Classic and Contemporary Buddhist Works

The Good Heart - Preface

A Buddhist Perspective on the Teachings of Jesus

PREFACE

One of the reassuring things about Tenzin Gyatso, His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, is that, except when he is meditating, he does not seem capable of sitting still. As he spoke before an audience of three hundred and fifty Christians and a sprinkling of Buddhists in the auditorium of Middlesex University, London, in mid-September of 1994, his face and body were a testament to the Buddhist doctrine of perpetual flux. He not only punctuated his remarks with strong-handed gestures, coy smiles, dancing eyebrows, and guffaws, he seemed constantly to be folding or flinging about the loose ends of his maroon habit, seizing the limbs of panelists sitting on stage with him, waving to friends in the audience, and flipping through the program while his translator dispatched a lengthy remark.

The occasion—it would not be an exaggeration to say, the historic occasion—of the Dalai Lama’s appearance in London in the autumn of 1994 was the John Main Seminar. This yearly Seminar is sponsored by the World Community for Christian Meditation in memory of John Main, the Irish Benedictine monk who taught meditation in the tradition of John Cassian and the Desert Fathers and founded centers of Christian meditation throughout the world. Each year hundreds of Christian meditators, from virtually every continent and many denominations, gather to hear a series of talks on ethics, spirituality, scripture, interfaith dialogue, and prayer. In the recent past, speakers have included Charles Taylor, a Canadian philosopher; Bede Griffiths, an English Benedictine author and founder of an ashram in India; and Jean Vanier, the originator of L’Arche, Christian lay communities that are dedicated to living with the disabled.

The invitation to the Dalai Lama to comment for the first time publicly on the Gospels came from Dom Laurence Freeman, OSB, an Oxford graduate in literature and a monk of the Olivetan Benedictine priory in Cockfosters, London. Laurence Freeman has been the most active and influential teacher in the Community since Main’s death in 1982.

The Dalai Lama was given in advance eight passages from the Christian Scriptures—including the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes (Matthew 5), the parable of the mustard seed and the Kingdom of God (Mark 4), the Transfiguration (Luke 9), and the Resurrection (John 20). He was invited to comment on these texts in any way he saw fit. And he was told that his audience was Christian (Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Protestant), mostly English-speaking though from all continents, and that virtually all of them practiced silent meditation daily in their own lives.

Because the Dalai Lama is a head of state as well as a religious leader, many present, while looking forward to his remarks, wondered whether His Holiness would be able to break through the inevitable barriers of press, cameras, and attendants, and truly communicate what was on his mind and in his heart.

The answer came swiftly and with breathtaking ease. Early each morning before breakfast, before anything else on the packed schedule of the conference, he entered the darkened hall with his monks and, with the assembled Christians, he sat perfectly still and meditated for half an hour. In the silence, broken only by a rustle or a cough, anxiety fell away and a bond of trust and openness for what was to come took its place. Then, at last, he bowed his shaved head over the text and, tracing the script with his finger like a rabbi, read, “How blest are those of a gentle spirit…. How blest are those whose hearts are pure…. How blest are those who have suffered persecution for the cause of right.” And as he read, it was impossible not to be moved, almost stunned, by the power of these familiar words recadenced and re-keyed by a Tibetan voice and a Buddhist sensibility.

Conscious of the devastation of the Tibetan culture and people by China and of the Dalai Lama’s own suffering as a refugee and exile, the audience could not help hearing a poignant resonance in the reading. But striking as the political moment was, something else carried the significance of the three-day meeting deeper even than history. There was little doubt in the minds of those present that they had come to hear a spiritual teacher and that what they were experiencing was a profoundly religious event that encompassed history but was not circumscribed by it.

The actual framework of the Seminar was flexible and simple enough to provide an informal atmosphere to the proceedings. It began with meditation, then proceeded to a reading of the Scripture passages in English by His Holiness, commentary, panel discussions, closing chants and prayers, breaks for meals, and back again for meditation and more of the same. But such a description does not really convey an accurate or full sense of the mood or atmosphere at these proceedings. During the readings and commentaries, the Dalai Lama was seated behind a low table, with a person seated on either side of him. On the left sat Laurence Freeman in his Olivetan Benedictine white habit taking notes, nodding agreement, smiling, and looking quizzical—in short, unconsciously acting as a mirror of the audience at large. On the right sat Geshe Thupten Jinpa, the young, slightly built Tibetan Buddhist monk in crimson robes who was acting as interpreter. Serene, collected, focused, and incredibly proficient, he translated His Holiness’s Tibetan almost simultaneously into fluent English. His own modesty and grace, attentive to the master but never servile, was a constant reminder and example to the audience of near-perfect concentration and selfless dignity.

Because of this arrangement, and perhaps also because of the Dalai Lama’s way of being and expressing himself, an apparent monologue was really a dialogue and, more often, a three-way conversation. Neither Dom Laurence nor Jinpa interrupted the discourse, but they were incorporated into it spontaneously as His Holiness excitedly moved in one direction or another, seeking a reaction, correcting a phrase, raising a questioning eyebrow, and releasing tension with a laugh. During the panel discussions, when two members of the audience were invited to sit on the platform and raise questions, the neat format tended to melt down into interconnecting streams of thought, language, accent, age, gender, temperament, and religious persuasion. Yet there was never confusion. The Dalai Lama, as a Buddhist teacher and exile, is at home with change, and he has the ability to calm Western nerves afloat in unfamiliar and shifting currents. Like all great teachers, he also has a talent for seizing and salvaging a good idea that is drifting unobserved beneath the surface.

It has been said that the Dalai Lama is a simple man. Though this may be meant as a compliment, it is difficult to dissociate such a label from a Western tendency to condescend to the religions and cultures of the East, treating them as exotic but philosophically primitive traditions. Insofar as he is earthy, direct, warm, and simpatico, the Dalai Lama may be called “simple”; but in every other sense, he is a subtle, quick, complex, and extraordinarily intelligent and learned man. He brings three qualities to a spiritual discourse—traits so rare in some contemporary Christian circles as to have elicited gasps of relieved gratitude from the audience. These qualities are gentleness, clarity, and laughter. If there is something Benedictine about him, there is a Franciscan side as well, and a touch of the Jesuit.

From the outset, he gently and quietly reassured his listeners that the last thing he had come to do was “sow seeds of doubt” among Christians about their own faith. Again and again, he counseled people to deepen their understanding and appreciation of their own traditions, pointing out that human sensibilities and cultures are too varied to justify a single “way” to the Truth. He gently, but firmly and repeatedly, resisted suggestions that Buddhism and Christianity are different languages for the same essential beliefs. With regard to ethics and the emphasis on compassion, brotherhood, and forgiveness, he acknowledged similarities. But inasmuch as Buddhism does not recognize a Creator God or a personal Savior, he cautioned against people calling themselves “Buddhist-Christians,” just as one should not try “to put a yak’s head on a sheep’s body.”

In the course of long sessions, reading and commenting on theologically complex texts and responding to challenging questions from panelists, the Dalai Lama never lost his astonishing mental clarity. At one point, he described Mahayana Buddhist meditative practices as disciplines to keep our consciousness alert and focused rather than “scattered” or “sunken” in torpor. One of the forms of respect he paid to his audience was to give it his attention. It is rare for a public figure, even a religious one, not to have “prepackaged” remarks at hand. There are, most likely, occasions when the Dalai Lama is no exception. But it became evident that his moment-by-moment engagement with the Gospels and the people in his presence had a constancy and intensity of mind and heart of which few people are capable. When asked what adherents of different faiths could do together without mixing up yaks and sheep, he recommended scholarship, meditation, and pilgrimages.

 And then he told of going to Lourdes and finding there such an aura of the sacred that he bowed down and prayed to “all holy beings” for the sustenance of its healing powers. At moments like this, one could hear the audience catch a collective breath, perhaps of pleasure and surprise at an expression of reverence at once so pure and yet so uncompromising of the Buddhist tradition from which it came.

In his reflections on the Transfiguration, he offered a learned discourse on Buddhist views of miracles and supernatural emanations. Without a hint of dogmatism or sentimental piety, he evoked an ancient tradition that has long accommodated a highly rational system of selfdiscipline and psychology with accounts of experiences beyond the usual limits of reason and nature. He modestly disclaimed having had such experiences himself, but did not see that as a cause to doubt their authenticity. Somehow, listening to him made all the centuries of Christian quarreling over miracles and the possible explanations for them seem foolish.

His reading of the meeting between Mary Magdalene and Jesus in Saint John’s account of the Resurrection brought many to tears. It would be hard to say exactly why. Some said later that it was as if they were hearing the words for the first time, as though their tenderness and mystery and beauty had been taken for granted and were brought to life again, like a gift from an unexpected courier.

When faced with a philosophical or religious paradox or the inexpressible, Westerners tend to grow solemn. Buddhists undoubtedly have a rich array of reactions, and one that enlivened the spirit of the conference was laughter. The Dalai Lama likes to crack jokes about monks, yaks, reincarnation, and visions, but often a gesture, expression, or pause in the flow of discussion—a moment of potential awkwardness—sets him off into infectious gales of laughter. Toward the end of the Seminar, when nearly everyone was beginning to feel the fatigue of so much concentrated emotion, his superb interpreter, Jinpa, the young monk who had maintained superhuman composure day after day, burst into uncontrollable body-shaking laughter while trying to translate an anecdote told by His Holiness. In answer to the observation that some people say they do not meditate because they are too busy, His Holiness told the story of a monk who keeps promising his pupil that he will take him on a picnic but is always too busy to do so. One day they see a procession carrying a corpse. “Where is he going?” the monk asks his pupil. The punch line, delayed for at least five minutes until the translator, the audience, and the Fourteenth Dalai Lama could control themselves, was, “On a picnic.”

For many Christians, attending ecumenical conferences, like going to church, is “no picnic.” But, of course, feasting and celebration are as much a part of the symbolism and reality of Christianity as they are of all religions. Hearing the Dalai Lama comment on the Gospels was definitely a feast. What impressed and surprised everyone was how much the “outsider” touched them. The exile, the person with no authority over Christians except that which was given by the Spirit, was able to show people of every faith the riches of their own banquet.

Robert Kiely
Cambridge, Massachusetts

 

How to cite this document:
© His Holiness the Dalai Lama and World Community for Christian Meditation, The Good Heart (Wisdom Publications, 1996)

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