Thursday, May 12, 2011

Osama and the real Dalai Lama

By Peter Lee

LOS ANGELES - In reporting on remarks of the Dalai Lama during his visit to the University of California in Los Angeles on May 3, the LA Times ignited something of a media firestorm.

Under the headline, "Dalai Lama suggests Osama bin Laden's death was justified", Mitchell Landsberg wrote:
[I]n an appearance Tuesday at USC, [the Dalai Lama] appeared to suggest that the United States was justified in killing Osama bin Laden.

As a human being, Bin Laden may have deserved compassion and even forgiveness, the Dalai Lama said in answer to a question about the assassination of the al-Qaeda leader. But, he said, "Forgiveness doesn't mean forget what happened ... If something is serious and it is necessary to take
counter-measures, you have to take counter-measures." [1]
That started the ball rolling:
NPR: A Symbol Of Compassion, Dalai Lama Hints Bin Laden's Killing Was Justified. [2]

Stephen Jenkins at the Guardian: It's not so strange for a Buddhist to endorse killing; the Dalai Lama's attitude to Bin Laden's death should not be too surprising - Buddhism is not as pacifist as the West fantasizes [3]

AFP: Dalai Lama 'says bin Laden killing justified' [4]
Jeffrey Goldberg at the Atlantic: Dalai Lama Suggests Approval for Bin Laden Killing. [5]

Michael Crowley at Time: Clearly, the precise legalities involved in killing bin Laden are murky ... But unless you are opposed to capital punishment in the absolute, or believe that we are compelled to put on trial any terrorist we are able to capture, the morality is less complicated. Heck, even the Dalai Lama isn't bothered. [6]

Jay Leno's monologue: This is my favorite thing; in an address at USC the other day, the Dalai Lama seemed to suggest that killing Bin Laden was okay. That's when you know you're a bad guy, when the Dalai Lama's going, "I didn't see nothing." [7]
Actually, the real story was less-than-stellar reportage.

Landsberg did get one thing right:
The audience, which included some 3,000 USC students, responded to his message respectfully, even adoringly. Afterward, however, some complained that they had trouble understanding him; the Dalai Lama often speaks about thorny concepts in accented English, sometimes relying on a translator to fill in gaps.
Include Landsberg as one of the audience with an understanding problem. I know, because I was there.

During the question and answer following his remarks at the Galen Center, the Dalai Lama responded to an submitted question as to whether "ensuring justice was more important than being compassionate" in the case of the death of Osama bin Laden. Specifically, was it OK to celebrate his death because, in the official US formulation, he had been "brought to justice"?

This was not a particularly difficult question for the Dalai Lama, and he responded:
Now here must make distinction between actor and action. His actions of course destructive ... they must bring him into justice way. But actor - as human being, as human brother, we must show compassion, sense of concern for his well-being.
In other words, something along the lines of "love the sinner but hate the sin".

The "justice way", in this context, looks like the working of the criminal justice system in dealing with Bin Laden's actions, not some kind of morally endorsed retribution on Bin Laden's person.

Once the "justice way" formalities were out of the way, the Dalai Lama was definitely not suggesting that shooting Bin Laden in the head was a suitable exercise of compassion.

The Dalai Lama continued on in this vein for a couple minutes, saying:
The basis of forgiveness does not mean forget what happened ... but because of that action, keep ill-feeling toward that person, wrong.
So, celebrating Bin Laden's death, definitely wrong.

Things then got somewhat more ambiguous, at least for some listeners.

The Dalai Lama moved on from the actor to his or her actions, to clarify that compassion for Bin Laden didn't mean doing nothing about his destructive actions:
So towards action - destructive action - we must take appropriate action to stop that...if something serious and necessary to take counter-measures, you have to take countermeasures.
It was clear that the Dalai Lama considers flying airplanes into buildings filled with thousands of people as the kind of "destructive actions" that should be stopped with "counter-measures" if possible. Presumably, if Bin Laden had taken up a weapon and the SEALS had shot him in self-defense and in a "more in sorrow than in anger" kind of way, the Dalai Lama would also have approved.

However, it can be stated with a high degree of confidence that the Dalai Lama did not consider the killing of Bin Laden to be "justified" - ie deserved and appropriate punishment for his crimes.
In fact, the Dalai Lama addressed the Bin Laden issue in 2006. In an interview in Dharamsala, India - home to his exiled Tibetan government, he told the Alice Thomson of the UK's Daily Telegraph that terrorists must be treated humanely:
"Otherwise, the problem will escalate. If there is one Bin Laden killed today, soon there will be 10 Bin Ladens. Awesome. Ten Bin Ladens killed, the hatred is spread; 100 bombed, and 1,000 lose members of their families." [8]
After the kerfuffle, the Tibetan government in exile issued a flash news item summarizing the Dalai Lama's remarks. Concerning the Bin Laden question, it stated:
The first question was on His Holiness' emphasis on compassion as a basis of ethics. It asked whether in some situation ensuring justice is more important than being compassionate to the perpetrator of a crime. It referred to the news of the death of Osama Bin Laden and the celebrations of it by some, and asked where compassion fit in with this and ethics. In his response, His Holiness emphasized the need to find a distinction between the action and the actor.

He said in the case of Bin Laden, his action was of course destructive and the September 11 events killed thousands of people. So his action must be brought to justice, His Holiness said. But with the actor we must have compassion and a sense of concern, he added. His Holiness said therefore the counter measure, no matter what form it takes, has to be compassionate action. His Holiness referred to the basis of the practice of forgiveness saying that it, however, did not mean that one should forget what has been done. [9]
Not good enough for the Margherita Stancati of the Wall Street Journal's Chinarealtime blog, who sniffed:
The question explicitly referred to Osama bin Laden, who was killed Sunday night during a US raid in Pakistan's town of Abbottabad.

This placed the Dalai Lama - a man who famously frowns at the idea of killing mosquitoes - in the position of either having to compromise his unflinching commitment to non-violence or publicly declaring his compassion for the world's most wanted terrorist. In a poorly-orchestrated PR move, he managed to do both. [10]
Actually, the Dalai Lama made a point of stating he squashed an occasional mosquito as a way of saying that human forbearance has its limits, even for living Buddhas. Violence is an inevitable element of human existence; the goal is to understand its roots, appreciate its karmic costs, and take measures to reduce it.

Depending on one's degree of pessimism, one can either view the affair as evidence of further decline in standards of stenography and reportage, America's alarming need for enthusiastic, universal validation of its killing of Bin Laden, or a demonstration of the admirable efficiency of the world's press in exploiting the Dalai Lama's global popularity to create a faux controversy and fill a news hole.

Fortunately, the University of Southern California has now posted the Youtube video of the Dalai Lama's remarks, so interested viewers can judge for themselves.

The Bin Laden question appears at around the 45:00 mark. [11]

1. Dalai Lama suggests Osama bin Laden's death was justified, LA Times, May 4, 2011.
2. A Symbol Of Compassion, Dalai Lama Hints Bin Laden's Killing Was Justified, NPR, May 4, 2011.
3. It's not so strange for a Buddhist to endorse killing, Guardian, May 11, 2011.
4. Dalai Lama 'says bin Laden killing justified', AFP, May 4, 2011.
5. Dalai Lama Suggests Approval for Bin Laden Killing; Human Rights Watch Condemns, The Atlantic, May 4, 2011.
6. Why Was Bin Laden Shot?, Time, May 4, 2011.
7. Steven Tyler interview on Leno, M&C, May 7, 2011.
8. 'Westerners are too self-absorbed', Telegraph, Apr 1, 2011.
9. His Holiness Talks About Secular Ethics and Human Development at University of Southern California, Central Tibetan Administration (in exile), May 4, 2011.
10. Dalai Lama in bin Laden Quandary, Wall Street Journal, May 5, 2011.
11. Secular Ethics, Human Values and Society: The Dalai Lama at the USC Galen Center, YouTube, May 5, 2011.

Peter Lee writes on East and South Asian affairs and their intersection with US foreign policy.