Monday, December 15, 2008

Why is the West so fascinated by a Buddhist monk?

He came (for a week), he saw, he talked quite a lot of harmless nonsense. But he conquered a few hearts in the process. So just what is it about the Dalai Lama that makes westerners turn so gooey-eyed?

Poland was part of the Dalai Lama’s extensive European tour. He was guest of honour at Lech Walesa’s Nobel Peace Prize anniversary bash last weekend; he was in Wroclaw receiving honorary citizenship; he was in Warsaw for an impromptu meeting with President Lech Kaczynski and then wowed an audience of a thousand or so, where he gave a rambling lecture about compassion. And he giggled a lot. He giggled for the whole seven days.

He’s an outwardly nice, old man, just like your slightly daft great uncle.

But the power he has over young westerners and older media hacks is awesome to behold. You would think he was…well, divine - a strange choice of hero in a godless Europe.

So there must be more to the Dalai Lama phenomenon than his Buddha-like qualities. Why is a man who was elected by nobody, who is in control of a semi-state which is run like some medieval religious fiefdom, able to draw such awe from the otherwise cynical, liberal westerner?

I mean, he is not even that keen on gays...surly the barometer of who is cool and who is not, these days? He is the arch-pacifist who thinks that the Iraq war could have been justified!

Maybe he is just a silly old man?

He’s probably much more popular in the West than he is in his own “country”, where many see him as an antiquated old man from a different age.

And what is it about the Tibet struggle for some autonomy from China that excites liberals like many other political struggles do not? Why Free Tibet and not Free China? Why not free themselves?

Maybe the fascination with Tibet and the Lama tells us more about us in the West than it does about the politics of China. Maybe westerners have got this romantic view of Tibet…unspoilt by industrialisation (otherwise known as “progress”); Tibet seems so pure whereas those nasty Chinese have turned into US - consumed by consumerism, building an economy, maximising progress? Tibet is juxtaposed with our own self-hatred.

“They seem so happy,” thinks the westerner as he sees the Dalai Lama go into another fit of the giggles.

The reality of life in Tibet is probably very different from that. It’s a traditional backwater, where most of the labour is backbreakingly antiquated and where the young are yearning for what we have in the West but have learnt, from somewhere, to have contempt for.

I think that having the Dalai Lama as your top political hero is rather sad. It means that we cannot draw inspiration any longer from what we have achieved here, in Europe and America and in many parts of Asia, but only from an elderly man in an orange robe, with a twinkle is his eye.


Anonymous said...

So you want Madonna, the material girl, to be the hero?

Actually, he never said the Iraq war was definitely justified but that it might be in the future... The article reads:

"The Dalai Lama said Wednesday that the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan may have been justified to win a larger peace, but that is it too soon to judge whether the Iraq war was warranted. "I think history will tell," he said in an interview with The Associated Press on Wednesday, just after he met with President Bush. "

And where did you get the idea that he is backwards and opposed to the introduction of new technologies?

Anonymous said...

Whatever you say about the doddery old fella, it's no doubt a pretty brilliant coup for the Polish authorities.

Unknown said...

I think this is just a manifestation of infatuation with a different type of celebrity. Some folks are just prone to worship social status they cannot attain through sheer aspiration and work (e.g. to be born Paris Hilton...) Just the way some people go ape-shit over anything having to do with aristocracy, etc.
Other than a bunch of public appearances DL has really not accomplished much in his adult life..

BTW: Maybe theses are silly question but what passport does DL travel on and what does he live of?

Anonymous said...

I still don't understand what is supposedly so special about this person. What exactly has DL ever done to earn such recognition as he has?

So many do so much more, and suffer so much more, to make this world a better place, and to bring hope and light into our lives - but those who truly make the difference are, usually, completely ignored by our culture.

Even as far as religious figures go, there are other ones who I think it could be possibly said have done much more than DL.

How many people, for example, have heard of Archbishop Anastasios of Albania? Yet this is an example of a religious figure who has spent their time struggling to do what they believe is right, hoping to improve an entire nation and to help the people there. Of course Hollywood and the pseudo-intellectual fake-liberal entourage couldn't give a second thought about such people.

I listened to a bit of DL's speaking in the past, and I must say I thought his words (atleast from what I heard) were quite empty and meaningless.

Anonymous said...

Anon wrote: "Of course ... the pseudo-intellectual fake-liberal entourage couldn't give a second thought about such people."

-->I went to the website and found a rather lengthy series of installments about him there written by Jim Forest. Do you know anything about Jim Forest, Anon? While I don't much like labels, Jim Forest has been involved in the Orthodox Peace Fellowship and was a former Catholic Worker editor who knew and wrote books about Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. And he is not the least bit disparaging towards the Dalai Lama. So if I was to label Jim Forest, I would have to say he's part of the religious left. Yet you want to lump all your supposed "enemies" together under some kind of monolithic umbrella. Obviously, Jim Forest gave more than a second thought to the Archbishop.

beatroot said...

Geez, he said that "history must decide..." which just shows what a lack of faith in his own judgment he has....the one thing one expects from a religious leader is a set of principles. He doesn;t seem to have any towards the Iraq war. He has bought into the very modernday managerialism that so plagues our new leaders, like Obama, Blair and all the rest of them. I was against the Iraq war on principle from the very begining. If DL had any principles he would have been too. But there again, he doesn;t want to disappoint any of his western sponsors, does he? And that's at the root of this - unprincipled oppotrunism from the "spiritual leader of Tibet...". Excuse me while I get me a little bucket.

Anonymous said...

If he didn't want to disappoint his "western sponsors" who were/are overwhelimingly against the Iraq war, he would have catered to their position.

Be careful about your back if you have to barf.

Gustav said...

Beatroot. I don't know if you have ever been to Tibet. In my admittedly short time there - only a week on vacation in the interests of full disclosure - my experience doesn't support your statement that "many see him as an antiquated old man from a different age." But many is an ambiguous word, and perhaps there are a large number who do. It certainly didn't seem that way though.

In terms of Tibet being a backwater, you are absolutely right it is. It is the poorest place I have ever been (and i have been to some pretty poor places).

But the Chinese refuse to allow Tibetans the right to self-determination - unless that is, they give up Buddhism and become athiests. Only then can they run for elected office - such as governor of their supposedly "autonomous" territory. But I suspect the Chinese would find a way to appoint who they like even if an athiest Tibetan were to "run" for that office.

Your point about romanticizing the "un-commercialized" Tibet rings true, but that is no reason not to support the Free Tibet movement.

There is another voice in the West that cries foul of China's cultural suppression of Tibet, by flooding it with Chinese. That is
true, to a point. But it seemed to me in the little time that I had there that the Tibetans were less worried about the Chinese being there, than about the Chinese getting preferential treatment for everything from jobs to medical care.

The people of Tibet are politically and economically suppressed - this is a fact. They do not have the right to freely practice their religion or hold public office, or protest against unfair work practices imposed upon them by Chinese-owned companies investing there. This is why Tibet needs to be free of China.

Unless China suddenly becomes free, open and democratic, and allows Tibetans to govern themselves and worship freely. There would be a lot less reason to support a separation of Tibet and China in that case.

None of which justifies the West going ga-ga over the Dalai Lama - but I think that for Poles especially, he brings back memories of JP II, being a religious leader fighting for the freedom of his country on the outside.

What does, however, at least to a greater degree than the above, is that the Dalai Lama is a strong proponent of peaceful, rather than violent, resistance. He and his people have undoubtedly gone through a lot, and it would have been just as easy for him to have advocated terrorism in his country's fight for self-determination. Such courage and intelligence is rare these days, and I give him credit for that.

So I've said it - he is a courageous, intelligent leader who, as you point out, has his faults. Indeed he was not elected, but let's allow the Tibetans to hold a free election for the leadership of their country. If they were able to do so, I have no doubt in my mind he would win in a landslide.

But as long as the Chinese continue their stranglehold on Tibet, no free election will ever be held there.

beatroot said...

The dalai lama is associated in Tibet with the so-called “middle way” approach of partial autonomy from China. The support for this is waning in Tibet for this approach, especially among the young, who were visible in the (nasty, nationalist) riots this year. His support comes from the older - his - generation and not the young, who are more influenced by Palestinian struggles than any pseudo-Ghandi-esque stuff from our giggling brother.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like the DL vis-a-vis Iraq, you're not taking a very clear position either, BR.

Are you supporting the young violent Tibetan nationalists? The pacifistic old timers? The Chinese Communists?

And if given the chance to vote, don't you think the DL would be elected by a wide margin, as Gustav notes?

The DL's position in regard to China makes a lot of sense to me, but I am of the older generation. too, although not so old as the DL.

beatroot said...

Not supporting any side, Geez. They don;t need to ask me how they go about their politics. But DL is as much responcible to Tibet's backwardness as the Chinese are.

Gustav said...

Beatroot -

I am aware that the Dalai Lama is associated (now) with the middle way of partial autonomy for Tibet. I would be satisfied with the "middle way" if it meant freedom of religion for the Tibetan people and the ability for them to represent themselves within the greater structures of Chinese government. But considering those structures, and Chinese policy in general, that looks impossible - which is why I disagree with the DL on this particular point, and believe that full independence is needed. (Not that I, personally, am doing anything about Tibetan's plight, it must be noted.)

In terms of the younger-older dichotomy that you cite, I can only once again plead my limited experience. The young people I met were very reverent in respect to the DL - EVERYBODY seemed to love him there. But I have not done a lot of (read: any) research on the matter. So perhaps you are right.

Though when I saw the riots this summer I it didn't seem to me so much a rejection of the Dalai Lama's teachings and an embrace of Palestinian methods, but more the explosion of pent-up hostility that was unavoidable.

Though Poles for example, revered JP II, they didn't always follow his teachings. That's human nature.

Certainly those riots were nasty and nationalist (though I'm not sure I see anything wrong with the nationalist part in this case), and condemnable for their violence. But the crackdown in its aftermath was equally - if not more - brutal. That's no excuse, but it's certainly not like all Tibetans are turning terrorist against their Buddhist roots. That, I can say for sure, is not the case.

Gustav said...

But DL is as much responcible to Tibet's backwardness as the Chinese are.

This I take strong issue with. Care to elaborate?

beatroot said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
beatroot said...

The problem with him is that he is picked by a very small group of monks to be “spiritual leader of Tibet. ” A spiritual leader, who cannot be deposed, and who is also seen as the political leader of Tibet is hindering the development of democratic aspirations.

He also says he supports religious freedom, but does not take kindly to other forms of Buddhism being practiced in Tibet. A little hypocritical, me thinks.

He is also a CIA stooge…and that amount of involvement of the CIA in any liberation struggle is something not to be celebrated or supported.

Anonymous said...

beatroot said... “Thanksfully, The nepalese monarchs have got their arses kicked recently. maybe the Uk should take note? :-)”

The Nepalese will look fondly upon the days of their monarchy if the principal opposition group get their way. The principal opposition are Maoists (now in government) the prospects for a better life are at best remote while the prospects for a blood bath are very real. The Khmer Rouge didn’t seem to be an improvement over the period of the Cambodian monarchy.

And then there was the Shah of Iran a nasty fellow at times but how was his scorecard versus the boys in Tehran today. I’m referring to the body count. Many of my Iranians friends from those days who were so eager to get rid of the Shah but now reside in the west, they hate it when I bring up that old phrase “ be careful what you wish for”.

The monarchy is integral to the identity of the UK and has no real political power. Today it functions as a road show for the tourist industry. Granted the players in the road show aren’t always up to the job. Tony Blair clearly understood this point.

beatroot said...

It's also a symbol of non-democratic's onje of the reasons why they formed America!

As for The principal opposition are Maoists (now in government) did they get to be in government, then? Something to do with an election, where brave people went out and voted in droves in not ideal circumstances. But the government they have now has a lot more legit than any feudal monarchy. .

Anonymous said...

Beatroot said: “He is also a CIA stooge…and that amount of involvement of the CIA in any liberation struggle is something not to be celebrated or supported.”

What liberation movement didn’t get external support from one side or the other during the cold war? What about Solidarity’s finances?

Anonymous said...

BR: "as the political leader of Tibet, (the DL) is hindering the development of democratic aspirations."

Uh, he is hindering that development? Not the Chinese?

And I think calling him a CIA stooge is more than a bit over the top.

Now you are going to have more than one group of skinheads after you. Be thankful at least that the ones in the red robes are pacifistic.

beatroot said...

As I typed that bit I could actually see that response, Jan.

Well, these are murky waters, indeed. But would you get a consensus, even among the opposition, that the CIA influenced the Solidarity movement in a, entirely good way? British trade unionists sent them printing presses! In the open. Transparently. That is the kind of support people can give.

Geez: Over the top? Moi? Never!

Anonymous said...

I rather like the Dalai Lama, his stand for freedom seems genuine.

Why are so many Western Europeans fascinated by this man?

In my opinion, many of these people, whether they know it or not, are looking for spiritual sustenance and authority in their lives. Somehow, the Western European world they are a part of doesn't sustain them spiritually to a sufficient degree. Many seem to live by "bread" alone, with starving souls.

Since many of these people also seem to have renounced their own spiritual patrimony (some were taught to hate it), the hunger they feel is being filled by other religions, in the hope that maybe it will be satisfied.

Thus, what is known as Western Europe, was once pagan, then Judeo-Christian, and is now briefly secular and pagan again. However, since this spiritual hunger is likely to continue, then who knows, Western Europe may be Buddhist or Muslim in a few generations. Or, like a prodigal son, it may decide to come back to the Church that created it in the first place.

Anonymous said...

the Dalai Lama has taken the most realistic approach in dealing with the situation. His “middle of road” approach is the only realistic way to deal with the circumstances the Tibetans finds themselves in. There is no way the Chinese will let Tibet become independent, the best they can hope for is a measure of religious and cultural freedoms that will ensure they don’t disappear as a distinctive ethnicity.

In China all religions are under state supervision at least those who wish to be legal. I think there are five permitted religions and Buddhism is one of them.

The worst measure the Chinese’s have introduced is the settlement of large numbers of Chinese into Tibet thereby turning the Tibetans into a minority under class at some point in the future. With the final result being assimilation of the remaining Tibetans into a Chinese majority.

The only hope Tibetans would have of independence would come if by some catastrophe the Chinese found themselves weakened and fragmented then the Tibetans could act to restore their independence.

Anonymous said...

I'm all for peace and against pre-emptive war, capital punishment, etc...which cannot be said of the DL, as far as I know. By "fake-liberal" I did not mean left-wing (which the DL isn't.)

Anonymous said...

'Yet you want to lump all your supposed "enemies" together under some kind of monolithic umbrella...'

Where did this come from? Who are my "enemies," exactly?

A bit grumpy, aren't we? =)

Anonymous said...

No, but it seems you are when you start going on about some kind of "pseudo-intellectual fake-liberal entourage."

Sounds like Beaky died and you're his reincarnation (that's prolly an inside joke).

But I'm glad you're against capital punishment (the DL too!) and "preemptive" war (unlike the Beak).

roman said...


we cannot draw inspiration any longer from what we have achieved here, in Europe and America and in many parts of Asia, but only from an elderly man in an orange robe, with a twinkle is his eye.

You're right of course that the DL has been and remains a non-starter for political change. I do want to caution against drawing too wide a conclusion agaist the effectiveness of spiritual leaders to have political clout. While the DL is a leader of a mostly peaceful and pacifist religion, his effectiveness is only in gathering sympathy from other governments to affect change. This would change tremedously in the case of a charismatic leader of a religion without those overiding ideals. Case in point is Khomeini of Iran.

Frank Partisan said...

The Dalai Lama is not reactionary as the Maoists portray him. He is realistic on the Tibetan national question.

The uprisings in Tibet last year against China, before the Olympic events, swept aside the Dalai Lama. He was off guard.

Tibet has the second best wages in China. The good jobs go to the Chinese over Tibetans. That is the basis for the hatred of China.

Whole parts of Tibet are fully integrated into China, and have nothing to do with the autonomy movement.

Tibetans should have the right to self determination. To seperate from the wealth of China would be stupid. Small countries are pocket change in the world economy.

With a world economy, national liberation is a dated idea.

Anonymous said...

"But I'm glad you're against capital punishment (the DL too!)..."

If the DL has openly spoken out against capital punishment, then I apologize for my earlier remark about the issue.

Could you tell me in what speech and/or writing of his he has made his statement on the issue? I would like to read the document or transcript of it, if possible.

To make a clarification on earlier comments, I used to be a supporter of DL, and spoke rather positively of him to others. My more skeptical view of him developed over time.

Anonymous said...

I surprised you'd even be surprised he is opposed to the death penalty. But I have no problems with skepticism.

The DL wrote:

"Before advocating execution we should consider whether criminals are intrinsically negative and harmful people or whether they will remain perpetually in the same state of mind in which they committed their crime or not. The answer, I believe, is definitely not. However horrible the act they have committed, I believe that everyone has the potential to improve and correct themselves. Therefore, I am optimistic that it remains possible to deter criminal activity, and prevent such harmful consequences of such acts in society, without having to resort to the death penalty.

My overriding belief is that it is always possible for criminals to improve and that by its very finality the death penalty contradicts this. Therefore, I support those organizations and individuals who are trying to bring an end to the use of the death penalty.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the quote (and link.) I retract my earlier criticism of him on this issue.

Anonymous said...

Because the West hates the Chinese.

May McDonalds open in Tibet.

FM24 said...

Hello, I know this post is old, but since your blog does not display the date of the commentary I guess it's OK.
I am from Chile, in south america and I just want to say that, referring your last line:
"an elderly man in an orange robe, with a twinkle is his eye."
To me that simple old man full of defects -if you like to consider a defect condemning Gayness and supporting(?) war in Iraq, is way more inspiring than the leaders of the US, and the European powers, let's add the Asian powers.
I am not rich, I can relate to what the Free Tibet is all for, I fell identified with that. Maybe the Dalai is not perfect, right, he is just a human being and not a superior human being, and yet I see myself pursuing that kind of peaceful freedom, not by sending marines or exploiting oil or developing more and more nuclear weapons.
Love your blog btw,
Greetings from Patagonia, Chile. :)

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