Seduced by the Dalai Lama

He may be a global icon of goodness, as Pico Iyer's biography reminds us. But is the Dalai Lama the political leader Tibet needs?

By Louis Bayard
March 25, 2008 3:57PM (UTC)
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"Dalai Lama for Prez '08!"

The woman wearing that particular T-shirt was in the middle of a lat pull-down when I saw her, so I couldn't pose the question that came straight to mind: "Doesn't the guy already have a job?"

But as events of the past two weeks have shown, the 14th Dalai Lama may just be looking for a new line of work. A series of violent Tibetan protests against Chinese rule has provoked a massive counteroffensive by the Chinese government. Hundreds of alleged protesters and sympathizers now sit behind bars; Tibetan exiles have demanded a United Nations investigation of China's crimes, past and present; and calls are mounting for an international boycott of the Beijing Summer Olympics.


It's a volatile situation, getting only worse, and as ever, Tibet's spiritual leader has hewed to his "middle way," critiquing the extremism of both Tibetan rioters and Beijing riot breakers. While the Chinese government has gone to its usual hysterical lengths to paint the Dalai Lama as an instigator, it becomes clearer with each passing day how little he is consulted by young Tibetan radicals chafing after years of inaction.

In short, the future of Tibet, as a nation and as a people, could well be decided by parties other than the Dalai Lama, and this may be a happier development than many Tibetophiles realize. It might even make a happy man of the Dalai Lama. While still in his 30s, he was complaining to Trappist monk Thomas Merton about having to set aside spiritual devotions for the hard work of politics, and in recent years, he has talked repeatedly of stepping down -- even hinting that he may be the last of his reincarnated line.

Can the Dalai Lama, considered by many of his followers to be a living god, really fire himself? This question has real urgency for Tibetan Buddhists and, for the rest of us, some poignancy. As Pico Iyer's fortuitously timed biographical essay, "The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama," reminds us, Tenzin Gyatso never asked to be anything. "He was found at the age of two by a search party of monks, led to him after rainbows arced across the northeastern skies of Lhasa, a star-shaped fungus appeared on the pillar of the Potala Palace, and the head of the corpse of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama repeatedly moved in a northeasterly direction."


Rainbows ... swiveling heads -- there was no gainsaying omens of that order. But no one could have guessed that the god-child who emerged from such a shamanistic web would reemerge years later as such a globalized figure: earthy and earthly, amiable and enigmatic.

In part, we can attribute the Dalai Lama's transformation to his innate Catholicism. As Iyer writes, he "takes as his political model a Hindu (Gandhi), works closely with many Christians (Tutu, Václav Havel, Jimmy Carter), and lives in a country (India) that has the world's second-largest Muslim population."

More than enlarging his theology, though, he has opened his appointment book, making himself available (or so it would seem) to anyone who wants him. Today, nearly half a century after being forced out of his Himalayan enclave, he is in constant touch with world leaders, he is regularly feted by Hollywood and lionized by Madison Avenue, and his instantly recognizable face is plastered across T-shirts, bumper stickers and Apple ads. Children and CEOs and even Bobby Brown vie to touch his maroon robes. He's a touchstone of unassuming goodness, a giggling, belly-poking saint.


Iyer's challenge, then, is to get a private fix on a man who belongs, in some measure, to everyone. Iyer, a highly regarded essayist and novelist, has a knack for domesticating the exotic, and he's particularly gifted at setting scenes, which may be why his first instinct is to map his subject's terrain. In the performance of this task, his tread is both light and telling. His descriptions of Tibet convey, better than any propaganda, that region's steep decline. (The Potala Palace is now circled by swan boats, and Chinese officials, seeking to substitute flesh for spirit, have flooded Lhasa, the capital city, with hundreds of karaoke parlors and brothels, creating "a look that would not be out of place in Atlantic City.")

Even finer is Iyer's description of the Tibetan exile community in Dharamsala, India, a "wild bazaar of the sacred and profane" where monks stream out of Internet cafes, shops bristle with Tibetan tchotchkes, and a meditation center offers the following schedule: "Breakfast/ Impermanence and Death/ Suffering/ Selflessness/ Dinner/ Equanimity." Tibetan lads use their martyr mystique to woo girls and sponsors; signs like "Tibet Memory" and "Lost Horizon" wallow in old-fashioned Orientalism; and a thriving industry of beggars feeds off blissed-out Western tourists. (Not just Americans, either. At certain times of year, fully half the population of upper Dharamsala is Israeli.)


It's when Iyer turns his lens directly on his subject that he begins to lose footing. So rapidly that we may now conclude that the Dalai Lama cannot be directly observed without changing the observer. His charm, of course, is formidable, and he has added to it a component indispensable to good P.R.: access. Even Iyer, who has known the Dalai Lama a good long time, is dazed from the memory of meeting him the day after His Holiness won the Nobel Peace Prize and being spoken to "as openly and directly as if we were equals." And then to be invited to the Dalai Lama's 54th birthday party in the Malibu, Calif., hills! Famous faces crowding on every side! Cindy Crawford! Tina Chow!

Yes, one way or another, with or without his consent, Iyer has been seduced, and the language decays accordingly. The Dalai Lama, we are told, moves "at lightning speed from monk to head of state to philosopher-scientist to regular man." He is "a doctor of the soul" ... "on twenty-four-hour call for life" ... facing an "unending rush of emergency cases."

Let us step back a bit and admit that in a time of dreadful doctrinal certitude, the Dalai Lama has real allure. He goes out of his way to avoid converting people. He stresses the importance of science in contravening dogma. He urges his Tibetan followers to create a democratic constitution and governance -- "a coup against himself," Iyer calls it -- and unlike his good pal Pope John Paul II, he is even open to being succeeded by a woman (if he is succeeded at all).


"A religious teacher who is telling people not to get entangled or distracted by religion; a Tibetan who is suggesting that Tibet does not have all the answers; a Buddhist who, more and more, is urging foreigners not to take up Buddhism but to study within their own traditions, where their roots are deepest: at the very least, something quite radical is being advanced, it seems."

Something quite disarming, I would counter. In the warmth of the Dalai Lama's bespectacled gaze, we can more easily forget the less attractive aspects of his thinking -- his endorsement of nuclear weapons in India, his acceptance of contributions from Japanese terrorists. We can also, if we're really drunk on him, give him credit for changing the world.

But politics is not simply an extension of personality, and the fact remains that, under the Dalai Lama's watch, one of the world's great centers of Buddhism has been, in Iyer's words, "all but wiped off the map." Not a single nation currently recognizes the Tibetan government in exile, and the Dalai Lama's long-standing policy of accommodation and nonaggression -- he no longer calls for a separate Tibetan state, merely coexistence with the Chinese -- has failed to dislodge Tibet's occupiers by so much as a square inch.


Not all this failure can be laid at one man's door. You could even argue that the Tibetan cause was doomed from the moment Nixon pressed flesh with Mao. Or still earlier, if we are to take seriously Buddhist principles of karmic retribution. But when Iyer asks the Dalai Lama if Tibet's sufferings are a result of its "collective karma," he is greeted with gnomic fragments: "It's complicated ... mysterious." Which the bedazzled Iyer takes to mean that the answer "belonged to worlds I wasn't in a position to enter or understand." I take it to mean that the Dalai Lama lacks a good answer. (How many mountebanks have plied the same line: I could explain, but you wouldn't understand.) And perhaps it doesn't matter if he has the right answers anymore. The more vaguely he speaks, the more we fawn on him.

After all, he asks so little of us. For Western audiences, at least, the message boils down to the equivalent of a Benetton ad: Be nice, live happy. No profession of creed. No radical redistribution of income. (Richard Gere did pay for the bathrooms outside the Dalai Lama's main temple.) Not much self-sacrifice. (Feel free to wave your "Free Tibet" banner at the Chinese Embassy.) Not even much in the way of guilt for the 6 million or so Tibetans under China's yoke.

Hell, the Dalai Lama has forgiven China, so why shouldn't we? To hear him tell it: "Our real enemies are our own habitual tendencies toward thinking in terms of enemies ... Our terrors are of our own creation. The world itself is not so frightening, if only we can see it correctly."

With all due respect to His Holiness -- and with all due apologies for my Western bias -- this is horseshit. And something very close to an insult to those who have lived and died in terror, the Dalai Lama's compatriots in particular. Would he have dared offer this counsel to the 1 million Tibetans who were directly or indirectly killed by invading Chinese? To the countless others who were raped, sterilized, electroshocked? What about those Tibetan parents who were forced to applaud while their children were executed? Would they be expected to believe their sufferings were merely illusory and passing?


If what the Dalai Lama professes is truly Buddhism, then it raises the question, finally, of whether a monk can be an agent for political change in such a complex and dangerous world. Certainly, many of his own followers have begun to doubt it. To talk about peace while Tibetans are being killed, suggests one dissident interviewed by Iyer, is "tantamount to manslaughter." A 28-year-old protester in Kathmandu, Nepal, recently told a reporter, "I'm Tibetan, but I've never seen Tibet. All my life, we've been campaigning peacefully -- and what have we achieved?" "Nobody takes the middle way seriously anymore," declares writer Jamyang Norbu. "This is not non-violence. It is appeasement."

We can guess how the Dalai Lama would respond. Change happens slowly; governments change even more slowly. "Every word and tiny act has consequences," Iyer paraphrases, "though often there are consequences we cannot and will not ever see." Then how do we know there are consequences? It is a leap of faith that many Tibetans are no longer willing to make, and one wonders how persuaded the Dalai Lama is. He's no fool, after all. He can see as well as anyone that his homeland is virtually lost, that the larger world is still far from being "one body," that the incremental, soul-by-soul transformation he favors may not be reaching the souls that need transforming. Even after winning the Nobel Prize, he was heard to wonder "if my efforts are enough." And so he speaks, not surprisingly, of stepping down.

When that happens, we will have time -- Pico Iyer and the rest of us -- to decide what kind of phenomenon the Dalai Lama represents. But it's worth remembering once more what he was before that search party of monks found him: a boy like any other. There is a haunting picture of him, taken not long after he was discovered, his grave face staring out from a carapace of priestly garments weighing nearly as much as he does. What a burden to place on a child: to be a god. What a burden to place on an old man: to be a savior. All these years, we've been willing to believe almost anything of him. Why can't we at last take him at his word? That he wants to be left alone?

Louis Bayard

Louis Bayard is a novelist and reviewer. His books include "Mr. Timothy" and "The Black Tower."

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