February 27, 2014

Talk Isn’t Cheap

The Dalai Lama visits AEI—NeoCons’ high churchMax Zahn

The photo op is irresistible. His Holiness the Dalai Lama, donning radiant maroon and saffron robes, sits alongside none other than a fully suited Mr. Barack Obama. His Holiness’s unapologetic, balding head and exposed right bicep are a spectacle in the formally clothed, carefully guarded land of Washington, DC. On display are two very different global juggernauts.

The spectacle itself might account for the inordinate amount of press attention that the Dalai Lama’s White House visit received. Otherwise, it was ordinary political theater. The usual empty platitudes from the administration condemning oppression of Tibetans, and perfunctory posturing from China in retaliation. Sure, there was some open sniping between the world’s two most powerful nations. But it was fake, obligatory sniping, and everybody knew it. After all, His Holiness had already visited President Obama twice, and somehow the world kept rotating on its axis.

The truly noteworthy event from the Dalai Lama’s Washington visit took place the day before, in the less palatial conference room of a prominent conservative think tank, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Here, the Dalai Lama spoke on two panels, one of which was entitled “Moral Free Enterprise: Economic Perspectives in Business and Politics.” (The video is available online.) The stated objective, according to the AEI website, was to discuss how “spiritual development and ethical leadership are indispensable to bring about the full blessings of free enterprise.”

The Dalai Lama sat alongside a who’s who of free market evangelists like the Romney Presidential Campaign’s head economic advisor, Columbia University Professor Glenn Hubbard, and AEI President Arthur Brooks. This wasn’t just quirky photograph weird; this was otherworldly strange. Especially in light of the Dalai Lama’s longstanding avowal of Marxism, as documented in Stuart Smithers' must-read article “Occupy Buddhism: Or Why the Dalai Lama is a Marxist.”

Smithers establishes that the Dalai Lama’s affection for Marxism is no passing fancy.  Referring to a passage from the 1996 book Beyond Dogma: Dialogues and Discourses, Smithers notes how the Dalai Lama once labeled himself “half-Marxist, half-Buddhist.” His Holiness even adopted the lingo of that German economist of yore, describing his thought as “concerned with distribution of wealth on an equal basis and an equitable utilization of the means of production.” Remember, this was back in ‘96, at the crest of the dot-com bubble, when the global economy appeared stronger than ever. If the Dalai Lama wanted to quietly mingle with the capitalist ranks, that was the time. So why, during a post-recession economic torpor that has wildly exacerbated wealth inequality, did His Holiness show up at the doorstep of market capitalism’s highest of high churches?

Astonishingly enough, by inviting Brooks and AEI vice president Daniella Pletka for a visit to his base in Dharamsala, India, the Dalai Lama was the one who initiated the series of events that led to his appearance at AEI. The trio hit it off at the Tibetan Buddhist outpost, and the ensuing relationship led naturally to a reciprocal request from AEI. The Dalai Lama explained his willingness to attend the event in an interview with Vanity Fair:

Strictly speaking, I am socialist, so I am leftist. Some people say, this organization is more rightist. I have a very good impression [of Brooks], so therefore I accept his invitation. I felt, rightist also human being . . . Their main purpose is how to build happy society. So it doesn’t matter.

He also referred obliquely to naysayers in his opening remarks at AEI when, pointing at Brooks, he recounted,

Earlier he asked me what do you feel in coming to Washington. “Good,” I said, “Good.” Then he said, “Some people are not very happy because there are too many politicians.” Then I responded, “Politicians are also human beings.” On that level, no differences. So I always look on the human level—no demarcation, no differences.

No better act of love, perhaps, than entering the lion’s den and embracing the lions. (The Dalai Lama would likely resist the metaphor.)

AEI’s influence has its high watermark in the second Bush era, from 2000 to 2008, when it vigorously defended the President’s supply-side tax cuts and solidified his case for an invasion of Iraq. Speaking at an AEI event in May 2007, Bush gushed about how much he “admired” the organization. “You know,” he added, “after all, I have been consistently borrowing some of your best people.” He wasn’t kidding. The list of current and former AEI fellows includes many Bush Administration headliners, from John Bolton to Paul Wolfowitz to Dick Cheney.

Hitched to the hip of an unpopular, lame duck president, AEI sought to rebrand itself in 2008 by hiring a new director: the former professional musician Arthur Brooks. Shortly thereafter, Brooks wrote a controversial Wall Street Journal Op-Ed in admiration of the Tea Party movement saying, “Advocates of free enterprise must learn from the growing grassroots protests, and make the moral case for freedom and entrepreneurship. They have to declare that it is a moral issue to confiscate more income from the minority simply because the government can.” It was no accident that Brooks squeezed the words “moral” and “ethical” into the piece wherever he could. This was AEI’s new image: free enterprise as the humane thing to do.

For AEI, the Dalai Lama’s visit—regardless of what he said—marked a PR victory in its ongoing fight for moral authority. From their end, they’d somehow reeled in the most remarkable of fish, and he lay suddenly on the deck of their boat. Close enough to touch. Other panelists seemed as much smitten to meet the Dalai Lama at AEI, of all places, as they were to meet him in general. At one point, Brooks, no longer able to resist, indulged in a wide smile and burst out giddily, “This is such a good day.”

The Dalai Lama continued his remarks by stressing the importance of emotional education as a means for societal transformation. He then warned of the impending climate crisis, and urged that we must acknowledge our interdependence in order to avert catastrophe.

After hedge fund CEO Daniel Loeb spoke about how yoga improved his trading decisions, the Dalai Lama half-jokingly exclaimed, “I’ve developed more respect for capitalism. Otherwise, my impression of capitalism is only take money and exploitation.”

This apparent concession prompted the panel’s most complete moment of unreality. Jonathan Haidt, a professor at New York University’s Stern Business School, couldn’t contain his glee:

This is such a wonderful day when a revered religious leader, who is particularly beloved on the Left, comes to a free market think tank…so this is scrambling all the categories, this makes me so excited that we might finally break out of the rut we’ve been in for so many years in our arguments about the role of business and government.”

Chalk up this comment as more of the panel’s self-congratulatory zeal. The panel had been a success before it even got going. And everybody in attendance seemed to know it, except for His Holiness.

The Dalai Lama had arrived at AEI with an open mind, as though to a monthly book club. No matter the organization’s multi-million dollar budget or its express mission of expanding free enterprise, His Holiness intended to treat the panelists as good faith participants in dialogue. This couldn’t help but feel naïve, and entirely neglectful of structural arguments that the Dalai Lama himself has made in the past. The contradiction is impossible to cleanly reconcile.

Then again, maybe the Dalai Lama anticipated the negative consequences of his appearance. Maybe he just didn’t care. Perhaps he’s trying to teach us—whether politician or Buddhist—that compassion comes at a cost, that it’s never worth denying affection in order to gain the upper hand in a real or imagined zero-sum game. No matter how high the stakes. If that is in fact his lesson, I’m confused as to whether my scoffing is spiritual deficiency or just good common sense.

 –Max Zahn, Editorial Intern

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T Harrison's picture

If one takes the long view of creating a just and peaceful world, it may require another millenium to accomplish in any enduring way. And, if it happens, the process will be determined by the actions of thousands or even billions of individuals, and many generations, from all sides of the political spectrum, not just a few folks at the AEI. Perhaps the Dalai Lama's efforts to make friends and personalize the debate with an isolated cadre who hold the greatest monetary (and perhaps political) power is in fact the result of a cold calculation to achieve the greatest impact in the shortest time possible, even if that "short" time is several decades or centuries away, and even if these individuals gain some undeserved boost to their power from the relationship. As Dr King, another pragmatic philosopher and practitioner of non-violence, stated so eloquently: "The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice." For HHDL, these efforts to alleviate all suffering are at least 2500 years old, so perhaps he chooses not to expend energy expecting unattainable change in one short lifetime. Perhaps through the very act of being in a hurry, driven by an overestimation of our individual efficacy or insights, or by demonizing others as wholly wrong-headed or political systems as entirely insalvagable, we may actually inspire more polarization and intransigence that slows the long term growth of justice and peace.

Sarah11.11's picture

This meeting also nauseates me and therefore shines light on my own spiritual deficiency. But the Dalai Lama's lesson is very clear to me. Transform hatred of your enemy into compassion by focusing on the simple fact that you both share a human experience in a very complicated world. I don't think this is naive, I think this approach is a courageous step of faith in the power of compassion to awaken others to their own capacity for goodwill. If we don't build bridges between thought camps with compassion and respect for our mutual humanity, then we will always be at war with each other.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Nauseousness indicates not so much deficiency as clarity. Obama and the DL are not more equal than you, Sarah.

Will.Rowe's picture

I do not look for spiritual wisdom from political leaders, nor do I seek political insight from spiritual leaders. Marxism gave birth to communism, which has a wretched history of slavery (gulags), totalitarianism, no civil rights, and the intentional murder of 100 million. This is indefensible and now correctly rejected by the vast majority of the world.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Regarding politics, we can act in accord with each country's customs, cultures, traditions, manners as long as we remain mindful of Buddhism's core teachings. As such, spiritual wisdom becomes political insight.

medicinehorse179's picture

My vote is "spiritual deficiency", but that's why it's called "practice"....*grin*....

matthias.steingass's picture

Why not label the oracular sayings of the DL too as "the usual empty platitudes." Last time in 2011 in the US he went right from the Kalachakra empowerment show to a famous televised cocking show. How was his agenda in the US looking this time? Celebs, the President, some neocons? Who the fuck cares about this man apart from some x-buddhist nitwits who still are not grown up enough to tell Mickey Mouse from real world?

kammie's picture

The Dalai Lama calls the Chinese government his good friends so how much room is there to be surprised at his approval of people who are capitalists? In my heart I know he's right in his unstinting acceptance of people as they are, and I like to remember his explanations of how he can call the Chinese his friends; it's because they are such a trigger for spiritual growth, although he says it more eloquently. Personally, I find his attitude shocking like a alarm when I've overslept, and inspiring like a challenge that is far, far beyond me but absolutely necessary for me to respond to.

mattbard's picture

...HH and Obama.... empty theater, photo op ??? ........ I look at it this way... when thousands attend an empowerment, such as mass Kalachakra gathering.... it is not that they walk away full to the brim, but a seed has been planted.... being in the presence of the Dalai Lama and talking behind closed doors for an hour, may not make headlines or cause big world change. ... however, appreciate it on a level beyond mere journalism... the Ocean of Wisdom, the Dalai Lama , runs deep........... matt

devincoogan's picture

I think the Dalai Lama's discourse and gesture were illuminative for people on either end of the political spectrum. For the people on the right, he used their language, emphasizing self-determination which is a key feature of buddhism and US republicanism, the counterpart of which are responsibility and ethics. For those on the left, he reiterated compassion, going further than just saying 'marxism' is the best theory, he emphasized that any system without compassion is insufficient. Although there are undoubtedly ways that we could structure things differently to incur less suffering, regressive tax policies and corporate loopholes are products of a network of people's hearts and minds. He seems to be emphasizing that compassion is the most intelligent capacity that we have for dealing with complexity. He embodies it by dialoging with the neo-liberal elite, the 'unseen hands'.

aewhitehouse's picture

Excellent post. Agree with you across the board.

mahakala's picture

If that is in fact his lesson, I’m confused as to whether my scoffing is spiritual deficiency or just good common sense.

dont worry, when you get older, you'll cease to care as well

in other words, your confusion = youth