(The guardian): The Chinese occupation of Tibet has been the most successful colonisation in the last 60 years. At a time when the old empires were everywhere in retreat, the Chinese army seized Tibet and held it. The occupiers are confident of their manifest destiny there. They are filling the country with Han immigrants. Tragically and horribly, some Tibetans have set themselves on fire in protest over the past year since all other forms of rebellion have been crushed. Even the government in exile now calls only for “autonomy”, not independence, and they are most unlikely to be granted even that much. Yet for all that, it would be wrong to think that the Dalai Lama has failed.
He is a politician with no army and no country behind him; a religious leader who cannot visit his own shrines, and whose colleagues are chosen by his enemies. Much of what he believes and teaches is absurd to modern ears. But he is still a world figure: a man who stands for nonviolence and the disinterested pursuit of truth in a way that no other religious leader manages to do. In part this is because of his exoticism. Tibetan Buddhism has scandals, superstitions and power struggles like any other religion, but these are largely invisible to its western admirers, who see it as free of the familiar baggage of Christianity or Islam.
The Dalai Lama himself has managed the very difficult transition of Tibetan exile politics from a theocracy towards something very much like a proper democracy. He was reborn into a system where his legitimacy was based entirely on his “discovery” as a child and the status that this conferred in the religious system. Over the last 50 years he has patiently transformed it into a legitimacy based on the democratic aspirations of his people. This is almost unique among world religious leaders, and we might well wish that more of them would follow his example.
Dealt a poor hand, he has played it with extraordinary skill to keep alive the hopes of his exiled nation and keep it in front of the world’s troubled consciences. Following the advice of another human regarded as a living god, he has been as cunning as a serpent and as peaceful as a dove.
In the process, he has established that Tibet is no longer merely a country, still less a region of China. It now seems more like a nation. The difference is that a country can be annihilated in a single battle or written out of existence in an afternoon at a conference table. Nations are very much harder to extinguish.
Even if his successor is chosen by the Chinese, the 14th Dalai Lama may have left as his legacy a nation that has no need of a 15th. That’s real progress in religion, for which he deserves to be honoured in St Paul’s Cathedral this afternoon.
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