Since being forced into exile by communist China in 1959, the Dalai Lama has become probably the most beloved - and accepted - Asian man in western history. His position as the leader of the Tibetan government in exile that opposes Chinese occupation has also endeared him to political elites who oppose and fear China's rise to economic prominence. Most notably, almost alone out of all the world's religious leaders, the Dalai Lama has been publicly embraced by America's celebrity caste whose endorsement of his stated pacifism has been - in my opinion - the driving force behind his elevation to a celebrity himself.
Yet, His Highness's halo seemed to take a knock last month when during a BBC interview he was asked about the potential for a female Dalai Lama in the future and he replied that such a woman.....
"...must be very attractive.."...otherwise she would....
"...not be much use..."Naturally, the response from women's rights activists has been one of disbelief and disappointment. For me, it merely confirmed the adage that expectation leads to disappointment - particularly when it is applied to those proclaiming unique religious knowledge. Even though I have no issue with men who wear dresses or with the religious, men who wear dresses whilst simultaneously proclaiming religious piety and spiritual expertise tend to set off my skepticism alert. Thus, the Dalai Lama displaying a distinctly backward and a spiritually archaic attitude towards women merely confirms my suspicions that religious types wearing flowing robes and dresses should not necessarily be placed on pedestals.
What is most interesting here, though, is that the Dalai Lama fulfills the fantasies of America's apparently spiritually bankrupt celebrity elites who seem willing to buy into the stereotype - created by none other than the apparently spiritually bankrupt celebrity elites - of the slightly more than human Asian mystic whose lack of sexual prowess and possession of arcane spiritual knowledge renders void the seeming normative distaste for Asian men that our American culture routinely exhibits.
I have long maintained that the stereotypes of Asian men in American culture reflects a deep-rooted xenophobia that limits acceptable western conceptualizations of us to the harmless mystic who fulfills a spiritual void in the western elites who accept them, and the harmless buffoon type whose antics and fundamental childishness allows them to serve as examples of how men should not be but who Asian men cannot help but be.
Yet, just like all fantasies, these dehumanizing stereotypes distort reality and reflect the depths to which people will go to hold on to their prejudices. In the case of the Dalai Lama, the fantasy of the advanced spiritual Asian mystic has obscured some very uncomfortable concerns about the nature of Tibetan society prior to the Chinese take over. Worse - but strangely unsurprisingly - these distasteful aspects of a society long upheld by western Orientalist fantasists as a utopian paradise on earth, only seem to warrant criticism when westerners (western feminists in this case) have their feelings hurt.
The problem is, that for several decades there has been significant evidence that Tibet prior to the Chinese take over was a theocratic hell that oversaw horrific human rights abuses committed by the religious elite against the extremely poor majority. Don't get me wrong here, I do not accuse the Dalai Lama of committing atrocities against his own people, but merely say that the fantasy stereotypes created by the west of the spiritually advanced mystic which has been applied to him has helped to obscure discussion of a brutal history that is at odds with both the stereotypes of morally advanced Tibetan monks as well as the stated claim of advancing democratic principles for the benefit of the Tibetan people.
Viewing the Dalai Lama through the filter of the racial stereotype of the harmless Asian mystic who will lead his people back to some utopian nirvana only obscures the fact that Tibet was never a utopia but was to many accounts a hellish society ruled by wealthy aristocrats and buddhist monks who kept the vast majority of the population in a condition tantamount to slavery.
An article written way back in 1992 by a man named Michael Parenti outlines the extremely harsh conditions under which the majority of Tibetans were forced to live. Bonded servitude from which there was no chance of escape meant that the majority of Tibetans lived as slaves whose lives and bodies were subject to the whims of their owners. According to Parenti, runaways were treated with extreme cruelty sometimes resulting in death, and thieves and criminals were subject to brutal reprisals that included cutting off of limbs and mutilation. Religious beliefs taught by the monasteries reinforced this social system....
The theocracy’s religious teachings buttressed its class order. The poor and afflicted were taught that they had brought their troubles upon themselves because of their wicked ways in previous lives. Hence they had to accept the misery of their present existence as a karmic atonement and in anticipation that their lot would improve in their next lifetime. The rich and powerful treated their good fortune as a reward for, and tangible evidence of, virtue in past and present lives.It says a lot about the status of Asian people in the west that it is only when the representative of this cruelty "offends" white feminism that the halo of spiritual superiority comes under question - forget the thousands of Tibetans who lived as slaves, that is easily overlooked in a society that normalizes dehumanizing conceptualizations of Asian people. What is important is the fantasy of spiritual advancement that the Dalai Lama purports to offer that can give meaning to privileged western lives.
In some ways the Dalai Lama is the ultimate representative of the model minority; the stereotypes that place him on a pedestal allows those who support him to cloak their virulent xenophobia towards the Chinese just like the model minority stereotype allows the denial of racism in American society. Furthermore, the uncritical acceptance of what the Dalai Lama represents - a peaceful, harmless spiritually advanced society where everyone (every Asian that is) is complacently and unquestioningly contented with their lot in life - seems to act as a counterfoil to the other stereotype about Asian men; wicked, grasping, inhumane and de-individuated hordes who consume everything in their path.
What is often termed as harmless and "playful" dehumanizing stereotypes has manifested in a very concrete way - both as the unquestioning embrace of spiritual figure whose pre-1950 society seemed as brutally repressive as the communist regime that replaced it and the equally unquestioned acceptance of the Chinese as brutal savages destroying the western fantasy of Shangri-la. Put another way, this juxtaposition of un-nuanced attitudes can be viewed as a reflection of the two most powerful and largely unchallenged stereotypes that have been applied to Asian men. On the one hand we have the stereotype of the harmless, desexualized mystic who is unthreatening and beneficial to white people by virtue of his harmlessness and lack of libido, being played off against the bestial, grasping Asian man whose inadequacies manifest as angry oppressiveness.
As I have suggested, this inability - or lack of desire - to formulate a more nuanced understanding of the facts simply means that the spiritual aspirations of white America, founded as they are on a flawed and delusional historical narrative, supersedes the experiences of Asian men and women who suffered brutal conditions in Tibet's feudal society. This in no way denies that Chinese communism has itself acted with brutality both towards the Tibetans and their own people, it merely acknowledges that the western narrative of the simple dichotomy of good, passive Asian man pitted against wicked, inhumane Asian man is founded on racist thinking that reduces Asian peoples' experiences to figments of the western imagination and in the process obscures justice and truth.
The absurdity of this situation can be summed up thusly; it is through dehumanization of Asian people - since the neutered mystic and the angry aggressor stereotypes are both dehumanizing - that the west seems to somehow believe it can foster freedom and justice.
A more nuanced - and truthful approach - would be to, well, acknowledge the truth; while communist China has acted with brutality in Tibet (just as it has done so with its own people), there is compelling evidence that pre-1950 Tibetan society was as bad if not worse. Furthermore, there is also evidence that Chinese rule has brought benefits to Tibet that are simply too embarrassing for western ears to apprehend, and that the rhetoric of Chinese attempts at genocide are exaggerated if not completely false.
What seems clear to me is that so long as the issue of Tibet continues to be viewed and understood through the implicit framework of racial stereotypes, the only people who will benefit are western spiritual mysticism junkies who seem to think that nirvana can be attained via the practice of ignoring history and the suffering of Asian people under the Tibetan theocracy, but also creating more suffering by upholding racial stereotypes that inhibit any possibility of approaching the subject objectively and with the understanding that all parties involved are human rather than dehumanizing stereotypes.
What has to happen is that our society has to become aware that racial stereotypes are damaging - extremely damaging - by virtue of their very nature and are not only damaging when they backfire and offend white people's sensibilities.