"… this president is not interested in symbolism or photo ops but in deliverables. He wants something to come out of his efforts over Tibet, rather than just checking a box." — Asian diplomat
In eight years, I was hard-pressed ever to compliment, never mind agree with, practically anything George W. Bush did as president, whether in foreign policy or otherwise.
Yet, I was genuinely pleased, no, actually grateful, as an American Buddhist practicing in the Tibetan tradition when in 2007 Bush not only met publicly with the Dalai Lama, but actually bestowed upon him one of our nation's highest honors — apparently without giving a second thought as to the anger that would stir within the Chinese government.
So you can imagine my dismay at the news that President Obama apparently is so concerned about irritating the Chinese now that he will become the first American president in nearly 20 years to skip meeting with the Dalai Lama when His Holiness returns to Washington this week.
And yet, even in the midst of my disappointment, the quote I have above above caught my eye and captured my thinking.
That's because as absolutely joyful as I am whenever a president or other high official lauds the Dalai Lama, or delivers some sternly worded talk about the need for China to seriously engage on the issue of Tibet's future — that's all it is, just talk.
The Tibetans have been waiting more than 50 years for something more than talk — literally. When the Chinese first invaded Tibet in 1950, the Dalai Lama telegrammed the world's powers seeking assistance. None of them, the United States included, even bothered to reply.
For a thousand years, the "Land of Snows" had been one of the world's greatest contemplative societies, equal to ancient Greece, as Tibet valued spirtual enlightenment above all pursuits.
No more. The Tibetans have endured extraordinary cruelty at the hands of the Chinese in the decades since the Red Army first seized their mountainous kingdom. The Chinese burned most of the ancient Tibetan monasteries, imprisoning and tortturing many of Tibet's Buddhist teachers, out of spite against the religion. Even today, that the ability of Tibetans to practice Buddhism has been dramatically curtailed is just one of the grave injustices they face.
If the American leaders who preach about the spread of human rights and democracy actually meant a word of it, Tibet would rise to the top of their agendas. Yet the issue of Tibet usually has been treated as little more than an inconvenience. Their voices are seldom heard, which is why a photo-op between the Dalai Lama and an American president sustains such hope.
The truth is, however that even these encounters have accomplished little. Indeed, they may even have been counter-productive from the standpoint that they allow Americans to assuage what concern they have without having to show much actual progress.
Which brings us once more to that quote hanging at the top of the page, and the possibility that an American president could be interested in delivering progress for the Tibetan people.
One hopes President Obama is serious about applying his gifts to solving the Tibetan issue.
If that's true, then His Holiness and the Tibetan people would wait. They are patient people, given that demonstrating patience is one of the hallmarks of Buddhist practice.
If it's not, then putting off the Dalai Lama by only raising false hopes will be just the latest cruelty Tibetans will have to suffer.