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As the violence in Tibet has continued, the Dalai Lama issued a stern statement that he could not align himself with insurrection in his home country. Buddhism rests on several pillars, one of which is nonviolence. Tibet quickly became a kind of Buddhist litmus test. How much pain and oppression can you stand and still exhibit loving kindness and compassion? I wonder if that's really fair. The Tibetans face a political crisis that should be met with political action. Whatever that action turns out to be, nobody should be seen as a good or bad Buddhist, anymore than defending your house from an intruder tests whether a Christian is living by the precepts of Jesus.

In India, where Gandhi preached nonviolence, or Ahimsa, he confronted a decaying British empire that was forced to give up its vast holdings. Historical luck was on his side, and as a result of Gandhi's pacifism, India gained its independence. The Dalai Lama, however, has had historical misfortune to contend with. The Chinese are an expanding empire, and their ingrained racism allows them to overrun the "inferior" native Tibetans without any moral qualms. Will pacifism work in this situation? A better question might be, Would anything work? It's not as though the Beijing regime can be defeated by force, either. One recalls that Gandhi combined pacifism with resistance, whereas the Tibetans up to now have sunk into an inert pacifism that could lead to their cultural extinction.

No doubt the entire conflict, now half a century old, is entangled in religion and other interwoven ingredients: Communist ideology, fantasies of restoring Chinese glory days, and much else. But Buddha, like Jesus, didn't start a religion. He was concerned with how to live in the world, and being entangled in the world's pain and confusion is an eternal dilemma. It didn't need ruthless bureaucrats in China. Over the centuries, failed crops, endemic disease, and poverty have been quite capable of bringing suffering. It would be superficial to say that Buddha and Jesus arrived at the same remedy -- to be in the world but not of it -- yet nobody needs to pass that test, either.

What Buddha and Jesus undoubtedly had in common was a sense that another realm of existence transcends the material world. Buddhists are asked to consider how to reach that realm. There are no dictates (as far as my limited knowledge goes) to engage the world and solve its tortured dilemmas. Indeed, Buddha is famous for teaching that such solutions don't exist. It is futile to apply Buddhism to a political crisis -- or to the subprime mortgage debacle, for that matter -- because wrestling with the material world never leads to freedom, fulfillment, or peace.

Someone may protest that the Dalai Lama is being an exemplary Buddhist in maintaining such perfect equanimity, and I completely agree. But he has achieved his level of consciousness for himself. This is a case where virtue must be its own reward. The world looks on and admires the Dalai Lama; it doesn't change for him. My intention isn't to give any Tibetan Buddhist advice, or to adopt a position superior to anyone else's. It just strikes me that Tibet shouldn't be a litmus test for religious purity while an entire people are slowly ground to dust. Nor should the peaceful countenance of the Dalai Lama become an excuse for the rest of us to stand by and do nothing, as if that proves how virtuous we are.


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