WHY THE DALAI LAMA IS HAVING A SOCIOLOGICAL MOMENT IN THE WEST

By Nolan Weber
Senior Editor

It would be reasonable to assume that after reading the title of this analysis that this exposition is a 900 word slight against the Dalai Lama. To respond, the Dalai Lama’s general philosophy is not frustrating; how he is perceived sociologically is an entirely separate issue. Nevertheless, much of what he says is truly inspiring. Not that the Dalai Lama needs this author’s stamp of approval, but he is wise, well spoken and justified in what he believes. His maxims endear one’s sense of humanity, romanticism and anarcho-primitivism. Or, to put it more frankly, his proverbs put a person at ease when, in fact, they usually read them off of technology assembled by socio-economically exploited peoples. Westerners use the Dalai Lama to reconcile natural human tendencies. One’s guilt and desire to worship a deity are projected onto an exotic religious figure. This fact tends to obscure academically minded people’s motivation to inquire about why the Dalai Lama is having this sociological moment; or, why they attend his lectures—or buy his books. This exposition is not an extensive derision of everything the Dalai Lama embodies. This analysis will concern itself with the “why” of the Dalai Lama’s relatively recent popularity spike. If one examines the evidence surrounding the Dalai Lama’s rise, it is hard not to be somewhat annoyed. Ultimately, I will illustrate that his popularity exists because being academically high-minded whilst worshipping a Western religious figure carries with it centuries worth of baggage and worn out imagery.

Let’s consider with whom the Dalai Lama is most popular to get a grasp of where he lies along the sociological map. Based on the attendance of his last lecture, where his books are sold and where his exposure is greatest, this analysis posits his base as among college students and armchair intellectuals. Generally, people with a college education try and distinguish their religious beliefs as being more complex, cultured or ecumenical. Therefore it should be no surprise that he is most popular among the West’s more educated class. However, what is surprising is the degree of adulation our society accords him.

This analysis’ premiere example is the fact he is referred to as “His Holiness,” a title he does not claim in Tibet. Yet, for the purposes of gravitas, exposure and authoritativeness, no refutation in the West is made. Further illustrating this emergent cultural order which accepts a human as deity is illustrated by an event here at University of California, San Diego. Students were ready to make internet memes poking fun at Chancellor Fox’s faux pas in calling him His Highness. Consider this for a moment: the most learned class of people want to protect this title of deity which was given from birth. Taking a socio-historical perspective about the Dalai Lama, what is one to infer about these incidents?

Only one of two conclusions can be drawn. Either these intellectually enthused people actually view the Dalai Lama as a God among mortals, or they ascribe him this title for the purposes of psychological placation, tacitly knowing it’s a façade. I greatly doubt the West’s college students and intellectuals actually believe he is a superhuman reincarnation. This leaves the option of the Dalai Lama’s sociological niche filling a void in the conscious of the educated. But, what void is he filling? Why the Dalai Lama and not another religious leader?

The Dalai Lama offers a powerful philosophical message, laced with progressive overtones, shrouded in an Eastern mystique which is all couched in a grandfatherly demeanor. What newly enlightened college student could say no? Everything the typical college student likes about Western religion is accentuated in the Dalai Lama while all the negatives are non-existent. His quotes often point out humorous paradoxes of the rat race of life—something every college-age person will soon be engaged in. Because, if one is self-aware of such empty pursuits, it somehow absolves one of the fact they are engaged in them. Yet, he does draw attention to important social issues with a progressive slant. He often speaks about protecting the environment with vigor and truth. Moreover, he seamlessly infuses philosophical doctrine that is to be applied at a personal level with contemporary political issues that are to be addressed at a societal plane. The Dalai Lama is a person we can see as a sage, not simply because he offers genuine pieces of wisdom, but because he looks the part too.

He is an old man who is seen as a victim of religious persecution from an authoritarian country. Keep in mind that he has had this title from birth. This analysis would conjecture that a twenty-something Dalai Lama would not have the same impact. The college-age culture must realize that it wants to be lulled into the secure feeling of an elder’s knowledge. Moreover, because the Dalai Lama is in exile, we can duly assign the title of victim to him and his people. Without any historical baggage such as the Crusades or the like, it’s hard to fault him on ethical issues to which positions of power often accord themselves.

Indeed, there are passages in the Bible that, read in the proper context, can make a pastor or the Pope seem like the beacon of progressive socio-political thought. However, centuries of religious power used in corrupt ways have sullied the potential for contemporary learned people to fully accept Western religion. Besides, these bastions of religious thought already have a secure audience. It would be a greater cost for these more established socio-philosophical forces to attempt to appeal to a more progressive audience than to simply remain with their shrinking sect of followers. Consequently, the more educated, liberal-minded people of the West must look elsewhere for their innate want of religious wisdom. Moreover, Post-Modern modes of thinking have cultivated a fertile environment for philosophies skeptical of the specious value of modernity. Hence we see the Western rise of the Dalai Lama, who functions as a sociological mediator between the forces of religion and modernity.

Image courtesy of Jan Michael Ihl

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