The Ambassador From Shangri-La

The Ambassador From Shangri-La

The Ambassador From Shangri-La

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
April 20 1997 3:30 AM

The Ambassador From Shangri-La

The Dalai Lama sells the romance of Tibet. The West is buying.

Illustration by Joe Ciardiello

It's the "Year of Tibet"--again. The press proclaimed the "Year of Tibet" when the Dalai Lama won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. America and Europe celebrated an "International Year of Tibet" two years later. Now, Hollywood is feting the Land of the Snows with the "Year of Tibet in Movies": Two panegyrics will open in theaters by year's end, and a third is in the works. At the center of the latest round of adulation is the Dalai Lama, making another triumphal world tour. Last month, crowds of 40,000 greeted him in Taiwan. This week, he visits Washington, D.C., for a Tibetan-rights conference, an awards dinner with Richard Gere, and the kind of gushy press coverage that other world leaders fantasize about.

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is the CEO of Atlas Obscura and host of the Slate Political Gabfest.


The Dalai Lama is, by all accounts, a true holy man: humble, devout, warm, funny, as sweet inside as outside. He casts himself as a Himalayan Forrest Gump--the accidental guru: "I am just a simple Buddhist monk." But this humility, which is undoubtedly sincere, also serves the Dalai Lama's shrewd PR campaign. His Holiness is cashing in on the West's romance with Eastern spirituality, using it to attract international sympathy. Dressed in his maroon robes and beatific smile, the Dalai Lama--the Ocean of Wisdom, the Protector of the Land of Snows, the White Lotus--symbolizes all that's right with the East and wrong with the West. He is the ambassador from Shangri-La, emissary from a magical, peaceful land protected by stunning mountains, dotted with magnificent temples, ruled by wise and benevolent priest-kings.

Nearly 50 years after China conquered Tibet, the Dalai Lama and his long-suffering subjects have achieved a victory of sorts: They have become the world's champion victims. They are, as Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman (father of Uma) told the New York Times, "the baby seals of the human rights movement." Other trampled nations briefly seize the world's attention, then disappear. No movie stars ever demonstrated for Estonian independence. East Timor is already yesterday's news. China overran the Muslim state of East Turkestan the same year it grabbed Tibet: Have you ever heard of it? Tibet's "god-king" is cornering the market in human rights.

A Buddhist theocracy, Tibet was (more or less) independent for thousands of years, mostly because it was so inhospitable to invaders. But in 1950, Mao reasserted an ancient Chinese claim to it, and troops stormed the plateau. The Dalai Lama, then a teen-ager, cooperated with the Chinese authorities for a while. But in the midst of a failed Tibetan rebellion in 1959, he fled to northern India, where he's lived ever since. In the meantime, the occupying Chinese army murdered hundreds of thousands of Tibetan civilians. Hundreds of thousands more starved during a famine caused by demented Chinese agricultural policy. The Chinese tried to obliterate Buddhist culture: Celibate nuns and priests were forced to copulate in the street; others were crucified or dragged to death by horses. All but 13 of Tibet's 6,000-plus monasteries were looted and ransacked. Officially, Tibet is an "Autonomous Region." In fact, China controls its government, economy, and education.

The Dalai Lama's only tool is moral suasion. He wields it magnificently. He feeds his Western audiences a softhearted, softheaded universalism, a religion without dogma, an Ansel Adams photograph. He bathes his U.S. audiences in kindly aphorisms: "Be a nice person. Be a good person." "Happiness produces health. Medical scientists accept this." "We should learn together as brothers and sisters in the great human family." (We should.) We should also: protect the environment, forgive those who abuse us, know that satisfaction does not come from material things, and escape from hustle and bustle. The Dalai Lama's pop Buddhism is appealingly self-centered: Happiness trumps everything. This is a winning idea in our therapeutic culture: a religion that's about my satisfaction, not God's.


The Dalai Lama keeps the message cheerful. Who needs some gloomy Gus who harangues you about torture, rape, and murder all the time? (That means you, Harry Wu!) The Dalai Lama is the Fun Prophet. He laughs. He tells jokes--mostly at his own expense. He even guest-edited an issue of Vogue. He pronounces himself "always optimistic" (though if there's any person whom history should have taught not to be optimistic, surely it's the Dalai Lama).

Americans and Europeans, especially those susceptible to New Age spirituality, find his mixture of exoticism, aphorism, and optimism irresistible. In the film Kundun, Martin Scorsese will present the Dalai Lama's autobiography as hagiography. Seven Years in Tibet will tell the story of an escaped Austrian POW (played by Brad Pitt) who befriended the Dalai Lama during World War II--call it The Tibetan Patient. A Steven Seagal movie is also in the works. Celebrity Buddhist Richard Gere is writing op-ed pieces. Harrison Ford is bearing witness at congressional hearings. The Beastie Boys, Smashing Pumpkins, and R.E.M. are headlining benefit concerts with Tibetan performers in New York and San Francisco.

In recent years, the Dalai Lama's roster of tangible accomplishments has been negligible. The Chinese government refuses to negotiate with him. The crackdown on Tibetan religion has worsened. In 1995, after the Dalai Lama chose a 6-year-old boy to be Panchen Lama, Tibet's second-most powerful religious leader, the Chinese kidnapped him and installed another 6-year-old boy. The original Panchen Lama still languishes under house arrest in Beijing. And the Chinese are burying Tibet with immigration. According to Tibet's government in exile, there are now 7.5 million Han Chinese in Tibet and only 6 million Tibetans. Tibet won't be Tibetan very long.

In a way, the Dalai Lama may even reinforce Chinese authority over Tibet. He insists that Tibetans abjure violence, threatening to abdicate if Tibetans take arms against the Chinese. But nonviolent resistance tends to succeed when 1) the world is watching and 2) the oppressors care. The Chinese seem indifferent, and the world will only pay attention as long as the Dalai Lama is alive. (Many observers believe the Chinese won't negotiate with the 61-year-old because they are waiting for him to die. Then the outside pressure for a peaceful accommodation will vanish.) Among Tibetans, frustration with the Dalai Lama's placid pacifism is growing. In recent months, bombs aimed at the Chinese have exploded in Lhasa. Saints never exhaust their patience, but sometimes their followers do.