Everyone can develop a good heart, but not everyone will: On President Obama’s delayed meeting with His Holiness the Dalai Lama

9 10 2009
Then-Senator Obama meets with His Holiness the Dalai Lama

Then-Senator Obama meets with His Holiness the Dalai Lama

It is a cool, rainy day at Pelden Farm, and I am sitting on my front porch, wrapped in a nice, soft shawl made from alpaca yarn sheared and spun by the nuns up the road. As I drink my nice hot cup of tea, I am pondering President Obama’s decision to delay his meeting with His Holiness until after he visits with President Hu. I voted for Obama, which means I trust him, and so I have been reluctant to enter into the discussion over his “snub” of the Dalai Lama or even to pass on the link to the Jon Stewart show that took him to task for it (http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/wed-october-7-2009/hell-no–dalai)  Today, however, we learned that Obama won the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, which means there is a new context for this conversation.

After all, twenty years ago, His Holiness won the prize too.

When the Norwegian Nobel Prize Committee accorded him the honor, it was in recognition of his 40-year nonviolent crusade to end China’s oppression of Tibet. In 2009, Obama’s award recognizes his “extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.” And he deserves it: Obama not only has brought the U.S. back from the dark side, but he also has proven to the world that “politician” and “leader” needn’t be mutually exclusive terms.

When I think about these bases for their respective Peace Prizes, I almost understand Obama’s snub . . . I mean his reasoning. For while His Holiness certainly is a proponent of human rights in general, his own country is at stake here. He has a horse in the race right now, and some bully from another team has sneaked in, jumped on its back, and is whipping it feverishly. Obama, on the other hand, is still in the clubhouse, working out a strategy for a whole stable of horses. And so he can afford to defer to the bully, believing that it is less important to walk away with a trophy in this one race than it is to establish a tone of civility that may diffuse the tension and lead to some productive discussion about sportsmanship that will make a long-term difference.

So yes, I understand why President Obama believes that delaying his meeting is appropriate, and why the Dalai Lama might kindly term the delay as a way to prevent “embarrassment to the Chinese President.” I understand that Obama needs President Hu’s support of the economic and environmental goals that are near and dear to his heart. And I understand that China has currency reserves big enough to allow it to gobble up auto factories and iron mines and huge chunks of the U.S. national debt.

What I don’t understand is why anyone would excuse the delay as a means to improve the U.S.’s ability to serve the people of Tibet. Why would China, a country that has expressly forbidden the world from having official contact with His Holiness—a country that in fact believes refusing the Dalai Lama’s visits should be one of the “basic norms of international relations”  (http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/world/2009-10/07/content_8766382.htm) —decide to allow Obama to negotiate the terms of its relationship with Tibet simply because he did Hu the courtesy of meeting with him first?

The answer is that it wouldn’t: No matter what Hu says in November, once Obama meets with His Holiness, all bets are off.

And so I re-read His Holiness’s acceptance speech, and sit here soggy eyed in the rain:

The problems we face today, violent conflicts, destruction of nature, poverty, hunger, and so on, are human-created problems which can be resolved through human effort, understanding and the development of a sense of brotherhood and sisterhood. We need to cultivate a universal responsibility for one another and the planet we share. Although I have found my own Buddhist religion helpful in generating love and compassion, even for those we consider our enemies, I am convinced that everyone can develop a good heart and a sense of universal responsibility with or without religion. (http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/1989/lama-acceptance.html)

Yes, your Holiness: Everyone can develop a good heart. But not everyone will.

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