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Thoughts About CNN’s "Buddha’s Warriors" and His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s "Middle Way" Approach to China

Like probably everyone else in the Buddhoblogosphere, I watched CNN: Special Investigations Unit‘s report “Buddha’s Warriors” last night. While not uninteresting or unhelpful, there’s still lots to critique about it. Check out The Worst Horse for a good laundry list of complaints–I’m pretty much in sync with Rod on the program.

The biggest problem for me was the show’s complete failure to define Buddhism as anything beyond “a religion of love and kindess”–a definition it came back to again and again. I’m not adverse to that definition; the trouble is that the program offered no context or explanation for it. (To quote Rod: “What does that really mean?”) Buddhism was presented as just love and light. Among many other problems, this doesn’t help viewers understand the significant differences between the examined Burmese and Tibetan Buddhisms, or how exactly religion is or is not involved with political activity by avowed Buddhists in Burma and Tibet. Other reductionist Western projections were also taken as solid starting points: Buddhism and politics is a rich subject, but many questions and comments started from the erroneous position that “Buddhist monks aren’t normally involved in politics.” On the one hand, host Christiane Amanpour was usually very good about starting questions with statements like, “In the West, we think…” or “The world doesn’t typically hear about Buddhists doing XYZ…” On the other hand, though, widespread and very superficial ideas about Buddhism and Buddhists were left largely intact and unchallenged. In “Buddha’s Warriors”, a Buddhist is seen as little more than someone who wears a colorful robe, smiles a lot, and is generally very nice. Many Buddhists fit this bill, of course, but there’s also a lot more to them than gets presented.

Still, I’m not completely down on the program. For the well-informed viewer, there are definitely rewards. Firstly, the production captures some fascinating images: my favorites include a monastic debate over the parameters of nonviolent speech at an activist training in Dharamsala, the Nechung State Oracle advising that the Tibetan movement should remain nonviolent, and a special mini-performance by Burmese street comedians The Moustache Brothers. Amanpour has also taken an awful lot of news and formed it all into two cohesive narratives. While the show will not be very useful to someone who wants to know more about Buddhism in Burma and Tibet, this is an excellent primer to the last year of major events in both spots. I also think the program is very fair to both sides of the Tibetan rights movement (namely, those who adhere to His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s “Middle Way” approach to autonomy, and those who will settle for nothing less than complete independence from China): both camps get lots of air time and thoughtful reflection.

Chief among the virtues of “Buddha’s Warriors”, though, is Amanpour’s interview with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The meeting yields compelling and often impassioned responses from His Holiness. Though I was already sympathetic to his position on China, I found that he made a particularly eloquent case for the “Middle Way” approach in his conversations with Amanpour. In one particularly striking moment, he pointed out to her that Tibetans who want to fight back with violent means have not offered a clear plan for how this would work. How could weapons be smuggled into Tibet? How would victory be possible when Tibetans are so grossly outnumbered by Chinese, even in their own land?

Of course, His Holiness fits into the positive stereotyping that “Buddha’s Warriors” traffics in: he is certainly a kindly monk who preaches nonviolence. It would be unfair, though, I think, to say that his reason for advocating a nonviolent approach to China is based solely on his concern for what you might call the soteriological well-being of his Buddhist people. I’m sure he is concerned about the salvation of the Tibetan people–he is both the political and the spiritual head of the country, after all–but there’s more to the “Middle Way” approach than just that.

His Holiness has modified his position in the last twenty-five years. It has always been a measured and nonviolent position, but early on he said that nothing less than complete independence–including control of the Tibetan economy and environmental resources, but excluding defense and foreign affairs–would be acceptable. He has since revised his initiative to autonomy. He’s even on the record in 2003, saying, “We accept Tibet as part of the People’s Republic of China.” And earlier this year, he reiterated this in a press release, saying, “For the future of Tibet, I have decided to find a solution within the framework of the People’s Republic of China.” He knows that the realistic goal here is for what Thubten Samphel, the Tibetan Government-in-Exile’s spokesman, refers to as “genuine spiritual and cultural autonomy, and a degree of political space.”

Though His Holiness’ current stand is often derided by independence-seeking Tibetans and others as too conciliatory or otherwise ineffectual, he strikes me as a very pragmatic politician. There are probably a lot of reasons he has chosen to adopt the position he has, but I see three specific ones that demonstrate why the nonviolent, “Middle Way” approach is, practically-speaking, the best option right now:

  1. To quote Salil Tripathi, nonviolence “gives the Tibetan movement its moral appeal.” Much of the sympathy shown by the rest of the world to the Tibet movement is the result of the example of nonviolence set by His Holiness and emulated by his fellow Tibetans. His Holiness knows this. And if the Tibetans have to settle on cultural preservation in exile, they will need the attention and support of the rest of the world.
  2. As Tripathi also says, “there is no reason to believe that a violent uprising [in Tibet] will succeed.” As mentioned above, the Tibetans are grossly outnumbered and have limited resources for armed combat. Also, as we have seen with the furor leading up to the Beijing Olympics, China has an appalling human rights record, particularly in Tibet. An insurrection would give the Chinese government incentive to crack down with a vengeance. There is no way Tibetans would win a violent conflict against the largest army in the world–period. It would result only in further loss of life and culture, and His Holiness knows that.
  3. Tibet is too materially precious to the Chinese for them to think about sharing or leaving. They will hang on to it tenaciously, and can (see above). China needs Tibet for repopulation and expansion. The land itself is also resource-rich. While the Dalai Lama is concerned about both environmental protection in the region and the material prosperity of Tibetans, the Chinese will never concede control of resources that include valuable mineral deposits, and he knows that. The best hope for Tibetans to benefit from their land and resources is to remain part of China.

All of that said, the situation is still very unsatisfying. I think Tibet is a sovereign nation and that it should be free. I don’t think Tibetans should have to beg for scraps of their home. But I believe in their leader and his nonviolent approach. I think it’s saving lives–Tibetan and Chinese lives. I really and truly believe he has everyone’s best interests at heart.

Furthermore, I find his level of honesty about his own actions and the history of his country to be unusual for a politician with his level of responsibility. Indeed, it’s kind of incredible. He’s unafraid of bursting popular stereotypes about his country and his people by talking openly and honestly about things like Tibet’s history with the CIA or the divide right now over the “Middle Way” approach. When he says things that are not well received (like his views on homosexuality), he’s willing to talk about it and hear other perspectives. And his progressivism is really quite astonishing. To quote Robert Thurman has said:

    It is a very remarkable thing that a world leader [is facing] severe repression–even genocidal repression–and yet he is not preaching terrorism or violence. This is an amazing example to the world, and really people should listen to him.
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1 Comment so far

  1. Anonymous

    Let’s make one thing perfectly clear. This has been going on in Tibet for decades. Why hasn’t CNN done a piece like this before? …it’s because there was no political outcry before at the level it is now, and God forbid, CNN or any other network offend American Big Business interests there. Now that it is fashionable to attack China (much warrented), CNN comes to the rescue…at the 11th hour…when the waters are safe to do so.

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