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Comment: Buddhism's guru
CanadianChristianity.com[Friday, April 16, 2004 21:38]
By James A. Beverley

I INTERVIEWED the the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India, the site of the Tibet Government in Exile and the home of the Tibetan leader since 1960. Pilgrims usually get to Dharamsala by bus, train, or taxi from New Delhi, an arduous journey of up to 12 hours. Despite the difficulty of the journey, visitors from all over the world flock to what is called "little Lhasa."

Two days before the interview, I was briefed by the Dalai Lama's personal secretary, who, along with the Dalai Lama's personal translator, was present for the interview. There were no rules on protocol, and when the Dalai Lama was ushered into the interview room, he was introduced without any fanfare. After an exchange of greetings, the Dalai Lama expressed concern about the health of Billy Graham.


When the Dalai Lama arrived at the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago in 1993, his Buddhist devotees greeted him with tears, shouts of joy, and an adulation that bordered on worship. When I reviewed such incidents, as well as some Tibetan Buddhists' claims that he is a god-king, sinless and perfect, the Dalai Lama answered with one word: "Nonsense." Then he laughed.

He does believe that he is a reincarnation of a previous Dalai Lama, but he is not sure of the details. "According to some of my dreams, I have some very close connection with the 13th Dalai Lama as well as the 5th Dalai Lama." He said that he must not focus on his fame. "It does not matter whether people regard me as a very high being, almost like Buddha, or a counterrevolutionary. What matters is whether I remain a genuine Buddhist monk and accordingly make some contribution for the betterment of other sentient beings."

The Dalai Lama is remarkably candid about his personal failings. His struggles to control his temper are recounted in Freedom in Exile, his second autobiographical work. In several interviews the Dalai Lama hasadmitted that he struggles with lust. He told Tricycle, a leading Buddhist magazine, that when he thinks about beautiful women, he has to remember classical Buddhist teaching that the human body will one day be a rotting corpse.

His aides in Dharamsala tell the Dalai Lama that he works too hard, but he joked in the interview about his laziness when it comes to things he hates to do. He did admit that the demands of being a teacher and politician have forced him to give up hobbies like gardening and repairing watches. He follows a regular routine of early-morning prayers and meditation and midmorning administrative work, and then gives his afternoons to interviews and public forums. Though his schedule is tight, he is flexible. At one point in the interview, when his attention was drawn to the time, he said, "This is not New York or Washington. Let's keep talking."

Though Boston University professor Stephen Prothero has warned about a shallow and banal American "Boomer Buddhism," the Dalai Lama said he is generally not discouraged about the type of Buddhism he sees when he visits the West. He believes that people from different areas should keep their own faith. "Changing religion is not easy," he said. "Sometimes it creates more confusion." If someone in the West finds Buddhism more suitable, "It is their individual right, but it is extremely important to keep their respect towards their own traditional religion."

He did not seem concerned about the depth or style of Buddhist devotion in America, except to make a point against what he called "New Age Buddhists" who take concepts from every religion. "If they do that and make clear this is something new, that is all right. If they claim that such a mixture is traditional Tibetan Buddhism, then this is not right."

One world religion

The Dalai Lama is no advocate of one world religion. He has consistently spoken against this in his public speeches. "So if one is always trying to look at things in terms of similarities and parallels, there is a danger of rolling everything up into one big entity," he writes in The Good Heart, his book about the teachings of Jesus. "I do not personally advocate seeking a universal religion; I don't think it advisable to do so. And if we proceed too far in drawing these parallels and ignoring the differences, we might end up doing exactly that!"

But if not a universal religion, what about a universal following of Buddha? Why does he not simply urge people to follow the path of Buddha as the only truth?

He replied by citing India's pluralistic past and said that contradictions in Buddha's own philosophical teaching have forced Buddhists to realize that "one teaching or one view will not satisfy."

"To some people Christianity is much more effective, in some other case, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, or Zoroastrianism," he said. "Even if I say that Buddhism is the best, that everybody should follow Buddhism, everybody is not going to become a Buddhist." He laughed.

"But you do believe Buddhism is the best, don't you?"

"Yes," he replied, "I can say that for me personally, Buddhism is best because the Buddhist approach is most effective to me."

"This does not mean Buddhism is best for everyone. No," he said when pushed further. "Now, for my Christian brother or sister, Christianity is best for him or for her." But Christianity, he said, is not the best for him. "Here, the concept of one religion, one truth, is very relevant for the individual," he said, qualifying his other statements about one religion. "But for the community it must be several truths, several religions."

He believes this solves the contradiction between religions, though he said there is a unity of all major religions on "the message of compassion, forgiveness, tolerance, contentment, simplicity, then self-discipline."

In terms of his own faith, the Dalai Lama drew a parallel between emotional love for Buddha and Christian love for Jesus. He said that his reflection on Buddha's teaching and sacrifice has led him to tears at times. Does he thank Buddha for the good things in his life?

"Frankly speaking, my own happiness is mainly due to my own good karma," he said. "It is a fundamental Buddhist belief that my own suffering is due to my mistakes. If some good things happen, that is mainly due to my own good actions, not something related to a direct connection with Buddha."

Christ's integrity

In our interview, we devoted considerable time to the identity and integrity of Jesus. The Dalai Lama seemed at ease with the questioning, even while admitting that this was possibly the toughest area for exploration between evangelical Christians and Buddhists.

I reminded him of his belief that Jesus is "a fully enlightened being" and asked, "If Jesus is fully enlightened, wouldn't he be teaching the truth about himself? Therefore, if he is teaching the truth, then he is the Son of God, and there is a God, and Jesus is the Savior. If he is fully enlightened, he should teach the truth. If he is not teaching the truth, he is not that enlightened."

As the Dalai Lama felt the momentum of the question, he laughed more than at any other time in the interview. He obviously understood the argument, borrowed from C. S. Lewis' Mere Christianity.

"This is a very good question," he said. "This is very, very important, very important." Even in Buddha's case, he said, a distinction must always be made between teachings that "always remain valid" and others that "we have the liberty to reject."

He argued that the Buddha knew people were not always ready for the higher truth because it "wouldn't suit, wouldn't help." Therefore, lesser truths are sometimes taught because of the person's ignorance or condition. This is known in Buddhist dharma as the doctrine of uppayah, or 'skillful means.' The Dalai Lama then applied this to the question about Jesus.

"Jesus Christ also lived previous lives," he said. "So, you see, he reached a high state, either as a Bodhisattva, or an enlightened person, through Buddhist practice or something like that. Then, at a certain period, certain era, he appeared as a new master, and then because of circumstances, he taught certain views different from Buddhism, but he also taught the same religious values as I mentioned earlier: Be patient, tolerant, compassionate. This is, you see, the real message in order to become a better human being." He said that there was absolutely no lying involved since Jesus' motivation was to help people.

The True Light

I came away from the interview impressed by the Dalai Lama's charisma, intelligence and kindness -- but also with deep concerns about key aspects of Buddhism and especially about the Dalai Lama's views on Jesus. Here is the core of what separates Buddhists and Christians, and thus must remain a key element in conversations with Buddhists. Karl Barth noted: "Only one thing is really decisive for the distinction of truth and error . . . Jesus Christ."

While the Dalai Lama's claim that Jesus is a fully enlightened being offers some common ground with Christian faith, he does not seem to grasp the difficulties inherent in his position.

In the four gospels the integrity of Jesus' moral teaching is intimately linked with the accuracy of his self-identity, not only by the opponents and disciples of Jesus, but also by Jesus himself. It is impossible to picture an enlightened Jesus once a Buddhist perspective is used to evaluate his truth claims. For example, Jesus praised Peter for his belief that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God. Jesus said God revealed this to the disciple. From a Buddhist perspective, there is no God to reveal anything. If there is no God, then Jesus is not the Son of God, and Peter's confession is false. What does this suggest about the integrity of Jesus as a teacher?

Furthermore, why is it that humans in Jesus' day could not be given the same Buddhist message delivered by Gautama Buddha just a few centuries earlier in India? The Dalai Lama rightly recognizes that good teaching modifies itself to the audience to some degree. Was the karma so bad in Israel to require withholding the Buddha's teachings on reincarnation, the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, and the nature of enlightenment?

Finally, claims that Jesus is really a Buddha in disguise are no compliment to Jesus or Buddha. How would Buddhists feel if Christians claimed that Gautama was really a Christian figure ahead of his time?

Still, it is no small matter that the most famous Buddhist on earth has a high regard for Jesus Christ. When he was asked to compare himself with Jesus in an interview with the New York Times in 1993, the Dalai Lama refused to do so. His recognition of the greatness of Jesus provides a hope for further engagement with what it really means that Jesus is a great master and a fully enlightened being. "Perhaps," one might suggest on another occasion, "Jesus is so enlightened that he is truly the light of the world."

James A. Beverley is professor of theology and ethics at Tyndale Seminary in Toronto, and associate director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion in Santa Barbara, California. His website is www.religionwatch.ca.
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