Dalai Lama

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There have been plenty of news stories recently about today’s meeting between Barack Obama and the Dalai Lama. Here are some suggestions for further reading (and viewing):

1. Tibet expert Robert Barnett of Columbia University is interviewed by Deborah Jerome of the Council of Foreign Relations:

All American presidents since 1990 have met with the Dalai Lama, yet President Obama’s scheduled meeting Thursday has drawn a sharp warning from China that the visit will undermine U.S.-China relations. Is China more irritated about this visit than it has been previously?

There is certainly a higher level of angry rhetoric from Beijing. . . . But in fact, behind the scenes, Beijing was far more disturbed by the previous presidential meeting, President George W. Bush’s presentation of the Congressional Gold Medal to the Dalai Lama in October 2007—because that was the first and only time a U.S. president and the Tibetan leader had met in public.

So for Chinese diplomats, the real objective for the last six months or so has been not to stop the meeting, which their experts knew was impossible, but to get it to be private. That’s been achieved, because the meeting will take place in a private room, the White House Map Room. But that’s an obscure issue of protocol that, as the White House knows, makes a lot of difference to Beijing officials but none to American or Tibetan perceptions of the meeting. For China, the symbolic details matter, but for Tibetans in Tibet, it’s only whether the two people meet that is meaningful.

2. “Tibet Is No Shangri-La,” writes Christina Larson at Foreign Policy:

The political and territorial stakes are serious, and not likely to be resolved anytime soon. But there is also a gauziness with which the region and the man who represents it to the West are most often discussed. Even in the fast-paced and cynical 21st century, talk of Tibet still elicits a 19th century aura of romanticism and melancholy. In general, sentiment veils critical thinking. In the case of Tibet, our collective nostalgia, inexplicably, for a place most of us have never seen lends itself to a striking absolutism with which we discuss the place, its people, its present condition, its future destiny. While most things in life are murky and grey, the Tibet of our imagination is pristine, and the lines between good and evil are as clear as a mountain stream.

3. We’ve mentioned Donald Lopez’s “7 Things You Don’t Know About Tibet” before, but it seems appropriate to call attention to it again this week:

Tibetans have never heard of their famous religious text The Tibetan Book of the Dead. What is known in the West by that title is a short Tibetan work, the Bardo Thodol, meaning “Liberation through Hearing in the Intermediate State.” It is a mortuary text, read over a dead or dying person to help him or her escape from rebirth or, if that’s not possible, to have a good rebirth in the next life. It is an example of a genre of similar texts used in one of the four sects of Tibetan Buddhism. It became the most famous Tibetan text in the West after Walter Wentz, a wealthy American Theosophist, traveled to India in the 1920s, and commissioned a translation. Wentz then added his own commentary, transforming the Tibetan mortuary text into a Theosophical treatise. The text has lived on through several reincarnations, including one by Timothy Leary that uses the Tibetan text as a “flight plan” for an acid trip. Leary’s book (The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead) is best remembered for the line “Whenever in doubt, turn off your mind, relax, float downstream,” which was lifted by John Lennon for the song “Tomorrow Never Knows” on the Beatles’ 1966 album, Revolver.

4. At Time, Jeff Wasserstrom discusses the current Sino-U.S. relationship and declares it “Too Big to Fail”:

While Washington and Beijing seem very much at odds just now, we shouldn’t let their current state blind us to how intertwined they have become, nor to parallels between America’s rise at the start of the last century and China’s at the start of this one. Whether they like it or realize it, their relationship is truly one thing too big to fail.

5. “The Caucus” blog of the New York Times has a short video assembled by Ben Werschkul of statements Obama and the White House have made regarding Tibet during the past year — all of which are “notable for their caution.”

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By A. Tom Grunfeld

As many readers of this blog doubtless realize, everything having to do with Tibet is subject to mythologizing. That the Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts on behalf of Tibetan independence is one of these myths. This notion gets mentioned in the Western press routinely, and it sometimes even shows up in comments by academic specialists. In fact, the prize was awarded to him more because of the events in Tiananmen Square that had happened just a few months before the award than for anything related to the Tibet struggle per se.

Indeed, it appears that if there had been no confrontations at Tiananmen in 1989, the Dalia Lama would not have received the prize. To be sure, the European community began to embrace the Dalai Lama and his cause after his speech to the European Parliament in Strasbourg in 1988 when he announced a major concession to Beijing giving up the demand for independence for autonomy. Moreover, the demonstrations and the subsequent bloody suppression in Lhasa in spring 1989 generated additional support and sympathy for the Tibetans. But it appears unlikely that those events alone got him the prize. The situation is described fully in an October 13, 1989, New York Times article “How, and Why, the Dalai Lama Won the Peace Prize.” (To read it in full, follow the link.) To give a sense of its take on the situation, which was based on interviews with informants close to the prize selection process, here are some excerpts from it:

People close to the Nobel Peace Prize selection process say that the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan leader, gained the advantage over other candidates, including President Mikhail S. Gorbachev of the Soviet Union, largely because of the brutal suppression of the democracy movement in China and the international outrage that followed.

As China called the Dalai Lama’s honor ”preposterous,” people in Oslo who are close to the Norwegian Nobel Committee said in telephone interviews that the choice of the Dalai Lama was an attempt both to influence events in China and to recognize the efforts of student leaders of the democracy movement, which was crushed by Chinese troops in June.

The Dalai Lama, as religious and political leader of Tibet, has been waging a nonviolent struggle for nearly 40 years to end Chinese domination of his homeland.

He was named the 1989 recipient of the prize last week and was ”among the favorites from the beginning,” said Jakob Sverdrup, secretary to the Nobel Committee and director of the Nobel Institute…

Mr. Sverdrup said that the award often swung back and forth between winners who represented humanitarian ideals and those in the trenches of international power politics. The choice of the Dalai Lama was in some ways a combination of both, he said…

In addition to Mr. Gorbachev, front-runners included Vaclav Havel and Jiri Hajek, prominent Czechoslovak dissidents.The committee settled on the Dalai Lama in mid-September… informants said, three months after hundreds of people were killed in Beijing when the Chinese authorities cracked down on the democracy movement. In the aftermath of the crackdown, there was pressure from Norwegians to have the movement’s student leaders named as recipients of this year’s award, despite the fact that the Feb. 1 deadline for nominations had long passed…

A. Tom Grunfeld is a Professor of History at Empire State College and is the author of many works, including The Making of Modern Tibet.

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