His Holiness the Dalai Lama Goes to Washington

Amy Levin talks to Robert Barnett about HHDL’s visit.

Updated 7.17

Prayer flags and American flags are flying side by side as His Holiness the Dalai Lama (HHDL) continues his second week of the Kalachakra, a festival for “world peace,” from July 6-16 in our nation’s capital. The calendar of events began with a celebration of the Dalai Lama’s 76th birthday, followed each day by prayers, dances, daily teachings, and various rituals. The main highlight and most populated event of the festival was a historic “Talk for World Peace,” given by the Lama himself. Sharing the microphone with emcee Whoopi Goldberg, the Dalai Lama addressed as many as 20,000 people who made the pilgrimage to Capitol Hill for the three-hour outdoor event complete with chanting, dancing, and music in addition to the hour and a half speech.

While most Kalachakra attendees spent their $500 to consume priceless messages of inner peace, liberation, and selflessness, there was another mantra brewing – this one given to a different crowd of devotees. On Thursday, July 7th, Speaker of the House John Boehner (R) and former speaker Nancy Pelosi (D) welcomed His Holiness to Capitol Hill to advise the US on how to spread values of peace and democracy to various nations.

Nancy Pelosi, John Boehner and HHDL

Meetings of good faith between HHDL and US public officials, including presidents, are quite a ritual, but something was different this time around – during this visit, the Dalai Lama no longer holds any formal political power. Just this past March, His Holiness announced his decision to “relinquish his last remaining political powers,” according to Forbes. Taking his place as the first prime minister to head the government-in-exile is Dr. Lobsang Sangay, a former research fellow at Harvard Law School. (The exile Tibetans have had a prime minister for decades, and a fully elected one since 2001, but this one is the first to head the entire government rather than just the cabinet.)

At his birthday celebration, the Dalai Lama addressed his impending  retirement from Tibetan governance, saying that by doing so he is no longer hypocritical about his long-term support for the separation of church and state.  “Now I can tell people religious institutions and political institutions must be separate,” he said. “My statement is now honest.”

Whoopi Goldberg introduces HHDL

If democracies enforce a clear division between faith and government, what do the Dalai Lama’s actions imply? I asked Tibetan studies scholar Robert Barnett to offer his thoughts on why the Dalai Lama transferred his political power, what this might mean for the Tibetan government-in-exile, and why his visit to Washington, DC is significant:

Behind the Dalai Lama’s action I think we can see a sense, perhaps unstated, that religion can undermine political institutions, particularly the nation, just as much as it can sustain and invigorate them. Religion sustained exile nationalism in its first decades, but it also weakened its capacity and depth, and created dependency of many kinds, especially on its leader. The Dalai Lama sees the exile nation, or at least its government, as incapable of surviving his death unless it ends its dependence on charismatic religious leadership: it will otherwise collapse when he dies, and in any case he terms this form of politics “immature” and “incomplete.”

So the fact that he retired is of minor significance here – what’s much more important, and totally unexpected, is that he also ended categorically the entire system of Tibetan politics since the 17th century, which had the Dalai Lamas as heads of state – he declared that the exile system will not have this feature again and no future Dalai Lamas or any other figures will have any unelected role in it. His main objective is to push exile Tibetans to develop a form of leadership before he dies that does not depend on a single figure, or on religious belief. He insists that only a democratically elected leadership can provide that. Implicitly that system has to be secular, in the broad sense in which he defines secularism, which is as respect of all religious and non-religious views equally.

Analytically, one can detect other priorities pushing the Dalai Lama in this very radical decision, such as to make  gestures that should make it harder for Beijing to continue foot-dragging on the talks process, and also to appease the Indian government so as to try to forestall it closing down the exile project altogether once he dies.

HHDL in Washington

No wonder the Dalai Lama reinstated his belief in the separation of church and state – it seems that the cloudy, albeit cogent, concept of secularism does translate across nations. However, the peace talks and press conferences amid rituals of prayer and meditation still raise the question as to what exactly His Holiness planned for the festival, and Barnett helps once again:

The DC visit was planned long in advance and is primarily a spiritual event, one described by some as contributing particularly to prospects of world peace by being held at a major political centre. Actually it is unclear liturgically why this practice has any specific connection to invoking peace except in the secondary sense that, as Buddhists, practitioners are always expected to improve their capacity for internal calm and stabilization and that almost all Buddhist rituals are expected to bring general benefit to the surrounding environment. But, as many Buddhist teachers do with other practices, this Dalai Lama has reinterpreted this ceremony as, broadly conceived, a contribution to wider social benefit. This kind of creative interpretation by a ritual master  is widely accepted in Buddhism.

Politically, this visit is interesting because it is probably the longest the DL has spent in the US capital, and because the other potential major player in the exiles’ future has come too: the Gyalwang Karmapa, head of the Karma Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism (the Dalai Lama is head of the Gelugpa school, and nominally speaks for all schools while in exile). This is only the second time the Indians have allowed the Karmapa to go abroad since he fled into exile in India in early 2000, an important figure since he is the only major lama recognized officially by both the Dalai Lama and Beijing. It’s the first time he’s been seen in the West alongside the Dalai Lama, so his role in DC is being keenly watched. He might not have a formal position in future exile politics, but is the only figure who could be significant as an informal figurehead and as a potential deal-broker with the Chinese. But expect any developments in that respect to be subtle and low-key.

In terms of support from the West, technically speaking, the purpose is not to get support from the West for its own sake, but to have Western support  as additional leverage to get China to negotiate. Currently the visit is looking problematic, since it is not yet clear if the White House or the State Department are going to accept requests for meetings with the Dalai Lama. If they do not, it will be a major break with US political convention since the first Bush  met him in 1991 and an important diplomatic coup for China.

Indeed, the Dalai Lama has not yet heard from Barack Obama, and media outlets aren’t adding much to Barnett’s poignant analysis. Yet, we can count on them to direct our attention toward New Age hippies and Buddhism in America. If they could only divert the attention of the Chinese, then maybe the Dalai Lama would hear from the White House after all.

Updated 7.17  Robert Barnett writes:

Yesterday the White House issued a press release on the president’s meeting with the Dalai Lama that is strong on the basic issues about Tibetan human rights and cultural survival, but puzzling for one reason: the inclusion of a phrase that is fascinating for its redundancy in the text:  “the United States does not support independence for Tibet.”  The prior clause asserts that Tibet is recognized as part of China.
The position of the United States government on Tibetan independence has been clear for some time, but putting such a statement in the mouth of the president is in diplomatic terms a much stronger form of commitment.  It is also a much stronger indication to China of a concession to its demands. The French and Danish governments have already complied with pressure from Beijing to issue statements with the same language, leading to considerable embarrassment in their media – but even there both countries’ leaders are believed to have refrained from using this phrase themselves.  In other words, the US president has appeased China with such strong language as a concession for meeting with the Dalai Lama, a move that will be seen by some as likely to lead to more not less demands on the US from the Chinese diplomats, and without any indication so far that it will lead China to respond in any positive way to Tibetan efforts to get autonomy.

Robert Barnett founded and directs the Modern Tibetan Studies Program at Columbia, the first Western teaching program in this field. His most recent book is Tibetan Modernities: Notes from the Field on Social and Cultural Change, co-edited with Ronald Schwartz (Brill, 2008). He is a frequent commentator on Tibetan issues for The New York Times, NPR, the BBC, CNN, VOA, and other media outlets and has worked as a journalist and writer in the United Kingdom for the BBC, the South China Morning PostVOA, the Guardian, and the Independent.

Amy Levin is a graduate student in Religious Studies at New York University and a regular contributor to The Revealer.

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