The Dalai Lama has a new book out this month, “Becoming Enlightened.” Given his surgery last October and his acknowledged semi-retirement, there is a possibility that this might be his last work. His advanced age and recent ill health have made it clear that questions of succession and the future of Tibet will only continue to gain momentum.
No other political figure has been able to inspire the sympathy of Americans for a remote country that few would be able to point out on a map. And certainly, no other exiled spiritual leader has divided the Asian-American population so starkly. The March 2008 Tibetan riots sparked demonstrations of solidarity across the globe. Less noticeable, but equally intriguing were the widespread pro-Chinese protests led by Chinese-Americans, a historically apolitical population. From San Francisco to Alabama to New York, Chinese students and Chinese-Americans rallied against what they saw as misrepresentations of Chinese ambitions in Tibet.
Arguably, the popularity of the Free Tibet movement has much to do with the Dalai Lama himself and less to do with the actual merits of the Tibetan cause. This is not to say that the Tibetan arguments for independence or autonomy are completely illegitimate; however, the worldwide Free Tibet movement certainly owes its visibility to the person of the Dalai Lama himself. A cynic might also add that his choice of enemies, China – ”the new yellow peril, certainly does not hurt his cause in the West.
Charismatic leaders often leave legacies that seem unsurpassable, but the bar that will be faced by the Dalai Lama’s successor seems almost insurmountable. In the U.S., we view the Dalai Lama with a level of benevolence and warmth rarely duplicated for any other public person. As a religious figure, he seems free of the suspicious, institutional taint that one sometimes associates with Christian, Jewish or Islamic leaders. The Dalai Lama has also achieved something incredibly rare for a religious authority – ”he is cool. The thousands of “Free Tibet’ stickers, best-selling works, press conferences with celebrities and the packed audience halls are a small testament to his appeal. Populist figures like Rick Warren may attract higher numbers, but such leaders often fail to capture people’s curiosity, that rare excitement across such a wide spectrum.
How did the Dalai Lama achieve such a remarkable cultural efflorescence? How did he manage to garner so much support in a country that has shown remarkably little interest in other political causes: Zimbabwe, Kurdistan, or even Rwanda? To be fair, the Dalai Lama deserves most of the credit – ”very few public figures consistently elicit the range of positive responses across different faiths. Even a normally objective journalist like Perry Garfinkel gushed about his first meeting with the Dalai Lama – ”that meeting him had “awakened a place deep in his soul.’ The Dalai Lama’s promotion of interfaith harmony, his great interest in scientific research regarding the environment and the mind, his emphasis on dialogue rather than confrontation also suggest that he is an unusually curious and rational religious thinker. But maybe a large part of the reason why the West loves the Dalai Lama is because he seems to be a conundrum – ”a religious leader who’s not religious.
The Dalai Lama’s popularity is ironically linked with general ignorance about Buddhism. Confusion still exists over whether Buddhism is a religion or whether it’s a philosophy. The translator of Becoming Enlightened, Dr. Jeffrey Hopkins noted in an email that it amused him how often Buddhism was not included in lists of religions. The Dalai Lama himself directly addresses this issue in an uncharacteristically forward way. In Becoming Enlightened he states: “If one tried to have faith in Christianity and in Buddhism, one would be asserting the existence of a Creator God and at the same time the nonexistence of a Creator God. That is impossible.” Whether Buddhism is a religion or a philosophy is still a common enough issue that the Deprung Loseling Monastery (affiliated with the Dalai Lama and Emory University) and other sites dedicated to Buddhism responded to this question directly on their pages. One would be hard pressed to imagine a Vatican site feeling obligated to do the same. But from a monotheistic, Judeo-Christian perspective, the lack of a central deity and the absence of conversion rites make Buddhism less restrictive and benign.
This view of Buddhism in the West contrasts sharply with its reception in countries that have had a long history of indigenous Buddhism. For instance, Buddhism has historically had a contentious relationship with the Confucian governments in both China and Korea. In the Chinese case, relationships between religious figures and the state have always been politically fraught – ”many of the major, disastrous rebellions in the Qing dynasty were fought in the name of religious movements. The Communists have shown themselves to be quick studies of their predecessor’s history, and are hypersensitive to religious threats, be they Buddhist, or Falun Gong. One of the fundamental civil beliefs in America is freedom from the persecution of religion; however, few religious movements on U.S. soil have resulted in the massacre of 20 million citizens. This is one of the reasons why the Chinese government could never embrace any religious leader, let alone the Dalai Lama, as an inspirational public figure.
While most Americans may side with the Tibetans, a more nuanced view of the Chinese position has been lacking in American media. This gap in our understanding will inevitably slam headfirst into the reality of Chinese-American relations.
While most Americans may side with the Tibetans, a more nuanced view of the Chinese position has been lacking in American media. This gap in our understanding will inevitably slam headfirst into the reality of Chinese-American relations. The Dalai Lama’s charisma and iconic status has resulted in pro-Tibetan rhetoric but little political commitment from the U.S. At best, U.S. foreign policy towards Tibet has been haphazard; when the Dalai Lama and the Chinese were engaged in cooperation (albeit tenuous) in the 1950s, the U.S. armed Tibetan guerillas. As the meteoric rise of China seems unstoppable, the likelihood of directly challenging Chinese sovereignty over Tibet is rapidly fading.
The Tibetan question is further complicated by Chinese perceptions of their role. Pointing to the deep poverty, the low levels of education found in Tibet in the early half of the 20th century, the Chinese have embarked on a civilizing mission. The Chinese like to focus on the state of affairs before their direct intervention: 95% of the population was illiterate, and the majority of the population consisted of slaves and serfs who worked for the nobles and the monasteries. The Dalai Lama himself has noted that the Chinese influence has not been without material benefits but that Tibetans should lead this kind of reform themselves. In the name of capitalism and modernization that they themselves have recently experienced, the Chinese government sees a moral obligation to enlighten Tibet, to connect it to the outside world by technology and rail in ways that seem distasteful in the West. The reasons why Westerners feel drawn to Tibet – ”its exoticness, its isolation from the modern world, are the very things that the Chinese government sees as needing correction. But it is hard to know who’s in the wrong here: the Chinese who want to plunge Tibet into a frenzy of globalized development, or those who want to keep Tibet as an isolated, impoverished but spiritual tourist destination.
The 2008 riots in Tibet, and the ensuing worldwide demonstrations in support of the Tibetan cause are clear signs that the Dalai Lama and the issue of Tibetan autonomy will continue to attract debate in the West. One largely ignored phenomenon in the U.S. that accompanied the Tibetan unrest were the widespread pro-Chinese demonstrations that were held in defense of Chinese policies. Most of these protests were organized by Chinese students and Chinese-Americans who were angered by what they felt was one-sided coverage in the U.S. media, particularly CNN. CNN commentator Jack Cafferty’s statement that the Chinese were “basically the same bunch of goons and thugs they’ve been for the last 50 years” fueled demonstrations throughout the country.
In the Chinese media, there is a sense of puzzlement and anger at U.S. sympathies for Tibet. One common analogy compares Chinese actions in Tibet to U.S. policies towards American-Indians. Since the U.S. has forcibly moved into native American lands, developing and eventually building a cohesive, flourishing country, why are they upset that China is doing the same? As one Xinhua news commentator argued, the U.S. military has “massacred innocent American Indians” and “forcibly occupied and robbed [them] of their lands” so what can they say about Tibet? It is a question that is not easy to answer.
The legacy of the 2008 is equally troubling for the Dalai Lama as well as the Chinese government. The willingness of Tibetans to rise in a bloody, violent struggle signals an increasing desire to forego the nonviolent “middle way’ which the Dalai Lama himself has admitted has produced few results. In reality, China is as likely to countenance an independent Tibet as much as the U.S. is likely to allow an independent Texas. While such limited odds would drive many exiles to desperate and maybe even violent means, the Dalai Lama still hopes that peaceful pressure will succeed. In view of his lifelong struggle, the words in Becoming Enlightened are admirably restrained: “take pity on the aggressor; instead of getting angry at the person harming you, you will feel compassion, opening the way for easily generating patience, forbearance and tolerance.”
Having grown up on three continents, Sae Park often explores issues of social hybridity, loss and identity in her work. She is currently finishing her PhD in history and is working on a book on Eliza Bowen Jumel, the first scandalous socialite of American society. Most of the time, she lives in New York with her husband and cat.