After Pope John Paul II and Billy Graham, he is probably the most recognized religious figure on our planet. He is the voice of Buddhism to the nations and is often called the "god-king" of Tibet. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. His recent books, Ethics for a New Millennium and The Art of Happiness became best-sellers. He is treated with immense respect by secular media and draws crowds up to 300,000 at his public talks.
These titles and accolades belong to Buddhism's leading apostle, the Dalai Lama. Born as Lhamo Thondup in 1935 in northeast Tibet, he was chosen as the 14th Dalai Lama (Tibet's highest religious figure) at age 2. He was enthroned in 1940 and became political leader of Tibet at age 15, just after Mao's armies began their takeover of Tibet. In exile since 1959, the Dalai Lama has become a world leader in ethics, politics, and religion.
He has also become the de facto leader of millions of spiritual seekers in the West. Christians who want to evangelize our culture do well to understand the extent of his influence, especially in pop culture, as well as the nature of his beliefs. To this end Christianity Today sent me to the Dalai Lama's home-in-exile in Dharamsala, India, to ask him about the popularity of Buddhism, his faith's relation to other faiths, and, most of all, what he thinks about Jesus.
Veteran journalist and Asia scholar Orville Schell explored the Dalai Lama's influence, and the romance of Tibet, in Hollywood and pop culture in his 2000 book Virtual Tibet. Schell notes that by the mid-1990s, Hollywood's "unparalleled engine of invention had alighted on Tibet as one of its chosen subjects." The Dalai Lama became the unseen star of two large-budget films, Jean-Jacques Annaud's Seven Years in Tibet and Martin Scorsese's Kundun.
Scorsese told one interviewer about his meeting with the Dalai Lama: "Something happened. I became totally aware of existing in the moment. It was like you could feel your heartbeat; and as I left, he looked at me. I don't know, but there was something about the look, something sweet. … I just knew I had to make the movie."
Hollywood actor Richard Gere is probably his most famous devotee. After an initial foray into Zen, Gere was drawn to the Dalai Lama. He told Shambhala Sun magazine, "It completely changed my life the first time I was in the presence of His Holiness. No question about it." Gere introduced the Dalai Lama to New Yorkers two years ago when the Buddhist leader spoke in Central Park. Gere also led a protest rally for a free Tibet when the Dalai Lama visited Washington last summer.
The Dalai Lama is also a major spiritual influence on actress Sharon Stone, composer Philip Glass, Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys, and martial-arts star Steven Seagal. "The Dalai Lama's been a great friend to me, and I don't want to use that for anything but my personal spiritual sustenance," Seagal told Schell. "He is the great mother of everything nurturing and loving. He accepts all who come without judgment. He has a very serious impact on the degenerate times in which we live and on bringing us back to a more pure realm."
The Dalai Lama's international image, in fact, is virtually shatterproof. There was a minor ripple about his credibility when explorer Heinrich Harrer's Nazi past was exposed just before the movie Seven Years in Tibet was released. On that, the Dalai Lama does not claim omniscience, and he says his friend Harrer simply kept the truth from him. Likewise, the Dalai Lama had endorsed Shoko Asahara, the guru of the Aum Shinryko movement in Japan, but withdrew his support after that movement's poison-gas attacks on Tokyo subways. Again, his sympathetic comment about Saddam Hussein in a New York Times interview drew only passing criticism. Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, a famous Tibetan guru who now lives in England, led a brief international campaign against the Dalai Lama, accusing him of dictatorship and hypocrisy, but nothing has come of it.
One consequence of Hollywood attention is that Buddhism, especially the Tibetan strain, has entered mainstream America. Madison Avenue uses Buddhist lingo to sell goods, and Buddhist terminology crops up on The Simpsons and other high-profile television shows. Ads for Tibetan root beer proffer a "gently invigorating cardamom and coriander in a Tibetan adaptation of Ayurvedic herbs." Washington's Smithsonian Institution featured Tibetan culture in its folklife festival last summer. On the National Mall visitors could hear Buddhists monks chanting, watch a sand mandala being created, buy Tibetan medicines, and even join in prayer before an image of Avalokitesvara, the protector deity of Tibet.
Westerners can even be chosen as incarnations of high lamas, as has been claimed of Jewish-born Catharine Burroughs, Vancouver native Elijah Ary, and Seagal himself. Penor Rinpoche, head of the Nyingma lineage in Tibetan Buddhism, declared that Seagal was the current manifestation of Chungdrag Dorge, a renowned 17th-century teacher. Ary, born in 1972, now goes by Tenzin Sherab and is said to be the incarnation of Geshe Jatse, a sage who died in a Tibetan cave over 30 years ago. Burroughs, titled as Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo, heads a large Tibetan monastery in Poolesville, Maryland. Her story is told in Martha Sherrill's The Buddha from Brooklyn.
The Romance of Tibet
The influence of the Dalai Lama comes in part because of Tibet's allure in the Western imagination for the last two centuries. Tibet has captured the hearts of figures as diverse as famous psychoanalyst Carl Jung, Theosophy founder Madame Blavatsky, and explorer extraordinaire Alexandra David-Neel. At age 55, David-Neel reached Lhasa, Tibet's capital, after a 2,000-mile trek from India. James Hilton's popular 1933 novel Lost Horizon located paradise in northern Tibet, in a hidden valley he called Shangri-La.
Hilton may have been borrowing on the Tibetan Buddhist belief that there is a pure kingdom known as Shambhala. Gere told a Frontline documentary that Tibet promises "Release. Light. Happiness. I would say that the West is very young; it's very corrupt. We're not very wise. And I think we're hopeful that there is a place that is ancient and wise and open and filled with light." That Tibet has been pillaged by Communist China [see "Blood and Tears in Tibet," p. 70] has only added to Western longings for the paradise that has been lost.
The most extreme claims about Tibet as a kingdom of magic come from the writings of T. Lobsang Rampa. Claiming to be a Tibetan priest with supernatural powers, he recounted his phenomenal life story in his bestselling The Third Eye (1956), followed by Doctor from Lhasa (1959) and The Rampa Story (1960). The first volume was greeted with ridicule by Tibetan specialists, and their skepticism was confirmed when a private investigator revealed that Rampa was really Cyril Henry Hoskin, a native of Devonshire, England, who had never been to Asia. Despite the debunking, Rampa's first volume remains in print and is one of the most popular guides to Tibetan religion.
Myths about a Tibetan paradise extend to the sexual dimension as well. Western devotees and students of Asian thought have long been fascinated with aspects of Hindu and Buddhist tantra, which sometimes adds sexual practice to divine rituals. A few American religious groups trace their sexual libertarianism to what they call the sex magic of Tibet. Jeffrey Hopkins, a leading scholar of Buddhism, has even argued that Tibetan Buddhism is a great vehicle for gay liberation.
The Dalai Lama himself is one source to counter many of the utopian visions of Tibet. He routinely dismisses stories about flying monks and levitating lamas. He told his Central Park audience that he does not know how to do miracles and has never seen one. He suggested to one interviewer that the only way a Buddhist monk could fly is by jumping off a cliff, spreading his robes, and hoping for a soft landing. The Dalai Lama has also acknowledged that pre-Communist Tibet had the weaknesses—corruption, illiteracy, and violence, for example—one would expect from a semifeudal society.
Tenzin Taklha, former security chief for the Dalai Lama, is now one of his top aides. Taklha told Christianity Today that he holds the Dalai Lama in high esteem as a wonderful boss and a fabulous person—but that people who believe he has magical powers are simply mistaken. He was equally direct about claims regarding tantra. He denied any idea that tantric sex is a common practice among Tibetan Buddhists.
Various scholars echo his view, though Taklha recognizes that some Tibetan masters have abused the tantric element. June Cambell, a native of Scotland, reported on being a secret sexual consort to one major Tibetan master in her controversial book Traveller in Space. Cambell, now a philosopher of religion, renounced Tibetan Buddhism and argues that it is intrinsically chauvinistic. Missionaries to the Tibetan Buddhist world told me of cases in which monks used their status to seduce young women in local villages in Nepal, Bhutan, and Tibet. Such incidents parallel cases of Christian pastors using their spiritual status to sexually abuse parishioners and counselees.
The mythology about Tibet has been explored in depth by Donald Lopez Jr.'s masterful Prisoners of Shangri-La. Lopez argues persuasively that "the continued idealization of Tibet—its history and religion—may ultimately harm the cause of Tibetan independence." Whatever the case, there is no doubt that naïve understandings of Tibet, both past and present, shape public response to the Dalai Lama, just as he, by virtue of his connection with Tibet, seems larger than life to the thousands who flock to his teachings and buy his many books.
Conversing with the Dalai Lama
I interviewed the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India, the site of the Tibet Government in Exile and the home of the Dalai Lama since 1960. Situated in the state of Himachal Pradesh, the town is nestled on the side of one of the mountains that forms part of the Outer Himalayas. The Dalai Lama himself lives in a modest setting in Upper Dharamsala or McLeod Gang, 1,800 meters above the fertile plains of the Kangra Valley.
Dharamsala is not a high-class tourist haven. The best hotels are mediocre by western standards. Tourist guides warn about the lack of sanitary conditions in many of the restaurants. Cows wander the narrow, unpaved streets at will, in competition with an amazing number of taxis. Goods are sold in small booths along both sides of the streets. Most prices are set, though you can barter with Kashmir merchants selling carpets, Buddhist icons, and precious gems. There are several good secondhand bookstores, and a lot of travel agencies. Buddhist prayer flags dominate the buildings, as do pictures of the Dalai Lama.
Pilgrims usually get to Dharamsala by bus, train, or taxi from New Delhi, an arduous journey of up to 12 hours. A two-hour flight from Delhi to Amritsar or Jammu will leave the traveler with only a five-hour cab ride to Dharamsala.
Despite the difficulty of the journey, visitors from all over the world flock to what is called "little Lhasa." The Dalai Lama often holds public audiences and gives public teachings at least once a year in the Buddhist temple opposite his residence. Private sessions with the Dalai Lama are arranged through Taklha, his deputy secretary, who receives 50 to 100 interview requests daily. Soldiers of the Indian army guard the Dalai Lama. Visitors who enter the residence area have to walk through metal detectors and are searched by a member of the Dalai Lama's security team.
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.
We ranged back and forth over a variety of topics. What follows is a topical summary of our conversation.
Nicholas Vreeland, director of the Tibet Center in Manhattan, told me at the Central Park event that he regards the Dalai Lama as sinless, a view shared by many practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism. When the Dalai Lama arrived at the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago in 1993, under heavy police guard, his Buddhist devotees greeted him with tears, shouts of joy, and an adulation that bordered on worship. The Dalai Lama's charisma is legendary.
When I reviewed such incidents, as well as some people's 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. Taklha said he has seen his boss lose his temper on more than one occasion, though only once did he feel he was out of control. 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.
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."
Buddhism and Other Religions
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 expressed appreciation for Gere's efforts as a celebrity to spread Buddhist dharma (or teaching). 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."
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."
"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 that 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."
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's 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. [See "Weighed Down by Karmic Debt," p. 69.] 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 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 is 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. His book Religions at Your Door will be released by Thomas Nelson next year. Information on purchasing an edited audio tape of the interview with the Dalai Lama, along with Professor Beverley's commentary, is available by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2001 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Other articles appearing in our Buddhism series today include:
Basic Buddhism | What the Dalai Lama and his followers believe about God, Buddha, and other teachings. (June 8, 2001)
Weighed Down by Karmic Debt | Aspects of Tibetan spirituality should give Christians pause. (June 8, 2001)
Blood and Tears in Tibet | The Dalai Lama says he appreciates Christian attempts to address persecution in his homeland (June 8, 2001)
Inside CT: Straight Outta Dharamsala | Behind James A. Beverley's report on the Dalai Lama (June 8, 2001)
The monk was named one of Time's most influential Asians of the century.
"China hates him, the West wants to hug him," Salon.com writes. "The spiritual leader of Tibet isn't just the bodhisattva of compassion—he's one heck of a marketer.
The Dalai Lama discusses with Asiaweek the growing sectarian strife within the Tibetan exile community and the effect his death will have on followers.
CNN.com's in-depth special on the Dalai Lama includes a biographical sketch, news articles, and multi-media clips of the Tibetan leader.
President Bush met with the Dalai Lama late last month.
"Whether Hindu or Muslim or Christian, whoever tries to convert, it's wrong, not good," the Dalai Lama said on a trip to India in January.
For more articles, see Yahoo's full coverage area on Tibet and the Dalai Lama
A Minnesota lawmaker protested when the Dalai Lama visited the state legislature in May. The monk's "beliefs are incompatible with Christian principles," Arlon Lindner said in an e-mail message, "and those Christian principles are or have been the governing principles of American society.
In 1998, the World Evangelical Fellowship's Religious Liberty Commission director, Johan Candelin, met with the Buddhist leader.
Christianity Today's earlier coverage of the Dalai Lama includes:
Spirituality Without Religion | More Christians attracted to Dalai Lama's teachings. (Nov. 22, 1999)
Goodbye, Dalai | China Pressures South Africa President To Refuse Meeting With Dalai Lama (Dec. 2, 1999)
Dalai Lama, Evangelical Leader Talk (Aug. 10, 1998)
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