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Page last updated at 12:51 GMT, Thursday, 18 February 2010

Why does the West love the Dalai Lama?

Dalai Lama with, clockwise from top left, George W Bush, Nelson Mandela, Bill Clinton, Archbishop Desmond Tutu

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

A US president is again choosing to meet the Dalai Lama despite Chinese opposition. But why is this Tibetan spiritual and political leader such a popular figure in the West?

To the Chinese government and to many of its people he is an inciter of violence and a defender of a brutal, backward, feudalistic, theocratic society.

But to many politicians and people in the West, the Dalai Lama is a kind of smiling, spiritual and political superhero.

His monastic robes, beaming countenance and squarish, unfashionable glasses are the stuff of a thousand photo opportunities. To some he is in a league of international personalities that contains only one other person - Nelson Mandela.

Dalai Lama over the years
Born Tenzin Gyatso in 1935
Designated 14th incarnation of the Dalai Lama in 1937
Enthroned in 1940, but his rights exercised by regency until 1950 - the year Chinese troops entered Tibet
Forced into permanent exile in 1959 after China's suppression of Tibetan national uprising
Settled with other Tibetan refugees at Dharamsala, northern India
Has since refused to return to Tibet
Awarded Nobel Peace Prize in 1989

He is well-known for his contact with Hollywood supporters like Richard Gere and Steven Segal.

Those who have met him describe an intense personal charisma.

There is a "wonderful smiling face, cherubic looks, the infectious laugh" says Alexander Norman, who co-operated with the Dalai Lama on his autobiography as well as several other works after first meeting him in 1988.

It is hard to escape the idea that the Dalai Lama is perceived almost as an avuncular "Santa Claus" figure by some, says Dr Nathan Hill, senior lecturer in Tibetan at the School of Oriental and African Studies.

"He is very photogenic. In the West we like stars. He is an extremely engaging person, and an extremely smart man. I find him extremely savvy politically, very forward looking."

There are many in the West who are seeking an unthreatening spiritual boost in an age of materialism, suggests Norman, who recently wrote The Secret Lives of the Dalai Lama.

"There is a huge desire in the secular West… a hunger for something other than the benefits that modern industrial society can supply."

Search on Amazon for the Dalai Lama's books and you see long lists of spiritual and self-help tracts.

"He is unstained by the world [to some readers]," says Dr Hill. "You want to read his books in order to find enlightenment yourself."

Tibetan mystique

And the appreciation of the Dalai Lama taps into some older Western ideas about Tibet as a remote Shangri-La.

"Tibet had a policy from 1792-1903 not to allow Westerners into the country," says Dr Hill. "That fostered a mystique. We have this nation that was almost completely closed to white people.

Dalai Lama with Richard Gere
Friend to the stars, including Hollywood actor and Buddhist Richard Gere

"When you start to get more information you get the notion of Tibet as a mystical hidden land of magic and wonder. It is a kind of product of European adventure travel literature."

There is a sense that the Dalai Lama is politically extrapolated in a way that may not be totally grounded in reality.

"He is a sort of pin-up boy for a lot of movements - the animal rights movement, religious syncretism," says Norman. "There is a lot of wishful thinking that goes on in connection with the Dalai Lama."

Western confusion over the Dalai Lama is best illustrated by the attempts to analyse his position on gay rights.

He has expressed an aversion to gay sex, and even oral sex among heterosexual couples, and yet at other times has taken a more nuanced line, says Norman.

"He will say it's your choice, it's up to people's own conscience. He is very conscious of not giving people offence."

There is criticism of him from some Tibetan exiles for sticking to a moderate, non-violent stance, says Norman. There has also been criticism from religious opponents who say he has wrongly proscribed worship of a deity called Shugden.

Starry-eyed admirers

"Among exiles there is an increasingly vocal minority that opposes him, but it's a small minority," says Robert Barnett, director of Modern Tibetan Studies at Columbia University.

The Dalai Lama is a wolf wrapped in a habit, a monster with human face and animal's heart
Widely reported translation of comments by Zhang Qingli, the Communist Party Secretary in Tibet

"Inside Tibet there is near universal admiration for him, and for his attempts to get a non-violent solution."

There is discussion about whether the Dalai Lama and his colleagues paint an accurate picture of Tibet before the Chinese intervention in 1950, or whether any mythology is the invention of Western admirers.

There is even a belief among some starry-eyed admirers in a pre-1950 Tibet where "women enjoyed equal rights and everyone was in harmony with the environment", says Dr Hill.

But the blame for any mythologising cannot be laid entirely at the door of the Dalai Lama, says Norman.

"On the one hand you could accuse him of peddling an unrealistic picture of what Tibet was actually like. On the other hand Tibetans genuinely think of their country in those terms - this romantic image."

Chinese criticism of the Dalai Lama, while predominantly concerned with the idea that Tibet is historically part of China, also lambasts the idea of a pre-1950 Shangri-La and focuses on serfdom, and poor living conditions.

"The Dalai Lama has been one of the harshest critics of 'old Tibet'," says Donald Lopez, Professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies at the University of Michigan.

Cup of tea diplomacy

"He is not a purveyor of the Shangri-La Syndrome. There is evidence that he would have introduced political reforms if the Chinese had not invaded."

Dalai Lama with waxwork
Unafraid to see the funny side of himself

And the idea that the Westerners who venerate the Dalai Lama are unaware of the complexities of the Tibet Question is false, despite it being "very fashionable" says Prof Barnett.

Tibet's place at the junction of three nuclear powers and with a key part in the world's water supply will always make the Tibet Question more than a Western liberal hobby horse.

There is a clear rationale for the political leaders who meet him despite Chinese pressure. For those who feel uncomfortable about Chinese human rights abuses it is a chance to irritate China without risking a full-on diplomatic incident.

"[The Dalai Lama] is an ideal opportunity for them, because as a political leader, he asks for very little - he seems quite happy to accept a merely symbolic gesture like a cup of tea and a photo," says Prof Barnett.

"The more China complains, the more Western leaders look strong and principled when they meet him."

It is perhaps understandable that he has met every serving US president since 1991.

But to ordinary people, whether right or wrong, the Dalai Lama's box office appeal is more about the charisma of the man and the ideas that they believe he is sympathetic to.

As Norman notes his Western fans see a "secular saint" or a "politically correct god for a godless world".

Below is a selection of your comments

Your article makes it sound like the Dalai Lama is popular because of clever PR. You seem to forget that he is the legitimate ruler of Tibet, deposed by the expansionist and militaristic policies of the Chinese government, and that before the occupation, Tibetans were not subject to torture, random arrests, disappearances, and complete curtailment of all rights to free speech, assembly, or legitimate political representation. Maybe the fact that the Dalai Lama represents truth and freedom, as opposed to lies and oppression, is the reason why he is popular.
Dominic Bradley, Sheffield, England

The Dalai Lama is essentially a dictator who uses religion as a front in his quest to reinstate a system whereby the vast majority of people live in abstract poverty and are forced to give most of what little they have to the monasteries and monks who rule through religious indoctrination and violence. Just because China is a bigger and more powerful oppressor doesn't excuse the Dalai Lama in any way, and it's pathetic to see the usual ignorant, rich, western do-gooders crowd round him because their own lives are so empty they will fall for any kind of spiritualist mumbo-jumbo.
Bluenose, London

We like the Dalai Lama because he preaches compassion and believes it does not matter what your religion is as long as you follow the truth with an open mind. I met him for about an hour with 12 other people in 1981 and he was funny, understanding, knowledgeable and just great fun to be with.
Andrew Failes, Petersburg, USA

Buddhism is not a monotheistic religion like Christianity, Judaism or Islam and the DL is not seen as a prophet or god's representative on Earth. He is just a man who found himself placed in the position of guardian of a spiritual philosophy which places each man and woman as the creator of their own karma, responsible to themselves and those around them. Their "religion" is based entirely on humility, kindness and compassion without needing to reference the words of some supposedly almighty, judgemental entity.
Ross Rebbeck, Teignmouth, Devon, UK

The answer to your question is: throughout Chinese history we know that the West will do anything that will harm the integrity of the Chinese nation. Western countries and leaders will always act together to weaken China. This is just another instance of western destructive tendency towards China.
Winston, Scotland

We love His Holiness because in the world full of hatred mongers and jingoists, he is a rare voice of peaceful right of freedom. He has nurtured modernity in a tradition-driven religious order. He has never spewed vitriol against the grave injustices done by the draconian and despotic Chinese regime. Those of us who have had the luxury of witnessing his presence know the shear radiance of his face, innocence of his hapless smile, and balminess of his voice of reason. He is the last beacon of hope against our cowardice to stand up to hegemony and tyranny of an opportunist, oppressive state that continues to thrive amidst our collective greed manipulated by market capitalism.
Sanjay Mishra, Nashville, TN (USA)

I sincerely have to thank the Dalai Lama for his writings and wisdom. In times of deep confusion and unhappiness, his writings led me to find my way back to being a more rational, balanced and happier human being who can appreciate things in life many people may find insignificant. I have deep respect for the Dalai Lama and his wisdom.
E Wallace, Lanark, Scotland/UK

The West is scared of China and this article proves it. You have trivialised his dedication and courage in taking on the biggest bully in world by concentrating on his personal appeal and smartness. Their admiration of Dalai Lama is just to hide their fear of China - by showing admiration for the Dalai Lama, they sort of tease the bully and run. They are afraid of opposing China on any issue be it democracy or support of Sudan/Iran/N Korea or any other renegade regime that may require support and provide benefits to China.
Arun, Dehradun, India

I do not trust this man who "seems quite happy to accept a merely symbolic gesture like a cup of tea and a photo." He is and has been in direct league with some seriously bad people.
Louise, Holyoke MA USA

Everyone loves an underdog....especially a non-violent, smiling and charismatic one. It makes it even more so if China, a powerful communist country, is the local bully.
Sriram, India

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