What Christianity Can Learn from the Dalai Lama

What Christianity Can Learn from the Dalai Lama September 16, 2014

dalai_lamaHistorically, Christianity hasn’t been very open to the idea of being influenced by other religions. In the early days of the faith, we borrowed from Hellenism, Zoroastrianism, Gnosticism, Judaism and various “pagan” religions, repurposing their symbols to mean something new. Following the adoption of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire, we focused more on converting others to our faith, or at least denigrating the legitimacy of other faiths to establish ours as superior.

Oh, but times, they are a’changin’.

Our numbers are down, our influence continues to wane, and we’re struggling with what I call in “postChristian” both an identity crisis and a credibility crisis. The good news is that, in this newly humbled state, lies a glimmer of opportunity. Not the kind we’ve had previously, to once again dominate the cultural landscape. That time has passed. Rather, as more of us within the Christian faith take less for granted, we’re asking harder questions:

Who are we?

Why do we still identify as Christians?

How could our faith be better?

We need not look any further than the Dalai Lama, the spiritual and political head of the Tibetan Buddhist faith, and in particular, the titular leader of the Tibetan people (don’t tell the Chinese government). In a recent statement, some of which was shared in a Huffington Post article, the Dalai Lama put forward the bold proposal that we he the last in a line of Dalai Lamas, a position within Buddhism for almost five centuries.

The 14th Dalai Lama now is very popular,” he said. “Let us then finish with a popular Dalai Lama.”

Now, imagine the Pope saying this. Actually, it’s a little more conceivable coming from Pope Francis than from his recent predecessors. Or imagine the head of a major denomination dissolving their position and the general office than accompanies it, not out of financial necessity, but simply because they felt the role had run its due course.

Considering the entire scope of the comment, it’s reasonable to assume that part of his intent is politically strategic. After all, communist China claims Tibet – the spiritual and cultural epicenter of Tibetan Buddhism – as one of its own territories, and Tibet itself is not a democracy. Ganden Thurman, Executive Director of Tibet House US, told the Post for the same article that “His Holiness is looking for the resolution to the China issue and for [the Tibetan people’s] own governance. Both of those issues are looking for what’s best for the Tibetan people.”

Imagine a religious body potentially sacrificing centuries of tradition and spiritual practice for the betterment of its people. Sounds like something Jesus would do.

What might such sacrifice look like in the Christian world? Consider this quote from “postChristian:”

The United Nations estimates that the entirety of the world’s hunger problems could be solved with an annual budget of approximately $30 billion. Meanwhile, a recent study by The Economist magazine estimated that the Catholic Church in the United States alone had an annual combined budget of $170 billion in 2010, when all of the assets of the Church are considered together. So in theory, by allocating about one-sixth of the total budget of the Catholic Church in the United States to solving hunger (not counting any other denominations, religions, or even Catholic institutions outside the United States), hunger could conceivably disappear from the face of the earth.

The Dalai Lama goes on to say that, if the Buddhist community determines to keep with the tradition of appointing a new Dalai Lama upon his death, the faith might benefit from a woman’s hand and heart. He cites the desperate need for greater compassion in the world as at least one reason why a female leader might be better suited to lead.

If there’s one thing I’ve always been particularly attracted to in Buddhism, it’s the emphasis on placing one’s ego second to the needs of others. God knows I need all the help with that I can get. And at least rhetorically, Christianity holds a similar value at its heart.

But when it comes to our institutional systems, preserving what once was too often gets in the way of actively and fearlessly invoking what might be. Let’s take this opportunity to learn from the Dalai Lama’s example and practice a little bit more of what we preach.

Christian Piatt is the author of “postChristian: What’s Left? Can we fix it? Do we care?” and a blogger on the Patheos Progressive Christian channel. For more information about Christian, visit www.christianpiatt.com, or find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • breid1903

    spot on. corporate religion is not going to actually do what jesus said. shame.

    ice cream raz

  • Mike Ward

    Maybe the Dalia Lama doesn’t feel the role has “run its course”, maybe he just fears the outcome when he dies and Tibet proclaims his already chosen successor to be the Dalai Lama and China proclaims the successor that they have already chosen as the Dalai Lama.

    Either way, it’s no great sacrifice for the current Dalai Lama to ask for the role to end AFTER he dies. If you feel he’s saying this because he feels the role has “run its course” maybe you should ask him to step down now.

    • Christian Piatt

      I would but I lost his cell number.

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    • 013090

      It is impossible to ‘step down’ from being the Dalai Lama, based on Tibetan Buddhist beliefs. They believe the Dalai Lama is a specific reincarnated individual, hence the Dalai Lama cannot stop being the Dalai Lama.

      • Mike Ward

        Is it any less possible that the current being declared the last?

      • Deane

        Tibetan Buddhists believe that each return of the Dalai Lama is a conscious choice after death. Thus the Dalai Lama can end the whole line of returns by simply moving on to something else instead of returning.

        The head of my tradition, the Karmapa, is the 17th return; it is believed that the first Karmapa said he would come back only 18 times and everyone in our tradition fully expects that the line will end with the 19th Karmapa.

        Obviously, if the Dalai Lama does choose to return, he can come back as a woman, which he would declare in his will. He could also declare in his will that he is going to be born somewhere in the world outside of Chinese control and also as a non-Tibetan if he chooses. He is keeping his options open to keep the Chinese government off balance. I’m sure if he took to poker he would make a fortune.

  • K.M. Young

    Seeing as the papacy is essential to Catholicism in a way that the Dalai lineage isn’t, I don’t see how its an apt comparison.

  • Mack

    What a lot of recycled 1960s drivel! Mr. Lama is just another wealthy 501C3 opportunist working the angles and shaking down the rubes.

    • Josh Magda

      You speak with a fool’s tongue.

      • Benjamin Martin

        A truly great band. foolstongue.ca

  • Eleanor Watkins

    RE: Our numbers are down, our influence continues to wane, and we’re struggling with what I call in “postChristian” both an identity crisis and a credibility crisis.
    Pity the author chooses to build on this point without providing any support to its merit. According to Wikipedia, about a third of people on this planet call themselves Christian making the religion still the largest in the world by a considerable margin. It is true that Muslims are more into baby-making right now, but reproduction rates are a very cyclical thing that can change in as little as one generation (e.g. China). In terms of influence it is worth noting the highest spheres of academe appear to have reverted back to a Christian worldview and that it is the middle to lower academic circles of influence that are currently rutted into atheist or agnostic mindsets.

  • Josh Magda
  • James Stagg

    “What might such sacrifice look like in the Christian world? Consider this quote from “postChristian:”

    The United Nations estimates that the entirety of the world’s hunger problems could be solved with an annual budget of approximately $30 billion. Meanwhile, a recent study by The Economist magazine estimated that the Catholic Church in the United States alone had an annual combined budget of $170 billion in 2010, when all of the assets of the Church are considered together. So in theory, by allocating about one-sixth of the total budget of the Catholic Church in the United States to solving hunger (not counting any other denominations, religions, or even Catholic institutions outside the United States), hunger could conceivably disappear from the face of the earth.”

    What a silly argument…..it could only have come from the UN, and….of course, Catholic Church-bashers.. Bad estimates, bad judgments, bad comparisons, bad practices, poor choices………that’s the UN. For example, the Church already SPENDS its budgeted amounts on various projects to feed, house and help the poor, including free health care at the many Catholic hospitals. I would like some honest person compare the world-wide budget and expenditures of the Catholic Church to the worldwide budget and expenditures of the UN. Ha! Don’t wait for that to happen. How many hospitals does the UN operate? How many adoption agencies? How much disaster relief (and DO check the value of that relief, like in Haiti where thousands were infected though UN “care”.

    Learn from the Dali Lama? Not much, I’m afraid….except how to talk a good game.

    • cajaquarius

      Solving hunger will take more than money. I never miss an opportunity to call wrong where I see it in my former Church but the whole 30 billion figure, while true, doesn’t really take into account that much of world hunger is caused by stratification and human rights abuses (e.g. a corporation moving into an area, buying the land, and growing sugar on it leaving the people to starve under warlords payed off by said corporation, for example – throw a few billion there and you are just buying the warlords more guns). The only way the hunger problem gets solved is if we change (read: destroy) the way things work now. Easier said than done.

  • Jonathan S

    There is a precedent for this kind of attitude in Buddhism. There’s an early text which includes a passage called ‘the parable of the raft’. In it, the Buddha compares the Dharma (i.e. his teaching) to a raft used to cross the metaphorical ‘river of suffering’. In the parable, ‘a man collects reeds, sticks, branches and foliage, and binds them into a raft. Carried by that raft, laboring with hands and feet, he safely crosses over to the other shore.’ The lesson goes on to say, on reaching the farther shore, what do you do with the raft? Do you carry it with you? Worship it? Long story short – you leave it behind. The parable ends with the exhortation: “You, O monks, who understand the Teaching’s similarity to a raft, you should let go even dharma, how much more adharma (i.e. ‘non-dharma’)’! So the moral of the story is that any teaching, even the Buddha’s teaching, is simply a ‘way to cross the river of suffering’ and not an end in itself. And that is not something you will find in the other religions, as far as I’m aware.