By Zhang Lifen
BBC Chinese Service, 4 February 2003: Nothing can prepare you for his Holiness the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader, or "a simple Buddhist monk" in his own words, who walks in, warmly extending his hand, greeting you loudly.
In an interview with the BBC at his mountain-top residence in Dharamsala, northern India, he said he was optimistic that a settlement could be reached with China over the future of Tibet, despite his having led a life of exile for more than 40 years.
"We are now in contact with Beijing. Dialogue between two sides will continue. My special envoys and the Chinese officials may meet again in the next few months," he said.
The Dalai Lama disclosed, perhaps for the first time, the continuing direct contact between Beijing and himself following his envoys' historic visit to China last September.
Face to face, the first thing you notice about the Dalai Lama may not be his flowing red and gold robes, but his laughter.
He has a deep, resonant, ready and hearty laugh, which often punctuates his thoughts on the future of Tibet.
"My envoys' visit to China is a very good start. Eventually, if possible, I would also like to invite Chinese officials to visit Dharamsala so they can see [for] themselves the situation here at the Tibetan community in exile," the Dalai Lama said.
During their three-week journey, his special envoys held talks with senior Chinese officials in Beijing. They also visited Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, and its 1000-room Potala palace where the Dalai Lama grew up.
"My envoys described the atmosphere and reception as friendly and positive," the Dalai Lama said.
The visit was hailed as a thaw, marking the first direct contact between the exiled Tibetan leader and the Chinese Government since 1993.
"The best way to resolve any problem in the human world is for all sides to sit down and talk," he said.
Since the late 1980s, the 68-year-old Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and advocate of non-violence has campaigned to seek a 'genuine autonomy' for his homeland, a vast region that China considers to be an undisputed part of its territory.
"I am not seeking separation or independence of Tibet from the People's Republic of China. All I want is a genuine self-rule for Tibet within China. This is my 'middle way' approach, " the Dalai Lama said.
According to his 'middle way' proposal, the Chinese Government would handle Tibet's foreign affairs and defence, while Tibetans would have full responsibility for education, trade, environment, religion and other domestic briefs.
His compromise proposal was based on the framework laid down in the 1980s by the late Deng Xiaoping, China's paramount leader.
Deng said China was willing to discuss any issue regarding the future of Tibet, except independence.
For more than a decade, the Dalai Lama's proposal has been met with deep suspicion and criticism from Beijing.
China has repeatedly questioned the Dalai Lama's claims that he does not seek independence for Tibet. In the eyes of the Chinese leadership, the so-called middle way is just another plot by the Dalai Lama to seek Tibetan independence.
One step at a time
Asked whether he would be willing to live in Beijing instead of Lhasa should a deal be reached with China, the Dalai Lama said that the issues about his future residence or political status were not important.
"What I concern most is the future and welfare of six million Tibetans. If Beijing and myself can reach an agreement on the genuine autonomy for Tibet, then my future residence, Beijing or Lhasa, becomes only a personal matter that can be discussed," the Dalai Lama chuckled.
If agreement could be reached, the Dalai Lama said he would retreat to the monasteries deep inside the mountains to live the life of a simple and solitary monk.
The Dalai Lama's compromising stance towards Beijing has already caused some resentment in the exiled Tibetan communities. He is aware of the growing frustration and militant tendency among young Tibetans in exile.
Some vow to campaign for Tibet's full independence through whatever means, including violence. The Dalai Lama is clearly worried.
"My generation has now almost all gone. When the old generation is no longer around, things could be getting easier, and could also become more difficult. I don't know the answer," he said.
If the youth organisations should resort to violence, he would resign, he added.
In China's view, Tibet was a backward and uncivilised feudal theocracy led by the Dalai Lama before the 'peaceful liberation' by Chinese Communist soldiers in 1950.
Beijing believes that Tibet has developed considerably under its rule, especially since the 'Open Door' reform in the 1980s, and that economic change has brought a better and more modern life for the Tibetans.
Others, including the Tibetan government in exile and international human rights organisations, have criticised human rights violations, as well as religious and ecological destruction, under Chinese rule.
The government in exile says 2,800 Tibetans fled Tibet last year citing political or cultural oppression.
The Dalai Lama told the BBC that he had now fully recovered from a serious illness he suffered almost a year ago, after taking both Western and Tibetan medication. A few months after falling sick, he was on foreign tours again.
"I didn't feel tired, even against very hectic schedules. So I believe my health is fine." He chuckled again.
"I am confident I will set foot again in Tibet in my lifetime. A few days ago I had a dream about my return to Lhasa, wandering about. Sometimes, I also have nightmare of the day I fled Tibet in 1959," he said.
The Dalai Lama said he was deeply troubled by what was going on inside Tibet, in particular the persecution of religious beliefs.
However, the Dalai Lama said he recognised China was now changing, so he remained hopeful.
"I only want to help China to resolve the Tibet problem," he said.