dalai lama delusion

by lina peng

march 2008

Anyone who follows the news (myself included) has recently been bombarded with minute by minute updates of the situation in Tibet. A quick summary of events thus far: On March 10th, some Buddhist monks demonstrated in Lhasa (the capital of Tibet). This has sparked off ongoing anti-Chinese rioting in Lhasa and surrounding provinces by ethnic Tibetans. So far, some 20 people have been killed and many more injured. Unkind words have been said by both sides with the Chinese accusing of the Dalai Lama of trying to ruin the Olympic Games, the Dalai Lama saying “cultural genocide” has occurred. And as always, the West tip toes haphazardly in between.

To many in the Western audience, the Tibetan “struggle for independence” is a battle of good versus evil, of a lost peoples crying out for the loss of their peace loving spiritual leader. As much as the Western audience loves a story of absolute good triumphing over absolute evil, our common sense and indeed our common responsibility impel us to devote at least a couple of minutes to dig a little deeper. Before hunkering down (or up?) in a tree with “Free Tibet!” signs, let’s be clear about what may or may not ground that support.

First off, some Tibetan Buddhism 101. Buddhism came to Tibet in the 3rd century from India, and since then has developed unique characteristics including an emphasis on shamanism and rituals borrowed Bon (the actual native Tibetan religion). Lama simply refers to a honored Buddhist teacher. The Dalai Lama, however, serves the functional role of a Bodhisattva, or an enlightened being who has postponed nirvana to help guide others along the path to enlightenment. The catch-all term “Tibetan Buddhism” is a misnomer because there are have been numerous sects and sub-sects historically and which still exist in current practice. Furthermore, there are a minority of Tibetans who adhere to Islam, Hinduism, Bon and Christianity whom conveniently are never mentioned. Only one sect of Tibetan Buddhism, the Gelugpa tradition (the newest and most popular), claims the Dalai Lama as its spiritual head. Gelugpa school came to be dominant after its leaders gained political supremacy in the 17th century. The struggle to define Tibetan Buddhism and indeed control Tibet always has been and I dare say always will be, a political struggle.

The current Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, claims to be the 14th physical reincarnation of the original Dalai Lama, Gedun Drub, who lived from 1391-1474. Pause for second to think about what that actually means. It is saying that Tenzin Gyatso is actually the exact same person as Gedun Drub who was alive some 600 years ago.

What’s more interesting to me though is the process of determining the next Dalai Lama. Upon the death of a Dalai Lama, it is the responsibility of the High Lamas (basically the highest ranking monks) of the Gelugpa school to find his reincarnation in a male child born around the same time as the death. Traditionally there have been several ways the High Lamas have been able to find the boy. One of the High Lamas may have a dream, they may follow the smoke from the cremation of the previous Dalai Lama or go to a holy lake, Lhamo Lhatso in Central Tibet, for a vision or sign. In fact it was by this last method, a vision from this lake, that Tenzin Gyatso was found.

It doesn’t take a Political Science major to recognize a familiar story here. Remove the red robe disguise and what you have is a bunch of elites who have come up with a foul-proof way to perpetuate their own power. It is quite ingenious really, and any little boy will do because of course even the Dalai Lama (the Enlightened one himself!) needs to be properly trained and encouraged in his early years by the wise counsel of the High Lamas. I don’t know which bothers me more: the whole Dalai Lama set up as cleverly packaged and marketed sham for theocracy or that the West seems to have swallowed it in full. I am leaning towards the latter.

Perhaps it would have been okay if the Dalai Lama merely claimed to be a religious leader, something akin to the Pope (though some have suggested the Pope actually controls everything). But again what people miss is who the Dalai Lama actually claims to be. On his surprisingly modern and saavy official website (one has to wonder how many Tibetans have had access to it) a brief biography begins with, “His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, is both the head of state and the spiritual leader of Tibet”. The head of state and the spiritual leader. Wait. What about the doctrine of the separation of church and state, a clever reader might ask, weren’t there very good reasons for writing that into our Constitution? While there is reason to believe that the current Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, is a prudent and pragmatic leader, that fact does not make the Dalai Lama as an institution less theocratic and less potentially subject to all the abuses that come along with theocracy.

What is highly interesting and perhaps promising is that Tenzin Gyatso actually has proposed that the selection of the Dalai Lama, should the Tibetan people choose so, can become a majority decision by the Tibetan people instead of the High Lamas. An appalling notion from a Tibetan Buddhist religious perspective but one that will certainly gain allies among a more educated Western audience. Furthermore, Tenzin Gyatso maintains his stance of non-violence (a huge credit to Buddhism) and accurate belief that China won’t give up Tibet. Thus he advocates instead for increased Tibetan governing autonomy and an end to religious suppression and persecution, which should be more appropriately interpreted as political persecution. Afterall, if these were just regular monks who prayed all the time, why would China care? Tenzin Gyatso’s demands are reasonable and I think are ones that could be realistically achieved to the betterment of Tibetan lives.

Unfortunately, the latest developments in Tibet are steering away from the Dalai Lama’s moderate stance. Public statements Tibetan radicals criticizes the Tenzin Gyatso for refusing to call for a boycott of the Bejijing Olympic Games and signal increasing frustration with his stance of non-violence. One such radical suggested that many may start looking elsewhere for political leadership, “We are demanding a peace dialogue between His Holiness and the Chinese. But at the moment, Dalai Lama is out of the picture. It’s a Tibetan people’s movement,” he said. Such statements for me ring so hauntingly of the radical nationalism that cost millions of lives in the 20th century that they ought to be cause for heightened attention if not alarm.

There is also ample reason to believe that the Tibetan protests fall more in the lines of the Indonesian riots against the Chinese during the 1990s, motivated more so by economic woes as opposed to ethnic ones. While the Dalai Lama himself acknowledged on March 17th, “As far as material development concerned, we get much benefit from being a part of China”, certainly those predominately in power and control economic resources are not ethnically Tibetan. What matters is the sense of relative deprivation as opposed to absolute gains, and when there is a consciousness formed by a group of always being the losers (in this case along ethnic lines) then mass discontent and protest will occur. If you buy the economic discontent argument, then the Tibetan protests are no different than the thousands of peasant riots in China throughout the countryside which seldom get much media coverage.

The Chinese government is caught between a rock and a hard place. Many forget just how ethnically diverse China is and how difficult historically it has been for any head of state to hold the country together. If it shows willingness to compromise with the Tibetans, this will fuel many more protests along ethnic lines (as it already has) that will threaten China’s very geo-political existence and result inevitably in mass chaos and violence. These implications need to be considered regardless of whether you believe Tibet is part of China or not. Actually this situation is something the West ought to be sympathetic to through its experience with the former Yugoslavia and other parts of Eastern Europe (Bosnia being the prime example) where it was extremely hesitant to recognize independence movements for fear of widespread instability. Let’s not forget that unequivocally equating self determination to a right to political sovereignty would severely and violently destabilize the world order.

The international community should not blindly support the Tibetan protests, but qualify its support. It should continue to pressure China on the issues of human rights in general and advise restraint in responding to the protests. It should also make it clear to Tibetan radicals that inciting violence will not be rewarded. While I think the Olympics are a prime time to pressure China on issues of human rights, I am uneasy about what will happen once the window of opportunity closes. There is no such thing as easy short term solutions; unduly taking advantage of China’s current position may result in worse situations for Tibetans later on when the eyes of the public flicker elsewhere.