Hello, Dalai!

The Dalai Lama, speaking at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, May 2010

On May 14th, I attended an event here in Indianapolis featuring a 75-year-old Tibetan watch repairman named Tenzin Gyatso. He is better known as the 14th Dalai Lama, the Buddhist spiritual leader of Tibet, who lives in exile in India. This was his second visit to Indianapolis; and, having just taught on Buddhism at Heather Hills, I decided to see first-hand what the Dalai Lama was all about.  There has always been a curious side of me in relation to people of fame, whether in religion, politics, sports, or entertainment.  I want to see beyond the mask.  This doesn’t always work out so well. For example, I remember when I was a pastoral intern in 1992, I went to a faith healing service with famed religious leader Ernest Angley. I made two mistakes: I took a video camera with me and…my mom.  After obtaining permission to videotape the service for a “sister who was unable to attend,” we watched as the service began.  Unfortunately for us, the entire audience (of 500-600 people) was visibly and physically involved in the service so the one full row of us fundamental Baptists kind of stood out, to say the least.  During his prayer for the offering, Angley stopped and basically pronounced a curse on us, asking if we wanted him to reveal us to the audience.  Seconds later, the head usher came up and said I couldn’t videotape and if we made any trouble we’d be kicked out.  My friend Tony later said it was the first time he had gotten in trouble for not doing anything! Well, we behaved and watched the incredibly phony proceedings unfold.  My poor mother was horrified at being called out like that; I still have to apologize to her regularly for taking her along!! (Love you, Mom!)      

Well, there was no danger of a similar experience here.  I didn’t take a video camera (or my mom) and the audience of over 10,000 people at Conseco Fieldhouse (home of the Pacers) was very reserved during the 90-minute talk.  A couple of things struck me immediately upon entering the Fieldhouse. First, I was surprised that there were so many people there.  The Indiana Buddhist Center is only about a mile from my church and it is a very small group of people. So imagine my surprise when there were thousands of people waiting to hear the Lama.  Second, I was surprised (not shocked) that at least half the audience were young, college-aged or twenty-somethings. Interestingly, Ernest Angley’s audience had the same demographics almost 18 years earlier.  The audience appeared to be overwhelmingly white and middle-class. When I walked back to the parking lot after the event, I began to realize why there were so many people–there were license plates from all over the country in the lot.      

As far as the speech itself (or most appropriately described, rambling talk), there was really nothing of substance whatsoever.  Buddhism is, like most false religions, a man-centered philosophy of life.  Dalai talked about needing more compassion in the world, being a better and more sincere friend to others. He mentioned that one of his missions in life is the harmonizing of all religions.  Several times he mentioned that all religions are good.  In response to a question from an audience member about how to deal with anger issues with an ex-husband, the Dalai Lama told her that if we have a sound mind, those kinds of troubles don’t really bother us.  If we have a weak mind, they do.  So, she needed to work on meditation so she could get a sound mind.  Above all, she should not worry about the situation.      

I’ll be the first to admit that the Dalai Lama seems to be a very nice, gentle, “grandpa-like” figure.  He has a great sense of humor. You can tell he loves people.  He seems to be humble about his fame. However, at heart, he is a true Buddhist monk, believing that his own karma will determine not only his circumstances in this life but also in the reincarnated lives to come.  If you do enough good things over the course of your lives, you eventually reach Nirvana, a state of enlightenment where there is no more suffering and you have perfect peace. He also believes that mankind is getting better and better, not worse and worse as the Bible teaches. In fact, I heard him say exactly that this morning on NBC’s Today Show.      

There are many interesting things to consider about the Dalai Lama in relationship to Buddhism and Christianity and fame. For example, in the West he is addressed as “His Holiness”; however, the Dalai Lama does not claim to be holy at all.  In an interview with James Beverly in August 2000, the Dalai Lama called such adulation “Nonsense.” Beverly writes, “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 has admitted 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.”      

Regarding his pluralistic teaching about religions, Beverly asked him why does he not simply urge people to follow the path of Buddha as the only truth. The Dalai Lama “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.'” He believes that “there is a unity of all major religions on “the message of compassion, forgiveness, tolerance, contentment, simplicity, and self-discipline.”      

Then, I found it very fascinating to read of the Lama’s view of Jesus. Beverly “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 if 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 Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis. ‘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, and 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.”      

Can I just say that I am so thankful I don’t have to use “skillful means” to share my faith with others or defend it to the lost?  The Bible claims that every part of itself is inspired by God and useful in life.  To pick and choose what to believe from the Bible would result in a lack of authority and, in fact, a transfer of authority from the Bible to man himself.  I like what Beverly said in his conclusion of the interview, “Perhaps Jesus is so enlightened that he is truly the light of the world.” We can have confidence that every word of Jesus is true, including his claim to be “the way, the truth, and the life”–the only path to the Father. Anyone who says otherwise is a false teacher, even if he appears to be a gentle, kind older man. Of course, I could use his help in repairing my watch…      

(To read the interview in its entirety, you can purchase Nelson’s Illustrated Guide to Religions by James A Beverly, an excellent and up-to-date introduction to the religions of the world.)

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