National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  October 10, 2003

The Dalai Lama speaks in New York Sept. 21.
-- Zuma/Dan Herrick
The Dalai Lama is no Gandhi


If you’ve ever had suspicions that the Dalai Lama is a lightweight, suspect no more. He is.

Recently finishing a U.S. lecture tour that attracted rock-concert crowds in major cities, the 68-year-old Tibetan Buddhist came up against a pesky New York Times reporter who asked questions about terrorism and the war in Iraq. In a story headlined “Dalai Lama Says Terror May Need a Violent Reply,” the monk said: “Terrorism is the worst kind of violence, so we have to check it, we have to take countermeasures.”

Soothing words to the Bush warmakers as they seek $87 billion for countermeasures to bolster earlier countermeasures that failed. No amount of Buddhist incense smoked over the lama’s words can hide their meaning: Kill people to solve conflicts. Here is one more religious leader who is a pacifist between wars, akin to being a vegetarian between meals.

On Iraq, His Holiness was equally light in the head. It’s “too early to say” whether the Bush war against Iraq was mistaken: “I feel only history will tell.” For 12 years under three presidents, the go-it-alone United States has made war on an impoverished people -- first through the 1991 bombing of the country’s infrastructure, then a decade of lethal economic sanctions, then the March 2003 invasion meant to kill a dictator that Donald Rumsfeld twice sucked up to in the 1980s when Iraq was a weapons client, and now we are an occupying force largely resented by the populace.

When will it not be “too early” to make a judgment about all that? What will it take for the Dalai Lama to join much of the rest of the world and see through the jingoism of “Operation Iraqi Freedom” and condemn, in forceful language, the violence?

If the Dalai Lama is content to wait for history’s judgment, perhaps it’s because he plans to be on hand -- reincarnated in the next lama or two, as he was in 1940 when he was enthroned at the age of 5.

Why speak with prophetic fire when he can cool it as the Dalai Lama Superstar, catering to U.S. audiences who are slightly disaffected with Western materialism and insatiable for self-fulfillment babble from one guru, maharishi, swami, shaman and yogi after another -- Deepak Chopra, Ram Dass, Tony Robbins, Robert Schuller, Dr. Ruth, Dr. Phil. The Dalai Lama’s million-copy bestseller, The Art of Happiness, has been followed by The Art of Happiness at Work. What’s next? The Art of Happiness in the Kitchen?

Nothing complex is found in the Dalai Lama’s message: Think positive, live with hope, reduce negative motivations, have a good attitude, learn compromise, be aware, be happy.

Above all, be patient. At a November 1998 conference at the University of Virginia where the Dalai Lama was one of eight Nobel Peace laureates to speak, he said: “My dream is that one day the whole world should be demilitarized. But you cannot achieve that overnight. Also, you cannot achieve that without a proper systematic plan. However, it is very important to make some kind of clear target! Even though it may take 100 or 50 years, that doesn’t matter. But make some kind of clear idea or clear target. Then, try to achieve that step by step.”

This is the all-wise cosmic message from the Mystical East we’ve been waiting for? Go step by step? The obvious has rarely been so laboriously belabored. It’s on a level with dopey athletes dispensing eternal truth when, in all solemnity, they tell interviewers that they are going to take one game at a time. As against taking two games at a time.

The Dalai Lama joins a long list of people who, in the parlance of celebrity, are famous for being famous. He is an entertainer, a headliner, a showman -- complete with maroon robes and a bare shoulder. Nothing wrong with that. A shtick’s a shtick. But he’s nowhere close to being in the company of Gandhi, who said, “I do not believe in any war,” or the Mennonites, Church of the Brethren or Quakers who don’t hedge their antiwar convictions, much less wait for history.

Colman McCarthy directs the Center for Teaching Peace in Washington. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, October 10, 2003

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