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The Dalai Lama: an alternative opinion

Simon Allison covers Africa for the Daily Maverick, having cut his teeth reporting from Palestine, Somalia and revolutionary Egypt. He loves news and politics, the more convoluted the better. Despite his natural cynicism and occasionally despairing tone, he is an Afro-optimist, and can’t wait to witness and chronicle the continent’s swift development over the next few decades.

Now that the Dalai Lama’s not coming to South Africa, let’s take a second to peer under his enormous halo and see what the living icon actually thinks about some of life’s most important issues: homosexuality, prostitution, democracy and Steven Seagal. You might be surprised.

So the Dalai Lama’s not coming to South Africa. We should have given him a visa, of course. We welcome all sorts into this country, from ousted dictators to Serbian druglords, so it seems strange that we should draw the line at a Nobel Peace Prize winner.

His decision on Tuesday to cancel his trip left many South Africans disappointed, and angry at our government’s prevarications. But I wasn’t very excited about him coming in the first place and think he would enjoy a lot less public support here and elsewhere if people engaged with the Dalai Lama’s stated views rather than his varnished public image, which elevates him to some kind of transcendental demi-god of peace, tolerance and humility, part of the modern pantheon of virtuous icons along with Nelson Mandela and Aung Sang Suu Kyi.

As it so often is, the reality is more prosaic. The Dalai Lama is a Nobel Peace Prize winner, and his long exile and the graceful, peaceful way in which he’s dealt with China’s occupation of Tibet make him worthy of our respect. But this doesn’t make him a saint, and he holds a few opinions that are questionable at the very least.

He’s not a fan of gay people, for instance. In his own words: “A gay couple came to see me, seeking my support and blessing. I had to explain our teachings. Another lady introduced another woman as her wife – astonishing. It is the same with a husband and wife using certain sexual practices. Using the other two holes is wrong.” He reiterated this sentiment another time, adding that masturbation too was wrong: “Sexual misconduct for men and women consists of oral and anal sex… Using one’s hand, that is sexual misconduct.” This doesn’t make him a homophobe. One can disagree with a particular practise while still tolerating it. Nonetheless, I believe it’s a disquieting position from a person held in such universal renown.

Especially when compared to the Dalai Lama’s thoughts on prostitution. He thinks it’s acceptable to use a prostitute – as long as you pay up. “To have sexual relations with a prostitute paid by you and not by a third person does not constitute improper behaviour,” His Holiness said. So no gay prostitution, obviously; that would be wrong.

And then there’s his opinion on abortion. He’s a long way from the right-wing extremes of some religious zealots, accepting the delicate nuances involved in the abortion debate, but he still doesn’t like it: “Of course, abortion, from a Buddhist viewpoint, is an act of killing and is negative, generally speaking. But it depends on the circumstances. If the unborn child will be retarded or if the birth will create serious problems for the parent, these are cases where there can be an exception. I think abortion should be approved or disapproved according to each circumstance,” he said.

Something that also needs scrutiny is the Dalai Lama’s approach to governance. Of course, he’s never had a real chance to govern his own country, which would be the ultimate proof of his stated democratic convictions. But his government in exile hasn’t been without controversy, particularly over the banning of a rival Tibetan religious sect, the Dorje Shugden; not exactly a portentous democratic sign. The fact remains that his position as leader of Tibet (in exile), viewed outside of the Tibetan Buddhist prism, is an accident of birth and circumstance. Any other modern world leader who received his authority because a rainbow pointed in the direction of his infant self would be laughed out of office. And were Tibet to regain its autonomy, is that how the country would choose its next leader after this Dalai Lama passes away? Is the anti-Tibet movement fighting for the right of the Tibetan people to be governed by a member of the population essentially selected at random? It’s fine if they are; it’s just not something I would put my name behind.

But most puzzling of all the Dalai Lama’s idiosyncrasies involves Steven Seagal. That’s right, prolific action hero extraordinaire, famed for his wooden dialogue, slicked back hair and the rather impressive fact that he does all his own stunts and has his own reality TV series. In addition to his mediocre if always entertaining acting resumé, Seagal was recognised as a “sacred vessel” or tulku of Tibetan Buddhism, a high-ranking position within the religion. Perhaps it’s just me and my preconceived stereotypes, but I find it hard to reconcile Seagal the filmic action hero, rock guitarist and deputy sheriff with Seagal the living reincarnation of a Buddhist master. I can’t help but wonder if the commendation has less to do with Seagal’s deep spirituality and more to do with his high profile support of the Tibetan cause.

I admire the Dalai Lama, and what he has done for Tibet. He’s a good and wise man, clearly, and South Africa would have benefitted from hosting him in our country. But I can’t support the whole-hearted, unquestioning devotion to this virtuous, perfect image of him that seems to be so prevalent, because I can’t make some of his beliefs square with mine. The Dalai Lama’s just a man, better than most, but not without his own flaws, and that’s how he should be treated. DM

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