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"For a happier, more stable and civilized future, each of us must develop a sincere, warm-hearted feeling of brotherhood and sisterhood."

Selling Tibet to the world

June 7, 2008

Michael Backman
The Age (Australia)
June 5, 2008

GUCCI, iPod, Facebook, Tibet - these are among the world's hot
brands, for which brand integrity is everything.

Tibet, as a brand, works particularly well. It brings in millions,
and Hollywood A-listers queue to endorse it. What's more, they do it
for free. Creative director and brand chief executive, the Dalai
Lama, will visit Australia again next week. He will preside over a
five-day Tibetan prayer instruction course in Sydney. A company has
been set up to handle the visit - Dalai Lama in Australia Limited.

Tickets for the event can be bought online even from The Age's own
Box Office website along with tickets for Bjorn Again and The Pink
Floyd Experience. But few are as expensive as the Dalai Lama
experience, with tickets ranging from $800 for front seats to $450
for seats at the back. Tickets for good seats for the Sunday session
alone are $248. Lunch is extra - between $18 and $27 for a
pre-ordered lunch box. A clothing range has even been created. There
are polo shirts, baseball caps - even men's muscle tees emblazoned
with the endless Buddhist knot. From street chic to urban cool, baby,
this monk has funk.

Saving Tibet, like Saving Private Ryan, is a good earner. Everyone's
into it, even China. Back in April, a factory in China's Guangdong
province was exposed as one of the manufacturers of the Free Tibet
flags so prominent in the anti-Olympic torch protests in Britain,
France and the US. The factory workers claimed they had no idea what
the colourful flags represented. Blame China's state-controlled media for that.

But dark clouds threaten the Tibet brand. The Dalai Lama has just
been in Britain where an appearance at Royal Albert Hall was marred
by more than a thousand protestors, most of whom were supporters of
Dorje Shugden, a controversial deity in the complex pantheon of
Tibetan Buddhist deities. The Dalai Lama, who apparently once
supported this deity but then issued edicts against it, has attracted
the ire of the deity's supporters.

Shugden supporters plan to protest against the Dalai Lama next week
in Sydney too. Several are flying in from the US and Britain to help
organise the protests. They have been tailing the Dalai Lama
recently, popping up wherever he does with placards labelling him a
liar and a persecutor. It's embarrassing for the Dalai Lama because
these are his people.

One called on me recently in London. She was accompanied by two
bodyguards, which is suggestive of how hot tempers are getting on
both sides, despite the ostensible support for non-violence. The
precaution might be well founded. In 1997, three monks were murdered
in Dharamsala, India, where the Tibetan government-in-exile has its
headquarters. A year earlier, a former Tibetan government-in-exile
minister was stabbed and wounded. Both events seem to be linked to
the Shugden controversy.

Shugden supporters claim that the Dalai Lama took advantage of the
worldwide groundswell of support that accompanied the Olympic torch
protests earlier this year to move against them. They claim that on
his orders hundreds of pro-Shugden monks were expelled from Tibetan
Buddhist monasteries, mostly in India, leaving them without financial
support and shelter. They now argue it is the Dalai Lama who is
breaching human rights when it comes to freedom of worship.

While in Britain, the Dalai Lama gave evidence to a British
parliamentary committee about the human rights situation in Tibet
despite, as Shugden supporters pointed out, him not having set foot
in Tibet for almost 50 years. Of course, before that, Tibet was ruled
by the Dalai Lamas, under whom the human rights situation was nothing
short of disgusting. The brand makeover since has been startling. It
helps that Westerners find mountains romantic. Come down from them
and anything can be excused.

Why is the Dalai Lama so hell-bent on moving against Shugden
supporters? A reason might be that he genuinely believes Shugden
worship is wrong. Another seems to derive from his desire to unite
the four traditions of Tibetan Buddhism - the Nyngma, Sakya, Kagyu
and Gelugpa. This has always been one of the Dalai Lama's problems.
He is not the head of Buddhism; he is not even the head of Tibetan
Buddhism. Traditionally, the Dalai Lamas are from the Gelugpa sect.
But since leaving Tibet, the current Dalai Lama has sought to speak
for all Tibetans and particularly all overseas Tibetans.

To enhance his authority, he has sought to merge the four traditions
into one and place himself at its head. But Dorje Shugden presents a
roadblock. One aspect of Shugden worship is to protect the Gelugpa
tradition from adulteration, particularly by the Nyngma tradition.
Nyngma followers respond by not wanting anything to do with Gelugpa
followers sympathetic to Dorje Shugden. So to allow a proper merger
of the four traditions, the Dalai Lama needs to get rid of the
Shugden movement. If the Dalai Lama can claim to represent all
Tibetans, it will increase his political prestige and clout with
overseas Tibetans and with governments.

Pushing the Dalai Lama's wheelbarrow is Australia's right as an
independent country. But given that China is Australia's most
important trading partner, Australia owes it to itself to fully
understand exactly what is in that wheelbarrow before it pushes so
hard. After all, prudent shoppers are always careful to separate the
actual product from the brand and the buzz that surrounds it.
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