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Selling Tibet to the world

by Michael Backman, The Age, June 5, 2008

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

<< Dalai Lama: Monk with funk

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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