By David F. Dawes
IN BOTH spiritual and secular circles, he is routinely referred to as 'His Holiness' -- and in a very real sense, he is a kind of 'Pope' of Buddhism. A recent Vancouver Sun headline affectionately called him "the aw-shucks, superstar god-king"; the Georgia Straight whimsically labeled him a "celebrity Buddhist."
They were referring to the Dalai Lama, Nobel Peace Prize recipient and exiled leader of Tibet. Tickets for one of his upcoming Vancouver appearances have been "scooped up . . . with the same fervour that rabid hockey fans grab Canucks playoff tickets," according to the Sun's Douglas Todd.
Excitement is also running high in Ontario. Among other things, the Dalai Lama is scheduled to meet with Prime Minister Paul Martin in Ottawa; and he will conduct a major Buddhist ceremony in Toronto. "Entire cities feel better when His Holiness comes to town," writes Trevor Carolan in Shared Vision, characterizing the Dalai Lama as "a magnetic humanitarian presence for our time."
Sharon Bettsinger, affiliated with the Zuru Ling Tibetan Buddhist Centre in Vancouver, sees in the Dalai Lama "an attitude of joy, of gentle happiness -- full of kindness." Victor Chan, chief organizer of the April 17 - 20 Vancouver visit, observes: "He's for real, as Bishop Tutu has said. There is no other leader I can think of who has his stature -- except perhaps Nelson Mandela."
Respect for the Dalai Lama is shared by many Christians. Dave Carson, pastor of First Century Church in Burnaby, B.C. says the Tibetan monk "lives an ascetic life, teaching compassion and peace -- and does not seem to be in it for the money." According to Ken MacQueen, principal of the Vancouver School of Theology, the Dalai Lama "is so admired because he appears authentic in his spiritual sensitivity."
This is evident in the man's books. "I believe that love, compassion and altruism are the fundamental basis for peace," he writes. "Once these qualities are developed within an individual, he or she is then able to create an atmosphere of peace and harmony. This atmosphere can be expanded and extended from the individual . . . to the whole world."
The highlight of his Vancouver visit will be a 'roundtable dialogue' moderated by Anglican Bishop Michael Ingham, sheduled April 20 at the Chan Centre. In addition to the Dalai Lama, participants will include Nobel Peace Prize winners Desmond Tutu and Shirin Ebadi.
The three will also receive honourary degrees from both the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University; and the Dalai Lama will inaugurate the first Tibetan studies program in Canada, at UBC. One measure of the esteem in which he is held is the fact that, throughout this month, there are some six dozen arts-related events dedicated to him throughout southern B.C.
In Ottawa April 21 - 24, the Dalai Lama will be meeting with government officials, business organizations and various other groups, in support of the 'Tibet / China Negotiation Campaign' sponsored by Canada Tibet Committee (CTC). The aim of the initiative is to open negotiations between Tibetan exiles and the People's Republic of China -- which has occupied Tibet since the 1950s. The Tibetan leader will speak April 24 at the Ottawa Civic Centre, at an event hosted by singer Alanis Morissette.
The Dalai Lama's Toronto appearance, scheduled April 25 - May 5, is being sponsored by the multi-faith Vision TV network. It will include a public speech at the SkyDome, and an interfaith worship service at the National Trade Centre.
The Dalai Lama, says Vision CEO Bill Roberts, "is unquestionably one of the world's most important spiritual figures. He is revered, both by Buddhists and by those of other faiths, for his commitment to world peace, non-violent resistance and respect for all living things. As a network dedicated to building bridges between people of different faiths and cultures, we are deeply honoured to play a part in this visit."
In addition to promoting the visit, Vision will present an interview with the Dalai Lama April 28.
There are more than 300,000 Buddhists in Canada, and dozens of Buddhist organizations, associations and temples across the country. "Buddhism is spreading all over the planet," says Bettsinger.
One-time Buddhist Tom Tan is now pastor of Good News Place in New Westminster, B.C. He is "concerned about the lack of discernment in the minds of many Westerners. The Tibetan form is the fastest growing sect of Buddhism. [It] is a syncretistic form of Buddhism -- a mixture of Bon, the indigenous occultic and shamanistic religion of Tibet; Tantric rituals, from Hinduism; and Mahayana Buddhism."
According to the Christian Research Institute, the ultimate goal of Buddhism is spiritual annihilation. "The summit of the mountain is nothingness -- like the candle flame that is blown out. It is being totally extinguished. At that point there will be no more illusions, no more suffering and pain to endure, and no more deaths to experience. Yet there will also be no more truths to be learned, no more love to express, and no more life to enjoy with the Creator."
Since the 1960s, the Tibetan leader has been extensively involved with inter-faith initiatives. Nevertheless, says Chan, the Dalai Lama "would never proselytize. The last thing he would want to do is preach to people. He talks about Tibetan Buddhism if he's invited. He tells people: 'I'm not here to convert you.'" Chan's assertion is consistent with the Dalai Lama's statements on the subject. However, some Christians have expressed serious concerns about some of his spiritual activities.
The Dalai Lama will conduct the 11-day 'Kalachakra Ceremony for World Peace' in Toronto, beginning April 25. Canada in Prayer is asking its supporters to "pray that the occult ritual . . . will NOT take place, and that dominion of the land will not be given over to demonic powers -- but restored to Jesus Christ." In addition, the organization is urging Christians to pray "for the salvation of the Dalai Lama, and the Tibetan Buddhists in Canada."
Intercessors for Canada has circulated a cautionary email to Christian ministries and churches. During the upcoming ritual, they write, "the Dalai Lama asks the local spirits for permission to use their home. Because the spirits typically do not want to cooperate initially, the assisting monks use shamanistic prayers, music and dance to subdue them . . . . These spirits are invited to take up residence in the Mandala." The Dalai Lama "ritually destroys the Mandala, after all meditation and initiatory rites have been completed. The spirits are thereby released." The ministry warns of "spiritual dangers" posed by the ceremony, including "increased territorial power of the most demonic form of Buddhism over Canada."
Carson sympathizes with these concerns. The Kalachakra event, he says, will be "a high ritual experience where the initiate can gain immediate direct enlightenment in their lifetime, and break the cycle of endless reincarnations on the way to perfection. It also demands the manifestation of 722 spirit princes attending the main spirit, 'The Time Lord' or 'Kalachakra,' and these spirits are then dispersed upon the nation through waterways. If true, then from a spiritual perspective, one must ask what effect those spirits will have in a nation."
Asked about these concerns, Chan replies: "My understanding is that the ceremony will generate a sense of well-being, peace and forgiveness."
Joanne Pepper, coordinator of intercultural religious studies at Trinity Western University, sees another problem with the Tibetan leader's spiritual perspective.
"While the Dalai Lama is generous in his support of Christ as a leading historical spiritual figure, he has not truly engaged the key question of Jesus' personal claim to be God alone. It is clear that the Dalai Lama does not want Christians to lower their estimate of Christ -- but rather to raise their estimation of the Buddha. This subtle inference of implied equality between Christ and Buddha is inherently incompatible with the words of Jesus."
While many Christians share these misgivings, they nevertheless appreciate the Dalai Lama's clearly genuine efforts to befriend and dialogue with those of other faiths. In The Good Heart, he writes of his interactions with Christians such as renowned Catholic monk/poet Thomas Merton.
Such encounters, he observes, "have helped me develop a genuine reverence for the Christian tradition and its capacity to create people of such goodness. I believe the purpose of all the major religious traditions is not to construct big temples on the outside, but to create temples of goodness and compassion inside, in our hearts. Every major religion has the potential to create this."