08.06.12

Dalai Lama, Twitter Rock Star: The Virtual Influence of His Holiness

From a headquarters in India, a team of techies manage the Tibetan spiritual leader’s ever-growing social-media world. But can you hashtag true enlightenment? By Melinda Liu.

Conventional wisdom has it that karma went high-tech when the exiled Dalai Lama met Twitter co-founder Evan Williams during one of the Tibetan spiritual leader’s California trips two years ago.

“Met the Dalai Lama today in LA. Pitched him on using Twitter. He laughed,” read Williams’s now much-quoted tweet. The next day, a Monday, inaugural tweets materialized on the official Twitter page of the Office of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, @DalaiLama. By Tuesday, it had 69,000 followers.

But insiders recall a different sequence of events. The social-media accounts of the Dalai Lama, also known as His Holiness (or HH for short) to his followers, are managed by a team in his office, headed by official photographer Tenzin Choejor, a tech-savvy 33-year-old. “I’m very much a Netizen,” Choejor said. “I’m always looking at people’s Facebook pages. Even though His Holiness has had a website since 2005, in this busy 21st century people don’t have time to go to your site all the time. We felt it was very important to deliver the content and messages of His Holiness to people via social networks.”

There was a more mundane reason, too. Earlier, a Twitter account had been opened by an imposter claiming to belong to the Dalai Lama’s office. (Sample tweet: “I'm sure HH will be just as inquisitive about technology as he has been over the past 14 reincarnations.”) It had attracted 16,000 followers in a single weekend before it was suspended by the site’s staff  in February 2009. “That fake Twitter account also made us realize we needed to do it,” Choejor told The Daily Beast from Dharamsala via Skype. “Otherwise someone else would do it, and their tweets might be taken as genuine words of the Dalai Lama, even if it’s all just in the virtual world.”

But a full-blown social-media campaign doesn’t come to life overnight. “A lot of things had to come together,” said one of the Dalai Lama’s tweetmeisters. The website was key—it underwent a redesign and relaunched in December 2009, followed by his first tweets, Facebook a month later, and then YouTube in July 2010. Last October the Dalai Lama’s office joined Google+ and participated in a live “hangout” with Archbishop Desmond Tutu. (The other good thing about social media is you can “meet” with a friend in a distant land—in this case South Africa—even if its government declines to give you a visa.)  

Tweets from the “Ocean of Wisdom,” which is what the title “Dalai Lama” means, began Feb. 22, 2010, the 70th anniversary of his inauguration in the gem-encrusted Lion Throne in Lhasa. The first seven tweets were simply links to articles and images related to his American tour. Now the messages are mostly one- or two-sentence spiritual aphorisms like, “People in every part of the world are fed up with violence,” or links to webcasts. In little more than two years, his Twitter following has proliferated to nearly 5 million—or, more precisely, 4,814,521 as of Aug. 3, said Choejor.

And yet, who’s counting? “We don’t make comparisons with others,” maintained Choejor. “We just do our job, just pour out the tweets and photos and quotations in a way that suits His Holiness.” By comparison, Deepak Chopra has 1 million followers; Barack Obama, 18 million. “The Dalai Lama isn’t, like, Lady Gaga,” said Josh Baran, a New York–based consultant who’s helped with communications strategies for a number of the Tibetan spiritual leader’s U.S. visits during the past 25 years. He saw nothing paradoxical about comparing the most highly revered Tibetan incarnate deity dating back to the 14th century with a Western pop-culture diva. “But 4.8 million is a lot. Definitely the Dalai Lama has entered the new age of modern communications. He’s completely embraced social media.”

The 77-year-old Nobel laureate’s Facebook page allows more of his personal warmth to shine through, such as a special first-person message thanking well-wishers who’d observed his July 7 birthday. The Dalai Lama’s travels are meticulously documented by videographers, and their content seems increasingly well curated. His YouTube presence mixes longish speeches with short, bright snippets. In one, he chatted about his favorite sports—ping-pong and cricket—with visiting Indian cricketers.

Which is not to say His Holiness actually writes his own tweets. A handful of people—two full time and others on a more casual basis—make up the AV team in his office in Dharamsala, India. They manage his social-media accounts under guidance from higher-ups who run the office. One team member says, “His Holiness just lets us do our thing.” That normally involves choosing appropriate quotations from the Dalai Lama’s books and recent speeches (“We work hard to make sure its his voice,” said the team member) and putting up live webcasts whenever he gives Buddhist teachings. The goal is not to gain followers but to promote religious harmony and human values—and to post content from the Dalai Lama’s daytime activities swiftly, so that when people wake up in the morning, they see something new.

The Dalai Lama is quite happy to contemplate the karma of digital technology while leaving geeky details to the younger crowd. “His Holiness isn’t too involved,” said Choejor, who’s worked in the Dalai Lama’s office since July 2005, after attending Madras Christian College and obtaining a B.A. in political science and a master’s in communications. “He doesn’t have an iPad or Kindle; he doesn’t use computers. He doesn’t carry communications devices. His office handles all that. We just report up and occasionally inform him, ‘You have this many fans.’”

Since the ’90s, the Dalai Lama and his entourage have been legendary for punching above their weight in terms of soft power. About 15 years ago, to capitalize on the release of two Hollywood films, Seven Years in Tibet starring Brad Pitt and Kundun directed by Martin Scorsese, consultant Baran pulled together a 50-page PowerPoint-style presentation titled “Tibet 2000” proposing that the government-in-exile use conferences and celebrity endorsements to raise public awareness about Tibet.

“With a hundred other things fighting for your attention, how much contemplative thought can you absorb?”

“His people liked it and said, ‘Go present it to the Dalai Lama.’ I thought that meant sit down and walk him through the campaign,” Baran chuckled. “Instead I was hustled into the presence of the Dalai Lama, who flipped through pages for maybe 30 seconds. Then his people asked him to give his blessing. He laid his hand casually on the top page and literally blessed the PowerPoint.”

That campaign got the Dalai Lama’s message across so potently that, within a couple years, The New York Times was trumpeting “the powerful Tibet lobby.”

“It was amazing, given that the communications campaign had few staff and almost no money. There was a big event on the Mall; there were concerts; there was Richard Gere. It all sort of came together,” recalled Baran. “I guess the blessing worked.”

The visceral capabilities of new technologies came home to the Tibetan spiritual leader in March 2008, when violent riots erupted in Lhasa and other Tibetan communities shortly before the Beijing Olympics. The worst unrest there since the ’80s underscored many Tibetans’ laments that their culture, religion, and environment were falling victim to official repression. A week after the bloodshed, in a Newsweek interview, the Tibetan spiritual leader confessed he’d shed tears when he saw images—captured and transmitted by cellphones—of mangled Tibetan corpses. (Beijing said 19 people, mostly ethnic Chinese, were killed; Tibetan exiles question that toll.)

The Dalai Lama said at the time that Chinese officials were having more and more difficulty suppressing grassroots resentment due to the rapid transmission of information and images through mobile and Internet technology. “Now authorities are trying to control [things] by shutting down these services. But it’s very difficult to control everything.” He said mobile phones’ ability to disseminate news virtually in real time was probably “a factor” in the speed and scope with which the unrest spread.

Today, the Dalai Lama is focused on showing how social media can provide new channels of communication between Tibetans and ethnic Chinese. A year ago, for the second time in two months, he answered questions on Twitter from mainland Chinese and Tibetan Netizens, saying he wanted to create “a big family that enables Chinese and Tibetans to coexist in a friendly fashion.” Social media “has accelerated the beginning of dialogue between ordinary Tibetans and Chinese,” said Kate Saunders, a London-based researcher for the International Campaign for Tibet. “It's a very important initiative for the Dalai Lama.”

As part of her work, Saunders monitors and verifies information conveyed by residents inside Tibetan areas. In the past couple years, some news about protests, self-immolations, and activists being arrested or sentenced “has reached us almost immediately, thanks to cellphones and social media, especially Weibo,” the Chinese microblogging service that functions like Twitter, she said. Since February 2009, 44 Tibetans have set themselves on fire in protest against Beijing’s rule, and images of some of those self-immolations are among the most graphic on YouTube.

Whether constant tweeting is an appropriate vehicle for Buddhist wisdom is another question and has triggered much debate. “Twitter is an empty box for sharing information. If you follow the Dalai’s tweets, you get small, easily digestible doses, and you may think you don’t need to read his books. But with a hundred other things fighting for your attention, how much contemplative thought can you absorb?” said Soren Gordhamer, who calls himself “Buddhist friendly.” 

Gordhamer founded and hosts Wisdom 2.0, an annual conference that last year brought together the cofounders of Twitter, Facebook, eBay, and PayPal as well as Western spiritual teachers and the Dalai Lama’s principal translator. They all showed up "to explore how to make a better world ... and explore living with mindfulness, wisdom, and compassion in a digital age,” said Gordhamer, who advocates occasionally turning off all the gadgets in favor of deeper thinking.

That's not a problem for the Dalai Lama. CNN’s Piers Morgan interviewed the Nobel laureate in April and commented on his cyber-popularity: “You have 4 million followers on Twitter. That’s twice as many as me. I’m not happy about that.” The Dalai Lama confessed he “never” tweets himself, that his fingers are “not so well-equipped” for sending emails: “I’ll ask someone to do it [for me].” As for his global celebrity, the “Ocean of Wisdom” gave his standard answer: “I’m just a simple Buddhist monk.”