Do you remember that uproarious Monty Python sketch where the Dalai Lama, played by John Cleese, sits cross-legged in saffron robes in a mountaintop cave and declares that he won't have an afterlife, throwing into an uproar the exhausted Chinese Communist Party functionaries who have hiked to the cave? The officials, played by the other Pythons dressed identically in Mao jackets and clutching little red books, demand that the Dalai Lama reincarnate, dammit, after he dies, but only on their terms.
"You have no say over whether you will be reincarnated!" splutters the official played by Michael Palin. "That is for our government to decide."
Don't remember the sketch? That's because there never was one.
But in an astonishing example of Life Imitating Python, or something, Chinese party leaders meeting this week in Beijing are in high dudgeon over the 14th Dalai Lama's recent speculation -- think of it as a cosmic cream pie aimed at the party's collective face -- that he might end his spiritual lineage as the most prominent leader of Tibetan Buddhism and not reincarnate. The party has repeatedly warned the 79-year-old holy man that he must play by its rules-- or else.
The Dalai Lama's obdurance would confound the Communist government's plans to rig a succession that would produce a putative 15th Dalai Lama who accepts China's deeply unpopular presence in Tibet, which it invaded without provocation in 1950. The Dalai Lama fled into exile nine years later and remains deeply revered in his restive homeland, which has never accepted -- and never will accept -- the communist yolk.
Beijing already has rigged a succession following the 1989 death of the 10th Panchen Lama, another senior figure in Tibetan Buddhism. The Dalai Lama confirmed a Tibetan boy as the next reincarnation in 1995, but the Chinese government hid away the boy and his parents and installed its own choice as the Panchen Lama, a fate that the Dalai Lama has indicated he does not want.
The idea of Communist Party officials defending the precepts of reincarnation and calling the Dalai Lama a heretic, to boot, is deeply comedic because the party is atheistic to its red core, but beyond the Python riffs and inevitable late night TV show witticisms, the standoff is deadly serious. Waves of protests and self-immolations in Tibet and abroad have repeatedly brought to the surface deep discontent with the Chinese gulagization, including its attempts to micro-manage Tibet's culture and control the Buddhist tradition. And Tibetans are sure to reject any future putative Dalai Lama picked by the Chinese government.
SORRY TO BURST YOUR BUBBLE, BUT . . .
If Americans were asked what foreign country they most admired but never visited, doubtless many would answer Shangri La. But since it was foreclosed in the subprime mortgage meltdown, the second choice probably would be Tibet. Indeed, the mountainous nation nicknamed "The Roof of the World" holds a special place in the popular imagination because of multiple gauzy Hollywood treatments and, of course, the Dalai Lama.
If you don't want to disturb your Richard Gere version of Tibet, move along please. But with Tibet back in the news because of the reincarnation brouhaha, it is worth remembering that Tibet's own history is riven with wars between competing Buddhist sects, sexual exploitation, usurious taxation, serfdom and other forms of economic enslavement that extended well into the last half of the 20th century; in other words, on the current Dalai Lama's watch.
This does not forgive the Chinese occupation, which has cost well over a million Tibetan lives, the jailing of millions more and destruction of most of the country's 3,000 monasteries, but does provide some perspective.
And let's face it, the Dalai Lama is who we want him to be: Head of state. Leader of the best known exile movement on earth. Prolific author. Metaphysician. Cross-cultural icon. Nobel Peace Prize recipient. Oh, and caricature, as well.
Veteran journalist-novelist Pico Iyer offers perspective aplenty in The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, a book that I would highly recommend.
The apothegems of the Dalai Lama that appear on buttons, bumper stickers and t-shirts make no more sense "than a single thread taken out of a Persian carpet, an intricate web, and pronounced to be beautiful," writes Iyer, and one of the Dalai Lama's longtime translators shouts to him that "It's nonsense! All these things you see ascribed to him, others are just making up!"
Indeed, one of the conundrums that the Dalai Lama faces on his world travels (he's in Australia at the moment) is that it is the magically esoteric side of Tibetan Buddhism that is the primary source of fascination for non-Tibetans who want to turn away from their own religions.
I've always been a worship at home guy, so the contradictions don't bother me, while I'm deeply admiring of the Dalai Lama for his stubborn pacifism. And Tibet has produced some ass-kicking incense as well as a commonsensical pharmacopeia, including a kidney-cleansing compound that may well have saved if not prolonged the life of one of our beloved dogs.
I do have to note that while the 14th Dalai Lama has been moving the world by example for almost half a century, he has not moved China and now Tibet is almost gone.
But as he has said, "Until the last moment, anything is possible."