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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Opinion: From exile came liberation for the Dalai Lama

May 24, 2009

The Nation (Thailand)
May 25, 2009

ON MAY 10, Fareed Zakaria interviewed His
Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama on CNN. During the
interview, His Holiness admitted his policy of
non-violence had failed to win autonomy for
Tibet, and also noted that he might be
reincarnated outside Tibet. This dual vision
typifies the Dalai Lama's outlook - in political
matters, a pragmatic realism; in religious
matters, an unwavering commitment to his own tradition.

The Dalai Lama is the pre-eminent spiritual
figure of our age. Anyone who has observed him
over the years is bound to have been impressed by
his constant steady growth. Here is a man who was
born into a feudal, backward society, who spent
his youth isolated from the outside world,
practically imprisoned in a medieval palace,
schooled and drilled in an ancient tradition by a
hierarchy of conservative old monks.

Yet here also is a man who, by a stroke of fate
that most people would consider disastrous, was
expelled from that hermetically sealed
environment and thrust into the modern world; a
man who, slowly and by degrees, has come to grips
with that world and integrated its scientific
discoveries into his own thinking.

Anyone who has doubts about the Dalai Lama's
amazing intellectual evolution is invited to read
his book "The Universe in a Single Atom", in
which he summarises his discussions with particle
physicists, cosmologists and neuroscientists and
applies their conclusions to the doctrines of Tibetan Buddhism.

The Tibetans believe that the Dalai Lama is the
incarnation of Chenrezig, or Avalokiteshvara, the
Bodhisattva of Compassion, whom the Chinese
transformed into the popular female deity Kwan
Yin, "she who heeds the cries of the world".

The Dalai Lama certainly embodies compassion; but
a study of his life suggests that he also
embodies the principle represented by another
Bodhisattva -Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom.

One is not born an embodiment of wisdom: one
becomes it. A major characteristic of wisdom is
that it is always reaching out for new and
greater knowledge, from whatever source. Another characteristic is humility.

The Dalai Lama embodies both these traits. He is
the only religious leader I know of who has
admitted that if scientific discoveries
contradict religious beliefs, it is religion that has to give way.

He is also the only religious leader I know of
who has the courage to say, "I don't know" - and
to say it so often that his followers become
anxious that it will undermine his authority. In
this he reveals the detachment and lack of ego
that are among the signs of spiritual greatness.

But the Dalai Lama has a problem. His position
obliges him to exercise political as well as religious responsibilities.

History shows that politics and religion are
usually a bad mix. You might think that religion
would elevate politics, but the reverse is more
often true: politics brings religion down.

The most obvious example is the Roman Catholic
Church in medieval times. In those days the pope
was both a spiritual authority and a political ruler - and often corrupt.

Ordinarily, political power and spiritual growth
are mutually exclusive. Jesus put it best when he
said, "You cannot serve both God and Mammon".

Mammon was a pagan god of riches; but if there
had been a pagan god of political power, his name
might easily have been substituted. Jesus' dictum
could be amended to read "You cannot both serve God and act as Caesar".

Religious people who go in for political power
almost invariably suffer a fall. When saints
enter the shark pool, they get eaten. Either
that, or they turn into sharks themselves.

It is to the Dalai Lama's great credit that he
has broken the mould and proven to be an
exception to this rule. He has managed his dual
role with great astuteness and skill.

He has often said that all he wanted to be was a
simple monk. But the role of head of state,
though in exile, was thrust upon him.

He has played this role for all these years
without compromising his spiritual integrity.
Indeed, he has grown spiritually despite it.

This is not to say that he has been successful as
a political leader. It's true that he has managed
to keep the Tibetan community together in exile,
and has established many institutions to promote the welfare of the refugees.

But his main political goal - to secure political
autonomy for the Tibetans who still live within
Tibet - has been frustrated by the unyielding stance of the Chinese government.

In that he has failed; and the prospects of
success look ever more dim as time rolls on.

Anyone who has visited Tibet, however committed
to the Dalai Lama and his cause, cannot fail to
be impressed (and dismayed!) by the iron grip
that China has on the country and its people.

When I first traversed the so-called Friendship
Highway between Kathmandu and Lhasa in 1986, I
was appalled by the difficulties the Chinese must
have endured - not only in building the road
through such forbidding terrain, but in
constructing electricity lines along its entire length.

At Zhangmu, just over the border from Nepal,
there was a monument to the workers who had lost
their lives building the road. I don't remember
the number, but it was significant.

Having sacrificed so much in blood and treasure
to build the road, the Chinese were certainly not about to let it go.

Subsequent visits reinforced this view. Lhasa has
been thoroughly sinicised, with all the bleakness
that such a term has come to imply.

But in China, bleakness now dwells cheek-by-jowl
with gaudiness, which is currently gaining the
upper hand. Contemporary Lhasa has a big,
state-of-the-art red-light district, with
flashing neon signs, karaoke bars, discos,
nightclubs, massage parlours and brothels. Some
of the monasteries have been restored to a
degree, but mainly as tourist attractions.

No doubt the old Tibetan culture survives in the
hinterlands; but in Lhasa, except as a concession
to tourists, it is effectively dead.

Nowadays, if you want to experience Tibetan
culture, you don't go to Lhasa. You go to
Dharamsala, Ladakh, Sikkim, Bhutan and the
refugee settlements in India and Nepal.

All of this suggests that the Dalai Lama might be
advised to forget about securing political
autonomy for his homeland and focus more
intensely on his spiritual and cultural role.

I say this in genuine sorrow. It is not for a
pipsqueak like me to tell a giant like the Dalai
Lama what to do. I am merely offering a timid suggestion.

His Holiness has admitted that all his efforts to
secure autonomy for Tibet and its people have
failed. It is clear that the Chinese are not
going to relax their grip anytime in the
foreseeable future. It may be time to accept this
grim truth and practice the Buddhist principle of "letting go".

The old Tibet may be dead, but its culture
survives among the Tibetan diaspora. Even there
it is threatened by the temptations of
contemporary consumer culture, the glitz and flash of our switched-on world.

The challenge for Tibetan religion is especially
acute. I suspect that the average young Tibetan
would rather get a degree in computer science
than retire to the confines of a monastery to sip
butter tea and chant ancient mantras.

Nowadays the BlackBerry has supplanted the prayer
wheel. Praying is out of style; people would
rather google. Chanting is also out of style; people would rather twitter.

If the Tibetan religion cannot survive among the
Tibetan diaspora, where people have the freedom
to choose, we can hardly expect it to survive
within Tibet itself, where it is under heavy
siege and there is no freedom to choose.

So it might be wise for the Dalai Lama to
redirect his efforts, and focus on strengthening,
deepening and renewing Tibetan Buddhism in the
areas where he has the greatest influence.

This means not only among the Tibetan diaspora,
but also among the legions of Westerners who have
developed an interest in Tibetan Buddhism.

Centuries ago, Buddhism died out in India, the
land of its birth, but spread to other countries.
Tibetan Buddhism may also die out in Tibet, but
spread abroad to influence the world.

Buddhism later revived in India. In the same way,
under more auspicious conditions, it may some day revive in Tibet.

It will survive in exile and revive in its
homeland more easily if the Dalai Lama applies
his spiritual authority to renewing and, if
necessary, reforming it to meet the challenges of
the modern age. He has already been doing that,
of course. What I am suggesting is that he keep on doing it, and do it more.

We live in a spiritually impoverished age. The
Dalai Lama has done much to enrich it, but he still has much to contribute.

Future generations may one day come to view the
Dalai Lama's exile from Tibet as a liberation
rather than as a disaster. Without it, he might
very well have remained cooped up within that
feudal environment - isolated, suffocating
intellectually, unable to spread his wings.

In that sense, Tibet's loss may be the world's
gain. Ultimately, the Dalai Lama's exile may turn
out to have been a blessing for the world.
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