The Dalai Lama on Osama, or CliffsNotes

We’ve seen a wave of reactions to Osama bin Laden’s death from various religious groups, with everything from jubilation to condemnation.

It’s natural for reporters to look for reaction from the Dalai Lama because of Buddhism’s pacifist tendencies, but the Los Angles Times does a disservice to its readers when it only partially quotes the religious leader.

As the leader of Tibetan Buddhism, the 14th Dalai Lama says he practices compassion to such an extent that he tries to avoid swatting mosquitoes “when my mood is good and there is no danger of malaria,” sometimes watching with interest as they swell with his blood.

Yet, in an appearance Tuesday at USC, he 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.”

If you’re like me, you’re expecting more explanation, more context, hopefully a full quote further down in the story. The story instead goes into the Dalai Lama’s health, the rest of his speech and students’ reactions.

Aides said he was forced to cancel appearances in Long Beach on Sunday and at UCLA on Monday because doctors had advised him not to attempt the long flight from Tokyo until he felt better. He had been in Japan offering condolences and support after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

He showed no ill effects when he took the stage at USC’s Galen Center on Tuesday morning. Appearing robust and in good humor, he told the audience that he had suffered first from a sore throat, then from side effects of medication that made him “very faint.”

“Today, I feel terrific,” he said before putting on a red and gold USC baseball cap that fortuitously matched the colors of his traditional robes.

I don’t know about you, but I would be fine without reading details about his throat–perhaps a mention at the end would be appropriate. It’s unclear why The Times devoted the entire headline and deck to the comments about Bin Laden when the reporter hardly explains what was said. For instance, what was the question? Also, sure the Dalai Lama might not want to swat a mosquito, but what has he said in the past about people like Bin Laden? Does this surprise other Buddhists?

Unfortunately, USC’s daily student newspaper doesn’t even mention the comments about bin Laden despite putting two reporters on the story. And the AP report summarizes the Times article.

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.

How do you measure “respectfully, even adoringly”? I don’t even know what that might look like? They were clapping? Smiling? What are “thorny concepts”? A lot of the reaction bits could be better spent on context for why the Dalai Lama’s comments might be newsworthy. Then the comments about forgiveness and and counter-measures might be more fully explained.

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  • J

    My immediate reaction was to Google “Hitler Dalai Lama.” Wow…a whole bunch of folks claiming the Dalai Lama is a Nazi. Basic theory is that the previous Dalai Lama had some contacts with Hitler, and the current DL had an SS tutor. And don’t forget that the Swastika came from Tibet!

    All of these have a grain of truth, but he’s not a Nazi. Seven Years in Tibet was about the tutor-he acknowledged his Nazi ties, called them the mistake of a youth, and his life was focused on mountaineering. The swastika, either left or right, is a common religious symbol in Asia. Makes for good Chinese Communist propaganda though…

    My understanding of the Dalai Lama’s view of matters like this is that one cannot make a blanket statement that violence (or war) is always wrong, but that violence is generally counter productive. He does emphasize the importance of compassion toward someone you consider your enemy. I don’t read his comments as suggesting that bin Laden’s killing was justified, but rather than counter measures were justified to bin Laden’s violence, and that the killers of bin Laden could have had “right intention” called for by the Eightfold path, in this case, to prevent more suffering of others. I would be surprised if he sanctioned the killing of bin Laden on the basis of vengeance in any way.

    While I consider myself a Buddhist aligned with Thich Nhat Hanh and consider some of his writings outstanding, I am not a follower, so take my analysis with a grain of salt.

  • J

    Clarification of last sentence-I’m not a follower of the Dalai Lama.

  • Hector_St_Clare

    I don’t think it’s true to say that ‘Buddhism’, as a whole, is necessarily pacifist. Buddhist cultures in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Mongolia, and (notoriously) Japan have enthusiastically gone to war on occasion. In the decades-long Sri Lankan civil conflict which ended last year, Buddhism was often invoked as a rallying point for the Sinhalese side. (Sinhalese were mostly Buddhist, Tamils mostly Hindu).

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Hector, I tried to qualify that a bit by saying that it has pacifist tendencies–I realize that not all Buddhists are alike. Thanks for the added context.

  • http://blogs.chron.com/believeitornot Kate Shellnutt

    Further quotes from his response were included on USC News:

    “There must be a distinction between actor and action,” the Dalai Lama said. “Bin Laden was a force of destruction so his action needed justice. But as a human being, we must have compassion. He committed a destructive action so actions had to be taken to stop it.”

    Forgiveness doesn’t mean to forget what happened, he said.

    “Remember what they have done,” he said. “Look at what they have done and determine what the appropriate action will have to be. But always have compassion.”

  • Jerry

    I’m not steeped in Buddhism, but I found that http://buddhism.about.com/od/basicbuddhistteachings/a/war.htm seems to be a good overview of Buddhism and war.

    “Buddhists should not be the aggressors even in protecting their religion or anything else. They must try their best to avoid any kind of violent act. Sometimes they may be forced to go to war by others who do not respect the concept of the brotherhood of humans as taught by the Buddha. They may be called upon to defend their country from external aggression, and as long as they have not renounced the worldly life, they are duty-bound to join in the struggle for peace and freedom. Under these circumstances, they cannot be blamed for becoming soldiers or being involved in defence. However, if everyone were to follow the advice of the Buddha, there would be no reason for war to take place in this world. It is the duty of every cultured person to find all possible ways and means to settle disputes in a peaceful manner, without declaring war to kill his or her fellow human beings.”

    As always in questions of morality, when choosing whether to fight or not to fight a Buddhist must examine his own motivations honestly. It is too easy and too common to rationalize one has pure motives when in fact one is fearful and angry. For most of us self-honesty on this level takes extraordinary effort and maturity, and history tells us that even senior priests with years of practice can lie to themselves.

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Kate, thanks for the extra link – I looked for something from the university’s website and didn’t find anything. This is helpful.

    Thanks, Jerry – also helpful.


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