His material highness

Far from his holier-than-all image, the Dalai Lama supports such questionable causes as India's nuclear testing, sex with prostitutes and accepting donations from a Japanese terrorist cult.

Published July 13, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

The Dalai Lama has come out in support of the thermonuclear tests recently conducted by the Indian state, and has done so in the very language of the chauvinist parties who now control that state's affairs. The "developed" countries, he says, must realize that India is a major contender and should not concern themselves with its internal affairs. This is a perfectly realpolitik statement, so crass and banal and opportunist that it would not deserve any comment if it came from another source.

"Think different," says the ungrammatical Apple Computer advertisement that features the serene visage of His Holiness. Among the untested assumptions of this billboard campaign is the widely and lazily held belief that "Oriental" religion is different from other faiths: less dogmatic, more contemplative, more ... transcendental. This blissful, thoughtless exceptionalism has been conveyed to the West through a succession of mediums and narratives, ranging from the pulp novel "Lost Horizon," by James Hilton (creator of Mr. Chips as well as Shangri-La), to the memoir "Seven Years in Tibet," by SS veteran Heinrich Harrer, prettified for the screen by Brad Pitt. China's foul conduct in an occupied land, combined with a Hollywood cult that almost exceeds the power of Scientology, has fused with weightless Maharishi and Bhagwan-type babble to create an image of an idealized Tibet and of a saintly god-king. So perhaps the Apple injunction to think differently is worth heeding.

The greatest triumph that modern PR can offer is the transcendent success of having your words and actions judged by your reputation, rather than the other way about. The "spiritual leader" of Tibet has enjoyed this unassailable status for some time now, becoming a byword and synonym for saintly and ethereal values. Why this doesn't put people on their guard I'll never know. But here are some other facts about the serene leader that, dwarfed as they are by his endorsement of nuclear weapons, are still worth knowing and still generally unknown.

  • Shoko Asahara, leader of the Supreme Truth cult in Japan and spreader of sarin nerve gas on the Tokyo subway, donated 45 million rupees, or about 170 million yen (about $1.2 million), to the Dalai Lama and was rewarded for his efforts by several high-level meetings with the divine one.

  • Steven Seagal, the robotic and moronic "actor" who gave us "Hard to Kill" and "Under Siege," has been proclaimed a reincarnated lama and a sacred vessel or "tulku" of Tibetan Buddhism. This decision, ratified by Penor Rinpoche, supreme head of the Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism, was initially received with incredulity by Richard Gere, who had hitherto believed himself to be the superstar most favored. "If someone's a tulku, that's great," he was quoted as saying. "But no one knows if that's true." How insightful, if only accidentally. At a subsequent Los Angeles appearance by the Dalai Lama, Seagal was seated in the front row and Gere two rows back, thus giving the latter's humility and submissiveness a day at the races. Suggestions that Seagal's fortune helped elevate him to the Himalayan status of tulku are not completely discounted even by some adepts and initiates.

  • Supporters of the Dorge Shugden deity -- a "Dharma protector" and an ancient object of worship and propitiation in Tibet -- have been threatened with violence and ostracism and even death following the Dalai Lama's abrupt prohibition of this once-venerated godhead. A Swiss television documentary graphically intercuts footage of His Holiness, denying all knowledge of menace and intimidation, with scenes of his followers' enthusiastically promulgating "Wanted" posters and other paraphernalia of excommunication and persecution.

  • While he denies being a Buddhist "Pope," the Dalai Lama is never happier than when brooding in a celibate manner on the sex lives of people he has never met. "Sexual misconduct for men and women consists of oral and anal sex," he has repeatedly said in promoting his book on these matters. "Using one's hand, that is sexual misconduct." But, as ever with religious stipulations, there is a nutty escape clause. "To have sexual relations with a prostitute paid by you and not by a third person does not constitute improper behavior." Not all of this can have been said just to placate Richard Gere, or to attract the royalties from "Pretty Woman."

I have talked to a few Dorge Shugden adherents, who seem sincere enough and who certainly seem frightened enough, but I can't go along with their insistence on the "irony" of all this. Buddhism can be as hysterical and sanguinary as any other system that relies on faith and tribe. Lon Nol's Cambodian army was Buddhist at least in name. Solomon Bandaranaike, first elected leader of independent Sri Lanka, was assassinated by a Buddhist militant. It was Buddhist-led pogroms against the Tamils that opened the long and disastrous communal war that ruins Sri Lanka to this day. The gorgeously named SLORC, the military fascism that runs Burma, does so nominally as a Buddhist junta. I have even heard it whispered that in old Tibet, that pristine and contemplative land, the lamas were the allies of feudalism and unsmilingly inflicted medieval punishments such as blinding and flogging unto death.

Yet the entire Western mass media is uncritically at the service of a mere mortal who, at the very least, proclaims the utter nonsense of reincarnation and who affirms the sinister if not indeed crazy belief that death is but a stage in a grand cycle of what appears to be futility and subjection. What need, then, to worry about nuclear weaponry, or sectarian frenzy, or the sale of indulgences to men of the stamp of Steven Seagal? "Harmony" will doubtless kick in. During his visit to Beijing, our sentimental Baptist hypocrite of a president turned to his dictator host, recommended that he meet with the Dalai Lama and assured him that the two of them would get on well. That might easily turn out to be the case. Both are very much creatures of the material world.

By Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens is a regular contributor to Vanity Fair, the Nation and Salon News.

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