Defend Truth


Going off pop about religious pop-idols


Chris Vick is chairperson of Mobilize, which launched the Energy Comms campaign earlier this year to build public understanding of the energy crisis. Mobilize did similar work in 2020-2022 around Covid-19 under the name COVID Comms.

So Archbishop Tutu has gone off pop with the government again – this time over the fact that there’s another religious pop-idol missing from his 80th birthday party. It’s a biggie – far more significant, it appears, than government’s ability to address poverty, homelessness, illness, unemployment or a lack of education. It’s the beginning of the end for the ruling party, the death of our human rights culture, a return to pariah nation status. Our Chinese Spring…

The Dalai Lama must be really powerful, I figured, if his personal situation was so much more important than the one experienced by the millions of poor, hungry, homeless, sickly people who voted our government into power in 2009.

So I started asking some questions – to better understand who the Dalai Lama was and why he had cancelled his trip.

Had the global economic meltdown left him short of cash, I wondered, and he couldn’t afford the fuel for his Learjet?

Did he have to divert to the US for the launch of the new Apple iPhone (he’s one of their brand ambassadors, after all)?

Or did he need an urgent meeting with key members of his “Free Tibet” support group – actors Richard “Pretty Woman” Gere and Sharon “Basic Instinct” Stone, the great political science scholar Lindsay Lohan and renowned economic freedom fighter Paris Hilton?

Or was it that he needed quality spiritual time with actor Steven Seagal, who he recently declared a reincarnated lama of Tibetan Buddhism (that’s right, the action dude with a ponytail who’s on etv every Saturday night)?

No, it turned out. It was because our dear government hadn’t given him a visa.


My first thought, obviously, was that this would never had happened if Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma was still foreign affairs minister. I mean look what she’s done to Home Affairs…

Imagine if the Dalai Lama had applied to a Dlamini-Zuma-run government department rather than a Zuma-run government! He’d have had his visa in hand before the Archbishop even DHL’d the official birthday invite.

There may have been some issues over the “gender” section of his form, though. According to (and you thought this guy wasn’t brand-conscious, huh!) his birth name was Lhamo Thondup – which, according to the website, means “Wish-Fulfilling Goddess”. Goddess? Ok, so you’re a male goddess. Which box do we tick on your visa application form, then?

There may also have been a few issues over whose name the visa should be issued in: Officially, the Dalai Lama is referred to as “His Holiness?” But according to his website, his full title is: Holy Lord, Gentle Glory, Compassionate, Defender of the Faith, Ocean of Wisdom. How’re we going to fit that on your visa, dude?

Or do we use his other real name – Tenzin Gyatso, shortened from Jetsun Jamphel Ngawang Lobsang Yeshe Tenzin Gyatso?

Nah, that’s too long – so let’s stick with the Dalai Lama. Let’s think of it as his “nom de guerre” – after all, he’s a freedom fighter isn’t he?

Eish. Research gets in the way – so much so, in fact, that there’s an entire school of thought that constantly ponders on the question: “Is the Dalai Lama a freedom fighter – or just a great salesman?”

Chinese writer Yau-Man Chan, as just one example, has written a really good piece on the question.

His conclusion: The guy’s a bit of both. But a lot, lot more of the latter – a veritable marketing machine, a spiritual Coca-Cola.

And then how do we describe the “profession” section on his visa application form? Is the Dalai Lama a head of state? If so, how was he elected? Yau-Man, pointing out that the people of Tibet have never had an election in their entire history, has a short answer for that: “He was selected as the re-incarnation of the Buddha when he was two years old. In 1950, at the age of 15, he was installed as the political head of state and government – not just a titular head like some baby monarch of the past but one with real power.”

Installed? Like a tap?

There’s a more detailed explanation on, rampant with more mystery and colour than a Disney movie:

“When Lhamo Thondup was barely three years old, a search party sent to find the new incarnation of the Dalai Lama arrived at Kumbum monastery. It had been led there by a number of signs. One of these concerned the embalmed body of his predecessor, Thupten Gyatso, the Thirteenth Dalai Lama. During its period of sitting in state, Gyatso’s head was discovered to have turned from facing south to northeast. Shortly after that the Regent had a vision. Looking into the waters of the sacred lake, Lhamo Lhatso, in southern Tibet, he clearly saw the Tibetan letters Ah, Ka and Ma float into view. These were followed by the image of a three-storied monastery with a turquoise and gold roof and a path running from it to a hill. Finally, he saw a small house with strangely shaped guttering. He was sure that the letter Ah referred to Amdo, the northeastern province, so it was there that the search party was sent.

By the time they reached Kumbum, the members of the search party felt they were on the right track. It seemed likely that if the letter Ah referred to Amdo, then Ka must indicate the monastery at Kumbum, which was indeed three-storied and turquoise-roofed. They now only needed to locate a hill and a house with peculiar guttering. So they began to search the neighbouring villages. When they saw the gnarled branches of juniper wood on the roof of the His Holiness’ parent’s house, they were certain that the new Dalai Lama would not be far away. Nevertheless, rather than reveal the purpose of their visit, the group asked only to stay the night. The leader of the party, Kewtsang Rinpoche, then pretended to be a servant and spent much of the evening observing and playing with the youngest child in the house.

The child recognised him and called out ‘Sera lama, Sera lama’. Sera was Kewtsang Rinpoche’s monastery. The next day they left only to return a few days later as a formal deputation. This time they brought with them a number of things that had belonged to the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, together with several similar items that did not. In every case, the infant correctly identified those belonging to the Thirteenth Dalai Lama saying, ‘It’s mine. It’s mine.’ This more or less convinced the search party that they had found the new incarnation.”

And you thought the ANC succession battle was awash with smoke and mirrors?

Sure, this religious pop-idol also has a couple of skeletons in his closet. Which pop-star doesn’t? But if we allowed him here, he’d have more than enough time to answer some of the pressing – even quirky – questions that keep being raised by his critics:

  • Why he accepted R7.5 million from Shoko Asahara, the leader of the Aum Shinrikyo cult which released sarin nerve gas in the Tokyo subway system during the 1990s.
  • Why his specified sexual norms ban oral and anal sex and masturbation, and explain “the proper way to pay for prostitution”.
  • Why he has backed India’s testing of nuclear weapons.
  • Why he accepted more than $1 million in funding from the CIA during the Cold War era, as part of the US’ attempts to subvert the Chinese.

Maybe he’d also explain get round, over a slice of birthday cake, to explaining the approach to human rights in pre-Chinese Tibet, best articulated on as follows: “The only people who lost any rights under Chinese rule are Tibet’s former ruling class, themselves guilty of cruelty and oppression of a magnitude that not even China can conceive. Until 1950 when the Chinese put a stop to it, 90% of Tibetans had no rights at all. They were freely traded and sold. They were subject to the worst type of punishments from their lords, including gouging out of eyes; cutting off hands, feet, tongues, noses, or lips; and a dozen horrible forms of execution. There was no such concept as legal recourse; the landowning monk class was the law. There was no such thing as education, medical care, sanitation, or public utilities. Young boys were frequently and freely taken from families to endure lifelong servitude, including rape, in the monasteries. Amid all the pop-culture cries about Chinese oppression, why is there never any mention of the institutionalized daily oppression levied by the Dalai Lama’s class prior to 1959?”

We can be sure Archbishop Tutu, as a man of the cloth, is aware of the various sides of the Dalai Lama’s personality. Let he who is without sin throw the first stone, after all.

And you can really feel the Archbishop’s ire on the sheer inconvenience of this one. It’s not cool, hey, to have to keep coming out of retirement to kak on the government.

Bet let’s not forget: this isn’t the first time the Archbishop has gone off pop about the ANC.

In October 2008, he was so pissed off with what the ruling party was doing that he threw away his precious right to vote, telling the Sunday Times: “If an election were to be held tomorrow I would be sufficiently unhappy not to vote”.

The occasion for that fit of pique? The Archbishop’s 77th birthday party. Birthdays, birthdays…

Postscript: A helpful rescue plan appeared on Twitter while writing this column: Dear Dalai Lama, Fly to Zimbabwe, walk over the border – no visa required, so see you Friday. Regards Desmond Tutu.


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