After delivering a lecture on “secular ethics” at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles just days after the U.S. raid on Abbottabad, the Dalai Lama was asked of his thoughts about the killing of Osama bin Laden. A headline in the Los Angeles Times claimed the great spiritual leader in exile thought bin Laden’s death “was justified,” quoting the Dalai Lama: “If something is serious and it is necessary to take counter-measures, you have to take counter-measures.”
But the Dalai Lama’s camp responded almost immediately, claiming this was not at all the gist of his remarks, emphasizing his appeal for us to distinguish between “the action” and “the actor” and stressing that, as a fellow human being, even bin Laden deserves our compassion and forgiveness. But, he stressed, “forgiveness doesn’t mean forget [sic] what happened.”
It’s a footnote to the aftermath of bin Laden’s death, which was met by raucous scenes throughout American cities. As that visceral euphoria faded, it’s fair to say that now’s more the time for sober inquiry and reflection.
But what of the Dalai Lama? His trip to the U.S. was his first since officially stepping down as the political leader of the Tibetan movement in exile — it was a move many see as a sad resignation. For decades, he has tried to push for greater autonomy in Tibet, the homeland now under tight Chinese control to which he and hundreds of thousands of other Tibetans will likely never return. His quiet, pacifist approach seems in keeping with the sentiments he invoked when talking about bin Laden — moderated by spirituality and that admirable sympathy for all mankind that has won the Dalai Lama so much respect around the world. But it has done little to help his movement’s cause. The Chinese government has long heaped scorn and insults on the Dalai Lama, labeling him, among other things, “a wolf in monk’s robes.” The acclaimed travel writer Colin Thurbon sums up the aging exile’s plight in his latest book, To a Mountain in Tibet:
His apostleship of peace has brought his country a refracted holiness, but no Chinese concession. The West fetes and wonders at him. As for China, his distrust of material institutions, even of his own office, renders him all but incomprehensible.
You may find it difficult to feel compassion for bin Laden, but as this venerable holy man gradually fades into the twilight, one must feel no small bit of sympathy for him.