by mgopin on August 23, 2008 · 4 comments

Nicholas Kristoff’s very revealing piece on the Dalai Lama’s latest offer to the Chinese, if it is true, raises many fundamental issues about the price for peace.

Kristoff’s piece raises important questions that face the Dalai Lama regarding the future of his people, and the compromises that may be necessary with the Chinese regime in order to forestall the cultural genocide that is underway in Tibet. Should he settle with the Chinese finally? What is he surrendering, what is he getting for his people?

Where does justice fit in? Well, I hardly can imagine where it fits in. This conflict is so asymmetric and one side is so powerful that it hardly seems possible to hold out for justice as the cultural genocide and displacement of Tibetans by Han Chinese continues apace.

It seems to me that at the Dalai Lama’s age, and given the frustration of the youth who could end up in a hopeless rebellion against China, he has to make some hard choices. It seems he has to succumb to Chinese Communist rule in Tibet if he wants to make it possible for him and his people t return home. But, at least according to the article, what he could do is roll back not the political structure, but the displacement of native Tibetans. What this possibly sets the stage for is a better future in which an increasingly middle class Han China becomes less and less wedded to oppressive forms of governance of its outer provinces. The more secure China becomes in terms of its territorial integrity and its material success the less need to rule by oppression. Of course this is a risk, but the alternatives seem worse.

We have to ask what the Dalai Lama may be preventing in the future if he compromises now. In my next book, To Make the Earth Whole, I have two chapters dedicated to the ethics of intervention. In one of those chapters I explore the question of a Tibetan Buddhist ethic of intervention. I present it as a kind of quasi-Utilitarian calculus of consequences, what philosophers refer to as consequentialism. The basic question would be, what will cause the least suffering to the most people, present and future? More positively, what will cause the most happiness for the greatest number of people.

It is the future that is hardest for utilitarians to calculate in a way that is morally defensible. We simply don’t know what the future will bring. But the truth is that we all make these kind of imprecise and murky decisions every day, for things as simple as what three very different children in one family are going to do together on any given day. When it comes to trying to evolve away from violence and oppression for millions of people the choices are infinitely more fateful.

And there is one more proviso about consequentialism. The number of Tibetans in the world is tiny by comparison to the number of Han Chinese. Perhaps then from the point of view of a utilitarian calculus the Tibetans should lie down and die for the sake of the greater good of a Han Chinese living space? Yes, this is one of the great problems with this school of thought, and I am not going to solve it here.

It is obvious, however, that the Dalai Lama must consider this calculus for his own people because he is responsible for them. But he is also a Bodhissatva, an Enlightened Being. I don’t care whether the reader thinks he is, the point is that he and millions of others think that at the very least he spends his life trying to become a Boddhissatva. What would a Boddhissatva do? Not think only about his own people’s suffering or happiness, but that of all people, especially his enemies. This is the most endearing aspect of the Dalai Lama’s moral genius that is reflected in all his books and lectures.

I will speculate and say that perhaps the Dalai Lama might say that a radical sacrifice of all Tibetans for some Han Chinese would not bring true happiness to the Han Chinese, in addition to untold suffering for Tibetans. Genocide, even a single murder, eats away at the soul of the perpetrator just as surely as it consumes the body of the victim. So many conflicts involving the very strong and the very weak bear this out in reality when it is looked at over the long term.

It will be interesting to see what he does, what the Chinese do, what his people do, and what it will teach us.

© Marc Gopin

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