Marketing the Dalai Lama


As a measure of our cultural values, it is interesting to consider that the Dalai Lama has become a commodity. When he appeared at the Parliament of the World's Religions in Melbourne, people flocked to the stage, mobile phone cameras aimed at His Holiness, presumably so they too could own a piece of the Dalai Lama, a snap shot as proof of their participation in the event.

Much as people took fragments of the Berlin Wall as keepsakes — history-as-commodity, concrete remnants of the past through which to personalise the enormity of the present moment — so too did the photographers of the Dalai Lama serve a personal interest. Their zeal to gather mementos feeds an ego that ironically contradicts the basic principle of selflessness that is central to Buddhist philosophy itself.

So what? Well, one wonders to what degree this example represents the self centeredness of western cultural values. What does missing the spiritual point so dramatically say about our capacity for self sacrifice at a time when global challenges appear to require the sublimation of our self interest?

Ours is a culture of self centeredness, characterised by pervasive greed as symbolised by the global financial crisis. Contemporary western culture has disposed of ideology, mass movements and mass culture. Singularity of national purpose seems to have been replaced by an active self interest that plays out in various ways:

In culture by the continuing process of fractioning mass culture into splinter cells of sub-cultural dialogue (of which blogging and internet chat rooms are the supreme example); in religion by the growing power of denominations resistant to centralised religious authority; in academia by the persistence of the postmodern experiment which seeks to empower the individual over the collective, to favour the personal over the meta-narrative; even in science, where the elusiveness of a cohesive, unified model of the universe leaves us to favour, by necessity, the elemental particles and individual processes which we can observe in the natural world.

In contemporary society, the individual, the small, the separate, the personal is sacrosanct.

And why not de-emphasise the collective? Are we not better off as sympathetic tribes bound by a language, an ethnicity or a sub-culture? Is it not better that we find safety in the smaller cultural enclaves from which we can be wary of anything or anyone who threatens to assume the mantle of authority, or be the status quo?

After all, our sub-cultures provide the self empowerment needed to meaningfully challenge formalised authority so that we can avoid repeating the catastrophic legacies of popular ideology that have stained human history: Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, the 'righteous' genocide of indigenous peoples the world over.

Well, yes and no. Our tendency to identify with and exalt sub-cultures means we risk preaching to the converted. We risk not challenging our beliefs. We risk legitimating our views, no matter how questionable, and reinforcing our cultural mores, no matter how disagreeable. Identity through sub-culture means we risk becoming insular.

Some ideas need to be big. Some movements need to be mass. Or else they'll never achieve their objective.

And so with the climate summit in Copenhagen we may well ask to what extent our cultural insulation inhibits our collective action in the face of what may yet prove to be the world's greatest challenge.

At the end of his presentation, the Dalai Lama impressed on the audience that talk is cheap. That inaction in the face of serious global concerns was unacceptable.

I wonder what he thought about the swarm of onlookers who now had grainy, distant snapshots of His Holiness stored in their laptops and phones. Did he doubt their emotional capacity to face the challenges he described?

And despite his call to action I was personally left with a sense of impotence, of insignificance, a lack of agency that would not be quelled by fitting my house with solar panels and a water tank.

And therein lies our cultural disadvantage. Our tendency to doubt, our reluctance to sublimate ourselves to an idea or a cause is both the gift of democratic freedoms as well as the philosophy's shortcoming. The significance of the individual that is recognised by the democratic ideal is also that style of government's central restraint on defining and achieving national ambitions.

And yet there really is no alternative. As Winston Churchill observed 'democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried'.

So perhaps therein we can appreciate the utility of faith over politics in helping us to confront global issues. For faith is a profoundly human belief that we are bound by something greater than ourselves. Faith, by design, compels us to consider the resonance of our actions, the impact of our decisions, the legacy of our selves.

Yannick ThoravalYannick Thoraval has a masters degree in history from the University of Melbourne. He has worked as a copywriter in marketing and communications, and currently works as a speechwriter/communications advisor with the Victorian Multicultural Commission which provides independant advice to the Victorian State Government through the Department of Premier and Cabinet. Images by Ray Messner.

Topic tags: Yannick Thoraval, Dalai Lama, Parliament of the World's Religions, western, individualism



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Existing comments

excellent article - thought-provoking and well written -
ann nugent | 14 December 2009

wow, true, Faith rocks!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! thanks very much :-)
happy | 14 December 2009

what's your point?
me | 14 December 2009

Your title is marketing his holiness the dalai lama's name. Great insight and great story, great article. Enjoyed reading it a lot, but irony with the title and the lead of the story. | 14 December 2009

My response was an acknowledgment of people's acceptence of the Dalai Lama as a very credible person who has shown over many years his commitment to his fellow refugees and his promotion of a very credible message to the world.
Ken Petersen | 14 December 2009

Of course our society is a selfish one as opposed to a selfless.

Thanks for a stirring up of our values.

Witness the drink, drugs sexuality instead of love, money for self, money for big business, with one or two at the top skimming off the profits, destroying environment for money, disregard for poor and refugees, for money.

Self is very important, and maybe also very natural.

Perhaps we need a belief system which motivates us to care, and to be passionately involved in this world, making self second.

Listening to the Dalai Lama, the Pope and others who call us to be selfless, could be fruitful.

Fr Ted Kennedy comes to mind. Someone who not only listens, but makes the doing his life.

May we try to emulate him, and many others who give us hope, in a seemingly mad world.

As for the issues surrounding climate change. How hard it may be to drop our so called 'standard of living' and live simply that others may simply live, and enjoy this wondrous world of ours, without allowing it to be destroyed.
Bernadette introna | 14 December 2009

With great respect for Mr Thoraval's earnestness here, what exactly is the point of this essay? That those who are delighted to see and hear one of the great spiritual leaders of all time are mistaken? that because cultural chance is enormously difficult, we should ... what, exactly? I got to the end of this essay and wondered what the point of it was, and also found myself grinning -- I cannot imagine that the Dalai Lama has the slightest doubt about the emotional capacity of the people who came to hear him. Their emotional capacity to grow and change, to reach for mercy and grace, is the very reason he traveled to Melbourne, I'd guess.
Brian Doyle | 15 December 2009

communism and dictatorship would be great if there was no violence, abuse of power - and benevolent - but religion reavhes beyond them - almost makes them secondary or irrelevent in
the end - this is where he talks from ...
anon | 15 December 2009


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