q: What was your own romantic notion about this land?
a: Well I grew up as a child reading the great Swedish explorer of
Central Asia who struggled to get to Lhasa repeatedly and failed. And
Heinrich Harrer who finally got there in the mid-40s and there was a whole
pantheon of these figures. They were like salmon heading upstream to some
spawning ground against enormous adversity. It was very exciting. I mean this
was the stuff from which sort of turn of the century mid-century adventure was
Now why did they want to go there? It's, it's a fascinating question.
There's something about Westerners that always wants to be where they're not
wanted and this is the history of exploration from Portugal, Spain England
around the world. It's a very western notion, sort of promethean energy that
wants to overcome enormous adversity and go the ends of the world, test
oneself, get where you're not wanted or get where it's difficult to go and I
think that's the story of Tibet and it was the story really of my sort of early
fascination with this very remote and inaccessible place.
q: What is it that crystallized Tibet as a kind of Shangri-La in the eyes
of many people in the West?
a: When "Lost Horizon" came out in 1936-37, Europe was on the edge of a
nightmare. It was being consumed by the Nazi holocaust. And there's a
tremendous urge for people to believe that somewhere there was a place where
sense prevails, where civilized behavior was respected. And as you recall
"Lost Horizon" was about basically this Oxford don whose plane crashes in the
mountain valley somewhere in the Himalayas and here's this place where they
play ....the harpsichord at night and there's Buddhist lamas and you don't grow
old, where food is there for the wanting, it's spectacularly beautiful isolated
cutoff and humane. So that was the myth, the kind of post-World War I,
pre-World War II fear that Europe was going to be engulfed in this nightmare,
in this projection.
"Lost Horizon" represented an eye in the storm.... for all western people.
Q: Another film is coming out called "Seven Years in Tibet." Where are we
now in our romantic notions of Tibet? What is this film going to do?
a: I think this new film, "Seven Years in Tibet" is a reincarnation of
our old yearning to know that some place is apart that is based on humane
principles, on elaborate and exciting ritual that is not merged with the
industrial world outside and of course Tibet in the 40s when this film takes
place was such a place. Its culture was intact, the Chinese had not invaded,
the outside world had not been able to gain access to it, only these two
mountain climbers managed to insinuate themselves into its midst and it's the
dream of the last moment when a piece of the world was still apart from the
homogenized outside world.
q: What's the role of the Dalai Lama in this fantasy called Tibet?
a: Well the Dalai Lama is really the living symbol of Tibet. He is
the quote, God King, much mystery surrounds him even though he likes to eschew
this mysteriousness. He's also a very compelling person, a very estimable in
certain respects very lovable man. It's a great paradox-- while most countries
have a boundary, an international country but no great leader, Tibet has a
great leader but in fact no country.
q: And what is it that captivates people about the Dalai Lama?
a: Well people have always been fascinated with the idea of the Dalai
Lama. This person who's somehow believed to have mystical powers. Who wouldn't
meet with anybody, who was inaccessible. Who certainly wasn't pandering
after attention and publicity who was aloof. And I think the paradox of the
Dalai Lama's current global travels is in a certain sense some of the qualities
that were most compelling about him - his aloofness - now tend to be threatened
by his availability.
q: But what is it that's special about him?
a: I think because he is somebody who really doesn't want anything for
himself. He's not after anything. He doesn't want wealth, fame, power he does
project a feeling of really being interested in the welfare of his country and
other people. And I think this is a very enticing sort of a person in the
world in which we Westerners live where everybody is after something.
q: What is so special about Tibet that's worth saving?
a: Well I think if you want to know why we care about Tibet, I think the
analogy that most immediately comes to mind is in a way an endangered species.
I mean why do we care about some specie that may disappear, it's just one less
animal? I think if you do believe that the world should have a diversity, a
pluralism and that is reassuring particularly as the global culture and global
media turn everything into a kind of a sameness, then Tibet becomes extremely
important. But I think also to that dimension which has existed for a hundred
years because Tibet has been so other, it has always had a sort of a spiritual
gross national product rather than an economic one. And it's been added a new
dimension and that's the dimension of the little guy getting kicked around by
the big guy, trying to invade Tibet, occupying Tibet, and this is very
compelling to Americans who always fancied themselves on the side of the victim
of the person who is unjustly being abused by the bully. So this is a new
dimension, which has made Tibet even more compelling than it was when it was
just this isolated unreceptive strange land up in the mountains.
q: Do you care in personal terms about Tibet?
a: It is curious, I think people become involved in Tibet almost in spite
of themselves and there is something both about his Holiness, the Dalai Lama
and I think about Tibetans in general, which is extraordinarily winsome and
captivating. There's a kind of a sweetness and a decency - one doesn't want
to engage in kind of gross over generalizations... I think Tibet have a
certain element that we miss in our own culture, in our own society where we're
busy, we're tense and nervous, sort of angry, on the go. Tibetans seem more
lackadaisical, they have wonderful sense of humor, they're never in a big hurry
and I think this is very appealing to us. It's the other side of us that we
miss in our own culture.
q: What are the films in the Hollywood pipeline, and what do you think the
impact of these films is going to be?
a: Well there's a whole host of films. There's "Seven Years in Tibet
"with Brad Pitt, there's Martin Scorsese's "Kundun." Steven Seagal has got an
action pick about the CIA aiding Tibetan guerrillas. There's a film called the
"Buddha" from Brooklyn about a hairdresser who's a reincarnate Lama. There's
another low-budget feature film called "Tibet." There's a great convergence
now of films on Tibet that I think are going to really jump the firewall and
make Tibet more than just a policy question but a popular culture phenomenon.
....You get a whole other kind of a dimension to the phenomenon and Hollywood I
think is more powerful than the United States government and the United States
military in terms of its ability to create awareness of issues. So this is no
small matter, this arrival of Hollywood on the Tibet scene.
q: Why now?
a: I think all of this attention in Hollywood has been generated
partially by the Dalai Lama who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, has traveled
more has done teachings, has appeared on television and I think in a certain
sense has won the hearts of a lot of people including I might add many people
in Hollywood. There's a great fascination in Hollywood, not only with Tibet but
with Tibetan Buddhism. I mean these sort of crazed Hollywood executives and
stars whose lives have been put in a centrifuge. And they've been spun almost
to oblivion or trying to find some balance. They're trying to find a place for
their spirit to reside to cultivate that side of themselves and Tibetan
Buddhism is very interesting to many of them.
q: And why Tibet ? As opposed to East Timor or Bosnia, Chechyna....?
a: Well Tibet in our imagination is a place that's enormously colorful,
the ritual is enormously interesting. It's a profound civilization. One of
the last ancient cultures that still survives in this world. It is also one of
the great traditions, Tibetan Buddhism. So in a certain sense it is the black
hole of the most dense kind of spiritual matter in the world left today.
q: What is the story these films will be telling people that they may hear
for the first time?
a: Well, I think these films are one, going to show us the way Tibetan
culture was before the fall, before the Chinese occupation and the cultural
revolution dealt it such a devastating blow. In that sense it's going to reel
everybody's consciousness back half a century and so they'll imagine Tibet to
be now as it used to be.
On the other hand it's going to interject this element of the Chinese
occupation. The People's Liberation Army which people are now familiar with
because of the Tiananmen Square massacre, going into Tibet in the 50s and
essentially occupying this society -- in a way that is more than a little
reminiscent of a colonial power.