Cameron Conaway explains the thoughtfulness behind the Dalai Lama’s controversial “No answer” answer.
According to this CNN article, when asked if Tibetan monks should stop setting themselves on fire as a way to protest China’s occupation of Tibet, the Dalai Lama said, “No answer.” He went on to explain how it is a sensitive political issue and that he has retired from politics since he handed over Tibetan political responsibility to Dr. Lobsang Sangay last November.
The fact is, self-immolation makes news and news shapes public awareness and the Dalai Lama is all about awareness. Take 1963. In a desperate protest against what he saw as policies of religious inequality coming from the Diệm government, Vietnamese Mahayana Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức sat perfectly still as he set himself on fire and burned to death. American journalist and photographer Malcom Brown’s photo won the 1963 World Press Photo of the Year and his reporting on the event garnered him the 1964 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting. The event brought a relatively small issue into the public eye and it was through this reverse funnel that religious equality in Vietnam began to prevail. Now, in Saigon, Vietnam, thousands visit and are inspired each year by The Venerable Thích Quảng Đức Monument, which sits just across the street from where the actual event took place.
So although the Dalai Lama can proclaim to Piers Morgan that he loves George W. Bush as a human being while American partisan political battles rage on, and although he can speak of supporting the Arab Spring’s uprising throughout the war-torn Middle East, showing support for self-immolating Tibetan monks tests his undeniable political influence and personal moral compass far too much. If he affirms support for such an act, monks everywhere will be up in flames and his conscience and even legacy will carry that heat. If he denounces it, he will be denouncing what has for the Buddhist religion been one of the most profound ways of increasing awareness in order to promote peace – the mission to which he has devoted his entire life. For that, it seems the Dalai Lama’s “No answer” was pure calculated genius. He at once wants it and does not. Needs it and cannot. It seems a contradiction, but a contradiction void of negativity as in Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself:
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
Photo courtesy of the author