Last month, during February blogging madness, I mentioned that I had interviewed the Dalai Lama a few years ago. (Above photo was taken in 2007 in Toronto by my former colleague Adrian Wyld of The Canadian Press.)
Fellow blogger Annie (Churches in Venice) http://www.slowtrav.com/blog/annienc/suggested that I write a bit about the experience. And it was quite an experience! The Tibetan religious leader spent more than a half hour speaking with me, and I have to confess, I was pretty awe-struck. At that point, in April 2004, I had been a journalist for more than 15 years, including about five years as a national affairs reporter in the Canadian capital. Yet I was still quite intimidated by the Dalai Lama!
He is often in the news. In fact, earlier this week, at a ceremony in India to mark the 50th year of his exile from Tibet, an emotional Dalai Lama complained that China was oppressing his people and deliberately misrepresenting his dream of Tibetan autonomy.
When I met the Dalai Lama, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, he was visibly tired by the time we sat down. At times, we needed a translator as certain English words eluded him. Yet, he remained charming, with a quick sense of humour and a delightful giggle. That is an aspect of his personality that is often mentioned in describing the Dalai Lama -- he is a perennial optimist, he loves to laugh and make small jokes.
He exuded a remarkable air of peace and compassion. At the end of our interview, he presented me with prayer shawl, much to my amazement.
We talked a great deal about human rights and his work for peaceful change. Because I needed to file a news story immediately after, I decided to focus on his opinions concerning Canada's peaceful experience with very serious, heated referendums on the country's future. Twice, people in Canada's francophone province of Quebec have voted to stay in Canada, rather than separate.
These votes have been held without violence, but that hasn't always been the case in other parts of the world.
"Canada's maturity in democracy was really displayed when there was a Quebec referendum...there were not shots, no arrests,'' the Dalai Lama said.
The strain of the Dalai Lama's life in exile shows, as does his age (he is now in his mid-70s). China sent its troops into Tibet in 1951 and the Dalai Lama fled his homeland several years later, in 1959. Since then, he has lived in exile, traveling the world to promote peaceful, patient change and greater attention from the world to human rights and religious tolerance.
It was quite a happening when the Dalai Lama visited Ottawa in spring 20004 (the time of my interview with him) particularly after then-Prime Minister Paul Martin decided that he would be Canada's first prime minister to officially meet Tibet's religious leader.
It was a politically difficult choice, in that national leaders across the world have faced enormous pressure over the years from Beijing to snub the Dalai Lama. However, as more leaders have stood up to Beijing, others have followed suit.
Canada's current Prime Minister Stephen Harper met with the Dalai Lama in 2007, in federal government offices. That marked another first for Canada, as the former PM Martin met with the Dalai Lama off Parliament Hill, in the private home of a Canadian archbishop. Harper's meeting came after former U.S. President George W. Bush and German Chancellor Angela Merkel also met with Dalai Lama in official venues.
Beijing objects to foreign leaders meeting with the Dalai Lama, because they accuse him of fighting for independence for Tibet from Chinese rule. The Chinese government fears that meetings with senior political leaders around the globe give the Dalai Lama and his cause greater legitimacy.
However, the Dalai Lama insists he only wants greater autonomy for Tibet under Chinese rule, and not independence.