Toronto, ONT, Canada, 1 November 2007 (By Stuart Laidlaw, TheStar.com) - On a lush couch before some 5,000 of his exiled countrymen, the Dalai Lama leaned on one elbow and gazed intently as two dozen wide-eyed children sang Tibetan songs, their young spirited voices rising into the rafters of a newly minted cultural centre.
A smile touched the corners of his mouth, but the famous glint in his eye was nearly absent. It was at best a bittersweet moment, the Tibetan culture kept alive so far from home.
'Here we enjoy freedom,' the Dalai Lama told the Star later, recalling the song. 'But in our own homeland at this very moment, there is a lot of tension, a lot of fear. So, naturally, there is some sadness.'
In a wide-ranging interview about politics and faith, the spiritual leader of Tibet spoke with passion of the determination of his people to maintain their culture, wherever they are in the world, against the Chinese government's efforts to wipe it out.
In fact, he said, the challenges have only strengthened their resolve, faith and determination to preserve their culture. The Chinese, he said, should realize this and embrace Tibetan cultural autonomy, rather than fight it.
'Only then, genuine loyalty will come. Only then, genuine unity will come,' he said. 'Their approach is only self-defeating.'
After fleeing Tibet in 1959, the Dalai Lama went to Dharamsala, India, where he established a government in exile. He has lived there since, travelling the world to promote the Tibetan cause.
Despite Chinese allegations that he is a separatist, the Dalai Lama says he only wants autonomy for his people within China, with control over culture, religion, education and the economy. This way, he says, Tibet can benefit from China's booming business climate, while preserving its heritage.
'If Tibet separates from China, then Tibet will remain weak and unnoticeable,' he said.
Organizations such as the Tibetan Canadian Culture Centre in Etobicoke, which he consecrated yesterday, are vital to the Tibetan cause, he said. He has established schools in Dharamsala to train teachers to keep Tibetan culture alive.
'Inside Tibet, there are many factors that are causing the degeneration of Tibetan culture,' he said.
The main problem is demographics, he said. With Han Chinese moving into the region, Tibetans are a minority in their own land. 'In their daily life, they use more Chinese language than Tibetan.'
At the same time, Tibetans have clung to their culture and their language to counter Chinese efforts.
'The Tibetan consciousness is very, very strong,' he said.
That consciousness has begun to penetrate the West, in large part due to the Dalai Lama's popularity and charisma.
Last night, the Dalai Lama spoke to 16,000 people at the Rogers Centre. He said issues such as global warming, trade and terrorism have shownWesterners how much people around the world are connected. 'The whole world is heavily interdependent. That is the new reality,' the Dalai Lama said. 'There is one humanity. This is not a holy view, this is a practical view.'
He urged a halt to military spending and that more money be put into education, particularly in developing countries, saying this will ultimately do more to bring peace.
'Instead of spending billions of dollars on military purposes, let's spend for education and help in Iraq,' he said.
Such sentiments have drawn many to Buddhism, says film director John Halpern, whose two documentaries featuring the Dalai Lama screen tonight and tomorrow in Toronto. Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, he says, westerners have better appreciated their bond with the rest of the world.
'The crises unify people and make us feel that we're connected,' he said. 'Everybody is part of one human experience.'
At the same time, he says, Buddhism's emphasis on taking personal action to create a better world gives people a way to feel they are making a contribution.
'Instead of just seeing myself as merely a consumer, I can give something back,' said Halpern, whose films, Refuge and Talking with the Dalai Lama, are showing at the Bloor Cinema.
While the Dalai Lama says he hasn't seen widespread conversion to Buddhism in the West, he has noticed ideas such as living one's faith through daily acts of compassion have found their way into Judeo-Christian faith.
Westerners today, he says, seem to want a more personal relationship to their faith. 'That, more or less, is a Buddhist approach,' he says. 'Faith alone is something that is at a distance.'