Do the words of the Dalai Lama matter to all Buddhists?

Do the words of the Dalai Lama matter to all Buddhists? July 11, 2014

CNN reports the Dalai Lama –the spiritual leader of Tibet — has urged his co-religionists  in Sri Lanka and Myanmar to halt the sectarian violence that has pitted majority Buddhist populations against Muslim minorities.

The assumption behind this story is that the Dalai Lama is a person of consequence whose words will carry weight with Buddhists round the world. What he says matters, CNN reports.

But does it? And if it does matter, to whom does it matter?

The attacks on Muslims in Sri Lanka and Myanmar have had the approval of Buddhists leaders and in some cases mobs have been led by saffron-robe clad Buddhists monks. The report from CNN cleanly and clearly reports on the Dalai Lama’s call for peace, but it neglects to mention (or perhaps it assumes) that Buddhism is a monolith, a unified system of belief whose leaders are universally esteemed by its practitioners.

The bottom line: What the CNN team is doing in this story is projecting Christian assumptions about a church and hierarchy upon a non-Christian institution. These assumptions make the story intellectually accessible to a Western reader, but present the issue in a false light.

The article entitled “Dalai Lama to Myanmar, Sri Lanka Buddhists: Stop violence against Muslims” begins:

(CNN) — Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama has made a renewed call for Buddhists in Myanmar and Sri Lanka to cease violence towards the countries’ Muslim minorities, in an address delivered on his 79th birthday. Speaking before tens of thousands of Buddhists, including Hollywood actor Richard Gere, the exiled Buddhist leader implored the faithful in the majority-Buddhist countries to refrain from such attacks.

“I urge the Buddhists in these countries to imagine an image of Buddha before they commit such a crime,” he said in the Indian town of Leh. “Buddha preaches love and compassion. If the Buddha is there, he will protect the Muslims whom the Buddhists are attacking.”

The article reports that “[r]ising Buddhist nationalism” in Sri Lanka and Mynamar “spearheaded by movements led by extremist monks” has led to communal violence in recent years. Details of the violence are given as are the Dalai Lama’s calls for peaceful coexistence between the faith communities.

And the story closes with an explanatory note that:

The Dalai Lama was speaking before the audience in Leh to confer Kalachakra, a process intended to empower tens of thousands of his Buddhist followers to reach enlightenment, his office said.

I give the story high marks for style, context and clarity. A reader knows who said this, what he said, when he said it and why he said it. The lede tells us that this matters because the Dalai Lama is the leader of Tibet’s Buddhist community, who has also attracted an international following including actors such as Richard Gere.

From a Western perspective this is sufficient information to know the Dalai Lama (and his words) matter. But that is not the issue here. The big question is whether his words carry any weight with his purported target audience in this case, the Buddhist monks of Sri Lanka and Myanmar.

The world’s 300 million or so Buddhists can be roughly divided into two main schools, Theravada and Mahayana — and these can be further divided into a myriad of schools, sects and groups. While all draw upon the teachings attributed to Siddhartha Gautama, (the Buddha or the enlightened/awakened one) these groups have different views on the paths towards enlightenment or liberation, the interpretation of the Buddhist scriptures and the practices of the faith. The meaning of the Three Jewels of Buddhism, the Buddha, the Dharma (the teachings), and the Sangha (the community) differ widely. As does the structure and hierarchy of Buddhism.

The two major branches of Buddhism: Theravada (“The School of the Elders”) and Mahayana (“The Great Vehicle”) arose in different parts of Asia. The monks of Sri Lanka and Myanmar follow the Theravada tradition, while the Dalai Lama follows the Mahayana path. His words have moral authority, but — here is the key — not ecclesial authority.

Should CNN have added a few words explaining the divisions within Buddhism? Would it serve any purpose to ask if these statements by the Dalai Lama were intended for his Western audiences, not the “extremists monks” of Sri Lanka and Mynamar?

Was the Dalai Lama speaking as a religious leader to his co-religionists or as a spiritual leader to other men? Fleshing out this distinction would go a long way towards answering this question: “Do his words matter to the degree journalists think that they matter?”

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