnation of Avalokiteshvara, the legendary Boddhisatva of Compassion. Others know him as winner of the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize for his nonviolent campaign to free his homeland from Chinese occupation.

This Friday, the primary translator for His Holiness speaks about "The Dalai Lama's Spiritual Mission" as part of UVM's Tibet Festival. Geshe Thup-ten Jinpa's accent betrays his education at Cambridge University, where he received his Ph.D. in religious studies after completing a traditional monastic education in India. His Western style clothing on the podium contrasts with the saffron robes of his spiritual master, but the men's minds are closely matched. Jinpa has translated more than 10 books by the Dalai Lama and joins him around the world for his public lectures, including a recent gathering in New York's Central Park that he estimates drew more than 100,000 listeners. Who better understands the teacher and his message?

I spoke with Thupten Jinpa by phone from his home in Montreal, where he is currently President of the Institute of Tibetan Classics. Our conversation touched on politics, religion, humor and the power of compassion.

SEVEN DAYS: Jinpa, how did you happen to become the personal translator for His Holiness?

THUPTEN JINPA: Actually it was purely out of accident. This was in 1985. I went up to Dharmsala [the central outpost for Tibetan refugees living in northern India] to see my brother and sister at the Tibetan Children's Village School at that time. And also I was going to meet up with a friend who was visiting from the States. So it happened that when I went to Dharm-sala His Holiness was scheduled to give a series of teachings over the next few days. . . The official translator who had been arranged to translate for this series of teachings couldn't make it on the first day. There was some hitch in the travel arrangements. And since the teaching was to begin on that day they were looking for someone to stand in for him. And the word got around that I spoke English.

SD: In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, the Dalai Lama said that "Tibet is now passing through the darkest period of its history." That was over a dozen years ago. What is the current situation inside Tibet?

TJ: The current situation is quite tricky, because on the one hand there is a new opening on the part of the Chinese authorities. Direct contact with the Tibetan government-in-exile has been re-established and His Holiness' envoys have visited China and parts of Tibet twice. . .But at the same time, His Holiness has recently remarked that there is unfortunately no noticeable improvement on the ground in Tibet. On the contrary, there seems to be a tightening, more repression. His Holiness' photograph still continues to be banned. No expression of Tibetan aspiration is allowed.

SD: The past has seen relocations of Han Chinese into Tibet, destruction of Buddhist monasteries, the suppression of the religion and large numbers of people imprisoned for criticizing China's authority. Is this type of repression continuing?

TJ: The current situation is quite different. A lot of the destruction of the temples and the monasteries took place during the madness of the Cultural Revolution. . . But now there is no overt, physical destruction of the monasteries taking place, partly because there is not much left to destroy, but partly because more and more ordinary Chinese are taking an interest in visiting Tibet for tourism. . . But what the Chinese authorities are doing is keeping a very tight reign on the management and running of these monasteries. For example, they keep a very tight leash on the abbots, the head of the monasteries, and hold them responsible for whatever political activity might take place. . . The current strategy for repression is much more subtle and less obvious. Some of these senior abbots of these monasteries are really put in a very difficult position because on the one hand, they care deeply for Tibetan aspirations, but on the other hand, they would also like to insure that the community is not destroyed, so often they are held ransom.Similarly with the population transfer. . . It used to be an explicit state policy where Han Chinese were sent to Tibet, but now it's a much more subtle approach again. One of the things that's being done now as part of the so-called development of western China, the Chinese government is pouring quite a lot of money into the construction of a railway line that would connect central Tibet with Chengtu and mainland China. And Tibetans are deeply concerned about the implications of this new railway line. A lot of Tibetans, including myself, would generally wish the economic development that China is enjoying would reach Tibet. But at the same time there's a deep concern that this may be a kind of new opening for large-scale relocation.

SD: What is the Dalai Lama's vision for the future of Tibet?

TJ: He's explicitly gone on record saying that he's not demanding full independence for Tibet. He's willing to accept for Tibet to be part of the People's Republic of China. But what he wants is a genuine self-rule with a guarantee of protection of Tibet's natural environment and cultural heritage and distinct identity, including language.

SD: What support -- or lack of support -- are you receiving from the U.S. government?

TJ: I think the U.S. government has been frankly at the forefront of support for the Tibetans in our struggle. Obviously they cannot support Tibetan independence. And in fact His Holiness has explicitly stated that this is not what he's campaigning for. What he's campaigning for is a high degree of autonomy that guarantees self-rule for the Tibetans while insuring Tibet's place within the People's Republic of China. And this is a political goal that I think is achievable. In fact People's Republic of China's own constitution explicitly guarantees this. So there's tremendous support in the Congress. . . various resolutions have been passed and also various administrations, including the current Bush administration, they have been very supportive in trying to encourage the Chinese to take seriously the possibility of sitting down and negotiating for some settlement with His Holiness and his representatives.

SD: His Holiness has been exiled from his homeland. But he shows very little anger or animosity toward the Chinese. Could you comment on that?

TJ: I think this is very much the effect of his own spiritual training and the deeply Buddhist heritage that he embodies. This is something quite remarkable, and not just [in] His Holiness. Many Tibetans have a similar kind of stance, although the younger generation tends to be quite different.

SD: I understand the Tibetan Youth Congress is calling for full independence from China. Is that indicative of a more militant approach among the younger generation?

TJ: Some factions of the Youth Congress even used to argue that in order to be taken seriously the Tibetans will have to resort to the use of force. So some younger Tibetans even go to the extent of rejecting the efficacy of nonviolent strategy.

SD: His Holiness stresses the need for dialogue rather than violent confrontation. But what if your enemy is intent on destroying your way of life rather than joining in a mutual conversation?

TJ: Yes, this is the problem. That's why His Holiness has constantly included the international community. The final solution between the Tibetans and the Chinese will have to be brought about on the basis of Tibetans and Chinese talking to each other and sitting down at the same table. But in order to facilitate the movement toward that kind of atmosphere, we need international support. There needs to be a much higher level of voicing of concern for the fate of the Tibetan people.

SD: Part of the Dalai Lama's vision for the new millennium includes a movement toward global democracy. Yet some have criticized the traditional institutions of Tibet as theocratic in nature. The Dalai Lama, for instance, is not a popularly elected leader. Is there a contradiction here?

TJ: Yes, and he is very much aware of that. In fact, from a very early stage His Holiness has been working very hard toward a political representation that would be established on the basis of popular choice. For instance, in the draft constitution that was published in 1969, he made this very obvious. Then later, he made a public statement that even the continuation of the institution of the Dalai Lama should be a subject not taken for granted, subject to public scrutiny.

SD: Should the Dalai Lama be open to recall like the governor of California? I'm only joking!

TJ: Since two years ago, effectively, the political leadership has been handed over to a newly elected leader; we have Professor Samdong Rinpoche, who is head of the cabinet. This was done on a ballot basis. . . So His Holiness feels that he is kind of semi-retired now. And in one of his public statements, he has made it very clear that as soon as some kind of political settlement is reached that will allow exiled Tibetans to return home, he will immediately hand over the political authority to a local government inside Tibet.

SD: If His Holiness is no longer the political leader of his people, he remains their spiritual leader. The title "Dalai Lama," I understand, means "Ocean of Wisdom." But does one have to share his religious perspective in order to appreciate his message?

TJ: His Holiness' general standpoint is that he passionately advocates what he calls an appreciation of human values. His position is that whether someone believes or subscribes to a faith tradition or not is not really, in the final analysis, that important. He thinks that what is important is to appreciate the basic goodness of human nature and cultivate the key ethical principles that govern our relationship to the natural world and fellow human beings and other sentient beings as well.

SD: So the cultivation of compassion is the heart of the matter. This transcends any particular religious tradition.

TJ: Yes. He says that if individuals have religious faith, that's fine, but he doesn't think it's essential for human happiness or the cultivation of human goodness. He makes a distinction between two levels of spirituality -- spirituality in the basic sense of human goodness and spirituality as expressed through the belief systems of different faith traditions.

SD: His Holiness in his public presentations seems to have a delightful sense of humor. How are playfulness and laughter related to the quest for enlightenment or spiritual wisdom?

TJ: His Holiness, as anyone who knows him and has met him will see, has a genuinely deep sense of humor, almost a childlike kind of playfulness in his character. Any occasion for laughter he doesn't miss. Sometimes in very formal settings, ceremonies and so on, like interfaith services, it's a real contrast. On the one hand, there's this kind of solemness to the occasion. But on the other hand when he himself stands up and speaks there's a total informality and light-heartedness.Light-heartedness is a quality that individuals have when they are capable of letting go and when they are capable of laughing at themselves. . . Often we tend to take ourselves very seriously. This seriousness belies a certain strong sense of ego-attachment. Individuals with a playful side to their character -- being able to laugh -- have a degree of freedom that is quite liberating.

SD: You recently translated for the Dalai Lama when he offered a teaching in Cent-ral Park. Park authorities very conservatively estimated that crowd at 60,000, but probably many more were present. Why do such enormous throngs want to listen to His Holiness?

TJ: For whatever reason, His Holiness has now become a symbol for millions of people -- a certain moral integrity and also a kind of embodiment of basic human goodness. There are very few world figures that can resonate that kind of integrity and moral authority. There is Nelson Mandela from South Africa and to some extent Bishop Tutu. And Jimmy Carter is emerging as one of those world figures. In the case of His Holiness, when he speaks and when you are in his presence -- you know, I have been working with him since 1985, almost 18 years, and to this day, for me, every time I'm in his presence, it's like I'm there for the first time. . . And also, what is unmistakable is the feeling that this is an individual who genuinely cares for the world and for his fellow human beings. The power of his compassion is very strong. . . Being in his presence is like recharging one's spiritual batteries.

SD: If you could summarize his message in a few sentences, what would it be?

TJ: He's a very deep believer in the power of the individual. To a very large extent human beings have very rich internal resources for overcoming problems. The majority of crises that we human beings face on this planet are of our own making. . .This is one of his main missions, to awaken people everywhere to the appreciation of their own inner capacities.