The Tibetan People Love the Dalai Lama…But Not That Much

The ageing 14th Dalai Lama’s popularity is waning, internationally and within his own community.

The opinion piece below was sent to for publication. We accept submissions from the public, please send in your articles to [email protected].


By: Shashi Kei

In Tibetan folklore, Chenrezig the Buddha of Compassion (Skt.: Avalokiteshvara), is regarded as the main progenitor of the Tibetan people. Naturally, that places the deity, Chenrezig, in a very special position in the Tibetan psyche. And so, when the Dalai Lamas were presented to the Tibetan people to be earthly manifestations of Chenrezig, they instantly commanded unparalleled reverence. It was considered ungodly and a serious spiritual violation not to live in complete worship of the Dalai Lama. It was also treasonous not to comply fully with his proclamations, official or unofficial, which were taken to be the highest laws governing the lives of the Tibetan people.

Of all the Dalai Lamas, the 14th is considered to be one of the greatest, if not the greatest. Jetsun Jamphel Ngawang Lobsang Yeshe Tenzin Gyatso (which means ‘Holy Lord, Gentle Glory, Supreme Compassion, Defender of the Faith, Ocean of Wisdom’) assumed complete control over the Tibetan nation in November 1950. For the last 60 years the 14th Dalai Lama has been the singular embodiment of the Tibetan people’s presence in the world. He is a living representation of the Tibetan people’s culture, language, customs, and religion. In exile, the Dalai Lama has been the most significant emblem of the people’s hope for freedom and indeed the very pulse and breath of all things Tibetan.

Reverence for the Dalai Lama was not an exclusively Tibetan affair. The Dalai Lama commanded the world stage after he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, becoming the global symbol for peace and love. That fame and rising popularity meant that the Tibetan leader also became useful to Western nations, in their efforts to curb China’s rise to power.

Sadly there are clear signs that the preeminence of the 14th Dalai Lama has outlived its day.

China’s importance to global trade and individual economies of nations mean that ultimately, the world’s governments are better off fostering good relations with China. After all as William Clay, an American politician observed, in politics there are no permanent enemies and no permanent friends, only permanent interests. As China’s economic rise commanded interest, it is not surprising that the Dalai Lama’s position on the world stage has diminished. In recent years meeting with the Dalai Lama has become the kiss of death insofar as maintaining good relations with China is concerned.

But it is the Dalai Lama’s declining esteem amongst his own people, the Tibetans, that is most indicative of his waning appeal. On the face of it, the Tibetan people’s adoration of the Dalai Lama has not lost any of its shine. However, a recent incident tells a different story.

Fake statement purportedly issued by the Dalai Lama’s Office. Click to enlarge.

This incident refers to a September 22, 2020 statement, purportedly made by the Dalai Lama on his letterhead and bearing his official seal. In brief it directed the Tibetan people to support a Sikyong candidate in the upcoming Central Tibetan Administration’s (CTA) elections, who is aligned with the agenda of the current President (Sikyong), Lobsang Sangay.

The Office of the Dalai Lama promptly declared the statement to be fake. Interestingly, this is not the first time the Office of the Dalai Lama has had to dispel fake statements supposedly made by the Dalai Lama. Earlier in March 2020, the Dalai Lama’s Office dismissed a social media post allegedly made by the spiritual leader, claiming to have an effective treatment for COVID-19. The ‘treatment’ being to recite a certain mantra and drinking black tea. It is mockery of the Dalai Lama, of course.

The September fake statement which went viral on social media had a clear objective — to use the Dalai Lama as leverage for certain parties to gain an upper hand in Tibetan politics. What is surprising is the brazenness with which the Dalai Lama’s name was used, which signals that the institution of the Dalai Lama is no longer held sacred as before. Instead, it has become fair game to be deployed as a tool in statecraft and political machinations.

This situation would have been unheard of in the recent past. By spiritual tradition, the Tibetans believe the mere utterance of a high lama’s name to be an act of deification. It would have been unacceptable to even consider using Chenrezig’s emanation in this mundane manner.

As unfortunate as the situation may seem, the Tibetan leadership, and in fact, the Dalai Lama himself, have played significant contributory roles in the disintegration of his stature.

Shanty towns in India that the Tibetans call home. There has been negligible meaningful support given by the CTA to the Tibetans in exile to build a proper future.

To begin with, the architect(s) of the fake letter worked on the presumption that such a ploy might actually work, that the Tibetan people might actually believe that the Dalai Lama would instruct them to forego their democratic right to choose a candidate they trust in, and instead do as they are told.

There is in fact, basis for such presumption because the Dalai Lama has habitually involved himself in both domestic and worldly political affairs, despite declaring that he had relinquished all secular powers and ‘retired’ from politics in 2011. History has recorded occasions when the Dalai Lama overtly flouted the Tibetan Constitution which he himself promulgated, when it suited his agenda. In addition, at various points throughout the Tibetan people’s 60 years in exile, the Dalai Lama who belongs to the Gelug school, has not been shy to exert himself on the spiritual affairs of the other Tibetan Buddhist schools where he has no authority, apart from being the most famous Tibetan monk. The Dalai Lama has also been known to have bullied (even to the extent of imprisoning) religious leaders of other Tibetan schools only to release them after they have bowed to his will. He has even gone on record to instruct the Tibetan people to regard followers of a certain religion to be enemies of the state.

In other words, it would not be out of character for the Dalai Lama to seek to influence the outcome of a supposedly democratic election. It has become common knowledge that behind the media-savvy appearance of “a simple Buddhist monk” the 14th Dalai Lama is interventionist by character, highly divisive and extremely political.

However, being political does not on its own necessarily diminish one’s status in the eyes of the people. Both Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela were impassioned political agitators. Both had their fair share of critics and even enemies. Yet, both were able to command overwhelming devotion and the respect of their respective communities and the world populace.

The difference between Gandhi, Mandela and the Dalai Lama is that Gandhi and Mandela delivered on their promises to the people whereas the Dalai Lama failed. Gandhi and Mandela were able to demonstrate their care and devotion for the people who formed their power bases. And again, this is where the Dalai Lama and his government failed. This failure can in large part be attributed to the Tibetan government-in-exile’s ineptitude and self-serving culture.

Generations of Tibetans have aged and passed on while waiting for the Dalai Lama’s government to deliver on their countless promises.

From its formation, the Tibetan government-in-exile enjoyed global moral and political support. Untold millions of financial aid poured in as the world rallied to its cause. This went on for decades but the Dalai Lama’s government squandered it all away. It wasted countless opportunities to engage China in meaningful dialogue and watched as a weak China pulled herself out of a disastrous post-Mao era to become an economic juggernaut. It is also unknown where all the money that poured in under various vague auspices of ‘Tibetan aid’ actually ended up.

The Tibetan leadership’s lackadaisical attitude towards the Tibetan people can be seen in the way they have casually reneged on their many promises to return them to the homeland. It is a given that the CTA is up against a very powerful nemesis. But the unkindest blow to the Tibetan people was not inflicted by their common enemy but by their own government. And that blow was to neglect to provide for those who followed their beloved god-king into exile, despite having received hundreds of millions of dollars over the decades.

From 1959 up until 2008, waves of Tibetans made their way out of the Tibetan plateau to be with the Dalai Lama. These Tibetans lived predominantly in squalid settlement camps believing that the Dalai Lama would soon return them as rightful citizens of Tibet. At its peak, it is estimated that up to 128,000 Tibetans readily gave up their homes in Tibet choosing instead to be near the Dalai Lama. However, it soon became obvious that not only was the Tibetan Cause a pipe dream but the Tibetan leadership had not even planned adequately to provide for those who had followed the Dalai Lama into statelessness.

Dhardhon Sharling, the ex-Head of the CTA’s Department of Information and International Relations, who abandoned the Tibetan Cause, choosing instead to move to the United States to start a new life.

Today, while the CTA claims that over 150,000 Tibetans remain with the Dalai Lama in exile, the reality is, only an estimate of 85,000 still live in various Tibetan settlements in India. Most remain there because they are trapped in a state of flux, neither equipped by the Tibetan leadership to build a proper future in exile, nor able to secure the necessary papers to travel abroad to greener pastures.

The successful Tibetans in the diaspora are those from the aristocratic stock who were somehow able to move their wealth out of Tibet. Otherwise they are the Tibetans who were wise enough to realize that they could not depend on their government, and left the settlements to seek citizenship and a new life in other parts of the world. A number have even opted to return to the Tibet Autonomous Region under China’s governance.

Simply put, the Dalai Lama’s government-in-exile failed its people miserably. As a result, loyalty to the Tibetan Cause is no longer deemed by the Tibetan people to be acceptable currency to get by with. Nor are the CTA’s ongoing promises acceptable as collateral. And as we have seen, neither is adoration of the Dalai Lama suitable prize for the Tibetan people to stake their livelihood and future against.

The Tibetan leaders assumed that centuries of serfdom would have imbued the Tibetan psyche sufficiently to enable them to command endless servitude. It did for a long time until the Tibetan people saw and experienced for themselves what it meant to live as free people. They realized very quickly once they were exposed to the world, that they could sooner achieve this freedom without the traditional shackles and without having to subject themselves to the archaic ways of the Tibetan leadership.

The Tibetan people pay lip service to the struggle for freedom but most have abandoned the cause in reality, relegating the sentiment to an annual show of patriotism, whilst moving on with their new lives overseas.

For all intents and purposes, the Tibetan cause is past its ‘use by’ date. Today, which Tibetan in his or her right mind would give up a free, stable, prosperous and self-sufficient life in Canada, or Australia, or Switzerland or France, or the United States to return to Tibet with the Dalai Lama, assuming the Tibetan leadership somehow regains the country? Which Tibetan parent would yank their third-generation-in-exile children from good education and a promising future and repatriate them to what is essentially a foreign country in the Himalayan plateau? Which parent would deny their children freedom under real democratic governments, choosing instead to subject them to life under an ageing theocrat, supported by a corrupt and inept ‘government’ that has proven incapable of providing for 68,000 people?

Today as the world grapples with the devastating COVID-19 pandemic, and refugee crises triggered by conflicts in Syria, South Sudan, Afghanistan, Myanmar and Somalia dominate headlines, and nations of the world enter a period of great uncertainty, the Tibetan Cause has become irrelevant. Similarly the Dalai Lama is fast losing relevance even to the Tibetan people.

What dominates the Tibetan-in-exile landscape today is internal politics and bickering, corruption and scandals. No official of the CTA seems to sincerely believe in the possibility of regaining the country. And hence there have been no concerted efforts to re-engage China in dialogue. China’s reluctance to come to the table has provided a convenient alibi for the Tibetan politicians to do absolutely nothing.

But the business of running a government-in-exile is still a lucrative one. It is the only ‘government’ in the world that enjoys a constant stream of income from donations, grants and subsidies from the West, without having to produce anything apart from rhetoric and being a thorn in China’s side. It is a ‘government’ that is not required to establish a vibrant economy, provide public service, build infrastructure, protect its borders, maintain law and order, or administer a platform for its people to thrive on. It is the only ‘government’ that has zero accountability to its people, and the only ‘government’ that has willingly commodified its god-king, the Dalai Lama. Nothing spells the commodification of the Dalai Lama more than the fake statement. And so, the Tibetan leadership is ultimately their own worst enemy.


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.…Instead of turning away people who practise Dorje Shugden, we should be kind to them. Give them logic and wisdom without fear, then in time they give up the ‘wrong’ practice. Actually Shugden practitioners are not doing anything wrong. But hypothetically, if they are, wouldn’t it be more Buddhistic to be accepting? So those who have views against Dorje Shugden should contemplate this. Those practicing Dorje Shugden should forbear with extreme patience, fortitude and keep your commitments. The time will come as predicted that Dorje Shugden’s practice and it’s terrific quick benefits will be embraced by the world and it will be a practice of many beings.

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