The Dalai Lama turns 77 today. And this birthday, as with every other birthday, reminds his followers of the uncomfortable truth.
The “living god is” human and aging. And Lhasa dur ast.
This year’s celebrations will be relatively low-key – traditional cultural performances, prayers, a focus on local participation as opposed to distinguished VIP guests.
But it brings us face to face again with the conundrum of the Dalai Lama. As a spiritual head, a sort of sage of choice for many in the modern world, he is a phenomenal success. As the political leader of his people – not so much – though few of his followers would say so openly.
The Dalai Lama’s failure to deliver Tibet to his flock has paradoxically been his own elixir. It has allowed him to perpetually occupy the moral high ground without needing to make the hard political choices that an Aung San Suu Kyi or a Nelson Mandela had to make once they actually came out of exile and imprisonment. The Dalai Lama’s exile enabled him to see the world in a way he would never have had he remained in the Potala palace where his predecessors only got to glimpse the outside through the parted curtains of a palanquin. He is now only the spiritual head of his people leaving the business of democracy to elected representatives. But it’s going to take a long time for his people to come out of the Hollywood trap.
“The Dalai Lama is a great and charismatic spiritual figure, but a poor and poorly advised political strategist,” wrote Howard French, a long time foreign correspondent for the New York Times. “The Dalai Lama should have closed down the Hollywood strategy a decade ago and focused on back-channel diplomacy with Beijing. He should have publicly renounced the claim to a so-called Greater Tibet, which demands territory that was never under the control of the Lhasa government. Sending his envoys to talk about talks with the Chinese while simultaneously encouraging the global pro-Tibet lobby has achieved nothing.”
The Hollywood trap keeps the Dalai Lama as the nostalgic reminder of a simpler time, a romantic counterweight to an aggressive China, a salve for our materialistic money-grubbing selves. The tragedy of Tibet is its plight is what keeps it alive in western consciousness. The Dalai Lama has made his people the posterchildren of what Pico Iyer calls “one of the fastest growing nations of the world – the land of the deracinated (since by some counts there are now one hundred million refugees in the world, part of a tribe that is twice as populous as Australia and Canada combined)”. And he has done this just by being himself – a twinkling man with an infectious laugh carrying the yellow card of a refugee.
But is the Dalai Lama even himself? Or are there two Dalai Lamas – one who fills stadiums in America and one who lives in Dharamsala among his own people? The first Dalai Lama’s name pops up in films like The Wedding Crashers. He bestows International Campaign for Tibet‘s Light of Truth Award upon the character of Tintin for his adventures in Tintin in Tibet. He is an ad for the Mac. Many of his Western admirers never come face to face with the other Dalai Lama. They come to him seeking freedom from religious dogma. But they don’t realize that though the Dalai Lama’s favourite words might be “investigate” and “analyze”, that though he laughs and jokes and tugs at ponytails,their secular divinity is a textually conservative follower of Buddhist doctrine.
He does not endorse homosexuality and is tough on divorce. His religion bristles with with skull-headed beings and copulating deities and he listens to oracles who go into trances. In his book The Open Road – The Global Journey of the XIV Dalai Lama, Pico Iyer writes that in the West the Dalai Lama “always stressed the New Testament side of the tradition”. But the Dalai Lama himself is very much an Old Testament monk.
Now on his 77th birthday we confront the same question again. The Dalai Lama’s easy approachability and his good humour might make him the god who came to dinner but does he matter?
“China is not interested in serious negotiations about autonomy for ethnic Tibetans. It is waiting for the Dalai Lama to die in order to commandeer the reincarnation process and name a docile successor to serve its interests,” Tim Johnson, former Beijing bureau chief for McClatchy Newspapers and the author of Tragedy in Crimson: How the Dalai Lama Conquered the World but Lost the Battle with China told ZeeNews. The Dalai Lama has suggested there might not be another Dalai Lama after him. A business, even a spiritual one, without a plan for succession, is headed towards a dead end or is ripe for a takeover.
Yet in a way the Dalai Lama matters now more to the general public than to Tibetans. For Tibetans he remains an unshakeable symptom of a faith that can move mountains (even though it cannot shake Beijing an inch). But he can give them no more than he already has. Lhasa is a Chinese city. Its malls now tower over the Potala palace. In her book Sky Train, Canyon Sam sums up its predicament poignantly. At the home of her Tibetan host, Tashi on New Year’s Eve, Tashi’s brother-in-law invites Sam up to the roof to set off fireworks. After a while she realizes none of the other adults are there. The brother-in-law is half-Chinese and the fireworks are being set off all across Lhasa by the Chinese. Tashi just says wearily, pointing at the sky “You see how many Chinese there are here now?”
Perhaps it is the rest of the world that needs him more. For us he remains a reminder as Shiv Visvanathan put it on Firstpost.com that a civilization is “not just a nation state expressed as a brute fact of territory, sovereignty and citizenship”. It is precisely because he has no country that he can belong to the world. “I call him the world leader although he does not have a country today and has no (political) recognition. He is an ethical and spiritual leader, but also a social and political leader; because he brings ethics and spirituality into politics,” scholar Robert Thurman told Rediff. com. Bhrigu Pankaj Prashar even came up with handy Dalai precepts that can guide entrepreneurs on Forbes.com . Love what you do and do it the whole way. When you lose, don’t lose the lesson. Open your arms to change, but don’t let go of your values. Silence is sometimes the best answer.
My favourite story about the Dalai Lama does not involve any profound sayings. After chatting with Iyer about “constant effort, tireless effort, pursuing clear goals with sincere effort” he goes back into the room to turn off the light. It’s a small thing, he says, doesn’t make much difference, yet perhaps a little good can come of it.
There’s something deeply moving about the god who turns off the light.