June 11th, 2011
08:00 AM ET
By Moni Basu, CNN
Karl Marx called religion the opium of the masses, so a few folks were taken aback when the Dalai Lama proclaimed himself a Marxist during a recent visit to Minnesota.
Minneapolis-based writer Tsering Namgyal listened in on the Dalai Lama's talk with 150 Chinese students at the University of Minnesota. Surprised by what he heard, he wrote about it for Religion Dispatches. Namgyal said midway through the conversation, the Dalai Lama said: "As far as sociopolitical beliefs are concerned, I consider myself a Marxist."
Wait. The spiritual leader quickly clarified his position. "But not a Leninist," he said.
Whew. Maybe that last part was enough to placate thousands of followers who see the Dalai Lama as the global face of compassion and, more importantly, a living symbol of opposition to Chinese rule in Tibet.
The Tibetan leader went on to discuss whether his religiosity contradicted his fondness for Marxism.
"The Tibetan leader answered that Marx was not against religion or religious philosophy per se but against religious institutions that were allied, during Marx’s time, with the European ruling class. He also provided an interesting anecdote about his experience with Mao. He said that Mao had felt that the Dalai Lama’s mind was very logical, implying that Buddhist education and training help sharpen the mind. He said he met with Mao several times, and that once, during a meeting in Beijing, the Chinese leader called him in and announced: 'Your mind is scientific!' - an assessment that was followed by the famous line, 'Religion is poison.' "
The Dalai Lama formally relinquished his political and administrative powers in May but remains the spiritual leader of the Tibetan community worldwide.
Namgyal found the three-hour exchange between the Chinese students and the Dalai Lama interesting. China, which took over six decades ago, accuses the Dalai Lama of being a separatist.
The dialogue, wrote Namgyal, gave the Dalai Lama the opportunity to portray a very different picture of himself than what the Chinese students usually hear from Beijing. That was a good thing for Namgyal because, he wrote, those students would one day be leading China.
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