The photo op is irresistible. His Holiness the Dalai Lama, donning radiant maroon and saffron robes, sits alongside none other than a fully suited Mr. Barack Obama. His Holiness’s unapologetic, balding head and exposed right bicep are a spectacle in the formally clothed, carefully guarded land of Washington, DC. On display are two very different global juggernauts.

The spectacle itself might account for the inordinate amount of press attention that the Dalai Lama’s White House visit received. Otherwise, it was ordinary political theater. The usual empty platitudes from the administration condemning oppression of Tibetans, and perfunctory posturing from China in retaliation. Sure, there was some open sniping between the world’s two most powerful nations. But it was fake, obligatory sniping, and everybody knew it. After all, His Holiness had already visited President Obama twice, and somehow the world kept rotating on its axis.

The truly noteworthy event from the Dalai Lama’s Washington visit took place the day before, in the less palatial conference room of a prominent conservative think tank, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Here, the Dalai Lama spoke on two panels, one of which was entitled “Moral Free Enterprise: Economic Perspectives in Business and Politics.” (The video is available online.) The stated objective, according to the AEI website, was to discuss how “spiritual development and ethical leadership are indispensable to bring about the full blessings of free enterprise.”

The Dalai Lama sat alongside a who’s who of free market evangelists like the Romney Presidential Campaign’s head economic advisor, Columbia University Professor Glenn Hubbard, and AEI President Arthur Brooks. This wasn’t just quirky photograph weird; this was otherworldly strange. Especially in light of the Dalai Lama’s longstanding avowal of Marxism, as documented in Stuart Smithers’ must-read article “Occupy Buddhism: Or Why the Dalai Lama is a Marxist.”

Smithers establishes that the Dalai Lama’s affection for Marxism is no passing fancy.  Referring to a passage from the 1996 book Beyond Dogma: Dialogues and Discourses, Smithers notes how the Dalai Lama once labeled himself “half-Marxist, half-Buddhist.” His Holiness even adopted the lingo of that German economist of yore, describing his thought as “concerned with distribution of wealth on an equal basis and an equitable utilization of the means of production.” Remember, this was back in ‘96, at the crest of the dot-com bubble, when the global economy appeared stronger than ever. If the Dalai Lama wanted to quietly mingle with the capitalist ranks, that was the time. So why, during a post-recession economic torpor that has wildly exacerbated wealth inequality, did His Holiness show up at the doorstep of market capitalism’s highest of high churches?

Astonishingly enough, by inviting Brooks and AEI vice president Daniella Pletka for a visit to his base in Dharamsala, India, the Dalai Lama was the one who initiated the series of events that led to his appearance at AEI. The trio hit it off at the Tibetan Buddhist outpost, and the ensuing relationship led naturally to a reciprocal request from AEI. The Dalai Lama explained his willingness to attend the event in an interview with Vanity Fair:

Strictly speaking, I am socialist, so I am leftist. Some people say, this organization is more rightist. I have a very good impression [of Brooks], so therefore I accept his invitation. I felt, rightist also human being . . . Their main purpose is how to build happy society. So it doesn’t matter.

He also referred obliquely to naysayers in his opening remarks at AEI when, pointing at Brooks, he recounted,

Earlier he asked me what do you feel in coming to Washington. “Good,” I said, “Good.” Then he said, “Some people are not very happy because there are too many politicians.” Then I responded, “Politicians are also human beings.” On that level, no differences. So I always look on the human level—no demarcation, no differences.

No better act of love, perhaps, than entering the lion’s den and embracing the lions. (The Dalai Lama would likely resist the metaphor.)

AEI’s influence has its high watermark in the second Bush era, from 2000 to 2008, when it vigorously defended the President’s supply-side tax cuts and solidified his case for an invasion of Iraq. Speaking at an AEI event in May 2007, Bush gushed about how much he “admired” the organization. “You know,” he added, “after all, I have been consistently borrowing some of your best people.” He wasn’t kidding. The list of current and former AEI fellows includes many Bush Administration headliners, from John Bolton to Paul Wolfowitz to Dick Cheney.

Hitched to the hip of an unpopular, lame duck president, AEI sought to rebrand itself in 2008 by hiring a new director: the former professional musician Arthur Brooks. Shortly thereafter, Brooks wrote a controversial Wall Street Journal Op-Ed in admiration of the Tea Party movement saying, “Advocates of free enterprise must learn from the growing grassroots protests, and make the moral case for freedom and entrepreneurship. They have to declare that it is a moral issue to confiscate more income from the minority simply because the government can.” It was no accident that Brooks squeezed the words “moral” and “ethical” into the piece wherever he could. This was AEI’s new image: free enterprise as the humane thing to do.

For AEI, the Dalai Lama’s visit—regardless of what he said—marked a PR victory in its ongoing fight for moral authority. From their end, they’d somehow reeled in the most remarkable of fish, and he lay suddenly on the deck of their boat. Close enough to touch. Other panelists seemed as much smitten to meet the Dalai Lama at AEI, of all places, as they were to meet him in general. At one point, Brooks, no longer able to resist, indulged in a wide smile and burst out giddily, “This is such a good day.”

The Dalai Lama continued his remarks by stressing the importance of emotional education as a means for societal transformation. He then warned of the impending climate crisis, and urged that we must acknowledge our interdependence in order to avert catastrophe.

After hedge fund CEO Daniel Loeb spoke about how yoga improved his trading decisions, the Dalai Lama half-jokingly exclaimed, “I’ve developed more respect for capitalism. Otherwise, my impression of capitalism is only take money and exploitation.”

This apparent concession prompted the panel’s most complete moment of unreality. Jonathan Haidt, a professor at New York University’s Stern Business School, couldn’t contain his glee:

This is such a wonderful day when a revered religious leader, who is particularly beloved on the Left, comes to a free market think tank…so this is scrambling all the categories, this makes me so excited that we might finally break out of the rut we’ve been in for so many years in our arguments about the role of business and government.”

Chalk up this comment as more of the panel’s self-congratulatory zeal. The panel had been a success before it even got going. And everybody in attendance seemed to know it, except for His Holiness.

The Dalai Lama had arrived at AEI with an open mind, as though to a monthly book club. No matter the organization’s multi-million dollar budget or its express mission of expanding free enterprise, His Holiness intended to treat the panelists as good faith participants in dialogue. This couldn’t help but feel naïve, and entirely neglectful of structural arguments that the Dalai Lama himself has made in the past. The contradiction is impossible to cleanly reconcile.

Then again, maybe the Dalai Lama anticipated the negative consequences of his appearance. Maybe he just didn’t care. Perhaps he’s trying to teach us—whether politician or Buddhist—that compassion comes at a cost, that it’s never worth denying affection in order to gain the upper hand in a real or imagined zero-sum game. No matter how high the stakes. If that is in fact his lesson, I’m confused as to whether my scoffing is spiritual deficiency or just good common sense.

 –Max Zahn, Editorial Intern


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