Cuddly Dalai Lama?

Here’s an article that was sent to me by two people, both John Wendel and, about an hour later, by Mer. It’s about how the cuddly feelgood New Age version of the Dalai Lama is our fantasy creation. The “us” to whom I ascribe this “our” being, of course, the New Age feelgood-addicted West.

I know John and Mer both very likely know that my own thinking on the issue of Tibet and the Tibetan government-in-exile (ie. the theocracy that was desposed by Chinese soldiers) is far from blind sympathy, but I did realize that perhaps many of the people who know I plan on spending time this winter in Dharamsala don’t know this.

The image we have to the Dalai Lama is certainly curious:

The Dalai Lama has become whoever we want him to be, a cuddly projection of our hopes and dreams. This enthusiasm, though, has not translated into any tangible political benefit for Tibetans. He has been seen on advertisements for Apple computers and software; significantly, he was not paid for either of these uses of his image. Some books purportedly written by the Dalai Lama are scarcely by him at all, but have his face on the cover to increase sales.

In reality, Tibetan Buddhism is not a values-free system oriented around smiles and a warm heart. It is a religion with tough ethical underpinnings that sometimes get lost in translation. For example, he condemns homosexuality, and all oral and anal sex. His stand is close to that of Pope John Paul II, something his Western followers prefer to ignore. His US publisher even asked him to remove the injunctions against homosexuality from his book, Ethics for the New Millennium, for fear they would offend US readers, and the Dalai Lama acquiesced.

I’m not quite so harsh as the author, Patrick French. I wouldn’t say, as French implies, that the Dalai Lama should abandon “his main demands: a democratic, demilitarised, enlarged and genuinely autonomous state.” I do agree that the influence of his religion and popularity may not do much good for people inside Tibet, however. I wonder how much cultural change has happened between the two groups; whether it’s as much as happened between North and South Koreans, for example. I wonder what kind of community would return to Tibet if the Dalai Lama returned under conditions other than those he is demanding these days. I wonder if Tibet would continue to have support from the West if it were made autonomous.

I have other wild speculations, and I typed them out here but then I cut them. I’m pasting them into my writing notes, because those ideas are too good to waste here. They can go into my novel. :)

3 thoughts on “Cuddly Dalai Lama?

  1. I have known the Dalai Lama for 25 years, used to work for him, lived in Dharamsala
    for many years, know a lot about the inner workings of the Tibetan Government in Exile,
    knew his senior tutor etc etc.

    Its all a lot more complicated and extremly simple at the same time. How can Westerners
    understand Tibetan Culture ? Live in India for 20 years. There is no other way. If there was I would be the first to tell you but there isnt.

    The Dalai Lama. Forget all the talk. Just clean forget it. Pray for his long life.
    I know a lot of stories, and some I will never be able to tell. I found out who he is,
    not because I am smarter than others but simply because I happened to in the right place
    at the right time , sheer luck, nothing else. Pray for his long life and if you ever meet him
    take a good look. Maybe you will understand who he is, right there and then or maybe it will take until the last day of your life, makes no difference. There is a very small number
    of people of his kind on this planet . They dont usually work in public. You ever wondered why we havent had a nuclear war yet, against al odds ?
    Believe me, I have nothing to prove , nothing at all. Hey, be happy !

  2. as it turns out, I will actually be living in Dharamsala for a couple of months… a friend of a friend who lives there offered me the chance to live in her house while she is away, and I am going in January until February. should I be lucky enough to meet the man himself, I would be pleased to do so. (maybe I’ll even bring him some nice korean green tea in case.)

    since I’ve never met a “great man” of the kind you are speaking of when speaking about the dalai lama, I have trouble believing in that kind of idea. it’s an idea that’s been used in western historiography often to neglect the true facts of history, or twist them to poltical ends. still, I am not saying such peopel don’t exist. this year, for the first time in a long long time, I met someone who threw doubt onto some of my old skepticisms about human life and connections. so maybe there might be something to this idea, too.

    as for understanding Tibetan culture taking many years… that’s true of any culture, I think. many of my korean friends “adapt” to western ideas, but they don’t quite “get” them a lot of the time. we can talk through the barriers, and often even understand one another, but there are things we don’t quite “understand” in one anothers’ thinking. like confucian age stratification. I understand how it works and sort of even why people observe it… but I don’t understand why people my age don’t kind of get SO sick of it that they question it openly, loudly, all the time.

    I also think that an important thing to remember is, companies (which is what I have called “the west” earlier, though companies is more what I mean) is going to try to use the dalai lama for its own ends, meaning profit. it may be that he can do some of his work through the media, of course. but I happen to think that there are good and bad things about both “cultures”. I’m a westerner, and a fairly progressive one, so I think any bans on something like sexuality or what people do in their bedrooms (as long as they’re consenting adults) is not sensible or healthy… I agree many people aren’t what I think of as healthy, but once we start claiming there is an absolute moral code for things like this, we have a hell of a time agreeing on what it is.

    I also think that romanticizing Tibet into a lost Shangri-La will do more harm than good. Hollywood loves eternal victims, and there’s a meme in western thought about “once a victim, always a victim”. if one sees it more as a political mess that needs to be sorted out, people can be rational about it. when people are emotional, but at a distance, you get crocodile tears and inaction.

    anyway, it’s all complicated. maybe I will understand a little more after I live in Dharamsala for a few months. if you know of anyone there who would be happy to talk about this with me, I’d love to know who.

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