Humanity, Not Nationalism
"I think we do have something to offer humanity." Of all history's nationalist leaders, the Dalai Lama is by far the most modest. Yet by the end of his presentation at Brandeis University Saturday, few among the 8,000-strong audience would have had any doubt that the preservation of Tibetan culture would represent a remarkable contribution to humanity.
The average American would have an easier time locating Tibet on a liberal's bumper than on a world map. So would an intellectual, for that matter, since Tibet hasn't been on the map since 1959. The growing "Free Tibet" movement strikes the average Joe as a hippie phenomenon - the product of Lollapalooza and pot-smoking yuppie kids. That's how it struck me too. Beyond wishing for the preservation of human rights, why should Americans care about a country the United States has few historic ties with, positive or negative?
After hearing the Dalai Lama speak, however, it is now clear to me that his philosophy - if not the movement itself - represents a liberationist vision on a Gandhian scale. The Dalai Lama is rapidly demonstrating that his style of charismatic yet non-violent leadership will ultimately take its place next to the visions of Desmond Tutu, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Gandhi himself.
The most depressing thing about the world's nationalist movements is their seemingly innate prejudice: We see Croatians demanding freedom from the Serbs not because they value human rights, but because they value human rights for people of their own kind. When the tables are turned they prove themselves perfectly willing to commit the same wanton brutalities perpetrated against them. Ultimately the struggles of the Middle East, the Balkans, and the Great Lakes peoples of Africa have demonstrated more than anything the base and ghoulish forms sometimes taken by the human spirit.
But the Dalai Lama is more than just an advocate of non-violence because he wants more than just a righteous preservation of human rights. His is not a struggle for power, or even for people, but for spirit - and not just the spirit of Tibet, but the spirit of the world.
Indeed, the Dalai Lama devoted less than a third of his Brandeis speech to Tibet. The bulk was devoted to what he called "strategy." In his clipped, heavily-accented speech, the Dalai Lama delivered something more like a sermon than a political talk. The topic was personal responsibility and human happiness. How to obtain happiness? "Long-term strategy: compassion." Through individual acts of compassion toward others, each of us creates inner peace and reduces both interpersonal and psychological conflict.
Almost as important for the Dalai Lama is abolishing anger, the "short-term strategy." Anger is not so important for its effects as for its cause: disrespect for self. While anger may appear to be directed towards others, it ultimately strikes down joy among its bearers.
These are good ideas, to be sure. What is striking is that this is not a sermon. The subtext is that if enough individuals near and far are at peace with themselves and with one another, Tibet will be freed. Contrast this message with that of so many other nationalists who have called for action by other nations to free their peoples by economic, diplomatic, or military pressure. The Dalai Lama would have us free his people by individual action.
More inspiring by half, though, is the reason the Dalai Lama would have us work for a free Tibet. The reason is not that human rights have been violated, or that the freedom of all is the same as the freedom of one. The Dalai Lama's argument for a free Tibet is that our own culture - the culture of the world - can benefit from the preservation of Tibet's culture. What would it say about humanity if a people dedicated to compassion and the abolition of hatred were to disappear because of oppression and ignorance? If Tibet disappears, wither its philosophy of its inner peace?
Indeed, if any philosophy could represent humanity, I would want it to be this one.