Friday, July 15, 2011

Questioning the Dalai Lama

Tenzin Gyatso (b. 1935) is known around the world as the Dalai Lama. He has been in town this week, and I could have gone to hear him speak.
The “town” mentioned is Washington, D.C., and the Dalai Lama has spoken Verizon Center in D.C. daily since July 6. His final appearance there (this time) is tomorrow. During most of these days I have been staying in a D.C. suburb, so I could have easily gone to one of his gatherings.
Sunday morning I even had a free ticket in my hand, but gave it back as I had already decided not to go.
I probably would have gone if I could have met him personally and said, “Hello, Dalai!” (This is probably an irreverent pun, but I am enough of a latent Quaker to dislike ranking people hierarchically, with some “properly” addressed only as Your Highness.)
My decision not to go was largely based on an examination of why I would go. It seemed that being able to “boast” later that I had seen and heard the Dalai Lama was the main reason for going. So I decided just to listen to his July 9 talk on YouTube and read “A Human Approach to World Peace,” his essay first published in 1984.
To be honest, I am not very favorably impressed with what the Dalai Lama has to say. But I can see why he is quite popular in this country (and around the “developed” world). His message is appealing to those who tend to believe that personal and societal happiness can be achieved by people thinking correctly and trying harder.
The Dalai Lama proclaims that “we must generate a good and kind heart, for without this, we can achieve neither universal happiness nor lasting world peace.” That may well be true, but how do we go about generating such a heart?
Traditional Buddhism emphasizes the “eightfold path,” but the Dalai Lama claims he is not trying to convert people to Buddhism. Still, he sees the basic human problem through Buddhist eyes. He writes, “The great [religious] teachers wanted to lead their followers away from the paths of negative deeds caused by ignorance and to introduce them to paths of goodness.”
But according to the traditional Christian worldview, the human predicament is not rooted in ignorance; it is due to sin. And the solution is not enlightenment (a freeing from ignorance) but forgiveness and redemption linked to repentance. Such a perspective, though, is becoming harder and harder to “sell” in our narcissistic culture. Many people seem to like the Dalai Lama’s ideas better; they would rather meditate than repent.
And they would rather seek to save themselves than to trust someone else to save them. The Dalai Lama acknowledges that some people “prefer Buddhism” because “everything depends upon your own actions.” That appeals to those who want to be master of their own fate.
But is there no need for a Savior? Do we humans only need a guide to show us the way to live?
There are more questions I have about the Dalai Lama’s message, and I will likely continue these musings on the July 20 posting.
Note: Most of the quotes in this posting are from “A Human Approach to World Peace,” which can be found here. His July 9 talk is available at this link.


  1. Leroy:

    As always I appreciated your comments on "not seeing" the Dalai Lama. As a Buddhist Christian, my opinion differs from yours on several points. I do feel the world is closer to peace when I am living free of attachments and desires. I also choose to seek knowledge and transform it into wisdom whenever I can. That is one of the reasons I love hanging out with you and others like you.

    I am not convinced we need a Savior. Jesus, in my reading and opinion, came not to rescue us from our selves, but to model out true selves and invite us to follow him, to live like him. There is so much more in the Hebrew Scriptures and writings of the Early Church about grace and heaven and forgiveness than there is about sin and brokenness and the need for atonement through ritual sacrifice.

    Perhaps this is a conversation we could carry on personally and in a Vital Conversation. As always I treasure your wisdom and celebrate your friendship.

    Be well and feel good - David
    The Human Agenda

  2. Well, I've read quite a bit of the Dalai Lama's writings and studied Buddhism a bit. Here's what I'm wondering: Given the contrasting metaphysics and thus also the contrasting language, you have an evangelical prescription for "salvation," and the Dalai Lama has a Buddhist prescription. But in the subsequent lives of human beings, do these different prescriptions make for any significant difference in the lives of the devout, or even the mildly devout? In other words, are redeemed sinners more loving, gracious, responsible, just, etc. than than those pursuing the eightfold path?

    Whatever the empirical answer, I realize that that would not logically justify one metaphysic over the other, but there is the suggestive inference that a more accurate metaphysic in the realm of the spiritual should produce fruit befitting its accuracy.

  3. Well, I suspect most of the Dalai Lama's popularity is based on the extraordinary contrast of his story with that of the Chinese Communists who occupy his land. We love an underdog, especially a noble underdog.

    As for the contrast of sin versus ignorance, I have a nominal enough view of metaphysics to suspect that most of the difference is semantics. We have different ways of telling the human story. A number of these blog subjects have in one way or another touched on this issue, and we have teased this out in different ways. The concept of sin has through the centuries frequently been used as a weapon of oppression, in a way not at all complimentary to Christian culture. Jesus famously tells us, "You shall know the truth, and the truth will make you free." So perhaps a strength of Christian understanding is that it can take us through both concepts to a wider vision.