To his credit, President Bush defied the wrath of China to meet with His Holiness the Dalai Lama and present him with a Congressional Gold Medal. Suzanne Goldenberg reported yesterday for The Guardian:
The White House softened the slight to Beijing by keeping today’s meeting between the Dalai Lama and Mr Bush a distinctly private affair, and by previously assuring the president’s attendance at the 2008 summer Olympics in China.
However, Chinese officials today warned that the spectacle of President Bush standing by the side of the Dalai Lama as he is awarded the Congressional Gold Medal of Honour could damage relations with Beijing.
China’s foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, called on Mr Bush to stay away from the ceremony.
“We solemnly demand that the US cancel the extremely wrong arrangements,” Mr Yang told reporters in Beijing.
“It seriously violates the norm of international relations and seriously wounded the feelings of the Chinese people and interfered with China’s internal affairs.”
China also withdrew from an international strategy session on Iran scheduled for today in protest at the honour accorded to the Dalai Lama. A Chinese official said the timing of the meeting was “not suitable”. …
… The Dalai Lama’s journey to Washington this week will be his 12th visit to the White House since he led his people into exile in 1959. It will be his fourth encounter with Mr Bush. But tomorrow’s award ceremony will mark the first time Mr Bush, or any other serving US president, has appeared in public with the Tibetan leader and the White House was treading very carefully today to try to minimise the embarrassment to China.
Today’s scheduled embrace of the Dalai Lama by George W. Bush represents a major change in foreigner policy by the White House.
Bush’s new plan: If you meet the Buddha on the road, get a photo-op with him.
That’s a shift from the Blackwater philosophy: If you meet an Iraqi on the road, shoot him.
In any case, plagued by a war that his own regime started, the president has chosen to burnish his image by meeting with a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. No, not Al Gore, who looks as if he’s won several pizza prizes since Bush’s operatives stole the presidency from him in 2000.
This Nobel winner is Tenzin Gyatso, who was proclaimed the Dalai Lama when he was only two years old and ruled Tibet until China ousted him years ago. Gyatso won the 1989 Nobel prize “for his consistent resistance to the use of violence.”
It’s hard to comprehend why the Chinese get so bent out of shape over the Dalai Lama, known affectionately in Buddhist online forums as HHDL. My understanding is that HHDL has offered to concede Tibet as Chinese territory, so long as Tibetans get some say over what goes on in Tibet. I believe most of the world regards HHDL as a benign and pleasant sort, even if many are befuddled about exactly what he is. But the government of China suffers from Dalai Lama Derangement Syndrome.
Last week, Slavoj Zizek wrote in the New York Times:
THE Western liberal media had a laugh in August when China’s State Administration of Religious Affairs announced Order No. 5, a law covering “the management measures for the reincarnation of living Buddhas in Tibetan Buddhism.” This “important move to institutionalize management on reincarnation” basically prohibits Buddhist monks from returning from the dead without government permission: no one outside China can influence the reincarnation process; only monasteries in China can apply for permission.
Somewhere in the Bardo between death and rebirth, there’s a Chinese bureaucrat handing out forms.
The Chinese desire to control reincarnation has its unfunny side. Back in the day the second-highest spiritual ruler of Tibet was the Panchen Lama. The 10th Panchen Lama was held prisoner by Mao Tse Tung for ten years and repeatedly tortured to force him to recant his loyalty to the Dalai Lama. He was released in 1981 and died in 1989.
In 1995 a six-year-old boy, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, was named the 11th Panchen Lama by HHDL. Two weeks later, the young boy and his family were taken into custody by the Chinese, and they have not been heard from since. After all this time, one suspects they were killed. Later in 1995, the Chinese government arranged to have the son of a Tibetan Communist Party functionary named the Panchen Lama. Buddhists in Tibet don’t have much choice but to go along with this, but the “official” Chinese Panchen Lama is not recognized as such by Tibetans in exile.
Slavoj Zizek writes that the Chinese are not really opposed to religion. “What bothers Chinese authorities are sects like Falun Gong that insist on independence from state control.” Given what they did to the Panchen Lama, I’m not seeing a distinction.
In recent years, the Chinese have changed their strategy in Tibet: in addition to military coercion, they increasingly rely on ethnic and economic colonization. Lhasa is transforming into a Chinese version of the capitalist Wild West, with karaoke bars and Disney-like Buddhist theme parks.
In short, the media image of brutal Chinese soldiers terrorizing Buddhist monks conceals a much more effective American-style socioeconomic transformation: in a decade or two, Tibetans will be reduced to the status of the Native Americans in the United States. Beijing finally learned the lesson: what is the oppressive power of secret police forces, camps and Red Guards destroying ancient monuments compared to the power of unbridled capitalism to undermine all traditional social relations?
No shit. But here Zizek shifts gears a bit:
It is all too easy to laugh at the idea of an atheist power regulating something that, in its eyes, doesn’t exist. However, do we believe in it? When in 2001 the Taliban in Afghanistan destroyed the ancient Buddhist statues at Bamiyan, many Westerners were outraged — but how many of them actually believed in the divinity of the Buddha? Rather, we were angered because the Taliban did not show appropriate respect for the “cultural heritage” of their country. Unlike us sophisticates, they really believed in their own religion, and thus had no great respect for the cultural value of the monuments of other religions.
Buddhists don’t believe in the divinity of the Buddha, either, since the concept of divinity as understood in the monotheistic religions doesn’t apply to Buddhism. The various iconic figures of Buddhist art are best understood as symbols of enlightenment, or sometimes as Jungian archetypes. On the other hand, my understanding is that Islam objects to depicting any living figure, human or animal, in art, because only God creates living creatures. This objection seems to have been ignored by Muslim artists from time to time, but there it is.
So the Taliban destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas because they saw them as disrespectful to God. For the most part, Buddhist accepted the loss as a reminder of the Buddha’s teaching that everything’s gotta end sometime, and prayed for the Taliban.
The significant issue for the West here is not Buddhas and lamas, but what we mean when we refer to “culture.” All human sciences are turning into a branch of cultural studies. While there are of course many religious believers in the West, especially in the United States, vast numbers of our societal elite follow (some of the) religious rituals and mores of our tradition only out of respect for the “lifestyle” of the community to which we belong: Christmas trees in shopping centers every December; neighborhood Easter egg hunts; Passover dinners celebrated by nonbelieving Jews.
“Culture” has commonly become the name for all those things we practice without really taking seriously. And this is why we dismiss fundamentalist believers as “barbarians” with a “medieval mindset”: they dare to take their beliefs seriously. Today, we seem to see the ultimate threat to culture as coming from those who live immediately in their culture, who lack the proper distance.
Except that, these days, it’s the fundies and religionists who confuse culture with religion. Take, for example, the annual War on Christmas that must be about to start, as I’m already getting Christmas catalogs. I say if the religionists were serious about keeping Christmas as a sacred observation of the birth of Jesus, they’d be opposed to the materialistic trappings and commercialism. Instead, they get bent out of shape if department store clerks say “happy holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” In Wingnut World, the true meaning of Christmas is using it as an excuse to pick fights with people you don’t like.
In other words, it’s not the religious observance of Christmas that’s a problem. It’s the way the fundies toss Baby Jesus out of the manger so they can break it up into clubs that some of us find worrisome.
I haven’t found the text of HHDL’s remarks today, but the Washington Post has this quote: “All major religious traditions carry basically the same message: That is love, compassion and forgiveness.” Susan Jacoby dismissed this as “meaningless doggerel,” and I suppose it is. But then she says,
Is the Dalai Lama suggesting that the Taliban, which reduced ancient Buddhist statues to smithereens, was interpreting Islam in a way that carried a message of love?
A Buddhist could interpret the act that way, yes, or at least as an opportunity to practice forgiveness and non-attachment, although certainly a message of love wasn’t the Taliban’s conscious intent. But what HHDL said is verifiably true — you can find, in all the major religions, teachings about love, compassion and forgiveness. That those teachings are pretty much ignored isn’t his fault.
The Rev. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, a lovely lady I met at Yearly Kos, says,
The Dalai Lama is right. All religious traditions do have messages of love, compassion, and forgiveness. Unfortunately, all religions also have messages of hate, cruelty and condemnation. The conundrum of religion, as we saw illustrated in the On Faith discussions with author and professional atheist Christopher Hitchens, is that for every claim that religion does good in the world, there are also the well-documented examples of religious messages of intolerance, moral callousness and judgmentalism, and the harm that they have caused.
The problem, however, is even more convoluted than simply that all religions proclaim contradictory messages. Love, compassion and forgiveness can be used against individuals and groups through certain kinds of religious interpretation. I have spent many years working and volunteering in the movement to end family violence. Battering husbands often accompany their violent acts with the language of love, citing the oft-quoted scripture that wives need to “submit” to their husbands. Battering parents do the same, telling their child that a violent punishment is “because I love you” and “for your own good.”
Violent people love violently, stupid people love stupidly, selfish people love selfishly and so forth. Love without justice can degenerate into sentimentalism and finally into narcissism.
Compassion is a widely respected religious virtue and rightly so. Yet compassion or empathy can keep us from confronting destructive behaviors in others. The virtue of compassion has been thrust upon women as their sole responsibility in relationships. Finally, empathy for others can erode the important and healthy sense of an integrated self that everyone, women and men, children and adults, needs to function as a separate individual.
And finally, forgiveness. Women are often urged to “forgive” their batterers. Many women have told me in counseling sessions that when they took their problem of domestic violence to their local preacher, they were urged to “forgive the beatings as Christ forgave us from the cross.” Forgiveness cannot be separated from the need of the one who is perpetrating the violence to confess the wrong and change. Then and only then does forgiveness become possible and sometimes still it takes a very long time for people to let go of the hurt that has been done to them, the deep meaning of forgiveness.
The Dalai Lama commands world-wide respect and admiration not only for his espousal of the virtues of love, compassion and forgiveness, but for his practice of them in a way that sets them in the context of peace and non-violence. Absent that context, these virtues can be corrupted beyond belief—corrupted as much as the machinations of their seeming opposites of hate, cruelty and condemnation.
I believe that the practice of peace and non-violence is the greatest religious lesson the Dalai Lama has to teach us all.
Amen, Sister Susan.