Holy Man: What does the Dalai Lama actually stand for?

Pankaj Mishra – The New yorker

Copyright The new Yorker
March 31, 2008
Last November, a couple of weeks after the Dalai Lama received a Congressional Gold Medal from President Bush, his old Land Rover went on sale on eBay. Sharon Stone, who once introduced the Tibetan leader at a fundraiser as “Mr. Please, Please, Please Let Me Back Into China!” (she meant Tibet), announced the auction on YouTube, promising the prospective winner of the 1966 station wagon, “You’ll just laugh the whole time that you’re in it!” The bidding closed at more than eighty thousand dollars. The Dalai Lama, whom Larry King, on CNN, once referred to as a Muslim, has also received the Lifetime Achievement award of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. He is the only Nobel laureate to appear in an advertisement for Apple and guest-edit French Vogue. Martin Scorsese and Brad Pitt have helped commemorate his Lhasa childhood on film. He gave a lecture at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, in Washington, D.C., in 2005. This spring, in Germany, he will speak on human rights and globalization. For someone who claims to be “a simple Buddhist monk,” the Dalai Lama has a large carbon footprint and often seems as ubiquitous as Britney Spears.
As Pico Iyer writes in his new book, “The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama” (Knopf; $24), it is easy to imagine that the Dalai Lama is “the plaything of movie stars and millionaires.” Certainly, like all those who stress the importance of love, compassion, gentle persuasion, and other unimpeachably good things, the Dalai Lama can appear a bit dull. Precepts such as “violence breeds violence” or “the quality of means determine ends” may be ethically sound, but they don’t seem to possess the intellectual complexity that would make them engaging as ideas. Since the Dalai Lama speaks English badly, and frequently collapses into prolonged fits of giggling, he can also give the impression that he is, as Iyer reports a journalist saying, “not the brightest bulb in the room.”
His simple-Buddhist-monk persona invites skepticism, even scorn. “I have heard cynics who say he’s a very political old monk shuffling around in Gucci shoes,” Rupert Murdoch has said. Christopher Hitchens accuses the Dalai Lama of claiming to be a “hereditary king appointed by heaven itself” and of enforcing “one-man rule” in Dharamsala, the town in the Indian Himalayas that serves as a capital for the more than a hundred and fifty thousand Tibetans in exile. The Chinese government routinely denounces him as a “splittist,” who is plotting to return Tibet to the corrupt feudal and monastic rule from which Chinese Communists liberated it, in 1951. Many Tibetans in exile grumble that he is too attached to nonviolence, and too much in the grip of Western event coördinators, to prevent the Chinese from colonizing Tibet.
But the events of recent weeks are a reminder of the fervor he inspires among the six million ethnic Tibetans. It was a protest on the forty-ninth anniversary of his exile that led to the current civil unrest in Lhasa; the initial peaceful demonstrations met with a predictably harsh response from the Chinese authorities. As the prominent Chinese intellectual Wang Lixiong acknowledges, “Virtually all Tibetans have the Dalai in their hearts.” And the more that their economic prospects and traditional culture are undermined by Han Chinese immigration, the more this long-distance reverence is likely to grow.
Iyer writes that “the heart and soul, quite literally, of the Dalai Lama’s life existed precisely in parts that most of us couldn’t see.” His arduous daily regimen begins at 3:30 A.M., after which he proceeds, as he told Iyer, to “meditation, prostration, reciting special mantras, then more meditation and more prostrations, followed by reading Tibetan philosophy or other texts; then reading and studying and, in the evening, ‘some meditation—evening meditation—for about an hour. Then, at eight-thirty, sleep.’ ”
This sounds like a lot of meditation and reading for a monk in his seventies—especially someone who, beginning at the age of six, underwent a gruelling education for nearly two decades in Buddhist metaphysics, Tibetan art and culture, logic, Sanskrit, and traditional medicine, and eventually secured a geshe degree (roughly equivalent to a doctorate in Buddhist philosophy). But Buddhist spiritual practice is relentlessly exacting. “Strive on diligently” were the Buddha’s last words, and even the Dalai Lama can’t presume to have reached a summit of wisdom and serenity. It is his fairy-tale childhood that exalts him above most mortals. Born in 1935 to a family of farmers in the outer reaches of the Tibetan cultural domain, he was a two-year-old toddler when a search party of monks from Lhasa identified him as the potential reincarnation of the recently deceased Thirteenth Dalai Lama. Rainbows arcing across the northeastern skies of Lhasa were among the colorful portents that alerted the monks to his presence. In 1939, the child was brought ceremonially from his mud-and-stone house to Lhasa, and given the run of the marvellously labyrinthine Potala Palace.
The Dalai Lama learned calligraphy by copying out his predecessor’s will—which, in its prophetic cast, is one of the spookiest documents in Tibetan history. It was written in 1932, when Tibet, after centuries of uneasy coexistence with its big neighbor in the East, enjoyed a degree of political autonomy. Mao Zedong’s Communists were still far from winning their civil war with Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists. Nevertheless, the Thirteenth Dalai Lama sensed that Tibet’s isolation would soon be shattered by “barbaric red Communists”:
Our spiritual and cultural traditions will be completely eradicated. Even the names of the Dalai and Panchen Lamas will be erased. . . . The Monasteries will be looted and destroyed, and the monks and nuns killed or chased away. . . . We will become like slaves to our conquerors . . . and the days and nights will pass slowly and with great suffering and terror.
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