Posts Tagged ‘Open Road’

On Dalai Lama and his diligent strivings on

March 24, 2008

Pankaj Mishra reviews Pico Iyer’s The Open Road for the New Yorker:

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.

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.

Take a look!

Update: LouisBayard at Salon isn’t very happy with Pico Iyer’s offering (nor with the Dalai Lama himself):

In the warmth of the Dalai Lama’s bespectacled gaze, we can more easily forget the less attractive aspects of his thinking — his endorsement of nuclear weapons in India, his acceptance of contributions from Japanese terrorists. We can also, if we’re really drunk on him, give him credit for changing the world.

But politics is not simply an extension of personality, and the fact remains that, under the Dalai Lama’s watch, one of the world’s great centers of Buddhism has been, in Iyer’s words, “all but wiped off the map.” Not a single nation currently recognizes the Tibetan government in exile, and the Dalai Lama’s long-standing policy of accommodation and nonaggression — he no longer calls for a separate Tibetan state, merely coexistence with the Chinese — has failed to dislodge Tibet’s occupiers by so much as a square inch.

Not all this failure can be laid at one man’s door. You could even argue that the Tibetan cause was doomed from the moment Nixon pressed flesh with Mao. Or still earlier, if we are to take seriously Buddhist principles of karmic retribution. But when Iyer asks the Dalai Lama if Tibet’s sufferings are a result of its “collective karma,” he is greeted with gnomic fragments: “It’s complicated … mysterious.” Which the bedazzled Iyer takes to mean that the answer “belonged to worlds I wasn’t in a position to enter or understand.” I take it to mean that the Dalai Lama lacks a good answer. (How many mountebanks have plied the same line: I could explain, but you wouldn’t understand.) And perhaps it doesn’t matter if he has the right answers anymore. The more vaguely he speaks, the more we fawn on him.

After all, he asks so little of us. For Western audiences, at least, the message boils down to the equivalent of a Benetton ad: Be nice, live happy. No profession of creed. No radical redistribution of income. (Richard Gere did pay for the bathrooms outside the Dalai Lama’s main temple.) Not much self-sacrifice. (Feel free to wave your “Free Tibet” banner at the Chinese Embassy.) Not even much in the way of guilt for the 6 million or so Tibetans under China’s yoke.

Hell, the Dalai Lama has forgiven China, so why shouldn’t we? To hear him tell it: “Our real enemies are our own habitual tendencies toward thinking in terms of enemies … Our terrors are of our own creation. The world itself is not so frightening, if only we can see it correctly.”

With all due respect to His Holiness — and with all due apologies for my Western bias — this is horseshit. And something very close to an insult to those who have lived and died in terror, the Dalai Lama’s compatriots in particular. Would he have dared offer this counsel to the 1 million Tibetans who were directly or indirectly killed by invading Chinese? To the countless others who were raped, sterilized, electroshocked? What about those Tibetan parents who were forced to applaud while their children were executed? Would they be expected to believe their sufferings were merely illusory and passing?

Take a look!

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