Dalai Lama's Counsel 'the Oracle' in Fundraising Mode

SF Weekly on a masturbatory feel-good party for SF's eco-bureaucrats topped off by the Tibetan Oracle, who is as qualified to speak on the global warming phenomenon as Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell.
BY MATT NOVAK
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The Tibetan Oracle (the official ghost of state, Nechung, which speaks through the human medium during a trance, kind of like a possession) returns to the Bay Area Sunday, August 5th and Monday the 6th, wrapping up two-month, 12-city U.S. tour that began here June 15.

Back then at the San Francisco Public Library, the Venerable Thupten Ngodup and his entourage of Lamas sat down for a Q&A with Jared Blumenfeld, Director of the San Francisco Department of the Environment. "Global warming and individual responsibility" topped the advertised purpose of the forum and the reason for a rare visit by the prime advisor of Tibet’s exhiled Dalai Lama.

The message couldn’t be more timely or urgent, as San Francisco will be especially troubled by climate change. According to the Department's Web site, "A rise in temperature and sea level and an upsurge in storms will test the limits of the city's infrastructure and the welfare of its citizens and wildlife." In the city's three-year-old Climate Action Plan, Mayor Newsom outlined the potential devastation:

Low lying areas such as San Francisco International Airport, Treasure Island, Mission Bay, SBC and Candlestick Parks, roads, railroad tracks, sewage treatment plants, and our marina and harbor facilities could be threatened.

The Oracle's credentials on the subject are muddled by the question of who or what he is. The answer is a metaphysical morass typical of religious traditions. The Oracle, a.k.a Nechung Kuten, a.k.a. Thupten Ngodup (incidentally, also the name of a Buddhist who self-immolated in 1998 to protest Tibet’s occupation), spun his story of the Tibetan exile and spiritual training. By way of the environment, he mentioned dwindling snow cover, perhaps rightly pointing a finger at the Chinese, who have occupied the country since 1959, and initiated massive and largely unrestricted mining and logging projects.

With the translator going on about rhino horns and listing tree species after a dozen or so words from the Oracle, it's difficult to tell what might be lost in translation. But the monk quickly admitted he doesn't really know that much about global warming or the environmental sciences. The balance of Nechung's message is fairly simple and particularly dated in this town: Spread peace and love. While altruistic, it hardly qualifies as unique insight on global warming, or anything else.

Another motive for Thupten Ngodup's visit, unannounced in the city's press releases but described on the tour's site --- contributions for a new half-million dollar Buddhist monastery in Southern India. According to tour sponsors Partnerships for Change, tour expenses tack on another $175,000. Donors are encouraged to contribute by the promise of "an eternal blessing... in a sponsored Buddha statue to be placed in the new Monastery."

Only a total flake denies the social benefits of personal responsibility. But when it comes to global climate change, there's no conclusive evidence it's avoidable. While manufactured pollutants have doped up the process, current global temps are part of a warming trend that's been going on since the last Ice Age. Hell, global warming has its benefits. Melting glaciers have opened the fabled Northwest Passage in the Arctic Ocean, promising more efficient global shipping, and expanding economic opportunities for people living above the Arctic Circle. When Blumenfeld questioned why one finds TVs in the remotest Tibetan villages playing American shows like "Baywatch," the Oracle laughingly explained that Tibetans were longing for the beach (presumably not the babes). Who knows? With global warming, surf and sun may be in Tibet's future. The Oracle wisely refrained such fortune telling (preferring to dole out such truisms as "past actions lead to present circumstances").

One thirty-ish interior designer in the audience indicated a general interest in global warming, but said that her first impulse to attend the event was “to see the Oracle.” Which was it, self-edification or celebrity-sighting? “Both, actually,” she revised.

I understand the enthusiasm of those involved to host an exotic, reclusive international dignitary. Monks are cute. But I don't know if it falls under the Department of the Environment's mission to develop "innovative, practical and wide-ranging environmental programs." To be fair, San Francisco has been at the front of the race to go green. But by the time Blumenfeld whipped out the certificate from City Hall, it was hard to shake the impression that I was attending a masturbatory feel-good party for SF's eco-bureaucrats. As a man of faith, Thupten Ngodup is about as qualified to speak on the global warming phenomenon as more domestic and vitriolic snake oil salesmen like Pat Robertson or the late Jerry Falwell. While recent efforts by organized religion to address issues of environmental health, such as the Interfaith Power and Light campaign are commendable, such efforts are predicated on sound scientific research; the Oracle's "indigenous spiritual wisdom" didn't offer any practical solutions for preventing the forecast flood.

The Department of the Environment and the Library passed off what is fundamentally a fundraising junket by a foreign dignitary as a legitimate public forum on a serious scientific issue and that's dubious behavior for agencies funded by public tax dollars, regardless of how many of those were actually spent to put on the show. At least admission was free. No public events are scheduled for the Oracle’s bookend visit this weekend. If you missed him the first time around, your only chance to get your slice of feel-good pie may be to fork over a few grand.


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