Dharamsala had it coming, obviously. The swing of the media pendulum is vicious and whatever is lionised gets trashed, sooner or later. With the surfeit of Hollywood productions and personalities supporting the “Tibetan cause” of independence and/or autonomy, it was inevitable that someone would come along and question the way the cause was being pushed.
The Dalai Lama himself has not been spared the discomfort of adverse publicity. Only recently, writing in The Nation of New York, journalist Christopher Hitchens, who had trashed Mother Teresa earlier, came down heavily on the god-king and monk, something that has a lot to do with the kind of funding Dharamsala has been receiving over the years.
It is indeed boomtime for Tibetan Buddhism all over the globe, and Hitchens was shocked enough to report that the Dalai Lama´s office had not only received USD 1.2 million from Shoko Asahara, the mastermind behind the Tokyo subway nerve gas attack, but had also later arranged for the cult guru´s meeting with the Dalai Lama, which was somewhat akin to Mother Teresa meeting Papa Doc Duvalier.
Neither has the Dorje Shugden controversy left Dharamsala unsplattered. The Dalai Lama´s instructions against the propitiation of the Tibetan deity of Dorge Shugden raised serious concerns about freedom of worship, and also exposed the fine line that the Dalai Lama walks between the spiritual and the temporal. A Swiss documentary intercuts footage of the Dalai Lama denying that his supporters have been hounding Dorge Shugden supporters with scenes of his followers carrying “Wanted” posters and other instruments of ostracism.
Muckracking journalism, of course, is to be expected whenever someone becomes too ´popular´, and Tenzin Gyatso (the Dalai Lama) is, together with Nelson Mandela, the most well-liked global personality today (except in the People´s Republic of China, of course). Mandela dons the mantle of politics very easily, as part of his very being, whereas the Dalai Lama resides in that fuzzy realm between religion and politics/diplomacy – a much harder place to be.
With few other means of publicity at its command, the Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharamsala uses the Dalai Lama to the maximum. Reacting to the official blackouts by governments everywhere, especially within South Asia, it has made the most it can of Western enthrallment with Tibetan society in general as well as of the genuine distaste that is there for the Chinese takeover and inundation of the high plateau.
But, occasionally, the spin doctors of Dharamsala may be asking themselves if the publicity bandwagon has not gone a little out of control, to the extent that it is now leading to the as-yet-mild backlash we see today. Take the case of the Dalai Lama posing for an Apple computer campaign titled “Think Different”, which Apple itself was cowardly enough to drop from Asian magazines for fear of hurting Beijing´s sentiments. After first calling the Dalai Lama´s reported support for India´s nuclear blasts as “crass”, “banal” and “opportunist”, Hitchens turns his sights on the Apple advertisement: “Among the untested assumptions of this billboard campaign is the widely and lazily held belief that Oriental religion is different from other faiths: less dogmatic, more contemplative, more…transcendental…. Buddhism can be as hysterical and sanguinary as any other system that relies on faith and tribe.´´ Overall, writes Hitchens, the “Free Tibet” campaign has been mercenary in nature, as for example, in its happy use of the “moronic” and “robotic” Hollywood actor Steven Seagal, who has been proclaimed a tulku (reincarnated lama) of Tibetan Buddhism.
Such criticism is bound to come the way of Dharamsala, now that it has decided to go all-out in courting the world as the only way to put pressure on the Chinese. One would only hope that the Dalai Lama continues to maintain a perspective and a balance between his spiritual and political persona. At the same time, it is very important for the Dharamsala exile government not to forget that the real reason for its existence is the well-being, not of the 200,000 or so exiles, many of whom are unlikely to return even if given the chance, but of the four to six million Tibetans within Tibet.
Held in awe by the Western world in a way that no other South Asian group has been able to match, it is very easy for the Dharamsala mandarins to mouth the ´cause´ without necessarily feeling it. Clearly, they must think imaginatively of alternative ways to press the demand for autonomy/independence than solely through the Dalai Lama. He has held this burden long enough, and true Tibetan patriots should also look ahead to the day when his incredible persona is no longer there to lead them. For the moment, there is no one else other than Tenzin Gyatso.
The debilitating lack of creativity that aflicts those in exile is sometimes known as the ´Tunisia syndrome´, which affected the PLO under Yasser Arafat as long as it was hosted in comfortable Tunis, far from the travails of the West Bank and Gaza. Dharamsala, in this sense, is Tunis.