This month sees an official visit to Australia by the 14th Dalai Lama. A deluxe package, priced at $5,000, will give you the chance to witness the teachings and the “journey of a man of compassion and wisdom”. The main event in Melbourne, a three-day teaching session, is expected to draw an audience of 3,000 people and costs up to $721. You can pick up a souvenir t-shirt of the tour for $35. The capitalist media fall over themselves to fawn over a man who has received over 84 awards, honorary doctorates and prizes.
But what should we really witness about the Dalai Lama? A closer look reveals a member of the ruling elite who is not really very different from the rest of them. First, let’s be clear, there is no question that the Tibetan people are entitled to self-determination. The Tibetan people’s struggle should be supported. Indeed, their courage and resoluteness in fighting the colonial oppression of the Chinese government has been, and continues to be, impressive.
The current Dalai Lama, on the other hand, comes from a long line of brutal rulers (14 over seven centuries) who have held back and often oppressed the people of Tibet. In fact, the Mongolian for the term Dalai Lama may have originally derived from the title taken by Genghis Khan (yes, that guy).
“Dalai Lama” is a title artificially created and bestowed by and on autocratic rulers that has little to do with religion. Only in the West do people refer to him as “His Holiness” and bestow this additional address to signify his “spiritual authority”. Much more central is the Dalai Lama’s role is as the leader of the Tibetan ruling class.
Even so, make no mistake in thinking that Buddhism is a “peaceful” religion. For centuries, competing Tibetan Buddhist sects have fought violent and brutal clashes that compare to any of the Christian or Muslim crusades. The Gelug school to which the Dalai Lama belongs, also known as the “Yellow Hats”, shows little willingness to mix their teachings with those of other Buddhist sects. In the words of one of their traditional prayers:
Praise to you, violent god of the Yellow Hat teachings/ who reduces to particles of dust/ great beings, high officials and ordinary people/ who pollute and corrupt the Gelug doctrine.
A witness to an exhibition of torture equipment used by the Tibetan overlords saw handcuffs of all sizes, including small ones for children, instruments for cutting off noses and ears, gouging out eyes, breaking off hands, and hamstringing legs. There were also hot brands, whips, special implements for disembowelling, and photographs and testimonies of victims who had been blinded or crippled or suffered amputations for thievery.
When the Dalai Lama took power and ruled over Tibet in the 1950s, most of the arable land was still organised into large estates worked by serfs. These estates were owned by two groups: the rich secular landlords and the rich theocratic lamas. The monasteries became very rich through their feudal mastery, and even richer through trade, commerce and money-lending. The Dalai Lama himself, when he still lived in Tibet, occupied the 1,000-room, 14-story Potala Palace.
When the Chinese army invaded in 1953 the Dalai Lama, as monarch, major landowner and political ruler, collaborated with the invading forces. He later changed sides and was placed on the payroll of the CIA at an estimated $180,000 a year. The CIA also funded the arming of anti-communist guerrilla fighters during the 1959 uprising.
The Dalai Lama’s interests have always been in doing deals with other members of the international ruling class, not in supporting the mass resistance of the Tibetan people. In the past few years he has met with George W. Bush, Angela Merkel and Benjamin Netanyahu. Do you think he enlightened them about the struggles for national self-determination around the world? No, he openly supported the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the intervention in Yugoslavia and the genocidal actions of Israel (in 2006, he was a special guest at events marking the 100th anniversary of Zionist leader David Ben-Gurion’s arrival in Israel).
In April 1999, along with Margaret Thatcher, Pope John Paul II and George Bush senior, the Dalai Lama called upon the British government to release Augusto Pinochet, the former fascist dictator of Chile and not have him sent to Spain to face trial for crimes against humanity.
More recently, the Dalai Lama has come out in support of the thermonuclear tests recently conducted by the Indian state (which has also previously given him money). In his own words:
It is a good thing to be rich… Those are the fruits for deserving actions, the proof that they have been generous in the past.
And to the poor he offers this wisdom:
There is no good reason to become bitter and rebel against those who have property and fortune… It is better to develop a positive attitude. He would say that. After all, teaching people to have a positive attitude just makes him even richer.