In May 2008 Time magazine's annual “Time 100” list of influential people in the world put the Dalai Lama at the top. This outcome was related to the preceding six weeks of protests in Tibet and attendant Western criticisms of China's Tibet policies, but it also reflected the two-decade-long construction of the Dalai Lama's international persona as a “man of peace” and “compassion personified.”
This essay interrogates the ubiquitous representation of the Dalai Lama as an apostle of nonviolence. It argues that while he urges nonviolence in general, the Dalai Lama has supported a number of wars, especially those of India and the United States, the Tibetan exiles' two chief patrons. Western political elites and media have reciprocated by making a major contribution to the construction of the Dalai Lama's pacifistic persona.
The Dalai Lama's advocacy of nonviolence is associated with a special level of compassion, but that link is also problematic: his compassion has been largely disconnected from specific, major struggles of the oppressed. The primary examples considered here are the fight against apartheid in South Africa and the struggle against the occupation of Palestinian lands. This disconnect arises from the Dalai Lama's self-orientalizing approach to “race” and racial oppression, within which the peoples and interests of the West are valorized and those of the developing world subordinated. That, in turn, is a function not only of Western state and popular patronage, but also of the Dalai Lama's generally conservative worldview.
The construction of the Dalai Lama's persona of “man of peace” adversely affects efforts to resolve the Tibet question. The “Free Tibet movement” is built around the pacifist persona of the Dalai Lama. The movement garners support from that, but it seeks an outcome that can only be realized in the unlikely event that China disintegrates. The constructed “man of peace” persona thus diverts attention from efforts to forge a compromise solution to the Tibet question. This effect will continue until a critique of political representations of the Dalai Lama are allowed to become part of the international discourse of Tibet.