World Events: March 2008 Archives

Two reviews

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Pankaj Mishra:

As the spiritual leader of six million people, the Dalai Lama can be credited with a significant renunciation of the authority of tradition—of the conventional politics of national self-interest as well as of religion. Such is his influence that a curt decree from him in the past weeks could have triggered a massive, probably uncontrollable, uprising in Tibet. Yet he continued to reject violence as unethical and counterproductive, even threatening to resign from his position as head of the government-in-exile, in Dharamsala, if Tibetan violence against the Chinese persisted. Increasingly, he has been forced to walk a difficult rhetorical line, accusing China of “cultural genocide” while still supporting its stewardship of the Olympic Games. He has consistently disapproved of even relatively modest attempts to influence the Chinese government, including hunger strikes and economic boycotts. In his view, Tibet needs good neighborly relations with China: “One nation’s problems can no longer be satisfactorily solved by itself alone,” he has said. He bravely promotes “universal responsibility” to people who want to be citizens of their own country before they start thinking about the universe.

...

“The more he gave himself to the world,” Iyer writes, the more Tibetans have come to feel “like natural children bewildered by the fact that their father has adopted three others.” The Tibetan novelist Jamyang Norbu complains that Tibetan support groups and the government-in-exile have become “directionless” in trying to “reorient their objectives around such other issues as the environment, world peace, religious freedom, cultural preservation, human rights—everything but the previous goal of Tibetan independence.”

Avidly embracing the liberating ideas of the secular metropolis, the Dalai Lama resembles the two emblematic types who have shaped the modern age, for better and for worse—the provincial fleeing ossified custom and the refugee fleeing totalitarianism. Even so, his critics may have a point: the Dalai Lama’s citizenship in the global cosmopolis seems to come at a cost to his dispossessed people.

As China grows unassailable, it is easy to become pessimistic about Tibet, and to imagine its spiritual leader becoming increasingly prey to fatalism. The Dalai Lama’s retreat from the exclusivist claims of ancestral religion and the nation-state can seem the reflex of someone who, since he first copied out his predecessor’s prophecy, has helplessly watched his country’s landmarks disappear. The bracing virtue of Iyer’s thoughtful essay, however, is that it allows us to imagine the Dalai Lama as something of an intellectual and spiritual adventurer, exploring fresh sources of individual identity and belonging in the newly united world.

Louis Bayard:

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 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?

Game, set, match Bayard.

P.S. Read the last sentence I quoted from Mishra in light of the last paragraph I quoted from Bayard.

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the World Events category from March 2008.

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