Why do western commentators idolise a celebrity monk who hangs out with Sharon Stone and once guest-edited French Vogue?
Has there ever been a political figure more ridiculous than the Dalai Lama? This is the "humble monk" who forswears worldly goods in favour of living a simple life dressed in maroon robes. Yet in 1992 he guest-edited French Vogue, the bible of the decadent high-fashion classes, which is packed with pictures of the half-starved daughters of the aristocracy modelling skirts and shirts that most of us could never afford.
He claims to be the current incarnation of the Tulkus line of Buddhist masters, who are "exempt from the wheel of death and rebirth". Yet he's best known for hanging out with clueless western celebs like Richard Gere and Sharon Stone (who is still most famous for showing her vagina on the big screen). Stone once introduced the Dalai Lama at a glittering fundraising ball as "Mr Please, Please, Please Let Me Back Into China!"
The Dalai Lama says he wants Tibetan autonomy and political independence. Yet he allows himself to be used as a tool by western powers keen to humiliate China. Between the late 1950s and 1974, he is alleged to have received around $15,000 a month, or $180,000 a year, from the CIA. He has also been, according to the same reporter, "remarkably nepotistic", promoting his brothers and their wives to positions of extraordinary power in his fiefdom-in-exile in Dharamsala, northern India.
He poses as the quirky, giggly, modern monk who once auctioned his Land Rover on eBay for $80,000 and has even done an advert for Apple (quite what skinny white computers have got to do with Buddhism is anybody's guess). Yet in truth he is a product of the crushing feudalism of archaic, pre-modern Tibet, where an elite of Buddhist monks treated the masses as serfs and ruthlessly punished them if they stepped out of line.
The Dalai Lama demands religious freedom. Yet he persecutes a Buddhist sect that worships a deity called Dorje Shugden. He outlawed praying to Dorje Shugden in 1996, and those who defied his writ were thrown out of their jobs, mocked in the streets and even had their homes smashed up by heavy-handed officials from his government-in-exile. When worshippers complained about their treatment, they were told by representatives of the Dalai Lama that "concepts like democracy and freedom of religion are empty when it comes to the wellbeing of the Dalai Lama".
As the Dalai Lama tours Britain, lots of people are asking: why won't Brown receive him at Downing Street? I have a different question: why should Brown, who for all his troubles is still the head of an elected political party, meet with an authoritarian, fame-chasing, Apple-loving monk?
The Dalai Lama has effectively been turned into a cartoon good guy. In America and western Europe, where backward anti-modern sentiments are widespread amongst self-loathing sections of the educated and the elite, the Dalai Lama has been embraced as a living, breathing representative of unsullied goodness. Despite the fact that he advertises Apple, guest-edits Vogue and drives a Land Rover, he is held up as evidence that living the simple eastern life is preferable to, in the words of Philip Rawson, westerners' "gradually more pointless pursuit of material satisfactions". Just as earlier generations of disillusioned aristocrats fell in love with a fictional version of Tibet (Shangri-La), so contemporary un-progressives idolise a fictional image of the Dalai Lama.
Most strikingly, the Dalai Lama is used as a battering ram by western governments in their culture war with China. The reason he is flattered by world leaders and bankrolled by the CIA is not because these institutions care very much for liberty in Tibet, but rather because they want to ratchet up international pressure on their new competitors in world politics: the Chinese. You don't have to be a defender of the authoritarian regime in Beijing (and I most certainly am not) to see that such global sabre-rattling is more likely to entrench tensions between the Tibetan people and China, and increase instability in world affairs, rather than herald anything like a new era of freedom in the east.
Far from "helping Tibet", the slavish western worshippers of the Dalai Lama are helping to stifle the development of a real, lively movement for liberty and democracy in the Tibetan regions. One author on the Tibetan independence movement argues that "the Dalai Lama's role as ultimate spiritual authority is holding back the political process of democratisation", since "the assumption that he occupies the correct moral ground from a spiritual perspective means that any challenge to his political authority may be interpreted as anti-religious".
At least one reason why the Dalai Lama can pose as "the ultimate spiritual authority" and all-round supreme leader of Tibetans and their future is because influential elements in the west have empowered him to play that role. In doing so, they have been complicit in the infantilisation of the Tibetan people. Tibetans now suffer the double horror of being ruled by undemocratic Chinese officials on one hand, and demeaned by the Dalai Lama and his western supporters on the other.