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.