A Bit to Read
So the Dalai Lama has come to our fair land, met our Prime Minister and many other Canadians, and departed. The media made sure we knew. What shall we think of the man? Who is he, and what does he stand for?
The words ‘Dalai Lama’ are not so much the man’s name as his title. The word ‘dalai’ means ‘ocean’ (so I’m told), and ‘lama’ is roughly equivalent to the term ‘guru’, and means a wise spiritual teacher. So “Dalai Lama” appears in English as ‘Ocean of Wisdom’. Before the current bearer of the title, several others have held the same name over the centuries. The current bearer was born in July 1935 in the Tibetan province of Amdo, and received from his parents the non-descript name Lhamo Dhondup – the fifth child of sixteen.
It seems that some months before Lhamo’s birth, a team of elders from the Tibetan capital Lhasa had already been searching for the next Dalai Lama, as the previous one had gone the way of all flesh. On the basis of a series of portents, including visions and the arrangement of birds, they directed their search to the province of Amdo. They sought a little boy bearing particular marks on his body, and who would correctly discern particular items that once belonged to a previous Dalai Lama. When Lhamo was some two years old, the elders chanced upon the house of his mother, and watched as the little lad made all the right choices. He was henceforth recognized as the next Dalai Lama, recognized too as the incarnation of two previous Dalai Lamas, and sent off to receive the education that befits a Dalai Lama.
He today lives in Dharamsala, in the shadow of the Himalaya Mountains, an exile from his native Tibet (since the Chinese have annexed his country to theirs, and marked this spiritual leader as a wanted man). He came to Canada (and the United States) to seek greater autonomy for his homeland – and in the process promotes Buddhism. In fact, the secular media treat him with immense respect, and he’s widely esteemed in North America because of his ‘spirituality’.
In fact, it would be fair to say that the Dalai Lama is to Buddhism what the Pope is to Christianity, namely, a leading spokesman, if not the head. After the Pope and possibly Billy Graham, he is probably the most recognized religious figure on our planet. He is the de facto leader of millions of spiritual seekers in the West, and has considerable influence in pop culture. For that reason alone we do well to be aware of what Buddhism actually teaches.
The Buddhist religion was founded some 2,500 years ago in India. A young prince named Gautama, protected from suffering through a life of pomp and pleasure, chanced one day (so goes the legend) upon a man lying on the ground, writhing in pain. When the young prince asked his companions what was wrong with the man, he was told, “That is the way of life. All people are liable to become ill and suffer pain.” Some distance further along the road the prince met an old man, shuffling along with two canes to aid his unsteady steps. When the prince asked what was wrong with the man, he was told, “All people grow old, and that is the way of old age.” Some distance later a funeral procession came toward the prince, with widow and children weeping bitterly. In explanation the prince was told, “That is the way of life. Whether one is a king or a pauper, sooner to some and later to others, death comes to all alike.” As the prince was lost in thought about the pain and sorrow he witnessed around him, he came upon a monk, bowl in hand, silently begging for food, his face calm and his manner serene. There and then the prince determined to leave his palace of pomp and pleasure in order to live the life of beggar monk, the better to meditate without distraction upon the suffering that characterized human existence.
After seven years of meditation and search, the prince-turned-beggar finally hit upon the wisdom he was seeking. “The First Law of Life,” he exclaimed, “is: From good must come good, and from evil must come evil.” This ‘insight’ is known as the law of Karma (also taught in Hinduism). Good things happen to you today because of the good you’ve done in the past, and bad things happen to you today because of the bad you’ve done in the past. Once Gautama understood this, he began preaching his insight, and his followers began to call him ‘Buddha’ – the local word for ‘Enlightened One’.
To be clear: ‘you’ is not necessarily ‘you’. The person you are today did not necessarily begin to exist at your conception or birth, but you can be a reincarnation of a person (or animal) long dead. So today’s Dalai Lama claims to the reincarnation of previous Dalai Lamas. What ‘you’ did in a ‘previous life’ affects the things that happen to ‘you’ in the present life. As ‘you’ can’t control today what ‘you’ did three or seven lives back, so you have no say in what Karma deals out to you.
You can, however, determine how you shall handle the suffering on your path. Buddha taught (and Buddhism with him still teaches) that it all depends on your attitude. What happens to you becomes ‘suffering’ because of your desires. That is, if you desire health but receive illness, you suffer not because of the illness itself (or its pain), but because of your desire for good health (or the freedom from pain). The solution to suffering, then, is to stop desiring. You can train yourself to stop desiring through meditation – or, to put it another way, through meditation you silence your sense of pain. The Yoga of today’s western society has its origin in this meditation (be it with a Hindu spin, as well as other additives).
On the one hand, then, you are strictly the victim of Karma. But on the other, how you experience your karma is completely up to you. Through your efforts in meditation you rise above your discomforts, you roll with the punches of life, and are content in adversity. Meanwhile, in tribulation you do the right thing, and so ensure that later versions of ‘you’ will receive better Karma than you received. The ultimate goal is to reach a state of Nirvana, a heavenly bliss, at which time the cycle of reincarnation ceases, and you become one with the all.
There are undoubtedly many nuances and beliefs within Buddhism, just as there are in generic Christianity. Yet the board outline of Buddhism is uniform. It denies the existence of God (or a god), and thus is pure atheism. It also teaches salvation through one’s own efforts; through a strict regimen of psychological self-culture one can control one’s feelings and so rise above the suffering of this life.
Perhaps that’s also why Buddhism has been popular over many centuries (for it spread widely from its initial home in India to cover most of the Far East) and why it’s highly esteemed of late in North America. Buddhism addresses a very real and universal problem, the problem of pain and suffering. Where people do not have the Lord Jesus Christ and His gospel, Buddhism seems to offer a way to overcome life’s suffering. That makes it attractive; through concerted meditation you can rise above your trials, so that a kind of peace and calm pervades your distressed mind.
But God is there. One can, with Buddhism, deny His existence. But that doesn’t change reality. This holy God is greatly offended by man’s sin, and does and will punish it with His just judgment. Hence the suffering, in this life and the next. No amount of meditation or psychological mind-games will raise one above the anguish that comes from tasting the wrath of God. Escape is found only in the atoning blood of Jesus Christ – the One who suffered the infinite anguish we deserve.
Meanwhile, the pain that continues to characterize the life of God’s people is –as one author poignantly put it– the “gift nobody wants”. But a gift pain is, for “suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out His love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom He has given us” (Romans 5:4,5).
The Dalai Lama has met the Prime Minister, has come and gone. It’s hard to tell what influence his visit has had on Buddhism in Canada. But Canada’s King remains Jesus Christ, and His Gospel shall prevail.
James Beverley, “Buddhism’s Guru,” Christianity Today, June 11, 2001
Joseph Brean, “A chat with a god-king,” National Post, October 27, 2007
Joseph Gaer, What the Great Religions Believe
Myrtle Langley, Religions: A Book of Beliefs
JG Vos, A Christian Introduction to Religions of the World
November 1, 2007