In 1989 the Dalai Lama received the Nobel Peace Prize for being the only contemporary leader of a displaced people to disavow the use of arms to regain control of his country. This past March he arrived in the United States to inaugurate the Year of Tibet and to ask for universal responsibility in establishing Tibet as a demilitarized zone. In addition to this peaceful strategy for rescuing his own country from Chinese occupation, global demilitarization is an objective for the Dalai Lama and a liberated Tibet would both exemplify and inspire new possibilities for world peace. As the exiled leader flew from Ithaca to Boston, from Houston to Santa Fe, and on to California, public address systems in airports across the country were drowned out by spontaneous applause greeting victorious troops returning from the Gulf War. Ironically, the Dalai Lama’s own voice has too often been drowned out; and the same kind of annexation that Iraq attempted with Kuwait has been accomplished by China in the case of Tibet.
China’s excessive brutalities have taken Tibet to the brink of annihilation. Tibet fully deserves the attention from the international coalition of human rights activists it has finally received. But to confine the Tibetan cause to the realm of politics and human rights is to risk missing its most profound lessons.
What remains unique to this situation is that the Dalai Lama commitment to non-violence is not provoked by social injustice; and unlike other pacifist leaders of our times, he does not have to advocate for non-violence from the psychic margins of his own culture. The Dalai Lama’s message to his people—to refrain from using arms—was effective, in part, because it echoed the collective voice. By contrast, Martin Luther King rose to leadership in a white supremacist society against extraordinary odds. And although Mahatma Gandhi’s circumstances were vastly different, he too worked against the political conventions of his time and place. In the case of Tibet, its leader embodies its cultural ideal. His vision is not the isolated ideology of a politician-saint. Since age five, his wisdom and compassion have been fine-tuned by a Buddhist tradition designed to train the mind and heart. True, he is considered by his own people to be the emanation of the Buddha’s compassion from his thirteen previous lifetimes. Nonetheless, Buddhism’s gifts are transformative methods for working with individual potential in this lifetime.
Buddhism did not make Tibet a perfect society. Typically, the cultural ideal is not always matched by the realities of daily life. Historically, class and economic inequities were widespread in Tibet, and corruption occurred at the highest levels of its theocratic government. And not all the Dalai Lamas have been as beloved by their people as this one, nor have they all been so honorable in their responsibilities. Not all Tibetans who have come through the complex systems of monastic training are enlightened and compassionate. This Dalai Lama is not only extraordinary on his own terms but he also exemplifies his Tibetan Buddhist lineage at its most effective, and human behavior at its most sane and civilized. The loss of human life in Tibet is no more tragic than anywhere else; but with Tibetan culture, the world is losing a unique tradition of knowledge and training for subduing those states of mind that project negativity and create personal and political suffering.
On April 16, President Bush ruffled the feathers of the People’s Republic of China when he became the first American president to meet with the Dalai Lama. This historic moment was a meeting between representatives of two qualitatively different kinds of freedom. Freedom in this country has too often focused on liberation from something outside of ourselves—whether it be a foreign power abroad, an oppressive government at home, or constraints on our personal liberty. We have come to pursue this kind of freedom with a vengeance, but devoid of the spiritual dimension that cultivates universal responsibility, this pursuit now contributes to global problems, not solutions.
The freedom that the Dalai Lama conveys is of a more subtle nature. Whatever hard lessons he learned from the Chinese, he remains radically detached from bitterness. By presenting the Tibetan cause without rancor, he disarms our assumptions and expectations, as well as our own experiences of abuse, betrayal, and loss. And yet, in the wake of Tibet’s agony, the Dalai Lama has had to question the strategy of religion. Recently he said that the sole reliance on prayer had created a “religious sentiment” that became an obstacle to human efforts to save Tibet.
The Dalai Lama is at the forefront of a dramatic movement to bring wisdom and compassion to the world’s political landscape. And in our own country the spiritual roots of our historical commitment to social responsibility are in need of revitalization. This crossroad of action and contemplation is where Buddhism now finds itself.
Image: The Dalai Lama receives a small golden tricycle from Editor Helen Tworkov.