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This is the fourth in a series of five columns written by Matteo Pistono for the visit of Chinese President Hu Jintao to Washington this week. Pistono, a practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism, is the author of “In the Shadow of the Buddha: Secret Journeys, Sacred Histories, and Spiritual Discovery in Tibet,” an account of a human rights monitor operating covertly in China and Tibet.
By Matteo Pistono
To understand the Dalai Lama’s November statement about retiring, possibly within the next six months, one must keep in mind what the Tibetan leader calls his three commitments. As a human being, the Dalai Lama is committed to the promotion of basic human values of compassion and tolerance; as a Buddhist leader he works to promote understanding among the major religious traditions; and as the holder of the title “Dalai Lama” which is traditionally the spiritual and political leader of the Tibetans, he is committed to resolving the Tibet issue with China. Regarding the latter, that commitment will cease, the Dalai Lama has said, when a mutually beneficial solution has been reached between the Tibetan and Chinese.
The Dalai Lama’s retirement statements are not directed toward his duties as a spiritual leader; his commitments to promotion of basic human values and to interfaith dialogue remain steadfast. And, just as it has been for centuries, the Dalai Lama will continue to lead his traditional following of Tibetan Buddhists from Tibet and across the Himalayan region, the devoted from Mongolia, and the Russian republics of Buryatia, Kalmykia and Tuva, and the ever growing number of followers of Tibetan Buddhism from the West and Asia, including Chinese.
The Dalai Lama’s retirement statements are directed at his political duties. But, they must be understood in the context of the 400-year-old institution of the Dalai Lama and how this particular Dalai Lama, the 14th in succession, has radically transformed his political role in just the last two decades. With an aim to empower his exiled compatriots and democratize the Tibetan government in exile, this Dalai Lama has slowly divested himself of political duties over the last 20 years. In 2001 the process of political divesture was completed, at least on paper, when Tibetans in exile elected their first prime minister. Still, the Dalai Lama has continued to be active in the political sphere, traveling the world over to meet with presidents and prime ministers. Ten years on, this March, the second de facto Tibetan prime minister in exile (although the position is formally known as Kalon Tripa, chairman of the cabinet) will be elected and it seems that the Dalai Lama wants to formally retire from his political duties with the exiled government in India. Will the Dalai Lama then retire from his international political engagements?
The Tibetan writer, Bhuchung K. Tsering, wrote recently, “The Tibetan people in exile will also have to undergo a paradigm shift in their thinking and adapt to this new reality. The Dalai Lama has been making efforts to shake off the Tibetan people’s over dependence on him and this is one more step towards that objective. Then there have also been some individuals who have said that the absence of the Dalai Lama from the governmental system would not altogether be a bad thing for the Tibetan struggle. The Dalai Lama’s statement will now be a challenge to these individuals to rise to the occasion and play a responsible role in preparing Tibetan society for such a development. This will be the time for these people to walk the talk.”
Still, the Tibet issue is nowhere close to being resolved with obstinate leaders in Beijing, and Tibetans themselves continue to rely on the Dalai Lama as their spokesman. The Dalai Lama remains the face of Tibetans’ struggle for freedom. It must be admitted that, even if prominent and capable Tibetans are ready “to walk the talk,” it will take a long time for them to attain the needed stature as to date the only Tibetan leader any world leader would be familiar with is this Dalai Lama. Though the Dalai Lama is ready to settle into extended meditation retreats, something he has put on hold since the early 1970s when he first began traveling to the West, politics and his people will not allow it. The Dalai Lama must continue to bear the responsibility of his people’s will for freedom.
Matteo Pistono is a writer, practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism, and author of “In the Shadow of the Buddha: Secret Journeys, Sacred Histories, and Spiritual Discovery in Tibet.” Pistono’s images and writings about Tibetan and Himalayan cultural, political and spiritual landscapes have appeared in BBC’s In-Pictures, Men’s Journal, Kyoto Journal, and HIMAL South Asia. Pistono was born and raised in Wyoming where he completed his undergraduate degree in anthropology from the University of Wyoming, and in 1997 he obtained his master of arts degree in Indian philosophy from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. After working with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. on Tibetan cultural programs, Pistono lived and traveled throughout the Himalayas for a decade, bringing to the West graphic accounts and photos of China’s human rights abuses in Tibet. He is the founder of Nekorpa, a foundation working to protect sacred pilgrimage sites around the world, and he sits on the executive council of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists, Rigpa Fellowship, and the Conservancy for Tibetan Art and Culture.
Pistono will be speaking at Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW, at 7 p.m. Jan. 28.