There is no greater demonstration of the weaknesses of our culture than the honorifics we attach to unworthy individuals. The pope is always called ‘His Holiness’ by willing sycophants, regardless of whether or not he or his predecessors knew about – and covered up – crimes against children perpetrated by the priesthood. Even a terror-happy Islamist militant may be a “Sheikh” and a gay-bashing evangelical “Reverend”.
The Dalai Lama is a particular beneficiary of this media and political convention; he is always his title. That title has acquired quite the reputation for going against the wishes of the Chinese and gained the slight superficial whiff of rebellion that naturally follows. What often escapes public notice in a haze of adulation and undeserved status is his less than perfect record on a number of issues and a hefty amount of just criticism that is barely reported by an overly obsequious media.
The Dalai Lama used to run Tibet before being removed by the Chinese. This earned him instant, unquestionable kudos in the minds of some. But the undoubted viciousness of the subsequent Chinese occupation does not mean that this four-dollar ‘dissenter’ should have a seemingly endless reserve of screen-time and a bottomless wellspring of respect. The favouritism shown him is even more questionable when we consider the sort of Tibetan system that the Chinese government replaced. It has been convincingly argued in a number of places (including The Nation and New Statesman magazines, among others) that the Chinese invaders – while certainly cruel and dogmatic, of that there is no doubt – were rather similar in style to the Tibetan lama (the priestly classes, who effectively made up the government) before the annexation. A multitude of tales recount cruel and unusual punishments enacted in this supposed domain of peace: eye gouging was apparently a favourite. The theocratic fiefdom was also well stocked with serfs who laboured under the control of their oppressive feudal masters on the one hand and the mythical karmic struggle on the other.
The current Dalai Lama has appeared on The Simpsons and is lovingly fawned over on a host of lowbrow shows. He is also best buddies with Hollywood hippie-types such as Richard Gere and more recently (I am reliably informed) Steven Seagal – who has even been declared the reincarnation of a saint of early Buddhism. These celebrities assist him as he travels the world, begging bowl in hand, scooping up the cash from a succession of lucrative public appearances.
But apart from this deception of the rich and famous, which some might call harmless, there is another side to this public figure. The Dalai Lama came to the defence of India in 1998 when it developed a thermonuclear weapons stockpile. In a region of immense cultural and political tensions, he was happy to give the government a moral defence of its newfound ability to simultaneously slaughter and self-immolate. This intervention, we are to presume, was in no way related to the fact that he operates his ‘government in exile’ in India at the behest, and tacit support, of its leaders. No – nothing morally questionable about that! It is also worth pointing out that that this was an enormous political act. The Dalai Lama is not as neutral as some might suppose.
And here’s the truth: this supposedly whiter-than-white reincarnation of the Buddha himself is merely a human being, nothing more. My problem (apart from the inherent issue of spiritual subservience and unsubstantiated claims of a cyclical afterlife) is that this imperfect primate sees it as somehow his right to travel the world – with the aforementioned lapdog celebrities – on a fund-raising and proselytising bandwagon. And all of this occurs primarily to allow our friend to preach about how he deserves to have an entire nation state – which used to be his personal possession – restored to the control of its former masters.
There are unresolved issues within Buddhism, too. Examples include ritual self-immolation – a cult of death as virulent as any found within fundamentalist Islam – and also its widespread intolerance, which seemingly surrounds all religion and which Buddhist leaders refuse to acknowledge or to attempt to combat. The anti-Muslim violence in Burma in August 2013 (accompanied by a fair number of suicides) illustrates both principles.
This reverence of the Dalai Lama is a tremendous insult to the collective intelligence and goodwill of humanity. It is disgraceful that a man who claims to be the fourteenth rebirth of a virtually pre-historic Nepalese princeling is granted the attention that he is, without the volume of criticism that is – rightly – in store for other religious leaders. The Dalai Lama should stick to his platitudinous advice (for him, it seems, Buddhism is no more than a collection of mystical aphorisms anyway), and the citizens of the adoring world should just get on with their lives. Perhaps he could restrict his temporal activities to writing the forewords to spiritual potboilers about meditation and self-help. Maybe then the political and cultural establishment would stop deferring to such an outstandingly successful fantasist and conman on elaborately bended knee.
This essay was originally published in the October/November 2014 edition of Free Inquiry magazine.