In the popular imagination, Tibet is a land of snow-capped mountains and sweeping vistas, fluttering prayer flags, crystal blue skies, saffron-robed monks spinning prayer wheels, and, perhaps most of all, timelessness. And likewise, the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet and its chief emissary to the West, is a man of abiding wisdom and compassion, an inspiration and moral compass, a beacon of calm in a frenetic modern world. Set aside the fraught politics of this contested region. If one word sums up what Tibet means to the West it is this: purity.
That sensibility was entrenched long before Hollywood stars like Richard Gere and Stephen Seagal made Tibetan freedom a cause célèbre — most famously in the 1933 British novel Lost Horizon, a fictional account of excursions among lamaseries in the Himalayas, where the protagonist encounters a people who are forever happy, mystically content, slow to age, and isolated from most ills that trouble the human race. Author James Hilton (whose other notable work is Goodbye, Mr. Chips) depicts “Shangri-la,” a monastery nestled in a misty mountain valley; its name has since become synonymous with earthly paradise.
Tibet’s enduring hold on Western minds — together with the energetic, globe-trotting advocacy of the Dalai Lama — helps explain why the concerns of the region’s minority population are so familiar to so many so far away. (By comparison, it took violence in the streets of Urumqi to awaken foreign readers to the agitation of another of China’s minority groups, the Uighurs.) In the Washington, D.C., neighborhood where I live, more than a few homes have decorative Tibetan prayer flags strung sentimentally across balconies and backyard porches. This week, U.S. President Barack Obama is expected to meet with the Dalai Lama in the Oval Office — over the inevitable protests of Chinese authorities.
Besides being the spiritual leader of Tibet, the Dalai Lama is also the author of dozens of religious and self-help books, from The Art of Happiness to The Universe in a Single Atom, published in multiple languages; he drops in to visit political leaders in European capitals and entertainment moguls in Los Angeles. He has received the Nobel Peace Prize and twice been named to Time magazine’s list of the “100 Most Influential People.” The first in his lineage to ever travel to the West, the Dalai Lama has managed to build an impressive multinational media and public relations. (Such is his fame and prestige that some recent awards to His Holiness appear motivated largely to bring good publicity to the donor; the town of Wroclaw, Poland, offered the Dalai Lama honorary citizenship in 2008; Memphis, Tennessee, extended a similar offer last September.)
But how much do Westerners really know about the Dalai Lama? His advocacy of an ethos of compassion and environmental protection are popular among his largely left-leaning Western admirers, while his more socially conservative views tend to be either unknown, or selectively ignored. (Christopher Hitchens is one of the few to have taken exception.) He is basically anti-abortion (except in rare circumstances) and ambivalent about homosexuality; his 1996 book, Beyond Dogma, was strikingly explicit in its sexual prohibitions: “A sexual act is deemed proper when the couples use the organs intended for sexual intercourse and nothing else.” In recent years, his remarks on the subject have somewhat softened: he told an audience in San Francisco that while Buddhist teachings historically discourage gay relationships, such prohibitions only apply to Buddhists. (He has also written, rather confusingly, “Homosexuality, whether it is between men or between women, is not improper in itself. What is improper is the use of organs already defined as inappropriate for sexual contact.”)
As for Tibet itself, it’s no Shangri-la.