/ 23 March 2008

Inside the court of the Tibetan god-king

When the Dalai Lama sat down on Saturday with Richard Gere and Robert Thurman, father of actor Uma and a United States professor of Buddhism, it was supposed to be for a few hours contemplating sacred art and silent meditation.

But with Chinese troops smothering the protests in Tibet with brutal ease, the 14th Dalai Lama, an incarnation of Avalokitesvara, the Buddha of Compassion, found himself pondering not celestial peace but bloody violence.

Like almost everything the 72-year-old does, who he meets and what he says in his lopsided English are picked over and pulled apart. Gere and Thurman founded Tibet House, in New York’s hip Upper West Side, which serves as a cultural mission for the ”occupied” nation of Tibet.

Their headline-grabbing appearance will no doubt deepen suspicions in Beijing that Saturday’s event at the Delhi Foundation for Universal Responsibility was politics masquerading as religion.

On Friday, one of China’s bitterest critics, Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the US House of Representatives, descended the steps of the main temple at the home of the Dalai Lama in McLeod Ganj, in the foothills of the Indian Himalayas, hand-in-hand with the Tibetan spiritual leader and blasted Beijing.

Pelosi, who unfurled a pro-democracy banner in Tiananmen Square in 1991 on an official visit, infuriated the Chinese government with a call on all ”freedom-loving people” to denounce the communist regime, which has grown edgier about international pressure on Tibet ahead of the Beijing Olympics.

Although he describes himself as a ”simple Buddhist monk”, last week’s events in the Tibetan plateau have underlined the Dalai Lama’s importance as a symbol of peaceful protests and a struggle for cultural freedom. For Tibetans, he is the Ocean of Wisdom, a god-king who engenders intense devotion — his name was chanted repeatedly by protesters across the roof of the world.

Chinese officials have a different view, one rooted in the feeling that the Dalai Lama has used his moral and religious authority to destabilise Tibet. In an extraordinarily vituperative attack, state-run media said that the Chinese leadership is engaged in a ”life-and-death struggle” with the Dalai Lama, who is ”a wolf in a monk’s robe, a monster with a human face but the heart of a beast”.

Dragon scared by a mouse

To anyone standing in McLeod Ganj, a British Raj hill station above Dharamsala last week, where he has lived in exile since 1959, the rhetoric seems faintly absurd — a Chinese dragon scared by a mouse that prayed.

The Dalai Lama’s base of power is a former British cantonment compound that now consists of a concrete monastery, a temple and a long yellow bungalow called the Heavenly Abode. It is a far cry from his former home, Lhasa’s Potala Palace, which sprawls across more than 1 000 rooms and 13 storeys. Supporters say that his private office has just ”half-a-dozen” full-time officials.

Every year hundreds of Tibetans risk bullets, imprisonment, frostbite and hypothermia to escape through Nepal to the Dalai Lama’s home in exile. Last week, one monk from Tibet said he had made the perilous journey because he wanted to see ”the god before he left the Earth”.

”Chinese should get out of Tibet; we don’t like them. They are murdering our culture. The Dalai Lama is proof we are not Chinese,” said Ruchun (31), a Tibetan monk from China’s Gansu province, on one of the daily protest marches in McLeod Ganj last week.

Another reason the Chinese government so loathes the Dalai Lama is his considerable political influence. He is regularly named alongside Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi in the pantheon of great modern-day apostles of non-violence.

But his fame as a Nobel laureate and backing from Hollywood has produced little concrete benefit — the most visible sign in McLeod Ganj is the town’s only public lavatory, paid for by Richard Gere. No country recognises his ”government in exile”, which runs from a series of ageing wooden chalets and yellow concrete offices. The Central Tibetan Administration runs schools, health services, cultural activities and economic development projects for India’s 130 000-strong exiled Tibetan community.

Sitting under snowcapped mountains, the government in exile remains a potent image for Tibetans. But turning up at the Department of Information is an underwhelming experience. The government’s revenues, generated from donations and a small levy on Tibetans in India, is thought to be about $20-million. The New York Tibet Fund disburses another $3-million a year, which the Chinese media consider a front for the US government because part of the funding comes from the State Department.

David versus Goliath

In this Buddhist version of David versus Goliath, the Dalai Lama’s strategy has been to hug his giant adversary into agreement. The spiritual leader has kept his requests modest and is ready to accept Chinese sovereignty in exchange for genuine autonomy. He refuses to back the call for international sanctions such as those imposed when Burma suppressed pro-democracy protests last year, or a boycott of this summer’s Olympics.

Perhaps this softly-softly approach can be explained by the growing middle-class Chinese interest in spirituality. Like other religions, Tibetan Buddhism is gaining new adherents in China and the Dalai Lama sees a potential huge congregation in the Chinese mainland, even from within the Communist Party. ”Every Chinese from mainland China we meet always says, ‘Please don’t forget us, come to China, help us.”’

This may explain why, even as Chinese troops flooded into the Tibetan plateau, the Dalai Lama said he was prepared to meet with Beijing’s top leadership, including Hu Jintao, China’s President, who as regional Communist Party boss oversaw a bloody repression of Tibetan protests in 1989.

But such apparent timidity has drawn fire from Tibetan groups who say it is time to seize the moment and press ahead with an aggressive stance on complete independence. These groups say the talks are just a ploy to subdue resistance to their rule and wait for his holiness’s death.

”The Dalai Lama dropped his calls for independence in 1979 after Deng Xiaoping offered talks in return. But we have had six rounds and got nothing in return. That is why we agree to disagree with his holiness and call for complete independence,” said Dhondup Ladhar (31), the general secretary of the Tibetan Youth Congress who left Tibet after five members of his family were killed during the 1989 uprising.

”I knew nothing of our history, our culture. The communists just brainwash us at school. That is why we cannot live with them,” he added.

Others say that, for all his supposed spiritual wisdom, the Dalai Lama is a ”poor and poorly advised political strategist”.

”The Dalai Lama should have closed down the Hollywood strategy a decade ago and focused on back-channel diplomacy with Beijing … Sending his envoys to talk about talks with the Chinese while simultaneously encouraging the global pro-Tibet lobby has achieved nothing,” wrote Patrick French, author of Tibet, Tibet, in the New York Times.

Demonstrating a deft political touch with journalists last week, the Dalai Lama defended his strategy to talk — characteristically praising the gods of Chinese communism, Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, while decrying the moral deficit of emerging Chinese power.

The Tibetan leader described chairman Mao, whom he met several times in the 1950s, as a ”very gentle, calm person” who was a ”great revolutionary. I was so convinced by him. I wanted to join the Communist Party … but power spoilt him. China today needs moral authority to be a genuine superpower. It should be an open society. If six million Tibetans remain separate, [China] will always remain weak.” — guardian.co.uk Â