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Down with the Dalai Lama

June 1, 2008

Brendan O'Neill
Comments Free
Guardian (UK)
May 29, 2008 10:00 AM

Has there ever been a political figure more ridiculous than the Dalai
Lama? This is the "humble monk" who forswears worldly goods in favour
of living a simple life dressed in maroon robes. Yet in 1992 he
guest-edited French Vogue, the bible of the decadent high-fashion
classes, which is packed with pictures of the half-starved daughters
of the aristocracy modelling skirts and shirts that most of us could
never afford.

He claims to be the current incarnation of the Tulkus line of
Buddhist masters, who are "exempt from the wheel of death and
rebirth". Yet he's best known for hanging out with clueless western
celebs like Richard Gere and Sharon Stone (who is still most famous
for showing her vagina on the big screen). Stone once introduced the
Dalai Lama at a glittering fundraising ball as "Mr Please, Please,
Please Let Me Back Into China!"

The Dalai Lama says he wants Tibetan autonomy and political
independence. Yet he allows himself to be used as a tool by western
powers keen to humiliate China. Between the late 1950s and 1974, he
is alleged to have received around $15,000 a month, or $180,000 a
year, from the CIA. He has also been, according to the same reporter,
"remarkably nepotistic", promoting his brothers and their wives to
positions of extraordinary power in his fiefdom-in-exile in
Dharamsala, northern India.

He poses as the quirky, giggly, modern monk who once auctioned his
Land Rover on eBay for $80,000 and has even done an advert for Apple
(quite what skinny white computers have got to do with Buddhism is
anybody's guess). Yet in truth he is a product of the crushing
feudalism of archaic, pre-modern Tibet, where an elite of Buddhist
monks treated the masses as serfs and ruthlessly punished them if
they stepped out of line.

The Dalai Lama demands religious freedom. Yet he persecutes a
Buddhist sect that worships a deity called Dorje Shugden. He outlawed
praying to Dorje Shugden in 1996, and those who defied his writ were
thrown out of their jobs, mocked in the streets and even had their
homes smashed up by heavy-handed officials from his
government-in-exile. When worshippers complained about their
treatment, they were told by representatives of the Dalai Lama that
"concepts like democracy and freedom of religion are empty when it
comes to the wellbeing of the Dalai Lama".

As the Dalai Lama tours Britain, lots of people are asking: why won't
Brown receive him at Downing Street? I have a different question: why
should Brown, who for all his troubles is still the head of an
elected political party, meet with an authoritarian, fame-chasing,
Apple-loving monk?

The Dalai Lama has effectively been turned into a cartoon good guy.
In America and western Europe, where backward anti-modern sentiments
are widespread amongst self-loathing sections of the educated and the
elite, the Dalai Lama has been embraced as a living, breathing
representative of unsullied goodness. Despite the fact that he
advertises Apple, guest-edits Vogue and drives a Land Rover, he is
held up as evidence that living the simple eastern life is preferable
to, in the words of Philip Rawson, westerners' "gradually more
pointless pursuit of material satisfactions". Just as earlier
generations of disillusioned aristocrats fell in love with a
fictional version of Tibet (Shangri-La), so contemporary
un-progressives idolise a fictional image of the Dalai Lama.

Most strikingly, the Dalai Lama is used as a battering ram by western
governments in their culture war with China. The reason he is
flattered by world leaders and bankrolled by the CIA is not because
these institutions care very much for liberty in Tibet, but rather
because they want to ratchet up international pressure on their new
competitors in world politics: the Chinese. You don't have to be a
defender of the authoritarian regime in Beijing (and I most certainly
am not) to see that such global sabre-rattling is more likely to
entrench tensions between the Tibetan people and China, and increase
instability in world affairs, rather than herald anything like a new
era of freedom in the east.

Far from "helping Tibet", the slavish western worshippers of the
Dalai Lama are helping to stifle the development of a real, lively
movement for liberty and democracy in the Tibetan regions. One author
on the Tibetan independence movement argues that "the Dalai Lama's
role as ultimate spiritual authority is holding back the political
process of democratisation", since "the assumption that he occupies
the correct moral ground from a spiritual perspective means that any
challenge to his political authority may be interpreted as anti-religious".

At least one reason why the Dalai Lama can pose as "the ultimate
spiritual authority" and all-round supreme leader of Tibetans and
their future is because influential elements in the west have
empowered him to play that role. In doing so, they have been
complicit in the infantilisation of the Tibetan people. Tibetans now
suffer the double horror of being ruled by undemocratic Chinese
officials on one hand, and demeaned by the Dalai Lama and his western
supporters on the other.

Brendan O'Neill is editor of Spiked, the online magazine
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