A politically retired Dalai Lama

Journalists often agonize over a lead/lede, looking for something snappy and attention-grabbing to get people into the story. Sometimes, though, bloggers/aggregators get a bit too cute trying to add a little quip to the intro of a story. Take this example from Slatest’s summary of the Dalai Lama’s recent announcement:

Col. Muammar Qaddafi could learn a thing or two from the Dalai Lama. The leader of Tibetans in exile announced Thursday that he’s giving up his political role.

You could read the first sentence a few different ways, but the two leaders can hardly be compared. Is it too much to ask for a summary to skip the snark?

On the other hand, several outlets did a nice job covering the move; as many of them suggested, the announcement was fairly expected. The Guardian provided some helpful coverage, weaving in history and future with an appropriate description of the Dalai Lama’s role and expectations.

Next week the Tibetan community in exile will vote to elect a new Kalon Tripa, or prime minister, who will, depending on the constitutional changes, take on the Dalai Lama’s political functions.

The Dalai Lama, who is revered by his followers as the 14th reincarnation of the Buddha Avalokiteshvara who achieved spiritual enlightenment, said many of his supporters had asked him not to take the step.

…The question of the spiritual succession is highly controversial and has the potential to spark serious fractures within the Tibetan community. Chinese authorities are likely to exploit any opportunities offered by the transition of power.

The reporter skillfully slipped in an inclusion of the Dalai Lama’s religious role, which can hardly be ignored. A piece from Simon Denyer of the Washington Post also helpfully explained the responsibilities the Dalai Lama held what the future could hold.

The Dalai Lama has been gradually delegating some political responsibility for at least a decade. But he still approves parliamentary legislation and executive appointments for the small government-in-exile, which runs health, education and employment programs for an estimated 100,000 refugees in India.

He has long argued for a “middle way” in negotiations with China, calling for autonomy rather than outright independence. Beijing calls him a “splittist” who is secretly seeking to separate Tibet from China, and years of talks with his representatives have gone nowhere. Beijing considers Tibet an integral part of China and says that Chinese troops, who entered Tibet in 1949, were liberating it from feudal rule.

Many Tibetans and supporters of the exile movement are worried about what will happen when the Dalai Lama dies. They are concerned that without him as their leader, the movement will lose international support. They also fear that China will appoint its own candidate as the Dalai Lama’s next reincarnation.

The story touches on the dicey situation with China, explaining why the leader’s transition (and eventual death) could make things a bit rocky for the region. The New York Times also takes the past v. future approach:

From his perch in Dharamsala, the Dalai Lama has spent the past five decades building the Tibetan movement into a global force, even as Chinese leaders have stymied his desire to reach a political solution that would allow him to return to Tibet.

His speech also coincided with the anniversary of the March 2008 uprisings that erupted across the Tibetan plateau in China after the suppression of a peaceful protest by monks in Lhasa. Riots and protests quickly rippled across Tibetan regions of China before being put down by a brutal security operation. This week, the Chinese government remained on edge over potential volatility in Tibetan areas and temporarily banned foreigners from traveling to the region.

The political future of the Tibetan movement, and who will lead it, hinges on the unresolved question of who will succeed the 14th Dalai Lama.

The uncertainty has created an unusual high-stakes jousting match between the Dalai Lama and Chinese leaders. The Dalai Lama has suggested that he might choose his successor before he dies, deviating from the practice of senior lamas’ identifying each Dalai Lama’s reincarnation after his death. In response, Chinese leaders, who are officially atheist, have claimed the authority to choose his reincarnation.

Many of these stories helpfully explained the past, present and future implications of the Dalai Lama’s leadership. Unfortunately, The Christian Science Monitor led with a somewhat confusing headline: “Dalai Lama set to resign. What role will he play then?” Cathy Lynn Grossman’s blog post at USA Today counters that idea with the headline “Dalai Lama: No resigning as Buddhist spiritual leader.” The questions she lists for her readers could apply to reporters if they cover the election next week.

THINK ABOUT IT: Will Americans who like the underdog cause of the day drift away from the Tibetan political cause without the charismatic Dalai Lama? Will the popularity of Buddhism in America be affected by this change in his status?

We often see religion covered only if there are political implications, so it will be interesting to see if the media’s coverage of the Dalai Lama decreases without his formal political role.

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  • Jerry

    The Dalai Lama is probably the only religious leader who’s political office is not significant to the majority of Americans, so I don’t think that giving up his formal political role will have any affect on the media coverage.

  • joye

    Hey, it could be worse. They could have used Charlie Sheen as the comparison figure.

    The sad thing it honestly would not surprise me if a news aggregator attempting to be “edgy” and “relevant” did that.

  • J

    The Dalai Lama’s political role may not be a big deal to Americans, but his predeceasors have had a political role in Tibet since the 1600s. The Dalai Lama is departing from tradition in a huge way with the separation of the roles. That isn’t a judgment on whether it is legitimate, just a statement of fact.

    Because the Dalai Lama had a political role for so long, inevitably China became involved in the selection process. Arguments persist over whether China claimed sovereignty over Tibet or the relations were as two separate states during the Qing Dynasty. In any event, there is no question that Chinese emperors had a role in the approval of the Dalai Lamas for quite some time. The last two Dalai Lamas were chosen without any Chinese role-the Tibetans say that is because they were a sovereign nation. Now, there is no dispute that Tibet is part of China. The Dalai Lama says he just wants autonomy within China; the Chinese say he is a separatist.

    The point: it is extremely difficult to separate the Dalai Lama from political controversy, even if he resigns his political role. I think he will continue to be news.

  • AStev

    I don’t think most Americans even knew the Dalai Lama was the prime minister of Tibet (at least I certainly didnt). I dont expect his news coverage to decrease, any more than interest in the Pope decreased when the Papal States were dissolved.

  • Tristan

    my favorite dalia lama quote, is that if you lose, don’t lose the lesson… here is a funny joke I saw about the Dalai Lama retiring, http://ponderingstuff.com/2011/03/19/dalai-lama-retires-groupon/