Two Views Of The Dalai Lama: High-level Bodhisattva And Transactional Political Figure

Written by Stuart Lachs

7 minutes

It is with some hesitancy that I write this essay in reference to the paper ‘Not the Tibetan Way’: The Dalai Lama’s Realpolitik Concerning Abusive Teachers that Rob Hogendoorn and I jointly wrote. My general rule is not to take part in social media and blogs, hoping to let my articles speak for themselves. If someone writes to me privately, I am glad to engage them to exchange ideas and views. To date this has worked well for me for twenty-five years. However, in this case much has been commented on the blog Diffi-Cult by Tenpel (also known as Tenzin Peljor) and others that I think is misleading and disturbing.

At the least, I do not think it a good idea that Tenpel, the blog’s owner, comments on our paper even though he readily admits to not having read it. Yes, he did say he did not write a review, but only is commenting. In addition, quoting an un-named academic who hasn’t read the paper and only knows of it from him, who also hasn’t read the paper, is really bad form. What did Tenpel say to him, what was the context, what can he reply except to some very general notion to a context he does not know?

The Dalai Lama is a leading spiritual teacher in the world today. Our paper in no way says anything different. However, the Dalai Lama is also an active political figure on the world’s stage and has been for over sixty years now. Acting in this dual-role, that is, spiritual leader and political leader, clearly presents him with some complicated and at times conflicting choices. This is made more complicated by the fact that the Tibetan people and government-in-exile are in a very weak and vulnerable position in the world in virtually every way. This means the Dalai Lama is dependent on more powerful players, such as the United States of America and India, for political backing, financial and military support and even a place to live, to accept refugees and to allow his government-in-exile to function.

Partial Picture

Museum of Memory and Human Rights (Santiago, Chile), an interior view from the museum which was built to commemorate the victims of Pinochet’s dictatorship.

It is fine to only view the Dalai Lama as a spiritual leader and there is no shortage of people doing so. However, this is only a partial picture of the person, and in a way, takes his humanity away—how he deals with and operates in the less than clean and pure world. For better or worse, powerful players supporting the Dalai Lama and his government-in-exile sooner or later want a political favor in return. The only political favor the Dalai Lama can offer is lending moral authority to individuals and institutions by his endorsement or with a photo-op.

There is much on Tenpel’s blog written by him and others about our paper that I could argue with. I would rather not, as I said earlier, I would rather let the paper speak for itself. But I feel compelled to respond to his justification of the Dalai Lama joining the US government, Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II in public support of Great Britain’s eventual 1999 refusal to extradite Augusto Pinochet (b. 1915 d. 2006) to Spain so that Pinochet could stand trial in an open court of law for “crimes against humanity.”

Some view the Dalai Lama only from a religious context, describing him as a high-level Bodhisattva. Once that position is taken, the Dalai Lama’s deeds and words are beyond question, despite his own assertions that the words and conduct of religious teachers, himself included, should indeed be examined and called into question. From this lofty standpoint, everything he says and does simply reflects a concern for compassion in the world. This is the context in which Tenpel places his statements advising against Pinochet’s extradition and trial.

Worldly-wise Politician

But Hogendoorn and I have chosen to view the Dalai Lama’s involvement in the Pinochet case within his role as a political figure. At that time, 1999, in addition to being the de facto spiritual leader of the Tibetan people, he was also the head of state: leader of the Central Tibetan Administration and an experienced, wordly-wise politician. As mentioned earlier, he has had this role for approximately sixty years, so he is a quite experienced player. Out of necessity, he dealt personally with Mao and Zhou Enlai in China, had ongoing relations with several Indian governments, high-ranking American officials, presidents and military figures and too many world leaders and religious figures to list. There is just no denying that, out of necessity, the Dalai Lama acts as an experienced political player.

With this in mind, it should be no surprise to anyone that the Dalai Lama endorsed India’s manufacturing and testing an atom bomb. Had he taken the moral high ground and made critical remarks directed at India’s bomb testing, as the host country of the Dalai Lama, India could have made his life and those of thousands of Tibetan refugees very difficult. His endorsement is understandable and certainly what most every political figure in the world in the same very weak position would have done.

Similarly, the Dalai Lama’s earlier endorsement of India’s Special Frontier Force (SFF), a para-military unit originally composed of more than 10,000 Tibetans trained in the manner of America’s Green Berets with the special skill of high-altitude warfare, is understandable. Indeed, in terms of realpolitik it is one hundred percent understandable, but it is hardly the sort of position one would expect from a high-level Bodhisattva. And so, in our paper we choose to highlight the Dalai Lama’s role as an experienced, savvy, political actor, not as a purely religious leader.

Wider Context

In bringing up the Dalai Lama’s response to the Pinochet extradition, Hogendoorn and I view the Dalai Lama’s actions within the wider context of  the long history of US  interference in South and Central American political life. This history extends across the twentieth century, but became especially aggressive from the 1950’s into the 1990’s. During the Cold War period, the US backed one right-wing murderous regime after another: think of the Contras in Nicaragua, El-Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala in Central America and Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, and of course Chile in South America.

On September 11, 1973 General Pinochet with the backing of the US government led a military coup that overthrew the legally elected government of socialist Salvador Allende. Pinochet and the extreme-right faction had the solid support of Richard Nixon and his advisor Henry Kissinger, as well as the corporate support of ITT, International Telephone and Telegraph Co. which was heavily invested in Chile and gave material support to the coup. Allende committed suicide in the presidential palace, and the military government headed by Pinochet inaugurated a long reign of terror: mass arrests, systematic rape, horrific torture, hundreds, probably thousands of summary executions with many detainees being simply “disappeared,” their families unable to find records of arrest, let alone retrieve the bodies of loved ones. In some instances, detainees were thrown live from helicopters over the Pacific Ocean or high peaks in the Andes.

These practices, violations of human rights by any standard, were undertaken with the knowledge and express support of the US government under several presidents. If Pinochet had been extradited to Spain to stand trial for crimes against humanity, no doubt, America’s role in backing and supporting the coup and the slaughter that followed, would have been brought up in a court of law for the world to see. Perhaps worse, from the US government’s point of view, a trial of Pinochet would have brought up Operation Condor (1975-1985), a campaign between the US and right-wing dictatorships in South America, of which Chile was only one. Military supplies and support and intelligence was routed through the CIA. It is difficult to come up with solid figures for clandestine operations, but researchers estimate that Operation Condor resulted in 50,000-80,000 killings and as many as 400,000 unlawful imprisonments. Given America’s self-asserted profile as a beacon of democracy, this was surely not the history that the US wanted advertised to the world.

Realpolitik Logic

The US within the real-politik logic of the Cold War had also been backing the Dalai Lama and his government financially, militarily, and politically for many years in pursuit of a counter-balance to Chinese power and aggression in Tibet. With the threat of Pinochet’s extradition it was time for America to call in the Dalai Lama’s spiritual/social capital as a favor repaid. Just as he could not afford to cross India in its pursuit of a nuclear arsenal or its Special Frontier Force, the Dalai Lama could not afford to cross the United States. And so, beholden to the US government, he backed America’s position of non-extradition for Augusto Pinochet.

The Dalai Lama claimed it was time to show “compassion” for Pinochet, by then an elderly man of 83, and not extradite him to Spain to stand trial. Sadly, for the many years that Pinochet was torturing and disappearing thousands of Chileans, and as Operation Condor was doing the same across much of South America, the Dalai Lama remained totally quiet. Apparently, this sort of bodhisattvic compassion only applies in specific cases. On top of which, it is not the Dalai Lama’s place to forgive human rights abuses, especially in this case, while the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo endorsed extraditing Pinochet.

Of course, it is necessary to view events and people in the world in context as Tenpel said in his blog; but invariably, there is more than one context and different contexts present different, sometimes glaringly contradictory viewpoints. We chose to view the Dalai Lama as a man in a complicated position: that of being both a religious leader and a political leader of a weak country in conflict with China, a major world power. He is also trying to hold together various sects of Tibetan Buddhism that, historically, hadn’t always gotten on very well with each other. In juggling these roles, he is necessarily dependent on wealthy people, well-endowed institutions and bigger, stronger nations for support and survival.

In our paper Rob Hogendoorn and I chose to focus on the Dalai Lama’s actions as a political player in one way or another, whether in negotiating tensions with the Tibetan diaspora and among followers of Tibetan Buddhism, in responding to appeals from leaders of religious/spiritual groups with questionable reputations, looking to gain legitimacy through association with him, and in maintaining relations with governments of other countries in the world of power politics.

Hence, our perspective is significantly different from Tenpel’s which seems to focus only or largely on the Dalai Lama as a highly-enlightened Bodhisattva. We feel that our perspective explains, as our paper ‘Not The Tibetan Way’ amply demonstrates, and this essay highlights in the case of Augusto Pinochet, how many of the Dalai Lama’s seemingly contradictory actions only make sense from a transactional standpoint, where otherwise they appear to be no more than poor judgment on his part.

About the author

Stuart Lachs

Stuart Lachs (b. 1940) is an independent scholar and long-time Ch'an/Zen practitioner.