Wednesday, April 2, 2008


by Philip J. Cunningham

The time has come, the Dalai Lama said, to think of stepping down.

Traditionally, the last and most daunting task for a Buddhist monk intent on extinguishing all desire is to let go of the last desire, the desire to succeed in one’s long spiritual quest.

In his many years of wandering in exile, the Dalai Lama has come to be at home in the world; he has led a life both charmed and charming, but his lifework has eluded him. Is he resigned to his fate? Fated to resign?

He has become a reasonably universal voice of reconciliation, winning the acclaim of Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike, only to fail at the thing he wants more than anything else, --to go home to a just peace.

It is his success itself that thwarts him now. His success as a thorn in China’s side for half a century makes it hard for him to go home.

If and when he does step down, Chinese and Tibetans will lose an incomparable bridge to the past. Only then will Beijing authorities come to realize they erred in not cutting a deal with the man who was their last, best chance for a negotiated outcome.

Given the vast gulf of time that isolates the Dalai from his homeland, he is a refugee from another era.

It is hard for a refugee to be truly independent. The Dalai Lama has relied for decades on the support of foreign governments in New Delhi and Washington, each with their own separate and ever-evolving China agenda.

The dream of victorious return has been frustrated decade after decade, denied by history. Like the anti-Castro Cubans exiled in Miami, Tibetans in Dharmasala have become creatures of their adopted homeland, cut off from the island of their obsession.

The Dalai Lama’s recent intense frustration at the violent turn of events in Lhasa make this pain palpable. Normally calm and becalming, he was beside himself with agitation, and spoke of resigning.

Better for him to be a man of no status than the exalted leader of a movement gone bad.

When the Dalai Lama first came of age, Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai handled him gingerly, wining and dining him in grand style in Beijing, offering a leisurely grace period for reform. Such hospitality was not necessarily deceptive or antagonistic; it was standard operating procedure in United Front politics. But Chinese pre-occupation with inviolate sovereignty meant that a high degree of autonomy for Tibet was never really on the table.

When he fled Tibet, the Dalai Lama burned bridges, perhaps permanently, especially after going on the CIA payroll at a time when the US sought to wage psychological warfare in tandem with covert destabilizing of China along its borders from 1959-1972.

In the West, the Dalai Lama may be seen as the ultimate man of peace, but in China he is still seen through the lens of mistakes he made in his militant youth.

Given the tireless preaching of non-violence and conciliation to anyone and everyone willing to listen, the Dalai Lama seems to seek atonement, if not a complete repudiation of his prior involvement with the CIA and Cold War scheming.

Preaching the middle way made the transformation possible, inaugurating the hugely successful second act in his variegated life. So effective has his staying on message as a paragon of non-violence that he has won respect for his political goal, autonomy under Chinese sovereignty, nearly everywhere but in China where his words of reconciliation continue to fall on deaf ears.

The legendary charm that the Dalai Lama used to woo and wow politicians in India and the United States is so potent that many Westerners, taking cues from Hollywood, which celebrates the underdog and is deeply hungry for anything resembling spiritual advice put him in the same league as Gandhi and Mandela if not Brad Pitt and Richard Gere.

With an image like that, one can do no wrong, and indeed, in the most recent flare-up, reservoirs of good will flowed in favor of the Tibetans, even though they rioted in the streets attacking Han Chinese.

Whatever happens in Tibet gets distorted by narrative frames reminiscent of Cold War thinking. It is reflexive thinking for foreign observers to share with the Tibetans an antipathy for anything to do with communism, and reflexive for religious-minded observers share a revulsion of Beijing’s soul-less atheism. But perhaps most important of all, there is widespread resentment, however peevish or unfair, of a rising China.

The underlying key to the Dalai Lama’s appeal is rooted in Western perceptions and misperceptions about Buddhism. Given similar grievances, it’s hard to imagine the religious leader of a persecuted Muslim minority group, let’s say in Indian Kashmir, south Thailand or south Philippines, enjoying anything near the same degree of almost unquestioned Western support.

Buddhism in the abstract enjoys a popularity that goes far beyond local variations of the Mahayana and Theravada creed in Asia. There is a popular, albeit somewhat inaccurate, "let-it-be" perception of Buddhism in the Western media that serves to conjure up support in distant quarters.

Buddhism generally puts emphasis on the voluntary and individualistic search for spirituality in sharp contrast to the proselytizing faiths. Buddhism, stripped of regional superstition and local color, and Tibetan Buddhism is nothing if not regional and colorful, offers a quiet, quasi-scientific quest for enlightenment through deep reflection. Thus Buddhism, in part due to the intrinsic wisdom of the faith, can travel in a way that the rather more doctrinaire, book-bound and bureaucratic religions such as Christianity or Islam would find hard to follow.

Even the decidedly unWestern and scientifically unprovable belief in reincarnation, the font of the Dalai Lama’s authority, has broad subconscious appeal. Who wouldn’t like to be reborn if such a thing were possible?

The people of Tibet can’t prove the Dalai Lama was reborn to serve them but they don’t question it, culturally programmed as they are to the stark hierarchies inherent in worshiping of a god-like leader, something which made Tibet unusually compliant under Mao.

The violent street riots that recently took place in Lhasa, foreign-choreographed or not, incorrectly reported or not, have nonetheless altered the status quo in Tibet beyond recognition. The Dalai Lama has taken collateral fire, hit with strident Communist Party invective of the sort not seen since Maoist years, all but obliterating the opportunity for peaceful settlement.

As global pressure comes to bear on the proud yet thin-skinned Chinese leadership, recently so clumsy in their response, betraying a telling lack of self-confidence, it could yield good and bad results, anticipated and inadvertent. Already the combination of one-sided state reporting and the penchant in China to see the motherland as victim under foreign attack threatens to produce a backlash in which a billion Chinese are rallied to hate Tibet and construe any foreign intervention as perfidy.

Yet, to take a subversively humble and conciliatory stance even now, especially now, after all the ill will that has welled up, would be the ultimate in Buddhist self-negation; it still remains a potent, if distant, possibility.

If the Dalai Lama does indeed resign, as he recently hinted, there is always the hope that by gently letting go at the very moment when others would cling and claw with all their might, he may reach the state of equanimity necessary to achieving spiritual immortality.

If so, the enlightened example of his last years in this particular incarnation may eventually illuminate the way to a just peace.