Person of Interest: Holy Celebrity

The Dalai Lama is an international rock star—-but he rarely strikes an original chord. Instead, he blurs the line between triviality and transcendence.

By Joachim I. Krueger Ph.D., published on September 2, 2013 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, né Lhamo Döndrub, has achieved world fame and adoration on a scale that is unique. He transcends ordinary social categories and—unusual for a high-status individual—he has few if any detractors, aside from the regime of the People's Republic of China. How did the Dalai Lama attain his supreme status and how does he maintain it?

One piece of the puzzle is the nature of his message. The Dalai Lama seeks to simplify and unify. He ignores contradictions or seeks deeper commonalities. He sees no conflict between science and spirituality, or between religions or religion and no religion. His view of the basic sameness of all things resonates in a world weary of strife and threatened by conflict. His message is reassuring, repetitive, and reductive. His moral code reduces to a single word: compassion.

Anyone could convey this message, but most would be ignored. The second piece of the puzzle is that the Dalai Lama brings the authority of a high religious office. Even non-Buddhists who have no idea what a Lama is (let alone a Dalai) understand that he heads a national branch of a world religion.

All religions assume that certain individuals have special access to divine, esoteric, or transcendental knowledge, although they tend to be mute on just how this knowledge is transmitted. This view does not rise to the level of a testable hypothesis; believing it is part of the religious perspective itself. The idea of privileged access among a select few is among the last to die when people fall away from a religious tradition; hence, it is also the easiest to project onto high-ranking representatives of other religions. To take advantage of this idea, the Dalai Lama needs only to avoid ideas that are open to refutation or ideas that contradict accepted scientific knowledge.

When he lapses, as he did when declaring that he might refuse to reincarnate, he stands to lose credibility. From an enlightenment point of view (sensu Voltaire, not Buddha), he cannot reincarnate; therefore announcing his refusal to reincarnate presupposes that he could. When, however, the Dalai Lama announces that all humans are entitled to attain happiness, he is not contradicting logic or evidence.

The Dalai Lama likes to emphasize that he is an ordinary person and monk. This is both true and false. He is like the rest of us physically, mentally, emotionally. Yet he sits at the hub of a highly asymmetrical social network, jetting around the world to collect honorary degrees and mingling with the Hollywood cognoscenti. Most high-status individuals do not stress their ordinariness. They fear that it would undermine their position if it were believed or seen as a coquettish tactic. The Dalai Lama professes his ordinariness and it appears to strengthen his status. How does he do it?

 Modern pic of Dalai Lama Warhol style

Photo by Popartworks.com

Consider some tweets from "the official Twitter page of the Office of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama." The account boasts over 7 million followers, not as many as Barack Obama (34 million) but more than Pope Francis (3 million).

June 7, 2013: "I feel that each of us has the potential to make some contribution and together, working with a clear aim, we can change our world."

June 14, 2013: "Our real guide is our own mind, our sense of reason."

June 18, 2013: "Genuine peace is based on inner peace, because you cannot build peace on the basis of anger."

To the disinterested reader, these tweets blur the line between spiritual insight and the wisdom of a fortune cookie. To a reader who has accepted the idea of privileged access, however, the content is irrelevant. What matters is that it cannot be subjected to empirical evaluation. It is in the Dalai Lama's interest not to assert anything that can be judged as true or false on the basis of fact. When people consume the Dalai Lama's messages, they respond more to his brand value rather than to the substance.

By contrast, consider a few recent tweets from the office of Pope Francis during the same period:

June 1, 2013: "In this Year of Faith, we pray to the Lord that the Church may always be a true family that brings God's love to everyone."

June 4, 2013: "Christ leads us to go out from ourselves more and more, to give ourselves and to serve others."

June 19, 2013: "Christians are ready to proclaim the Gospel because they can't hide the joy that comes from knowing Christ."

The Pope speaks to the faithful of his church; the Dalai Lama speaks to humanity. The Pope assumes common conceptual ground; the Dalai Lama turns triviality into transcendence. Because he is already a supreme being, the trivial is sanctified.

Some months ago I attended a lecture and Q&A with the Dalai Lama in Providence, Rhode Island. He struck me as a rather superficial man who giggled too much and dodged complicated (or even interesting) issues. He made three simple points: First, he said he felt that he already knew us because all people share so many similarities (true). Second, he said that there are unique group characteristics (e.g., cultural practices or oral histories) that are worth preserving (true). Third, all people deserve to be happy because they can be happy (arguably true). I suspect that if anyone else made a speech like this, we would demand to hear something that we didn't already know.

The third piece of the puzzle is that global celebrity status is by definition a collective phenomenon and self-reinforcing. A newcomer who wishes to declare her admiration for a representative of Tibetan Buddhism will do better choosing the Dalai Lama than the Panchen Lama. Her admiration will be understood, shared, and validated by many others. This is good for the Dalai Lama too. His next incarnation being uncertain, he is making the best of the present one.

Joachim I. Krueger, Ph.D., is the author of the PT blog "One Among Many" from which this piece is adapted.