British TV host John Oliver has won rave reviews for his Last Week Tonight interview which showed the Dalai Lama in all his candour and wit.
Beijing, however, was not amused. China’s foreign ministry said the exiled Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader had appeared “deceptive” on the HBO show, where he criticised some Chinese leaders as small-minded and mocked Beijing’s portrayal of him as “a demon”.
The Dalai Lama’s comments about the contested issue of his reincarnation “appear to be funny and humorous but they’re all lies”, ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said.
He dismissed the show, which aired on Sunday night in the US, as merely intended for entertainment purposes.
China’s ruling Communist Party has long depicted the Dalai Lama as a dangerous separatist and frequently objects when he meets global political leaders and entertainment figures – interpreting those events as a portrayal of him as a world leader.
China’s leadership also insists it has the authority to appoint the Dalai Lama’s successor after his death.
Traditional beliefs dictate that the highest figure in Tibetan Buddhism will be reincarnated in a boy who would subsequently be recognised as the new Dalai Lama by senior monks. But the current spiritual leader has said he would be happy if the title ends with his death.
During the interview conducted at the Dalai Lama’s residence in India’s northern hill town of Dharmsala, Oliver asked the Dalai Lama if he was worried about the Chinese authorities naming his successor.
Many thanks to the Dalai Lama for taking the time to talk to me about everything from reincarnation to horse milk. pic.twitter.com/udR5M5NyKi
— John Oliver (@iamjohnoliver) March 6, 2017
The Dalai Lama did not answer the question directly but told Oliver that Chinese hard-liners lacked common sense and “that part of the brain”.
“They describe me as a demon,” the Dalai Lama said, referring to Beijing’s officials.
“Then I immediately (say) I am a demon with horns,” he said, sticking his fingers up on either side of his head to laugher from Oliver and his audience.
“Whatever they want they want to say, that’s their opinion. I have no negative feelings. I just feel a laugh, like that,” he added.
“I practice taking others’ anger, suspicion, distrust, and give them patience, tolerance and compassion. I practice that.”
Elsewhere in the interview, a discussion of alcoholism in Mongolia led to questions about the difference between horse’s and cow’s milk.
The Dalai Lama also said he had been good at his job, adding: “I may say, quite intelligent.”
The spat over the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation – and its implications about who will lead Tibetan Buddhism – is one of the biggest points of contention in the long-running feud between the exiled monk and Beijing.
The Dalai Lama, who fled to India during an abortive uprising against Chinese rule in 1959, has said he simply wants a higher degree of autonomy for Tibet under Chinese rule.
Growing serious, Oliver asked about the scores of Tibetans who have set themselves on fire in recent years in protest over repressive Chinese policies, something the Dalai Lama said saddened him deeply but which he could not openly condemn to avoid causing further pain to surviving family members.
“From Buddhist viewpoint, this is self-killing, not good. So therefore, my position is very, very difficult, so best to remain silent, quiet,” he said.
China’s government has accused him of encouraging the suicides as part of a campaign of violent separatism.
The Dalai Lama “is a political exile engaged in anti-China separatist activities under the guise of religion,” Mr Geng said.
“We can now see that he’s also an actor. He’s very good at acting and he’s very deceptive.”
The Dalai Lama interview was called “an unexpected delight” by online news site Vox, while sports and entertainment website Fansided described it as “like a hug for the soul”.