t i b e t



His Material Highness
Salon Magazine, July 13, 1998


BY CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS | The Dalai Lama has come out in support of the
thermonuclear tests recently conducted by the Indian state, and has done so
in the very language of the chauvinist parties who now control that state's
affairs. The "developed" countries, he says, must realize that India is a
major contender and should not concern themselves with its internal affairs.
This is a perfectly realpolitik statement, so crass and banal and opportunist
that it would not deserve any comment if it came from another source.

"Think different," says the ungrammatical Apple Computer advertisement that
features the serene visage of His Holiness. 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. This blissful, thoughtless exceptionalism has been
conveyed to the West through a succession of mediums and narratives, ranging
from the pulp novel "Lost Horizon," by James Hilton (creator of Mr. Chips as
well as Shangri-La), to the memoir "Seven Years in Tibet," by SS veteran
Heinrich Harrer, prettified for the screen by Brad Pitt. China's foul conduct
in an occupied land, combined with a Hollywood cult that almost exceeds the
power of Scientology, has fused with weightless Maharishi and Bhagwan-type
babble to create an image of an idealized Tibet and of a saintly god-king. So
perhaps the Apple injunction to think differently is worth heeding.

The greatest triumph that modern PR can offer is the transcendent success of
having your words and actions judged by your reputation, rather than the
other way about. The "spiritual leader" of Tibet has enjoyed this
unassailable status for some time now, becoming a byword and synonym for
saintly and ethereal values. Why this doesn't put people on their guard I'll
never know. But here are some other facts about the serene leader that,
dwarfed as they are by his endorsement of nuclear weapons, are still worth
knowing and still generally unknown.

Shoko Asahara, leader of the Supreme Truth cult in Japan and spreader of
sarin nerve gas on the Tokyo subway, donated 45 million rupees, or about 170
million yen (about $1.2 million), to the Dalai Lama and was rewarded for his
efforts by several high-level meetings with the divine one.

Steven Seagal, the robotic and moronic "actor" who gave us "Hard to Kill" and
"Under Siege," has been proclaimed a reincarnated lama and a sacred vessel or
"tulku" of Tibetan Buddhism. This decision, ratified by Penor Rinpoche,
supreme head of the Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism, was initially
received with incredulity by Richard Gere, who had hitherto believed himself
to be the superstar most favored. "If someone's a tulku, that's great," he
was quoted as saying. "But no one knows if that's true." How insightful, if
only accidentally. At a subsequent Los Angeles appearance by the Dalai Lama,
Seagal was seated in the front row and Gere two rows back, thus giving the
latter's humility and submissiveness a day at the races. Suggestions that
Seagal's fortune helped elevate him to the Himalayan status of tulku are not
completely discounted even by some adepts and initiates.

Supporters of the Dorge Shugden deity -- a "Dharma protector" and an ancient
object of worship and propitiation in Tibet -- have been threatened with
violence and ostracism and even death following the Dalai Lama's abrupt
prohibition of this once-venerated godhead. A Swiss television documentary
graphically intercuts footage of His Holiness, denying all knowledge of
menace and intimidation, with scenes of his followers' enthusiastically
promulgating "Wanted" posters and other paraphernalia of excommunication and

While he denies being a Buddhist "Pope," the Dalai Lama is never happier than
when brooding in a celibate manner on the sex lives of people he has never
met. "Sexual misconduct for men and women consists of oral and anal sex," he
has repeatedly said in promoting his book on these matters. "Using one's
hand, that is sexual misconduct." But, as ever with religious stipulations,
there is a nutty escape clause. "To have sexual relations with a prostitute
paid by you and not by a third person does not constitute improper behavior."
Not all of this can have been said just to placate Richard Gere, or to
attract the royalties from "Pretty Woman."

I have talked to a few Dorge Shugden adherents, who seem sincere enough and
who certainly seem frightened enough, but I can't go along with their
insistence on the "irony" of all this. Buddhism can be as hysterical and
sanguinary as any other system that relies on faith and tribe. Lon Nol's
Cambodian army was Buddhist at least in name. Solomon Bandaranaike, first
elected leader of independent Sri Lanka, was assassinated by a Buddhist
militant. It was Buddhist-led pogroms against the Tamils that opened the long
and disastrous communal war that ruins Sri Lanka to this day. The gorgeously
named SLORC, the military fascism that runs Burma, does so nominally as a
Buddhist junta. I have even heard it whispered that in old Tibet, that
pristine and contemplative land, the lamas were the allies of feudalism and
unsmilingly inflicted medieval punishments such as blinding and flogging unto

Yet the entire Western mass media is uncritically at the service of a mere
mortal who, at the very least, proclaims the utter nonsense of reincarnation
and who affirms the sinister if not indeed crazy belief that death is but a
stage in a grand cycle of what appears to be futility and subjection. What
need, then, to worry about nuclear weaponry, or sectarian frenzy, or the sale
of indulgences to men of the stamp of Steven Seagal? "Harmony" will doubtless
kick in. During his visit to Beijing, our sentimental Baptist hypocrite of a
president turned to his dictator host, recommended that he meet with the
Dalai Lama and assured him that the two of them would get on well. That might
easily turn out to be the case. Both are very much creatures of the material

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