Dalai Lama Descends on Cambridge

Dalai Lama talks about global compassion, the importance of moral education and magic bullets. All in a day’s work!

agatha stern Cambridge conference Daisy Turvey Dalai Lama global scholars symposium max toomey Tibet tom balderstone

The Dalai Lama appeared at a press conference this morning, hosted by the Global Scholars Symposium and St John’s College. Heeding the advice of the Symposium organisers, we arrived at a stupidly early hour, seemingly the only ones to have done so. Over the next half hour journalists slowly trickled in, adding to the hushed, oddly tense silence.

The room, once filled, was willed with respectful whispers. This quiet, however, was instantly broken on his arrival by the furious clicking of cameras from around the room. His Holiness greeted the room warmly, proving himself a man used to the constant presence of journalists in his life.

“When a Chinese reporter asks if I’m a demon, I say ‘Yes, I am a demon!'”

A short haired, young faced, man wearing a viscose, shiny Chinese collared shirt hugged the Dalai Lama’s book – and later the mic – affectionately; he was clearly a huge fan. He later questioned the Dalai Lama over whether self-immolations in Tibet could be justified. In response the Dalai Lama, seemingly practiced in this line of questioning, told the journalists surrounding him that he served the Tibetan people, not the other way around.

“Firstly, The Chinese officials blame it on us,” he replied. “Whatever I say they will manipulate. Secondly, I retired,” referring to his withdrawal from the political world in 2011. “Thirdly, the Tibetan people there are my boss; I am just the spokesman for them there.”

He also referred to the fact that he believed many of the Chinese held the wrong opinion because of the Chinese state’s grasp on the media, telling the audience that censorship was immoral. “When a Chinese reporter asks if I’m a demon,” he giggled, placing a finger from each hand on his head, “I say ‘Yes, I am demon!‘”

So silly, he stressed, dropping his hands. “No help. There is crisis we have to find the ways and means to solve this problem.”

The Dalai Lama has an infectious giggle

Despite retiring two years ago, and stressing that he was no longer politically engaged, it was not difficult to draw His Holiness to comment on political issues; he commented on Korea, Syria and even the state of the English welfare system. When questioned what it would take for him to support another Korean war, he commented on the positive growth in South Korean democracy, the suffering of the North Korean people, and – perhaps jokingly – that scientists should develop “one bullet that could be a real trouble maker” to target the decision makers hiding behind innocent people.

“1.3 Billion Chinese people have every right to know the reality”

All but a small handful of his responses seemed like polished statements developed over a long career of living as an exiled national leader. Nothing embarrassed him. Even when asked to sing his favourite song, though slightly confused, he handled it with aplomb. “Of course I can listen and I can judge,” he giggled. But, being a monk, he is never allowed to sing. He politely refused a further request to chant.

The only other question that left the Dalai Lama lacking a full and enthusiastic response was the uninvited interruption of a writer from the Epoch Times, connected with Falun Gong. It was less of a question and more of a plea for help; she was very politely interrupted by the conference organiser and then very gently manhandled by an usher.

Elaine Zhao, an anthropology undergrad from Churchill, told The Tab that she was delighted the Dalai Lama was here but disappointed that more students would not get to see him. “Apparently there’s over a thousand people on the waiting list, people that wanted tickets,” she said. “Cambridge is supposed to be about education and enlightenment and it should be open to everyone – but only students at John’s were allowed tickets.”

Zhao, from Hong Kong, also commented on the controversial nature of the Dalai Lama. “In Hong Kong, my stepmum saw me reading The Art of Happiness and was a bit shocked – it’s really controversial here. I do think that the traditional view [in China] is against the Dalai Lama, and for people to say that Tibet shouldn’t be free” She told The Tab that many Chinese believed making Tibet an autonomous state could cause unrest.

The Dalai Lama has often stated that the Chinese should respect the separate identity of the Tibetan people, stressing their desire for autonomy: “In our own country, we Tibetans live like second citizens,” he told The Tab.

Stay tuned for a TabTV video of the talk’s highlights coming soon.

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Video filmed by Agatha Stern and Daisy Turvey for TabTV.

Edited by Agatha Stern.