The impasse over Tibet’s future has increased the volubility of foreign support for the Dalai Lama. When he visited the USA in the summer of 2000, for instance, he had meetings with the National Security Adviser and eminent Washington politicians, and thirty-five minutes with the President. Encased by a huge entourage of State Department security people, he promoted a peaceful solution for Tibet to the American people. His supporters put him on Larry King Live on CNN. He had been on the show six months earlier for a Millennium Special, when King had asked the Dalai Lama, as a leading Muslim, what he thought about the new year celebrations.
This time, the host knew that his guest was a Buddhist, but it was a sorry spectacle, the Dalai Lama, the bodhisattva of compassion, being forced by the exigencies of global politics and celebrity culture to compete for airtime with the passing flotsam of high-speed television …
American Tibetophilia even provoked a two-week happening at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, including a public speech by the Dalai Lama which drew a crowd of tens of thousands. The Monlam Chenmo, the great prayer festival founded in 1409 by Tsongkhapa, was plucked from its regular home among the exile community in India and incorporated into the commotion. Dozens of monks from Drepung Loseling and Namgyal monasteries were flown into Washington DC to chant in suitably guttural tones and look impressive in maroon and saffron robes. Nobody seemed to notice that the Monlam Chenmo was a central date in the Tibetan state calendar, which had never been hijacked in this way before, and that its cancellation in Dharamsala that year led to acute religious and financial tribulation for the many Tibetan refugees who depend on it.
Meanwhile, at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Los Angeles, the Dalai Lama blessed a new Shi-Tro mandala (a three-dimensional religious sculpture) in front of a large, paying audience. The mandala had been created by a Tibetan monk who ran a local Buddhist centre, assisted by his American wife, who worked in creative marketing for Warner Brothers Records Inc. She had generated volumes of publicity, using the slogan “Shi-Tro Happens.” The Los Angeles Times described this as “marketing the mandala in a hip and humorous way.” So, there was the Dalai Lama, up on stage, Shi-Tro happening, the ceremony compered by the requisite Hollywood star, in this case the actress Sharon Stone, famous for lacking underwear in the movie Basic Instinct, but this time wearing a feather boa and bare feet. After musing aloud for a while about how she might introduce the Dalai Lama, she finally settled for, “The hardest-working man in spirituality … Mr. Please, Please, Please let me back into China!” The fact that the Dalai Lama came from Tibet was momentarily lost….
This is what is so curious about the phenomenon of his fame: devoid of egotism, committed to his religious vocation, the Dalai Lama has little interest in the way in which he is re-created by the world. The side-effect of his celebrity, and the way it is projected by his apparent backers, is that the battle over the future of Tibet has become curiously apolitical. We are left with the cry of longing, the repeating slogan of the foreign campaigner, the plaintive call of the refugee, the emphatic claim of the born exile, “Tibet! Tibet!”