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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

Dalai Lama's 'secular' message has a Buddhist core

October 5, 2009

canadianchristianity - October 2, 2009
By Frank Stirk

Spiritual leader will headline a 'peace summit' in Vancouver

WHEN James Beverley asked in 2000 to interview the Tibetan spiritual and
political leader, the Dalai Lama, for an article he was writing for
Christianity Today, he was told that it would be granted on one condition -
that he come to the Buddhist monk's home in Dharamsala in northern India,
the seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile since 1960.

"When he travels, he doesn't do many interviews. So he guaranteed an
interview if I went to India," says Beverley, a professor of Christian
thought and ethics at Tyndale Seminary in Toronto. But although the trek
there was long and arduous, he believes it was worth it just to meet the
Nobel laureate face to face.

Likable and caring

"He's a very likable, personable and caring person. He's real lively, he has
a great sense of humour and he also cares passionately about the major
issues he's famous for - Tibetan freedom, Buddhism and spirituality."

For the Dalai Lama's Canadian admirers, including many Christians, it will
not be necessary to go to India to see and hear him, because he will be in
Vancouver September 26 - 29 for an international "peace summit."

Sponsored by the Vancouver-based Dalai Lama Center for Peace and Education,
speakers and participants at the various events will feature fellow Nobel
Peace Prize laureates Desmond Tutu, Jody Williams, Mary Robinson, Mairead
McGuire and Betty Williams, plus various leaders in education, the arts,
business, politics and social transformation.

Personal harmony

A major theme of the summit will be that world peace is not attainable apart
from personal peace and harmony.

Organizers are hopeful that the dialogue will not be an end in itself, but
instead will translate into "compassionate action."

Even before the summit starts, the Dalai Lama will have an unprecedented
teaching opportunity as the guest editor of the Vancouver Sun for Saturday,
September 26. The entire issue will be devoted to the theme of 'Educating
the Heart.'

"Because the guest-edited editions are themed," says Sun editor-in-chief
Patricia Graham, "it gives us an opportunity to really immerse ourselves in
the subject the guest editors choose and provide readers with substantial
depth and breadth on a specific topic."

"Not at all, not at all," says Victor Chan, the center's founding director
and a long-time friend of the Dalai Lama, when asked if the summit was in
any way a religious event, especially given the fact its headliner is the
world's most well-known Buddhist.

Secular ideas

Chan points out the center exists solely to advance the Dalai Lama's
"secular ideas for compassion, forgiveness and universal responsibility" and
does not get involved in politics or religion.

"We are not doing something that is of an interfaith nature. The themes are
more to do with personal wellbeing, personal spirituality, education,
women's issues," he says.

"I think surely they would be of quite significant general interest, because
those kinds of themes are very universal and everybody has an interest in
these themes."

This appeal to a shared humanity resonates strongly with JoyTV host and
producer Randall Mark.

"When you start thinking about people that you respect, you have to peel
away their labels. . . . And so I'm more interested in the ideas that the
Dalai Lama stands for, rather than [the fact] he's a Buddhist and I'm a
Christian," he says.

"When I look at the life of the Dalai Lama, I say, 'Your life has been lived
in the stream of love and beauty and forgiveness and reconciliation.'. . .
This means he is operating in the stream of God, no matter what label he
uses."

Mark even sees in some of the teachings of the Dalai Lama clear echoes of
what Jesus taught. "When you become broken, when you become empty . . . and
you're at the end of your rope, now your life can begin. That's exactly the
teachings of Christ," he says.

Labels do matter

Beverley counters that for the Dalai Lama, at least, "labels do matter.
People should pay attention to the fact that he's a Buddhist, because that's
so central to his life story." But he adds that "Christians don't need to be
paranoid about him. . . . There's no, like, hidden agenda to make the world
go Buddhist - although he's a great advertisement for Buddhism."

In fact, Buddhism already enjoys a broad acceptance in Canadian culture.

A recent Angus Reid poll found 57 percent of Canadians "generally approve"
of Buddhism, second only to Christianity, at 72 percent.

Among British Columbians, 46 percent said they had a Buddhist friend and 38
per cent said they had a "good understanding" of the religion.

Such fertile ground for Buddhism, says North Vancouver Anglican rector Ed
Hird, makes it all the more important that people not throw all caution to
the wind when it comes to the Dalai Lama - despite the fact he actually
encourages people not to leave their religion, but instead become more
immersed in it.

"He's very winsome and humorous about it, but he's quite frankly as much an
evangelist as Billy Graham," says Hird. "He does it in a different style,
but he is someone who has been quite persuasive for some people, in making
them curious about Buddhism."

Yet Charles Nienkirchen, professor of Christian history and spirituality at
Ambrose University College in Calgary, suspects the attractiveness of an
Eastern religion to so many in the West says as much about modern-day
Christianity as it does about Buddhism.

Spiritual life

"In the West, we don't tend to produce genuinely spiritual people. Hence the
appeal of people like the Dalai Lama, who seem to predicate their comments
about the human reality on the living of a spiritual life," says
Nienkirchen.

"Having said that, if we are fully versed in the fullness of Christian truth
. . . we don't need anything from the outside. We're not deficient. But many
kinds of Christianity are deficient, because they're not deeply imbedded in
the fullness of Christian truth."

Mark goes further. "I think Jesus would say to many Christians, 'You're not
living out the kingdom's values. And yet this "heretic" [the Dalai Lama]
over here . . . is living out these ideas. He gets it.'"

The Dalai Lama has visited Vancouver twice before in this decade, in 2004
and 2006. Both involved large-venue events that drew tens of thousands of
people. But this visit will be different, with most of the events taking
place at the much smaller Chan Centre for the Performing Arts and the
Orpheum Theatre.

"This time around," says Chan, "we're trying to create a different sort of
experience for people in a more intimate type of setting. It's certainly not
the same as being in a place to watch the proceedings live. But to
counterbalance the limited access, we're going to have a very significant
live-streaming capability, moreso than in 2004 and 2006."

Influencing youth

The one large event is the youth-oriented, free-admission 'We Day' at GM
Place, a day of high-energy music and dialogue, including a speech by the
Dalai Lama, aimed at empowering young people to serve the global community.
Its producers are Craig and Marc Kielburger's Free the Children Foundation
in partnership with the B.C. Ministry of Education. About 18,000 students
from across the province are expected to show up.

"About 2,500 of them will be coming from 89 different Vancouver schools,"
says Vancouver School Board communications manager David Weir. "The schools
themselves will decide how students are selected." A further 1,250 students
will be coming from Surrey's schools.

Weir insists this is not a violation of the B.C. School Act, which requires
that schools conduct themselves "on strictly secular and non-sectarian
principles" and that "no religious dogma or creed is to be taught." "The
focus of the event is on global citizenship, not on religion," he says.

But Steve Bailey, an education instructor at Trinity Western University and
a deacon at St. Laurence Anglican Church in Coquitlam, says no matter how
worthy the cause, the fact remains the Dalai Lama and his religion are
indivisible.

Who he is

"That's who he is. We can respect him for that, and we can respect the work
that he does for that, but that's who he is," Bailey says.

"To try to make that distinction, he adds, "would be like asking the Pope as
the head of the Vatican State to separate his secular government agenda from
his religious agenda. It's impossible."

More than that, Bailey worries that taking students to see the Dalai Lama
"outside of the context of a world religions course or some kind of specific
educational context . . . is dangerous. It leaves one open to all kinds of
accusations, all kinds of people wanting to look for hidden agendas."

The Dalai Lama is 74. And despite his seemingly very good health and ascetic
lifestyle, Chan admits that sooner or later, he will need to cut back his
grueling travel schedule.

"But I think that with [his] help in the next few years, we will hopefully
have created a kind of a sustainability and legacy that will allow [the
centre] to continue on this secular work that he is committed to."

"He has had a greater impact on Buddhism in some ways than anyone alive, and
. . . he will be remembered for a long, long time," says Beverley. "But
currently, there would only be a couple of Buddhists in the world who are
even as remotely as famous as the Dalai Lama. So it will take a lot for
someone of a new generation to gain his fame."
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