Bring on Lama-Palooza

But please don't ask about independence for Tibet.
Crosscut archive image.

Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama. (Wikipedia)

But please don't ask about independence for Tibet.

The April 11-15 Puget Sound visit of His Holiness the Dalai Lama teases out multiple narratives with quintessential Northwest story lines.

There's the wireless tycoon with the Paul Allen appetite for the Big Cause; the social entrepreneurs and early learning boosters who've inherited a new platform; and the Dalai Lama serving as Dalai Rorschach, a stand-in mirror that reveals the old, the new, and the still-in-progress of Seattle.

Tom Robbins, where art thou?

Lama-Palooza's man behind the curtain is a driven entrepreneur named Dan Kranzler, a Charles Foster Kane for children and early learning (better that than, say, politics or yellow journalism).

Kranzler is a Bellevue-based wireless executive who founded Mforma, a mobile-entertainment company, in 2001. He was also an InfoSpace investor who used the windfall of the 1990s high-tech gold rush to create the Kirlin Foundation, a grantmaking institution with a self-described vision "of a global society, identified first and foremost by the grace of its empathy and compassion."

"Kirlin" is an aggregate of the names of the two Kranzler daughters, Kira and Caitlin.

Kirlin's grant recipients include the Bellevue Schools Foundation, Arts Corps, and other mainstream, child-centric charities. Last year, the Foundation teamed up with the Venerable Tenzin Dhonden, a monk and Dalai emissary, to launch "Seeds of Compassion," a vehicle to host the Dalai Lama and promote the benefits of compassion early in life.

Seeds of Compassion does not have Form 990s, submitted by nonprofits to the IRS, because it's an initiative of Kirlin. Kirlin's last 990 from November 2007 reports net assets of approximately $6.3 million. Consistent with many family foundations, the board is tiny (six members, including Kirlin's executive director, Ron Rabin, who serves ex-officio).

Because the Seeds initiative is so new, it's impossible to root out expense figures such as the salary of former Seattle Schools superintendent and executive director, Raj Manhas, as well as the specific amounts donated by organizations, companies, and individuals.

This short term, Masonic-style obliqueness doesn't suggest anything sinister other than cloaking the obvious, that a generous benefactor is footing the Dalai Lama's bill.

Fundraisers, volunteers, and dozens of Seeds of Compassion sponsors will challenge this, with various supporters ponying up thousands of the $2.75 million already raised. KING-TV in Seattle is donating air time, and many are laboring 24/7 pro bono, along with more than 1,500 volunteers.

A handful represent a Who's Who of child advocates, including Pam Eakes, the founder of Mothers Against Violence in America, former Washington First Lady Mona Locke, and former Boeing executive and consummate public servant Bob Watt.

This is the real story, Dalai Lama notwithstanding. Washington state is in the vanguard of foster-care innovations, brain-development research, and early childhood education. What better vehicle to burnish an extraordinary cause, irrespective of religious faith?

Traditionalists might wince at the protean spirituality of Dalai-philes who pick up nuggets of Buddhism like cafeteria Catholics, draping on only those accessories that feel comfortable. Northwesterners know that old religious leaders are supposed to be, by temperament and design, old scolds.

Fear not, me Lutherans: The First Noble Truth of Buddhism is "that life is suffering" and what could be more despairing or inherently Northwestern than that?

Moreover, as the University of Washington's Kyoko Tokuno observes, the Dalai Lama can't control those who gravitate to his example of Buddhist teaching. Says Tokuno, a Buddhist scholar and assistant professor in comparative religion: "They came to him and he obliged."

This is particularly relevant for the Richard Geres, Steven Seagals, and other Hollywood gliterrati who've embraced Tibetan Buddhism.

Musician Dave Matthews, scheduled to perform at a sold-out KeyArena benefit Friday afternoon, illustrates the Dalai Lama's celebrity fix. Thousands will hear the peaceable message of a Nobelist and spiritual icon. All the while, a rock concert feeds the stereotype, at least among squares and skeptics, that Tenzin Gyatso, his Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, is mostly about pop-fluff and the Zeitgeist.

For those fearful of children, repelled by rock and roll, and otherwise flummoxed by the mystery of the Divine, the Dalai Lama's visit throws light on the political question of Tibetan sovereignty and human rights.

Here things get tricky, as Western and Eastern sensibilities collide.

As Holly Morris writes in Sunday's New York Times Book Review of Pico Iyer's new biography of the Dalai Lama, The Open Road, the Dalai Lama "continues to urge a controversial forbearance (rather than direct action) toward the Chinese, even as occupied Tibet is a whisper away from gone."

Others, such as Patrick French, are more scathing.

The Dalai Lama is a great and charismatic spiritual figure, but a poor and poorly advised political strategist. When he escaped into exile in India in 1959, he declared himself an admirer of Mahatma Gandhi's nonviolent resistance. But Gandhi took huge gambles, starting the Salt March and starving himself nearly to death – a very different approach from the Dalai Lama's middle way, which concentrates on nonviolence rather than resistance. The Dalai Lama has never really tried to use direct action to leverage his authority.

Graft the spiritual Middle Way to the political sphere and let loose the "tsking" of the Academy.

The Middle Way is not a political strategy but a philosophical foundation, Tokuno notes. "He is a religious man. Strategy is a political term." She says the value of patience and noodling issues over the long term are consonant with the Dalai Lama's Buddhist heritage.

The burden of moral leadership, however, is also the burden of unintended consequences. Kindle hopes for political freedom sans teeth and political leverage in the same year as the Beijing Summer Olympics, and Tibet risks repeating the tragedy of Hungary in 1956.

This may reflect the arrogance of a Western lens, but it's the only lens most of us know. Our orientation is Aristotelian – man as a political animal. "It's a cold world," the great Northwest poet William Stafford reminded us. Stafford also happened to be a committed pacifist.

To proffer a political critique of the most gentle and beloved spiritual leader on the planet is to invite decades of bad karma. Let's begin:

Professor David Bachman, a respected University of Washington China scholar, fears that the Dalai Lama's visit will not necessarily translate into anything meaningful for the people of Tibet.

"He does have to strategize now," Bachman says, noting that the Dalai Lama has had since his 1989 Nobel Prize to magoozle a political solution to the Tibet crisis.

One recommendation from columnist Nicholas Kristof offers a solution.

The Dalai Lama is the last, best hope for reaching an agreement that would resolve the dispute over Tibet forever. He accepts autonomy, rather than independence, and he has the moral authority to persuade Tibetans to accept a deal. The outlines of an agreement would be simple. The Dalai Lama would return to Tibet as a spiritual leader, and Tibetans would be permitted to possess his picture and revere him, while he would unequivocally accept Chinese sovereignty. Monasteries would have much greater religious freedom, and Han Chinese migration to Tibet would be limited. The Dalai Lama would also accept that the Tibetan region encompasses only what is now labeled Tibet on the maps, not the much larger region of historic Tibet that he has continued to claim. With such an arrangement, China could resolve the problem of Tibet, improve its international image, reassure Taiwan and rectify a 50-year-old policy of repression that has catastrophically failed.

Let's hope that the Dalai Lama takes time to commiserate and pray with fellow Nobelist Desmond Tutu, who is also scheduled to participate in the Seeds of Compassion program. Tutu may represent a Western paradigm, but he understands the nature of peace, the import of direct action, and the realities and limits of human nature.

Herein lie the roots of Northwest cynicism: that Puget Sound vendors will sell out of "Free Tibet" bumper stickers while that distant land with its indigenous population, emboldened by the spirit of the well-intentioned, burns.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Peter Jackson

Peter Jackson

Peter Jackson is the former editorial-page editor of the Everett Herald. Follow him on Twitter @phardinjackson