Much ado about his Holiness

2011-10-08 13:20

While studying sociology at a university in Delhi some years back the department organised a study trip for our class to the north Indian hill station of Dharamsala, where his Holiness the Dalai Lama has lived in exile for the last five decades along with thousands of Tibetan refugees.

While on a rendezvous to the impressive Tsuglagkhang Temple complex, commonly known as the Dalai Lama Temple, we literally bumped into the Dalai Lama leading a prayer.

Sure, he may have looked like a regular Asian fellow but his deep verses and intermittent deeper breaths reverberated up our insides like the thunderous, compulsive bass in a Buddha Bar CD.

But I still could not stop an electric cynicism from sparking along my nerves.Here was a holy man, I thought to myself, who spent far too much time touring, lobbying and smiling, with his palms pressed in a charming Namaste pose, for the benefit of Westerners.

Surely this luxurious passive resistance thing died with Gandhi, Luthuli and Lennon.Tibetans needed action and here was their leader dining with the world’s elite, who were happy to bask in his presence while merrily gobbling up the profits generated by rapidly proliferating trade with China.

After all, and let’s be frank, the Tibetan peaceful resistance was by then already a way of life, the talk and inaction a deal wedged ajar.I couldn’t help asking myself: Having received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, when was he going to get hold of the main prize?

Naturally, the Tibetan museum in Dharamsala tells of a powerful discord: they are at once rebelling, documenting and living against the occupation of their homeland and yet they seem strangely at ease with it.

The museum showcases in painstaking detail the Chinese occupation of Tibet and documents the great escape of a young Dalai Lama with his entourage of 20 men and six ministers to India in 1959.

There are also snaps of Tibetan rebels or freedom fighters with rifles, ready to defend themselves in the event of an attack from the Chinese.

Needless to say, on that day my Chinese classmate was bemused by the museum.“Wasn’t it strange,” he asked me, “to have documented an escape so purposely and thoroughly...and what are these nonviolent Tibetans doing with guns?”

“I don’t know”, I replied.Just then, one of our classmates, a North American girl, piped in. “I want to know,” she asked solemnly, “when you see this...do you feel guilty?”

I am guessing it is a question white South Africans are asked every time a tactless tourist visits the Apartheid Museum.In March 2009 the Dalai Lama was denied entry into South Africa.

The government explanation was that his presence a year before the Soccer World Cup could shift the focus from our staging of the biggest show on Earth to the ongoing quest for the liberation of Tibet.

Though our presidential spokesperson denied any suggestions whatsoever that the ban was a result of Chinese pressure, a Chinese embassy official confirmed that Beijing had indeed urged South Africa not to allow him in.

That decision, together with the latest episode that culminated in cancelling his trip to South Africa this month, only serves to further taint South Africa as a country that considers ambivalent trade over values.

Ultimately, the Dalai Lama is not that important, and denying a visa to a jetsetting freedom fighter who won’t fight isn’t quite the same as, say, colonising Swaziland.And whereas there was once a drive for an independent Tibet, it was announced in 2008 that the Tibetan people would settle for autonomy.

Tomorrow they might just settle for an electric toaster. It doesn’t change the fact that our stance is unconscionable. He knows that he is no longer welcome here.

I remember clearly how my Chinese friend responded to his North American accuser.“I don’t think I feel guilty,” he trailed off.I think he just felt sick.

»Azad Essa is a South African author

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