Almost everyone has, willy nilly, had their say on the killing of Osama bin Laden. Everyone made predictable statements and the BBC even trotted out Tony Blair, of all people, to mouth some inanity. One person raised eyebrows with his remark. The Los Angeles Times on May 4 said in a report captioned “Dalai Lama suggests Osama bin Laden’s death was justified” that he, “appeared to suggest that the United States was justified in killing Osama bin Laden.”

The Dalai Lama was quoted as saying at the University of Southern California (USC): “Forgiveness doesn’t mean forget what happened. … If something is serious and it is necessary to take counter-measures, you have to take counter-measures.”

Subsequently, The Office of Tibet in New York put out a report of his USC talk.
(The part relating to bin Laden can be found in the second paragraph below the second photo.)
Different versions, different interpretations.

Be that as it may, we need to remember a few things:

1. Despite having lived outside his native land for decades, the Dalai Lama perhaps thinks in Tibetan and speaks using a relatively limited vocabulary and pithy words (frequently interlaced with humour, but that’s another matter).

2. He’s one of the more, if not the most, open and approachable of religious and temporal leaders. Archbishop Desmond Tutu is another and he’s retired now, although mercifully he hasn’t entirely stopped commenting on issues but is keeping a low profile. Questions are being fired at the Dalai Lama left and right, almost literally. Occasionally, something doesn’t come through as perfect to one or other section of newspaper readers or listeners.

Has Herr Joseph Ratzinger in the Vatican given interviews? I can’t remember. And look at the mess in the Catholic Church with all the paedophelia allegations. The Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams does pronounce on major issues of the day but, hey, his native lingo is English and he doesn’t have Beijing abusing him day in and day out and ensuring that he can’t travel to the near totality of UN member states, which means that when Washington does give him a visa the Tibetans feel most grateful for what really should be routine. Dr Williams too is a wise soul trying to deal with unruly flock, by the way. In response to Bin Laden’s killing, the Archbishop said: “I think the killing of an unarmed man is always going to leave a very uncomfortable feeling because it doesn’t look as if justice is seen to be done,”

3. The Dalai Lama is perhaps trying to connect with, walk with and think with his interlocutors, so much so he probably tries to give something they can hold on to as a trophy from him but if they fail to listen to him carefully and want to use his words to buttress their nefarious stands, then misunderstanding follows.

4. Dibyesh Anand, Associate Professor of International Relations the University of Westminister said on Facebook the other day that “the Dalai Lama, for reasons of pragmatism, has had to be selectively quiet on state violence, especially when it comes from India or USA.”

This is indeed a serious issue. It IS, let’s face it, something that stands out, given the Dalai Lama’s courage and his record of having stood for justice laced with compassion. But then think for a minute: Should the Dalai Lama stridently criticise either of the two countries, especially India, over some incident, imagine how the Indian media vultures would descend on his words and gnaw it to the bones with TV anchors crying themselves hoarse in evening shows, newspaper columnists baying for Tibetan subservience if not blood and how the extremely thin-skinned and small-minded Indian politicians and the entire government machinery would lose their minds.

US media is perhaps slightly less hysterical but more influential in Washington and other power centres and can hurt the Tibetan cause badly. So the Dalai Lama probably follows the Sanskrit dictum, Sathyam brooyaath, priyam brooyaath, maa brooyaath sathyamapriyam (speak the truth, use pleasant words, avoid unpleasant truths) especially when dealing with small-minded Indians and Americans.

5. A few years ago the Dalai Lama’s name was dragged into controversy for allegedly disapproving of homosexuality. Google this and you might stumble on a comment wondering what this mountain peasant monk knows about it, or words to that effect. Quite.

To expect the Dalai Lama, who has enough on his plate already in dealing with the fate of his people, some of whom are scattered in exile in India and Nepal (the latter footsying with the northern power, but that’s another matter), and the rest are up against an unbelievably harsh and emerging superpower, to answer all sorts of questions ranging from sexuality to stem cells to space travel and supply soundbites of scintillating wisdom, is daft to say the least.

So, to use a couple of clichés, give the Dalai Lama a break, cut him some slack and don’t expect him to supply an eight-second easy quote with which you can whip your hobby horse or fit in with whatever’s obsessing the day’s TV anchors.
(Photo courtesy of the Dalai Lama’s official page)

About walkerjay

The author, N. Jayaram, a journalist now based in Bangalore after more than 23 years in East Asia (mainly Hong Kong and Beijing) and 11 years in New Delhi, was with the Press Trust of India news agency for 15 years and Agence France-Presse for 11 years and is currently engaged in editing and translating for NGOs and academic institutions.
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