BY PANKAJ MISHRA
NOTE: This New Yorker article was originally published in March 2008.
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.
Even if the Dalai Lama shared his predecessor’s forebodings, he couldn’t do much about them. In the Potala Palace, he lived perilously close to the dark intrigues and conspiracies that had undermined his predecessors, and exposed Tibet’s weakness to its overbearing neighbors. The Ninth, Tenth, Eleventh, and Twelfth Dalai Lamas died young, some rumored to have been poisoned. The Thirteenth Dalai Lama, who barely escaped an assassination attempt allegedly by his own regent, recognized his insular country’s vulnerability to the highly organized empires and nation-states of the modern world. But his plans for upgrading the Tibetan administration and Army were thwarted by a monastic élite that lived off the labor and taxes of peasants and fought brutally to preserve the status quo. In 1934, shortly after the Thirteenth Dalai Lama’s death, the reformist politician Lungshar was punished by an ancient Tibetan method of blinding: the knucklebones of a yak were pressed on both of his temples to make his eyeballs pop out.
In 1947, the Dalai Lama, then eleven years old, watched from the Potala Palace through a telescope as monks shot at the Tibetan Army. The weeks-long battle had been sparked by the arrest of his former regent, and it killed dozens. Finally, in 1950, he assumed full political authority as the Dalai Lama. But he had no time to heed his predecessor’s warnings against Tibetan apathy. The Chinese Communist People’s Liberation Army had invaded Eastern Tibet and was standing poised to overrun the rest of the country. A decade later, the Dalai Lama and tens of thousands of Tibetans were forced into exile.
The story that the Dalai Lama himself emphasizes to his Western audience is that of his initiation into the modern world—both its vicious ideologies and its redemptive knowledge of science and democratic governance. This intellectual journey is what principally interests Iyer, a novelist, travel writer, and contributor to Time, who has written incisively on the dawning of our present moment in history “in which almost every culture could access every other.” He presents the Dalai Lama as a heartening product of the same encounters between the old and the new, the East and the West, that have stung many other tradition-minded people around the world into a reactionary fundamentalism.
“In Tibet, the Dalai Lama was an embodiment of an old culture that, cut off from the world, spoke for an ancient, even lost traditionalism,” Iyer writes. “Now, in exile, he is an avatar of the new, as if having travelled eight centuries in just five decades, he is increasingly, with characteristic directness, leaning in, toward tomorrow.” Iyer marshals a variety of evidence for the Dalai Lama’s forward-looking program. The Tibetan leader cast doubt on his divine ancestry, pointing to his premature endorsement of the founder of the Aum Shinrikyo group, which released sarin gas in Tokyo subways, as an indication that he is not a “living Buddha.” The most famous Buddhist in the world, he advises his Western followers not to embrace Buddhism. He seeks out famous scientists with geekish zeal, asserting that certain Buddhist scriptures disproved by modern science should be abandoned.
In his public appearances before English-speaking audiences, he prefers to speak of “global ethics” rather than of the abstruse Buddhist concept of Nirvana. Doubtless he doesn’t want to put off the largely secular middle-class Americans in weekend casuals who crowd Central Park to listen to him, but, as Iyer points out, this is also a reaffirmation of a Buddhist philosophical vision in which all existence is deeply interconnected. Indeed, this notion may be why the Dalai Lama was early to grasp the existential and political challenges of globalized human existence, decades before they were underlined by the disasters of climate change.
“For the first time in history,” Hannah Arendt wrote in 1957, “all peoples on earth have a common present. . . . Every country has become the almost immediate neighbor of every other country, and every man feels the shock of events which take place at the other end of the globe.” Arendt feared that this new “unity of the world” would be a largely negative phenomenon if it wasn’t accompanied by the “renunciation, not of one’s own tradition and national past, but of the binding authority and universal validity which tradition and past have always claimed.”
As the spiritual leader of six million people, the Dalai Lama can be credited with a significant renunciation of the authority of tradition—of the conventional politics of national self-interest as well as of religion. Such is his influence that a curt decree from him in the past weeks could have triggered a massive, probably uncontrollable, uprising in Tibet. Yet he continued to reject violence as unethical and counterproductive, even threatening to resign from his position as head of the government-in-exile, in Dharamsala, if Tibetan violence against the Chinese persisted. Increasingly, he has been forced to walk a difficult rhetorical line, accusing China of “cultural genocide” while still supporting its stewardship of the Olympic Games. He has consistently disapproved of even relatively modest attempts to influence the Chinese government, including hunger strikes and economic boycotts. In his view, Tibet needs good neighborly relations with China: “One nation’s problems can no longer be satisfactorily solved by itself alone,” he has said. He bravely promotes “universal responsibility” to people who want to be citizens of their own country before they start thinking about the universe.
He speaks remorsefully about Tibet’s retrograde and self-serving ruling élite in the pre-Communist period, and the country’s fatal lack of preparation for the twentieth century. For the Tibetan community in exile, he has introduced a democratic constitution and legislative elections. Recently, he offered his most radical idea yet, one that overturns nearly half a millennium of tradition: that the next Dalai Lama be chosen by popular vote.
The Dalai Lama’s awareness, deepening over decades of exile, of the high costs of Tibetan isolationism has helped turn Dharamsala into an exemplary cosmopolitan community, where young Israelis coming off compulsory military duty mingle with freshly arrived refugees from Tibet. Still, it seems remarkable today that the boy who once perched upon a golden throne in a thousand-room palace has become an icon of “globalism”—the word Iyer uses, occasionally a bit broadly, to denote the decidedly mixed blessings of speedy communications and easeful travel. After all, the Dalai Lama’s only consistent lifeline to the metropolitan West when growing up had been the magazine Life. (He moved on to Time and to the BBC.) Regular exposure to Henry Luce’s periodicals did not, however, inoculate the Dalai Lama against Maoism. Visiting China in 1954, during a period of uneasy collaboration with Beijing, the Dalai Lama declared himself to be impressed by the Chinese Revolution. Charmed by Mao’s unassuming demeanor, he was startled when the Great Helmsman announced on their last meeting that “religion is a poison”—the belief that, over the next two decades, helped the Chinese justify killing thousands of Tibet’s monks and destroying most of its monasteries.
Arriving in India in 1959, the Dalai Lama was still, Iyer points out, “an innocent in the ways of the modern world.” He did not visit the United States until 1979, and then his highly technical discourses on Buddhist philosophy baffled his listeners, especially those accustomed to the brisk epiphanies of Zen, the Buddhist tradition in vogue at the time. No celebrity glamour attended the Dalai Lama’s initial visits to the country where he was to achieve his greatest fame. The Dalai Lama’s Western fan club began to grow only after he received the Nobel Peace Prize, in 1989.
His popularity seems to have been helped, at least partly, by a romantic idea of Tibet promoted in the nineteen-thirties by James Hilton’s novel “Lost Horizon,” an account of Westerners chancing upon Shangri-La, a valley near the Himalayas populated by a harmonious and pacifist society. Frank Capra’s movie version of 1937 (which inspired Franklin D. Roosevelt to anoint his Presidential retreat in Maryland Shangri-La, before the prosaic Dwight D. Eisenhower renamed it Camp David, for his grandson) opens with the lines “In these days of wars and rumors of wars, haven’t you ever dreamed of a place where there was peace and security, where living was not a struggle but a lasting delight?” Despite an ample Tibetan history of brutality, Tibetans are still primarily seen in the West as a blessedly premodern people, who naturally possess rather than pursue happiness.
Iyer acknowledges this romantic misconception as a political problem for Tibet: “It feels—or we need to make it feel—more like Shangri-La than a place that could have a seat at the United Nations.” Often, too, the Dalai Lama seems ready to oblige. His decision to simplify and secularize Buddhist teachings has brought him a much bigger audience than the Japanese Zen masters or the Tibetan sages, such as Allen Ginsberg’s guru Chögyam Trungpa, who preceded him to the West. But the gentrification of an ancient and often difficult philosophy has not been achieved without some loss of intellectual rigor. In best-selling books by the Dalai Lama, Buddhism can appear to be a ritual-free mental workout, but the form that religion takes for the geshe student cramming the three hundred and twenty-two volumes of the Tibetan Buddhist canon is considerably more severe.
The Dalai Lama can claim the sanction of the Buddha, who is said to have altered his teachings in order to reach a diverse audience. Still, there are some limits to the Dalai Lama’s pragmatism, however mindful he is of contemporary liberal sensibilities. He supports full legal rights for all minorities, including gay men and women. But, citing Tibetan texts, he remains disapproving of oral and anal sex. (“The other holes don’t create life.”) Disapproving of sexual laxity and divorce, he can sometimes sound like a family-values conservative.
None of his compromises, however, have aroused as much bitterness as his decision, first announced in 1988, to settle for Tibet’s “genuine autonomy” within China rather than press for full independence. As the Dalai Lama sees it, countries must pursue their interests without harming those of others, and Tibetan independence, in addition to being an unrealistic ideal, needlessly antagonizes Beijing. This stance has failed, however, to convince the Chinese that he is not a “splittist”; they have accused him of having “masterminded” the latest disturbances. It has also made many Tibetans suspect that what makes the Dalai Lama more likable in the West—mainly, his commitment to nonviolence, reiterated during the current crisis—makes him appear weak to the Chinese.
“The more he gave himself to the world,” Iyer writes, the more Tibetans have come to feel “like natural children bewildered by the fact that their father has adopted three others.” The Tibetan novelist Jamyang Norbu complains that Tibetan support groups and the government-in-exile have become “directionless” in trying to “reorient their objectives around such other issues as the environment, world peace, religious freedom, cultural preservation, human rights—everything but the previous goal of Tibetan independence.”
Avidly embracing the liberating ideas of the secular metropolis, the Dalai Lama resembles the two emblematic types who have shaped the modern age, for better and for worse—the provincial fleeing ossified custom and the refugee fleeing totalitarianism. Even so, his critics may have a point: the Dalai Lama’s citizenship in the global cosmopolis seems to come at a cost to his dispossessed people.
As China grows unassailable, it is easy to become pessimistic about Tibet, and to imagine its spiritual leader becoming increasingly prey to fatalism. The Dalai Lama’s retreat from the exclusivist claims of ancestral religion and the nation-state can seem the reflex of someone who, since he first copied out his predecessor’s prophecy, has helplessly watched his country’s landmarks disappear. The bracing virtue of Iyer’s thoughtful essay, however, is that it allows us to imagine the Dalai Lama as something of an intellectual and spiritual adventurer, exploring fresh sources of individual identity and belonging in the newly united world.
Certainly, Arendt’s “solidarity of mankind,” enforced by capitalism and technology, has become, as she observed, “an unbearable burden,” provoking “political apathy, isolationist nationalism, or desperate rebellion against all powers that be.” There are few things that Tibetans lashing out at the Chinese presence in Lhasa today fear more than absorption into the ruthless new economy and culture of China. Iyer’s book makes it plausible that the boy from the Tibetan backwoods may be outlining, in his own frequently Forrest Gumpish way, “a process of mutual understanding and progressing self-clarification on a gigantic scale”—the process that Arendt believed necessary for halting the “tremendous increase in mutual hatred and a somewhat universal irritability of everybody against everybody else.” It is hard to see the Dalai Lama bringing about mutual understanding in the world at large when he has failed to bring it about between China and Tibet. Such, however, are the advantages of being a simple Buddhist monk that he is less likely—indeed, less able—than most politicians to compromise his noble ends with dubious means, even as he, following the Buddha’s deathbed exhortation, diligently strives on.
original link: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2008/03/31/holy-man