The Dalai Lama told John Oliver that China’s leaders are not “using the human brain properly”

Will 81-year-old Tenzin Gyatso be the last Dalai Lama? The question has been haunting millions of Tibetan Buddhists, the Chinese Communist rulers, and the international community ever since the religious leader hinted a few years ago that he might not reincarnate at all.

British comedian John Oliver recently flew to the north Indian town of Dharamsala, where the Dalai Lama has lived in exile for more than five decades, to get the latest answer. The interview was made public in the March 5 episode of HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.

The 14th and current Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959, and established the Tibetan government in exile there, after Chinese troops crushed an attempted uprising in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa. For decades, the Dalai Lama advocated for Tibet’s full independence. He has since moderated his stance to seek autonomy under the People’s Republic of China.

Beijing criticizes him as a “wolf in a monk’s robes” trying to separate Tibet from the motherland. Now speculation is mounting that it will appoint a new Dalai Lama who favors the ruling party when the 14th dies, just as it installed the current Panchen Lama, the second-highest figurehead in Tibetan Buddhism.

In his temple at the foot of the Himalayas, the Tibetan spiritual leader told Oliver it’s “very possible” that he’ll be the last Dalai Lama, though he didn’t give a definite answer. Asked whether he worries Beijing would appoint its own Dalai Lama, he quickly rebuked the idea (starting at the 16:15 mark below):
“May I say so? That’s also, you say, one of the foolish acts. Short-sighted. Without using the human brain properly. It’s harmful… Our brain usually, you see, [has] the ability to create common sense. The Chinese hardliners, in their brains, that part of the brain is missing.”

“I’m happy to sit here to criticize China with you, because the consequences for me are not necessarily as bad as they are for you,” Oliver said.

That drew hearty laughter from the Dalai Lama, who added, “They call me a demon… I want another demon, so you become a demon.”

“No, no, no, you can’t reincarnate the demon into me,” Oliver protested.

“Yes, yes,” insisted the spiritual leader jokingly.

Quick with a joke. (Screenshot from HBO)

John Oliver Interview Dalai Lama Over Reincarnation Controversy

John Oliver traveled to Dharamsala, India for a hilarious, enlightening conversation with the Dalai Lama on Last Week Tonight. Tibet's political and spiritual leader, whom Oliver dubbed the original "woke bae," discussed Chinese oppression and the controversy over his future reincarnation.

The Dalai Lama has lived in exile from Tibet for over five decades, earning hatred from the Chinese government. Oliver opened their conversation with a frank statement: "The Chinese government absolutely hates you." But the Buddhist leader laughed at being labeled a "demon" and responded with kindness. "Whatever they want to say, that's their freedom," he said. "I have no negative feeling. I just feel love. I practice taking others' suspicion, distrust and giving them patience, tolerance and compassion. I practice that."

Oliver inquired about the practice of self-immolating, a protest practice that has found 146 Tibetans in Tibet and China setting themselves on fire since February 27th, 2009. The comedian pressed the Dalai Lama on refusing to denounce the act, but the spiritual leader maintained that doing so would scar the legacy of the deceased. "Right from the beginning, when I first heard that, firstly I expressed my sorrow, my sadness," he said. "In the meantime, if I say their action is wrong, then their family [would feel] very sad."

Inevitably, Oliver broached the complicated subject of reincarnation. The Dalai Lama previously selected a six-year-old boy as the Panchen Lama, who by tradition searches to find the reincarnated Dalai Lama after death. However, the child was kidnapped by the Chinese government, who then named their own replacement. The Dalai Lama, now 81, has suggested he may not reincarnate, further complicating the situation. "If I become the last Dalai Lama, I feel very happy," he told Oliver.

The host suggested that, with the Chinese government controlling the Panchen Lama, they could potentially name their own Dalai Lama – one subservient to their vision. The current Dalai Lama called this a "shortsighted," "foolish act," noting that the government isn't "using the human brain properly."
Oliver ended the segment on a lighter note. In the tradition of President Roosevelt, who gifted the Dalai Lama with a prized Patek Philippe pocket watch in the 1940s, the host unveiled his own treasure: a 1980s calculator watch.

John Oliver’s interview with the Dalai Lama is an unexpected delight

John Oliver had a few questions about how, exactly, the whole Dalai Lama thing works — so he took them to the reincarnated leader himself.

For an interview segment that aired during Sunday’s Last Week Tonight, Oliver traveled to Dharamsala, India, where the Dalai Lama has lived in exile since China pressured him out of his native Tibet in 1959. As Oliver detailed in an introduction to the segment, China has called the Dalai Lama “a wolf in monk’s robes” and banned his image. China has even appointed its own “Panchen Lama,” a figure tasked with finding the new Dalai Lama once the current one dies. (The Dalai Lama vehemently disavows China’s actions as a blatant move to undermine his authority.)

As China tries to keep its grip on Tibet, Oliver said, its move to delegitimize the Dalai Lama is a strategic way to try to tamp down a massively influential Tibetan leader, whose followers are so devoted to him that some self-immolate as protest against China.

Oliver’s interview with the Dalai Lama was wide-ranging, and sometimes even tense. Oliver asked in no uncertain terms why the Dalai Lama won’t condemn the practice of self-immolation among his acolytes, and the Dalai Lama replied that he didn’t want to make the families left behind feel ashamed of how their children died because it went against his will.

When Oliver asked the Dalai Lama if he might be the last reincarnation ever, he replied that it’s “very possible,” but added with a grin that this might not be such a terrible thing, since he’s “very intelligent,” after all.

“If you don’t resolve your reincarnation issue,” pressed Oliver, “are you not worried that China will appoint their own Dalai Lama?”

The Dalai Lama didn’t quite answer the question, but he did offer this piece of wisdom: “Our brain has the ability to create common sense. The Chinese hard-liners ... that part of the brain is missing.”

Oliver laughed in delight at this unexpected turn of phrase — a sentiment that, come to think of it, describes many parts of the interview itself.

The Dalai Lama and his resting beaming face brought many hearty belly laughs to Last Week Tonight in ways Oliver clearly didn’t expect. When the Dalai Lama talked about how Chinese authorities have called him a “demon” over the years, he basically rolled his eyes before throwing up his hands in mock horns. “Oh, yes,” he said sarcastically, “I’m a demon.”

At one point, the Dalai Lama offered up an anecdote about how he once inspired Mongolians to swap their beloved vodka for horse milk, a claim that practically gobsmacked Oliver into amused speechlessness.

By the end of the interview, the Dalai Lama decided that if people were going to call him a demon, he might as well have company.

“I want another demon,” he told Oliver. “So you become demon.”

“You can’t reincarnate the demon into me!” Oliver replied in horror.

“Yes!” the Dalai Lama crowed, laughing the entire time. And while Oliver insisted to the Dalai Lama that this wasn’t exactly how he had wanted the interview to go, his giddy grin sure suggested otherwise.

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