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"On my part, I remain committed to the process of dialogue. It is my firm belief that dialogue and a willingness to look with honesty and clarity at the reality of Tibet can lead us to a viable solution."

Why is the Dalai Lama so popular?

November 8, 2009

By Stephen Schettini
The Métropolitain (Quebec)
November 4, 2009

When I wanted to meet the Dalai Lama back in
1980, I went to his door in Dharamsala and
knocked. "Sure," his servant said. “Tomorrow
afternoon okay?” That, of course, was before he
became an international superstar.

Like all those who’ve had one-on-one time with
him, I came away from that hour-long interview
with the experience of being deeply liked. I felt
that nobody, not even my own mother, had ever
paid such rapt attention to me. Who can resist
that? I also found him far more open
intellectually than most other Tibetans. After a
year studying logic and philosophy in the great
Sera Monastic University, I’d come to him with my
doubts. How come "Because the Buddha said so," is
considered a valid reasoning? Even more
disturbing was the long list of sicknesses
believed, even by the highest lamas, to be caused
by invisible magic serpents (nagas). Wasn’t
Buddhism supposed to the non-religion, the epitome of clear-minded thought?

It wasn’t so much his answers as his attitude
that soothed my worries. He made it clear that
beliefs are a personal matter and that perhaps I
didn’t need to take the ancient tradition of
Buddhist scholarship too seriously. After all, as
he never tires of saying, "This is my simple
religion. There is no need for temples; no need
for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our
own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness."

Another part of the Dalai Lama’s appeal lies in
what he’s not. A blogger on answerbag.com pointed
out, "He's a religious guy who doesn't support
killing or hating people for God. It’s a big
improvement.” He’s a world leader whose only spin
is his self-effacing, playful and too-friendly-for-words persona.

The Chinese too are indirectly responsible for
the Dalai Lama’s popularity. Although he has
ample reason to be absolutely furious at them,
his response is a patience that’s little short of
breathtaking. They invaded his country, tortured
and killed tens of thousands, forced monks and
nuns into public sex acts, levelled ancient
monasteries and shrines and have numerically
outpopulated Tibetans in Tibet. Last year,
Chinese official Zhang Qingli called the Dalai
Lama, ‘a devil with a human face but the heart of
a beast.’ Nevertheless, in Calgary recently he
said he still expects one day to return to Tibet.
The worst charge you might level at him is naïveté.

In actual fact, the Dalai Lama’s at the centre of
a long-standing religious schism that’s pitted
disciples against gurus, separated monks from
their monastic brothers and resulted in murder
and mayhem. All this over an invisible being
called Dorje Shugden whose ostensible job was to
protect the Buddha’s teachings. Back in the
nineteen-eighties the Dalai Lama proclaimed
Shugden a renegade, and now he can’t seem to get
the genie back in the bottle. This has forced
scholars of Tibetan Buddhism to take a closer
look at the history of Tibet, where they’ve found
many precedents for what can only be described as
theocratic power struggles, underhanded scheming and religio-civil war.

Which brings us to perhaps the underlying reason
for the Tibetan leader’s popularity: Buddhism.
Visitors to Asia may perceive Buddhism as
old-time religion, complete with invisible
beings, superstition and intolerance, but scratch
beneath the gaudy veneer and you find a
thoughtful, healing and wholesome system of thought and daily practice.

In an age when religious faith is on the decline
and people are having trouble swallowing its
hollow residue, Buddhism offers a spiritual path
that’s compatible with scientific enquiry, and
perhaps even with twenty-first century
realpolitik. The Dalai Lama is the lynchpin of
Boulder, Colorado’s Mind & Life Institute that
seeks to, "establish mutually respectful working
collaboration and research partnerships between
modern science and Buddhism." Commenting upon
this work, The Dalai Lama noted three crucial
parallels between the Buddhism and modern
science. They 1) share a deep suspicion of any
notion of absolutes, 2) believe in universal
natural laws of cause and effect and 3) depend on
an empirical method. You can go a long way on those three premises.

Because of all this, I and hundreds of other
Westerns who became Buddhist monks back in the
seventies and eighties eventually left the
religious trappings behind but remained guided by
the principles that made the Buddha’s teachings
endure for twenty-six centuries. If they can
survive the onslaught of consumerism and
globalisation, they may outlive the Abrahamic religions.
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