A man and a plan for a better world

Martin Mills finds an idealist at the apocalypse, but asks why one of our Dalai Lamas is missing

July 17, 2008

Of the several books about the Dalai Lama published this year, few are more carefully designed for the political moment than this latest offering by Robert Thurman, Why the Dalai Lama Matters. In effect an open letter to Chinese President Hu Jintao, it is ambitious in intent and popular in tone, and more polemic statement than critical academic analysis.

This will hardly surprise those familiar with Thurman's recent work: the professor of Indo-Tibetan studies at Columbia University is director of Tibet House US and (only partly through being actress Uma Thurman's father) a linchpin of Tibet's complex relationship with Hollywood.

Divided into three sections, the book begins with a half-homage, half-curriculum vitae for the 14th Dalai Lama, whose qualities as global spiritual leader, scholar, scientist and Bodhisattva are spelt out in devout (if somewhat one-sided) detail. This is followed by Thurman's own "Solution for China and Tibet": five-step plans for the Dalai Lama and President Hu to follow to solve the Tibet crisis, including the creation of an autonomous, internally democratic Tibet within the People's Republic of China, with the Dalai Lama ("the most popular man on earth") becoming a roving ambassador for a newly enlightened Chinese Government. Finally, Thurman outlines the potential final form of such an internal Tibetan Government and the benefits for China as an emergent superpower, for Asia as an unstable continent and for the world as a dangerous whole.

Thurman's proposals are interesting enough, and certainly well worth reading - after all, nothing else has worked in the past 20 years, so why not? However, it is difficult to get round the impression that when Thurman asks, "Why the Dalai Lama matters", his answer is actually why the Dalai Lama matters to the international community (one visualised very much through an American, democratic lens).

This is, of course, important, but something crucial is missing: why the present Dalai Lama matters to Tibetans. This cannot be reduced to a consideration of the lineage and cosmology of previous Dalai Lamas, nor understood through the lens of the 14th Dalai Lama's international presence. There is a space in between - in which the present Dalai Lama has grown in stature and influence among Tibetans both within and outside modern Tibet over the past 50 years - that is crucial to understanding his axial role in relation to Beijing, and yet it is oddly unexplored here.

Nonetheless, it is probably less the substance of this work than its tone - characterised by an extraordinary philosophically assertive idealism - that will stand out for most readers. For Thurman, the principal problem of world politics today is our fatalistic view of politics itself, a state of affairs to be overthrown simply by acting as though things were different. This is the "Why can't we all just get along?" school of international relations, and the author is forthright enough in this regard for this position to be somewhat disarming - those seeking the other side of this philosophical coin would be wise to read its nearest comparable text, Melvyn Goldstein's The Snow Lion and the Dragon: China, Tibet, and the Dalai Lama (1997).

However, Thurman's idealism is of that paradoxically evolutionary-apocalyptic kind often found in American liberal academia: from this view, we have to get on because, if we do, the world will enter a wonderful new human utopia (with the Dalai Lama at the helm), and, if we don't, it will fall into Armageddon.

Personally, I find this kind of logic overblown and somewhat self-indulgent, and can't help but think that the Dalai Lama himself would be none too comfortable with it either.

Why the Dalai Lama Matters: His Act of Truth as the Solution for China, Tibet and the World

By Robert Thurman

Atria Books, 256pp, £16.99

ISBN 97815802209

Published 3 June 2008

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