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'Just a human being,' Dalai Lama says
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Hollywood, the land of myths, is deaf to Tibetan leader's plea not to be treated
as a god, or, with China looking on, as a separatist

DOUG SAUNDERS
The Globe and Mail (Canada)

Tuesday, June 27, 2000

Los Angeles -- In a hotel ballroom tonight, a spectacle will unfold that could
only take place in Hollywood.

Whoopi Goldberg, Richie Havens, Richard Gere and a host of other celebrities
will mount the stage and express their deep spiritual devotion to a tiny figure
in a burgundy-and-saffron robe, a man who will be ignored when he tells them he
would rather not be treated like a god.

When the Dalai Lama comes to Hollywood, as he has this week for a whirl of
fundraising and spiritual teaching, paradoxes fill the air. He may be the only
world religious leader for whom celebrities abandon their generally secular
leanings.

Hollywood is enthralled by the Dalai Lama, and the Dalai Lama depends on
Hollywood's publicity and money for the cause of Tibetan autonomy. But the
relationship is by no means comfortable.

That was evident at a Hollywood luncheon on Sunday attended by the Dalai Lama
and Richard Gere.

The event, which raised $300,000 (U.S.) for the Tibetan autonomy charity, was
politically delicate because it was organized by a group of Taiwanese
expatriates who support their island's independence movement.

The Dalai Lama has repeatedly told Chinese leaders that he is seeking cultural
autonomy for Tibet, but not political independence. In the Beijing media, his
appearance at the luncheon was criticized as an embrace of separatist movements,
and the Dalai Lama issued a press release before the event to state once again
that Tibetan independence is not his goal.

At the luncheon, he took pains to tell everyone that he is not what Hollywood
desperately wants him to be: a counter-revolutionary hero and a living deity.

"Actually, I'm just a human being, and there are no differences between us," he
said. "You should consider me one of your brothers and sisters. Don't think of
me as a living Buddha. I can't share experiences with you if I'm the Buddha. I
think that's a little bit dangerous."

This point seemed to be lost on Mr. Gere, who clearly does not consider the
Dalai Lama a mere man.

"Whenever I am fortunate enough to be around his holiness, I get this incredible
feeling, the hair on the back of my neck stands up," the actor said. "He is a
living god. The whole aura around his holiness has a healing effect on everyone
lucky enough to be in his spell."

More seriously, Mr. Gere seemed unaware that the Dalai Lama was struggling to
dissociate himself from the concept of political independence from China,
announcing to the room: "There is so much we have in common with our causes."

The Chinese state media noted this grimly.

"I think there is a real problem with him saying that," one reporter said.

It was a mild faux pas in the larger scheme of things, and it will likely soon
be forgotten. (Mr. Gere, after all, is the chairman of the Dalai Lama's charity,
and they are friends.)

But it does illustrate the awkward fit between Tibet, a real-life state with a
complex host of political and social troubles, and Hollywood, whose Buddhist
converts tend to view Tibet as a magic kingdom waiting to be restored and the
Dalai Lama as the magician who will bring it back and change their worlds.

In part, this is a measure of the difficult line the Dalai Lama must walk. He
has clearly eschewed any desire to take a political role in Tibet's affairs,
saying he wants it to be a semi-autonomous liberal democracy with no religious
involvement in its governance.

And yet, he is the key political spokesman for Tibet; most of the world cannot
name a member of the country's government in exile. He routinely speaks on such
issues as U.S. trade liberalization with China (which he supports).

And, because his Western supporters have chosen not just to aid his cause but to
worship him as a god, the political and the spiritual tend to get confused to an
extent that would not be tolerated elsewhere in Western society.

That has some scholars concerned that Westerners, and especially Hollywood
celebrities, are doing Tibet a disfavour by treating it as an idealized
fantasyland rather than as a troubled political entity.

"Our version of Tibet has a significant measure of projection and fantasy in it,
as does the appeal to Westerners of the Dalai Lama," said historian Orville
Schell, who has recently completed a book titled Virtual Tibet: Searching for
Shangri-La From the Himilayas to Hollywood.

Mr. Schell argues that Hollywood's image of Tibet, from the devout practice of
Tibetan Buddhism by BMW-driving producers to lavish films such as Seven Years in
Tibet and Kundun, is based on a chimeric, romanticized image of the nation as it
existed a century ago.

"This has helped the Tibetan cause, and the Tibetan cause is a worthy one. But
it's also important, in my view as a historian, that we not confuse reality with
our own yearning to create a place that answers our yearning.

"This is a real place, a real tragedy, and it's caught between two virtual
versions of itself: the West's, which has some fantasy and unreality woven into
it, and China's, which is the opposite of our view."

Even though China has forced Tibet, often violently, to become a secular,
socialist province ruled by Beijing, it often seems that Hollywood wants to turn
it into an ethnically homogenous, magically ruled theocracy.

Neither vision is terribly useful. Tibet is now a multicultural and religiously
diverse region, due to the generations of ethnic Chinese that have relocated
there, and it will never again be a serene haven of devout Buddhists.

If China ever loosens its grip, Tibet will join a long, troubled list of former
colonies of the superpowers, most of which are ignored by Hollywood stars.

"No single Tibetan is wishing for the restoration of our old kingdom. We want to
join the modern world," the Dalai Lama said Sunday.

It is a point he will likely make again tonight to the gathering of celebrities,
who are likely to continue ignoring it.

the eleventh hour eleven shadows