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Distinguishing Between Lamas and Leaders

posted Nov 15, 2011, 4:20 PM by The Tibetan Political Review   [ updated Nov 16, 2011, 8:09 AM ]

By Tenzin Mingyur Paldron

Figureheads are romantic, and spokespersons can simplify a message. Those of us in the United States have witnessed frequent criticism of the supposed incoherency of the Occupy movement. A more likely reason behind the dismissive attitude shared by numerous news outlets and politicians alike is that the protests, truly grassroots in nature, have not declared a leader or representative body. Their determination comes from within; their allegiance is to challenging institutionalized greed and corruption. Any other motivation or inspiration comes from each other – an admiration directed at their peers, rather than the following of a single leader.

The recent string of self-immolations by Tibetans has generated a small number of articles and editorials in the mainstream press. The most recent and widely publicized statement on the immolations has come from the Karmapa, a 26 year old Tibetan Buddhist lama who escaped from Tibet at age 14, and since resided in India. He is one of the highest-ranking lamas in Tibetan Buddhism, and speculations about his role in the future of Tibetans and Tibet have circulated in the media for the past several years.

In a statement delivered on November 10, the young Karmapa shared his distress at the “unbearably difficult” situation faced by Tibetans, and recognized that such “desperate acts, carried out by people with pure motivation, are a cry against the injustice and repression under which they live.” He goes on to remark that, “to achieve anything worthwhile we need to preserve out lives. We Tibetans are few in number, so every Tibetan life is of value to the cause of Tibet,” closing with a request that Tibetans “preserve their lives and find other, constructive ways to work for the cause of Tibet.”

As a Tibetan exile and graduate student, I have spent the last several weeks checking every day for news and opinions, “expert” and otherwise. I immediately knew which element of the Karmapa’s statement the media would pick up on, namely his request that Tibetans stop burning themselves in protest. For the same sentiment was already expressed in an October 19 editorial by Dibyesh Anand entitled “China fears the living Tibetans – not those who set fire to themselves,” in which Anand calls on Tibetan religious leaders, in particular the Dalai Lama, to “take the initiative” where Tibetan political leaders have failed.

By the way that he frames the central question of the article, Anand sets up any response that does not directly discourage the self-immolations as indicative of a moral failing for the sake of political maneuvering, asking whether exile leadership should “use the protests to rejuvenate Tibetans and their supporters all over the world, even if it means indirectly encouraging the attractiveness of this heroic sacrifice for the already-suffering young Tibetans inside China?”

Anand goes on to ask unanswerable questions, such as whether the immolations do anything to advance rights for Tibetans or bring about the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet, the two appeals reportedly made by every nun and monk before setting fire to themselves. One wonders why he would pose such a question, given the difficulty of measuring, with only the perspective of the present, the impact of individual actions on historic struggles against oppression.

I believe the vagueness of Anand's question originates in a larger ignorance, exemplified in his underestimation of the diversity of thinking among Tibetans, both within Tibet and around the world. His comments in an October 23 article by Barbara Demick in the Los Angeles Times disturbingly project a kind of catching unreasonableness upon Tibetans, describing the immolations as having “a copycat dimension,” where “if I immolate myself, my friends are under pressure to do the same to show they are just as patriotic.” The image of unwitting, perhaps even dangerously patriotic Tibetans in a political pressure cooker of sorts is a formula frequently applied to minority populations, one which reduces the inclinations of a group of people to the actions of a few.

Anand’s remarks to Demick and in his own article seem to discount the capacity and intelligence of everyday Tibetans, so it is no surprise when he concludes his op-ed by returning to a top-down perspective, declaring, “we are still waiting for the Dalai Lama to make his views known,” and wondering whether he will choose “the political leadership's strategy of solidarity with self-immolation,” or “adopt a less popular but religiously compatible stance of requesting the Tibetans inside China not to indulge in self-immolation?”

What Anand and others who share his interpretation seem to overlook is that the Dalai Lama has in fact made his views known, by making the decision, unlike the Karmapa, to not call upon Tibetans to stop immolating. And it is this very decision that is quite provocative and groundbreaking, as I am convinced it would be much easier for the Dalai Lama to issue a statement expressing the view, which I am sure he holds, that he wants the immolations to stop, and that they go against his interpretation of Buddhist teachings.

So is the answer that the Karmapa has stronger moral or spiritual fiber than the Dalai Lama? Or perhaps that the Dalai Lama, after decades of campaigning for the Tibet issue, is influenced by political strategy, and the unseasoned Karmapa is free of political habits? I am inclined to believe that these guesses are too simplistic, and that the lesson to be learned here is about genuine leadership.

The research by the late Jane Ardley in the text, “The Tibetan Independence Movement: Political, Religious and Gandhian Perspectives,” uncovers a key shift in the Dalai Lama’s relationship with protesting Tibetans. Ardley points out that, previous to 1998, every single hunger strike organized by Tibetans in exile had been called off at the request of the Dalai Lama. However, before their planned action in 1998, the Tibetan Youth Congress made the unprecedented move of requesting the Dalai Lama to not intervene, a request he agreed to comply with.

I bring up this example in order to encourage experts, activists, and journalists to reflect on other reasons why the Dalai Lama may be choosing to remain silent rather than call for an end to the immolations. He has, on numerous occasions, used the unique place he occupies in the hearts of many Tibetans to influence their actions. However, in abdicating his political authority earlier this year, he took a significant step in trying to de-center himself from the Tibetan struggle, and allow Tibetans their own opinions, and the freedom to act of their own accord.

While some might say a simple statement wouldn’t infringe on the rights of Tibetans, a leader can often be best judged by the instances in which they choose not to exercise their power. I believe that, recognizing his overwhelming influence on Tibetans (particularly as all the nuns and monks who have so far immolated belong to his own Gelug sect), the Dalai Lama is making the difficult decision to silence his own personal and spiritual beliefs, and weather criticism from experts like Anand, who group him with the Chinese government in “responding to this human tragedy solely in terms of a blame game.”

With all this in mind, the Karmapa’s appeal to Tibetans to stop immolating need not be interpreted as him manipulating his authority as a religious figure. For there is no question that the Karmapa does not possesses a comparable sway over Tibetans, and thus his request may truly act as an appeal, rather than a directive. In that sense, he has taken a step toward participation in the Tibetan political struggle. There is certainly space for the Karmapa to become a leader, if he wishes to try. But unlike the Dalai Lama, he is a young lama who has never been entrusted with the care of a country and its people, and he is living in a very different time than the one the Dalai Lama came of age in. He has not endured the kinds of sacrifice, nor offered the steadfast dedication, that the Dalai Lama has given to Tibetans and the cause of Tibet. There is no doubt, therefore, that Tibetans look upon him differently from the Dalai Lama, and it will be up to him to learn more about himself, about Tibetans and their diversity of interests, and what his own place as a favored young lama might be in the new century.

In the meantime, it is small acts of genuine leadership, like that of the Dalai Lama’s in suppressing part of his own opinion, which help facilitate that factor which moves all history and movements forward -- people, relying on their own hearts and minds, challenging themselves and those around them to risk themselves, and grow.

Tenzin Mingyur Paldron is a PhD student in the Department of Rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley.

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