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Why does the West love the Dalai Lama?

February 19, 2010

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine
February 18, 2010

A US president is again choosing to meet the
Dalai Lama despite Chinese opposition. But why is
this Tibetan spiritual and political leader such a popular figure in the West?

To the Chinese government and to many of its
people he is an inciter of violence and a
defender of a brutal, backward, feudalistic, theocratic society.

But to many politicians and people in the West,
the Dalai Lama is a kind of smiling, spiritual and political superhero.

His monastic robes, beaming countenance and
squarish, unfashionable glasses are the stuff of
a thousand photo opportunities. To some he is in
a league of international personalities that
contains only one other person - Nelson Mandela.

He is well-known for his contact with Hollywood
supporters like Richard Gere and Steven Segal.

Those who have met him describe an intense personal charisma.

There is a "wonderful smiling face, cherubic
looks, the infectious laugh" says Alexander
Norman, who co-operated with the Dalai Lama on
his autobiography as well as several other works
after first meeting him in 1988.

It is hard to escape the idea that the Dalai Lama
is perceived almost as an avuncular "Santa Claus"
figure by some, says Dr Nathan Hill, senior
lecturer in Tibetan at the School of Oriental and African Studies.

"He is very photogenic. In the West we like
stars. He is an extremely engaging person, and an
extremely smart man. I find him extremely savvy
politically, very forward looking."

There are many in the West who are seeking an
unthreatening spiritual boost in an age of
materialism, suggests Norman, who recently wrote
The Secret Lives of the Dalai Lama.

"There is a huge desire in the secular West" a
hunger for something other than the benefits that
modern industrial society can supply."

Search on Amazon for the Dalai Lama's books and
you see long lists of spiritual and self-help tracts.

"He is unstained by the world [to some readers],"
says Dr Hill. "You want to read his books in
order to find enlightenment yourself."

Tibetan Mystique

And the appreciation of the Dalai Lama taps into
some older Western ideas about Tibet as a remote Shangri-La.

"Tibet had a policy from 1792-1903 not to allow
Westerners into the country," says Dr Hill. "That
fostered a mystique. We have this nation that was
almost completely closed to white people.

"When you start to get more information you get
the notion of Tibet as a mystical hidden land of
magic and wonder. It is a kind of product of
European adventure travel literature."

There is a sense that the Dalai Lama is
politically extrapolated in a way that may not be totally grounded in reality.

"He is a sort of pin-up boy for a lot of
movements - the animal rights movement, religious
syncretism," says Norman. "There is a lot of
wishful thinking that goes on in connection with the Dalai Lama."

Western confusion over the Dalai Lama is best
illustrated by the attempts to analyse his position on gay rights.

He has expressed an aversion to gay sex, and even
oral sex among heterosexual couples, and yet at
other times has taken a more nuanced line, says Norman.

"He will say it's your choice, it's up to
people's own conscience. He is very conscious of not giving people offence."

There is criticism of him from some Tibetan
exiles for sticking to a moderate, non-violent
stance, says Norman. There has also been
criticism from religious opponents who say he has
wrongly proscribed worship of a deity called Shugden.

Starry-eyed Admirers

"Among exiles there is an increasingly vocal
minority that opposes him, but it's a small
minority," says Robert Barnett, director of
Modern Tibetan Studies at Columbia University.

"The Dalai Lama is a wolf wrapped in a habit, a
monster with human face and animal's heart"

Widely reported translation of comments by Zhang
Qingli, the Communist Party Secretary in Tibet

"Inside Tibet there is near universal admiration
for him, and for his attempts to get a non-violent solution."

There is discussion about whether the Dalai Lama
and his colleagues paint an accurate picture of
Tibet before the Chinese intervention in 1950, or
whether any mythology is the invention of Western admirers.

There is even a belief among some starry-eyed
admirers in a pre-1950 Tibet where "women enjoyed
equal rights and everyone was in harmony with the environment", says Dr Hill.

But the blame for any mythologising cannot be
laid entirely at the door of the Dalai Lama, says Norman.

"On the one hand you could accuse him of peddling
an unrealistic picture of what Tibet was actually
like. On the other hand Tibetans genuinely think
of their country in those terms - this romantic image."

Chinese criticism of the Dalai Lama, while
predominantly concerned with the idea that Tibet
is historically part of China, also lambasts the
idea of a pre-1950 Shangri-La and focuses on
serfdom, and poor living conditions.

"The Dalai Lama has been one of the harshest
critics of 'old Tibet'," says Donald Lopez,
Professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies at the University of Michigan.

Cup of Tea Diplomacy

"He is not a purveyor of the Shangri-La Syndrome.
There is evidence that he would have introduced
political reforms if the Chinese had not invaded."

And the idea that the Westerners who venerate the
Dalai Lama are unaware of the complexities of the
Tibet Question is false, despite it being "very fashionable" says Prof Barnett.

Tibet's place at the junction of three nuclear
powers and with a key part in the world's water
supply will always make the Tibet Question more
than a Western liberal hobby horse.

There is a clear rationale for the political
leaders who meet him despite Chinese pressure.
For those who feel uncomfortable about Chinese
human rights abuses it is a chance to irritate
China without risking a full-on diplomatic incident.

"[The Dalai Lama] is an ideal opportunity for
them, because as a political leader, he asks for
very little - he seems quite happy to accept a
merely symbolic gesture like a cup of tea and a photo," says Prof Barnett.

"The more China complains, the more Western
leaders look strong and principled when they meet him."

It is perhaps understandable that he has met
every serving US president since 1991.

But to ordinary people, whether right or wrong,
the Dalai Lama's box office appeal is more about
the charisma of the man and the ideas that they believe he is sympathetic to.

As Norman notes his Western fans see a "secular
saint" or a "politically correct god for a godless world."
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