ON THE WEB, 19 June 2012
The Free Tibet campaign is calling on world leaders to “break the silence”, claiming they “continue to refrain from publicly speaking out for Tibet”. The embarrassing problem is that there is someone else who, if not silent, is not nearly as vocal as many would like him to be: [His Holiness] the Dalai Lama. His criticisms of China remain far too muted for many. On this tour, the regime has not been the subject of his speeches and the comments he has made have only been in response to questions. Over the years, his calls for more autonomy have fallen short of the demand for independence that many seek.
Perhaps the Dalai Lama should be more outspoken. But whether he is right or wrong, his critics have misguided expectations, as do many of his supporters. The Dalai Lama should not be blamed for being a poor political leader, because that is not his job. Even if it were, since he was given it on the basis of a selection process that makes hereditary monarchy look sensible, failure would hardly be his responsibility anyway.
There are all sorts of reasons, some honourable, some less so, why religious leaders avoid difficult political issues. One is that their kingdoms are not of this earth, so why should they bother? We in the west should know this because of one great religious leader who famously refused to fulfil his followers’ expectations and lead a revolt against the hated Roman occupiers. Jesus was more concerned with a revolution of the heart than one against the state, and in that respect the Dalai Lama is the same. Even a cursory knowledge of Buddhism should lead us to expect that bringing about political change is much less important than the pursuit of enlightenment. Politics only becomes relevant at all when there is a need to confront secular power to reduce suffering.
Less honourably, religious leaders have more often than not accommodated themselves to political realities in order to survive, even if that means forming unholy alliances. Again, we in the west have plenty of examples. Even the most devout Roman Catholic would have to admit, for example, that the church did not acquit itself well during the years of fascism — signing the Lateran treaty with Mussolini in 1929 and a concordat with Hitler in 1933.
Religious leaders often just don’t have the skills or knowledge to play the political game. They perform best when they stick to righteous pleas for peace, love, understanding and forgiveness to prevail. When the only real choices available require anything remotely nasty or confrontational, they find themselves unable to speak, perhaps because to do so would require admitting that sometimes calling for peace just isn’t enough.
One reason we shouldn’t think the Dalai Lama should be a cannier political operator is the mode in which he was appointed. The whole system of reincarnated lamas is dubious to say the least. It is born from a 12th-century adaptation to accommodate traditions specific to Tibet, rather than original Buddism. Thus, to criticise Lhamo Dondrub (as the Dalai Lama was called as a boy) for not growing up to be a better political leader is like criticising Prince Charles for not growing up to be a better prince: the failings are real in both cases but it is hardly the fault of the men concerned.
Disappointment in the Dalai Lama tells us more about the unrealistic expectations of the critics than it does the failings of the man himself. Few are as crass as Russell Brand, who said the Dalai Lama is a “holy man, it’s not pretend authority, it’s proper authority of God!”. But even those who understand a bit more than this often fall for the idea that he must be some kind of special, deeply spiritual person, when in fact he’s simply someone who met the criteria for a superstitious identification test as a child.
Looking for good, wise political leadership from the Dalai Lama, or any other religious leader, is like looking for the next Jimi Hendrix on Britain’s Got Talent: you might just succeed, but you’d be a fool to expect it.
About the author
Julian Baggini is a writer and founding editor of The Philosophers' Magazine. His books include The Ego Trick (Granta), Welcome to Everytown: A Journey into the English Mind (Granta), Atheism: A Very Short Introduction (OUP) and, with Antonia Macaro, The Shrink and The Sage (Icon).