The Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of the Tibetan Buddhist community, has been invited to open Thursday’s US Senate session with prayers. Each congressional session customarily begins with prayers, usually led by a Christian chaplain, although leaders of other faiths have often been invited to lead: this will be the first time that the His Holiness has done so. The current chaplain, Barry C. Black, is a Seventh Day Adventist, and the first African-American in the position.
After he leads the US Senate session in prayer the Dalai Lama, a Nobel Peace prize recipient, expects to meet later with leaders of both Houses of Congress to rally support among Congressional leaders. Last Friday, the Dalai Lama met with President Obama at the White House for the third time. In an acknowledgement of the sensitive nature of such a meeting, which is said to be opposed by China, Obama met with the spiritual leader in the White House residence rather than in the Oval Office, where he would normally meet official delegations, and reporters were not granted access. The Dalai Lama has officially transferred his political responsibilities to a prime minister elected by Tibetans in exile. He accepts China’s rule and is seeking peaceful means to greater autonomy for the Himalayan region. Congress has provided strong US support to the Dalai Lama, whose popularity transcends the usual partisan dynamic in Washington. The White House issued a statement after the meeting in which Obama expressed strong support for Tibet’s cultural, linguistic, and religious heritage, and for the protection of human rights for Tibetans in China.
More than 120 Tibetans have performed self-immolation (i.e. set themselves on fire) since 2009 to protest cultural, political and religious oppression. Although the Dalai Lama considers these acts “understandable,” he has been clear about not encouraging this form of protest. The first Buddhist precept is to refrain from the destruction of life. Unlike Christianity, Buddhism does not specifically condemn suicide, but if the decision to take one’s life is arrived at through negative thoughts, the action may lead to rebirth in a lower realm, and thus run counter to the possibility of enlightenment.
The activities of the Dalai Lama, who left Tibet in 1959 after a failed uprising against Chinese occupation, are said to be strongly condemned by China; China is said to have accused the Dalai Lama of providing funds to encourage the self-immolation and resistance to Chinese rule. In response, Chinese authorities have exercised strict controls in the Tibetan region, and restricted visits from foreign journalists.
In the past, Beijing has exerted strong pressure on Britain, France and other European nations whose leaders have met with the Dalai Lama, however, it is a little unclear about specifically who in China is voicing the objections. Preliminary research suggests that the statements regarding Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama arise from a policy institute called China Tibetology Research Center based in Beijing, and may not be representative of the actual views of the official Chinese government. Attempts to learn more about the Research Center met with failure, as links to the China Tibetology Research Center’s website on Google were found to be non-functional.
The day after the Dalai Lama opens the US Senate session with prayers, His Holiness will give a public talk in Washington DC on March 7 called Beyond Religion: Ethics for the Whole World, at the Washington National Cathedral. One can learn more about the Dalai Lama and his teaching schedule on his website: dalailama.com.
By Laura Prendergast