The Middle Way of Barack Obama and the Dalai Lama

We’ve heard a great deal this week about the Dalai Lama’s ‘middle way’ political solution to the violence in his homeland. This political ‘middle way’ calls for Tibetan autonomy within China. But there is another middle way that has dominated the headlines this week. Separated by 40 years and 7,000 miles, Barack Obama and the Dalai Lama both embodied a stunning middle way approach to conflict resolution. The hallmark of this approach is a non-reactive and compassionate response to conflict based on a clearheaded assessment of its scope.
This middle way requires that introspection and contextualization precede action. To embody it one must keep his or her emotions in check and view internal and external circumstances objectively before doing or saying anything. Only after a clear, unemotional and unbiased assessment, can the facts be contextualized within a framework of personal experience, aspirations, and ethical constructs. It is through the first two steps — introspection and contextualization — that appropriate action is possible.
Obama’s stirring speech on race in America, was a brilliant example of clear seeing and contextualization. Obama took the middle way by distinguishing between his former Pastor Jeremiah Wright’s hateful political statements and Wright’s role as a religious leader. Obama then contextualized Wright’s remarks within the framework of longstanding racial tensions and legitimate fears, resentments, disappointments and anger on the part of both blacks and whites. It might have been easier for Obama to distance himself from Wright and be done with it: To denounce and reject him. But Obama took a calculated risk and chose a more nuanced approach. Doing so required faith not just in himself and his God, but also in the American people.
In the face of accusations by the Chinese government and dissent within the Tibetan community, the Dalai Lama maintains his resolve to embody the middle way. Chinese officials have repeatedly vilified the Dalai Lama claiming that he masterminded the recent uprising in Tibet. Today Chinese insults reached an historic low calling the beloved religious leader ‘a wolf in a monk’s robe’ and a ‘monster with a human face and the heart of a beast.’ As if attacks by the Chinese government are not bad enough, political tensions within the Tibetan community also run high. Tibetan youth question the Dalai Lama’s political leadership and doubt that a non-violent approach will amount to anything but further oppression and cultural genocide. Despite increasing pressure within the Tibetan community, the Dalai Lama calls violent demonstrations ‘suicide’ and has threatened to step down from his political role as leader of the Tibetan government-in-exile if force becomes the means by which his people seek freedom.
At the same time, the Dalai Lama has stepped up his campaign to build support among world leaders to pressure the Chinese into a dialogue with the Tibetan government-in-exile. In recent days the Italian, French, British, and American governments have called upon the Chinese to exercise restraint in Tibet while the Pope, Prince Charles and other prominent world figures, who would not previously meet with the Dalai Lama for fear of angering the Chinese, have now agreed to do so. To the young people in the streets of Tibet fighting, talk seems hollow. But on the world stage, building an international coalition to place pressure on the Chinese government is the work of a true Statesman.
Faced with complex issues, factionalized supporters, and a high-stakes game both Barack Obama and the Dalai Lama chose to play slot machine to the highest common denominator. Two deeply religious men and inspired politicians, they chose a middle way that requires leaders and constituents alike to engage in a dispassionate and nuanced analysis of the circumstances that underlie the current conflicts in the U.S. and Tibet. They chose a path that requires a fearless, objective and non-emotional look at ugly realities: Realities that may be easier to sweep under the carpet. Why? Ask Obama what will happen if we become distracted from the truth behind the issues facing America right now:
” I can tell you that in the next election, we’ll be talking about some other distraction. And then another one. And then another one. And nothing will change.
Or … we can come together and say, ‘Not this time.'”
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