Join our Mailing List

"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Stop the lama love-in

November 26, 2009

He's adorable, yes, but just what is the Dalai Lama accomplishing?
by Andy Lamey
Maclean's Magazine (Canada)
November 25, 2009

Everyone loves the Dalai Lama. Just how much was
on display two weeks ago when the Tibetan
religious leader paid a visit to the town of
Tawang in northeastern India. Ethnic Tibetans
travelled to the frontier outpost from all over
the sub-continent in order to venerate the
74-year-old monk at a huge outdoor rally. “He is
our god, he is the living Buddha. A glimpse of
the Dalai Lama is like getting spiritual power
inside you,” said one participant in explaining
the extraordinary adulation the Dalai Lama
inspires. Here in Canada, our view is not so
different. When the Dalai Lama travelled to
Vancouver, Calgary and Montreal last month, tens
of thousands crowded into stadiums to hear his
message of universal compassion. The rapturous
reception was in keeping with our decision in
2006 to grant him citizenship, the highest honour
Canada bestows on foreign leaders. The Dalai
Lama’s other admirers include the U.S.
government, which awarded him the Congressional
Gold Medal, and the Nobel Peace Prize committee.
The general feeling of Lama-mania was summed up
by TV star Sandra Oh, who co-hosted one of his
Canadian appearances. "He’s a rock star! Rock star! Seriously, a rock star!"

Yet if the Dalai Lama is a rock star, does he
live up to the hype? His spiritual teachings
contain elements of illogic and intolerance that
would not be accepted from any other religious
figure. That these go unnoticed is largely due to
the way Tibetan Buddhism functions as a spiritual
Rorschach blot onto which Westerners project
their hopes and desires. The primary problem,
however, is political. In addition to being a
spiritual figure, the Dalai Lama is the leader of
the Free Tibet movement. And when it comes to
advancing that goal, he has been a resounding
failure. Uncritical adulation legitimizes the
Dalai Lama’s failed leadership and undermines one
of the great political causes of our time.

It’s not hard to understand the Dalai Lama’s
appeal. At first glance he holds out the promise
of religious belief purged of any trace of
fundamentalism. When it comes to modern science,
for example, he has said that when it conflicts
with Buddhist teachings, Buddhism should be
revised. Other theological statements he has
made, such as his declaration that “any deed done
with good motivation is a religious act,” bespeak
a similarly open-minded temperament.

But this progressive outlook can sometimes turn
out to be illusory. Consider the teaching for
which he may be best known, his doctrine of
universal compassion. As he has written,
“non-violence applies not just to human beings,
but to all sentient beings—any living thing that
has a mind.” That belief is why, when the Dalai
Lama was invited to a fundraising luncheon for a
monastery in Wisconsin in 2007, the organizers
expected him to ask for a vegetarian meal.
Instead they watched him happily ingest pheasant
and veal. “He pretty much lapped up every single
plate that he had put in front of him," one
tablemate later said. "He loves food; he likes
good food." The Dalai Lama, it turns out, is
vegetarian at his official residence in India but
not while travelling. But a doctrine of
compassion that switches on and off depending on
geography is not much of a doctrine at all.

The Dalai Lama’s position on same-sex
relationships is equally puzzling. "I look at the
issue at two levels," he told the Vancouver Sun
in 2004. Homosexuality is perfectly acceptable
for non-believers. And for people who look to the
Dalai Lama for guidance? “For a Buddhist, the
same-sex union is engaging in sexual misconduct.”
The double-sided approach is rooted in a
traditional method of explaining discrepancies
between schools of Buddhism, whereby the Buddha
is said to have taught different things to
different people. But as with the doctrine of
compassion, the Dalai Lama’s considered view ends
up being a sloppy relativist mess. Or at least it
does in the West, where he is obliged to state
his view regarding non-Buddhists. When addressing
Buddhists directly the Dalai Lama’s position is
less complicated -- and more crudely prejudicial.

This side of the Dalai Lama’s spiritual teachings
is never subject to criticism. Why? One
possibility is that the Dalai Lama solves a
specifically Western problem. In the 19th century
the shared religious values that once permeated
our civilization began a “long withdrawing roar,”
as Matthew Arnold put it. Any religion one adopts
now is merely one possibility among many, a
reality that drains each of its explanatory value
and force. An infatuation with the Dalai Lama is
the Goldilocks solution for a culture that finds
traditional religion too hot and atheism too
cold. His exoticism marks him as authentic, and
subjecting his teachings to critical scrutiny is
beside the point, as there is never any chance we
are going to engage his teachings seriously
enough to be challenged by them. We instead want
to bask in his distant spiritual glow.

The Dalai Lama’s appeal is arguably closely
entwined with the peculiar fascination the West
has long exhibited for all things Tibetan. When
Europeans discovered Tibet, it was a remote
kingdom that had never been colonized and still
seemed to exist in the ancient past. It quickly
became a land of fantasy. Shangri-La, the
mystical Tibetan paradise, was first depicted in
the 1933 novel Lost Horizon by James Hilton. In
the late 1930s the Nazis sent an expedition to
Tibet, hoping to find an ancient race of Aryans.
After the devastation of the Second World War,
European intellectuals imagined Tibet as "an
unarmed society." As Buddhist scholar Donald
Lopez notes, these myths have a common source. In
each case, “the West perceives some lack within
itself and fantasizes that the answer, through a
process of projection, is to be found somewhere in the East.”

This process continued after China invaded Tibet
in 1959, and many Tibetans were driven into
exile. When the Beatles recorded Tomorrow Never
Knows, John Lennon wanted his voice to sound like
“the Dalai Lama on the mountain top.” Remember
the cuddly and eco-friendly Ewoks in Return of
the Jedi? The language they spoke was modified
Tibetan. Today Tibet is embraced by celebrities
ranging from the Beastie Boys to action hero
Steven Seagal. “The Dalai Lama gave me a
spiritual blessing that would not have been given
to anyone who was not special,” Seagal announced
in 1996. “I don’t think he has given such a blessing to another white person."

Just how special Seagal is became clear in 1997
when Tibetan religious authority Penor Rinpoche
declared him to be the reincarnation of a
17th-century lama. However ridiculous it may seem
to imagine the star of Exit Wounds and Pistol
Whipped as a holy being, Seagal’s anointment
symbolizes the transformation Tibetan Buddhism
has undergone as it has come in contact with new
patrons and admirers in the West. Rather than
something “out there,” Tibetan culture is
influenced by how Westerners engage with it.

Unfortunately, on a political level, that
influence has been highly negative. Seeing how
requires understanding the different and at times
conflicting roles the Dalai Lama now plays in
addition to being the spiritual head of Tibetan
Buddhism. Nowhere is this more true than in
regard to his position as leader of the Tibetan
government in exile, and the Free Tibet movement more broadly.

Since China invaded Tibet it has engaged in a
campaign of ruthless repression. It is official
government policy to "end the nomadic way of
life” of traditional Tibetans and to forcibly
resettle them. Tibetans who protest are subject
to show trials and torture. Opposing China’s
actions has rightly been characterized as a moral
struggle on the scale of the movement against
apartheid or for Indian independence.
Unfortunately, the Dalai Lama is the equal of
neither Nelson Mandela nor Gandhi. He is as
miscast as the head of Tibet liberation as the
pope would have been leading the struggle against
Hitler. Under his leadership political goals have
inevitably taken a back seat to spiritual ones.

A comparison to South Africa is instructive. One
of the most inspiring moments in the struggle
against apartheid came during the famous Rivonia
trial when Nelson Mandela, faced with a possible
death sentence, spoke from the prisoner’s dock.
Freedom, he said, was “an ideal which I hope to
live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is
an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
Mandela’s speech galvanized the anti-apartheid
movement. The Dalai Lama’s pronouncements, by
contrast, could not be less defiant. “I practise
certain mental exercises which promote love
toward all sentient beings, including especially
my so-called enemies." Mandela endorsed an
international boycott of South African athletes.
When China hosted the 2008 Olympics, the Dalai
Lama sent Beijing his regards. "I send my prayers
and good wishes for the success of the event." If
the Dalai Lama had led the struggle in South
Africa, apartheid would still be in effect.
Unsurprisingly, 50 years after the occupation, Tibet is still not free.

At times it seems that is what Western
Tibetophiles would unknowingly prefer. In the
words of actor Richard Gere, a long-time advocate
of Tibetan independence, “Many of us constantly
remind our Tibetan friends, ‘You must maintain
that sense of uniqueness and that genuine
cultural commitment to non-violence. If you pick
up arms and become like the Palestinians, you’ll lose your special status.’”

Leave aside the fact that the moral case for
armed resistance in Tibet is as strong as it was
in France under German occupation. There are many
steps an independence movement can take that fall
short of violence, measures such as strikes or
boycotts. The Dalai Lama has thrown himself into
none of these, which are all at odds with loving
one’s enemy. This approach is reinforced by his
Western admirers, who are drawn to the myth of
Tibet as an unarmed society (even though Tibet
has fought armies from Mongolia, Nepal and
Britain). The overall effect of his staunchest
Western fans therefore has been to reward and
perpetuate an approach to Tibetan independence
that has no hope of ever succeeding.

To be fair, his Holiness has begun to admit as
much. "I have to accept failure; things are not
improving in Tibet," he said last November,
acknowledging the “death sentence” Tibetans
continue to face under Chinese rule. His
supporters stress the awareness he brings to the
Tibetan cause and the anger Chinese officials
express whenever the Dalai Lama receives an
audience with a Western leader. But after a
certain point, awareness has to give way to action.

Slowly, another political faction is taking form.
As one young Tibetan who has spent his entire
life in exile in India said in March, “We do not
get anything from China. So some young people
want to go to a little bit of violence—not to
kill anyone but to do something so that China
knows they will actively [resist].” Such a view
is in keeping with the position of the Tibetan
Youth Congress, which stands for “the total
independence of Tibet even at the cost of one’s
life.” If progress is to ever be made on Tibet,
these approaches need to be taken seriously. But
that can only happen if the Dalai Lama steps
aside as a political leader, and lets a new generation take over.

First, however, public perception of the Dalai
Lama needs to change. As it stands, when people
turn their attention to him, they do so in the
spirit of answering John Lennon’s call to “turn
off your mind, relax, and float downstream.” The
outcome of this lazy attitude is to reinforce the
Dalai Lama’s leadership and his counterproductive
efforts to free his people. The basic problem was
summed up by the Dalai Lama himself when he
stated, “I find no contradiction at all between
politics and religion.” So long as the Dalai Lama
is regarded as a figure of both spiritual and
political liberation, his efforts to make the
first goal happen will ensure the second never does.
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665   ctcoffice@tibet.ca
Developed by plank