The New York Times

September 19, 2003

Dalai Lama Lite


SALISBURY, England I first met the Dalai Lama almost 20 years ago when I was a teenager studying at a college run by Roman Catholic monks. He had come to see a Christian monastery in action. Although the Dalai Lama was not a globally famous figure at that time, I was captivated immediately by his charisma, and by the tragic plight of the Tibetan people. I visited China and Tibet two years later, in 1986, and later became a director of the London-based Free Tibet Campaign.

During his current tour of the United States, the Dalai Lama has confirmed his status as the world's No. 1 feel-good guru, reaching across boundaries of culture and religion. Who could fail to admire a spiritual leader who, fresh from meeting President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell, tells Harvard students to spend less time on their studies and more on becoming nice people, and makes them laugh by telling how he hit a parrot with a stick when he was "a young, naughty Dalai Lama?" A leader who suggests that dialogue and compassion are the best way to deal with terrorists? Who gives a free public talk in Central Park?

But the risk of the Dalai Lama's ever growing celebrity is that it distorts what he really represents, namely an ancient cultural tradition that is not always appealing to the Western world. In short, the Dalai Lama or a simplified version of him has been appropriated by the American people over the last decade. A chain e-mail message recently circulated with his "millennium mantra," offering advice such as "Approach love and cooking with reckless abandon" and "Once a year, go someplace you've never been before." This e-mail message was in fact a hoax, but it nevertheless was widely circulated. During his United States tour in 2000, after being briefly mistaken for a Muslim by Larry King on CNN, the Dalai Lama had to endure being introduced to a crowd in Los Angeles by Sharon Stone. Barefoot and draped in a feather boa, she described him as "the hardest working man in spirituality" and as "Mr. Please, Please, Please Let Me Back Into China!" That he came from Tibet was momentarily lost.

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 of the books that purport to be 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, the Dalai Lama explicitly condemns homosexuality, as well as all oral and anal sex. His stand is close to that of Pope John Paul II, something his Western followers find embarrassing and prefer to ignore. His American publisher even asked him to remove the injunctions against homosexuality from his book, "Ethics for the New Millennium," for fear they would offend American readers, and the Dalai Lama acquiesced.

When he is speaking to his own people, the Dalai Lama is very different from the genial figure we see in the West. I remember a public talk he gave at his headquarters in Dharamsala in northern India in 1990, after conflict between Tibetans and Indians there. He spoke in Tibetan, and his delivery was stern and admonitory, like a forbidding, old-fashioned father reprimanding his children. The crowd listened respectfully, and went away chastened.

While the current love-in has been going on in America, the Tibetan government in exile back in Dharamsala has been brawling. The prime minister of the exiles, Samdhong Rinpoche, walked out of the Assembly last week when accusations (later withdrawn) were made regarding corruption in the New York-based Tibet Fund. In the 1980's, Dharamsala was a vibrant intellectual community. Today, it has been killed by kindness: much of the talent has migrated to Europe and America as a result of generous foreign sponsorship programs. The government in exile has to struggle on, aware that its influence is severely limited.

In 1999 I went on a three-month research trip through Tibet and its borderlands. In contrast to my 1986 trip, when I saw only the outward trappings of oppression, it was a devastating experience. The tales of human suffering, particularly from the period after the Communist invasion of 1950, were worse than I had expected. Nor was modern Tibet a reassuring sight: rural poverty and shoddy, improvised Chinese-style cities.

When I came back I resigned from my position at Free Tibet Campaign. After seeing the daily compromises that Tibetans have to make in order to live in a police state, I felt that foreign campaigners were not making their lives any easier. Some Tibetans believe that overseas campaigning makes the Chinese government, with its xenophobic fear of foreign interference, create stricter controls over them.

Relations between Beijing and Dharamsala are now better than they have been for some years because of a visit to China in May by a delegation of Tibetan exiles. But the central fact remains that the Chinese government is unlikely to reach an agreement with the Dalai Lama unless he abandons his main demands: a democratic, demilitarized, enlarged and genuinely autonomous state. They want him to return as a figurehead, with as many exiles as possible, so that they can claim to have solved the Tibetan problem. Given Tibet's desperate current state, his return could by itself create significant progress by giving a voice to Tibetans inside the People's Republic of China.

American enthusiasm for the Dalai Lama is not the same as genuine political support for Tibet. No United States government will place sympathy for Tibetans above America's strategic and economic interests. China is too large a power to be pushed around, and has always been vociferous in its refusal to listen to advice about Tibet. It is hard to see how the People's Liberation Army could be persuaded to leave the Tibetan plateau without regime change in Beijing, which is something that even President Bush might be nervous to contemplate.

Passion for the Dalai Lama and Tibetan Buddhism is a great thing, but Americans keen to buy into that image should take care to understand the man and what he stands for, and above all the moral complexity of life for the Tibetans inside Tibet.

Patrick French is author of "Tibet, Tibet: A Personal History of a Lost Land."

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