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Opinion: Dalai Lama tells us to 'reprioritize, revalue'

July 11, 2008

By Lloyd Steffen
The Morning Call
July 9, 2008

Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, visits the Lehigh Valley this
week. Why all the excitement? Why is the Dalai Lama so important?

One thing everyone knows about the Dalai Lama is that he is famous.
His face and cheery smile are known the world over. He is, in fact,
an iconic figure whose status as a bona fide celebrity was confirmed
when a Dalai Lama ''paper doll'' cut-out book was published not long
ago. But why does he command so much attention? Does he not come out
of a religious tradition -- Tibetan Buddhism -- unfamiliar to many
Americans? And the conflict between Tibet and China that has put the
Dalai Lama in the news lately-does that not involve a regional
history over issues that for most of us are simply obscure? Why is
the Dalai Lama thought to be important? Fair question.

To answer the question requires just a little ''Who's Who in the
World'' background. The title Dalai Lama is a Mongolian and Tibetan
hybrid term that literally means ''ocean teacher.'' The Dalai Lama is
believed by Tibetan Buddhists to be the reincarnation of the Buddha
(or bodhisattva) of Compassion. He is believed to possess a wisdom as
deep as the ocean, and the title identifies its holder as the highest
spiritual authority in Tibetan Buddhism. The current Dalai Lama, born
in 1935, was recognized as a living Buddha when only three years old.
He began monastic training at the age of six, completed doctoral
studies in Buddhist philosophy at the age of 25, and was acknowledged
as the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people. In 1950, when only 15
years old, he was named head of the Tibetan state.

After the success of the communist revolution in China, Mao Zedong
tried to unite Tibet with the People's Republic of China, the
ostensible purpose being to modernize Tibet. Chinese military forces
invaded Tibet, and the incursion was met with resistance and
bloodshed. With his life threatened and with efforts to bring peace
to his homeland having failed, the Dalai Lama was forced into exile.
In 1959 he crossed the Himalayas and took up residence in Dharmasala,
India, where he has lived ever since. He is known the world over
today for his teachings and writings on spirituality, ethics, human
rights and nonviolence, and the numerous awards he has received in
recognition of his efforts to promote justice and resolve the Tibetan
situation nonviolently include the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize.

There have been many spiritual leaders, many different heads of
state, even other exiled heads of state, and quite a few Nobel Peace
Prize winners -- so why is this man, who describes himself always as
''a simple monk,'' important? Let me suggest three reasons.

First of all, the Dalai is an extraordinary teacher and a gifted
communicator. His fame derives from his efforts to stay in constant
communication. He is a New York Times best selling author many times
over, able to reach wide audiences; he is a lecturer to hundreds of
thousands of people across the globe -- a true global citizen; and he
is the subject of many films and documentaries, including Martin
Scorsese's bio-pic, ''Kundun.'' The Dalai Lama has succeeded in
translating central ideas from his Buddhist tradition to people in a
way -- and through all kinds of media -- that speaks to their common
spiritual needs and longings, regardless of whether they are Buddhist
or even religious at all. But he has also taught Buddhism along the
way. Much of what many people know about Buddhism comes from their
encounter with the Dalai Lama, who has connected with people as only
great teachers can, embodying in his life and words a message that
speaks to the great questions about life and its meaning.

Second, the Dalai Lama is important because of the specifics of his
message. The Dalai Lama reminds us that we are all in the same boat,
that suffering is our common condition. He humbly suggests that we
are responsible for one another, and that geographic boundaries
should be no impediment to our sense of responsibility. We are all
connected. And we all want the same thing out of life -- we want
happiness. His teaching, then, is designed to illuminate the pathways
that might get us to happiness. Learn patience. Show tolerance. Seek
wisdom. Forgive. Make love your aim as well as your mode of
operation. Offer compassion and help those who are in need. Calm
yourselves and seek peace within -- meditate. Bring peace to the
world through a life of care and empathy. Shun violence and hatred.
Channel anger and overcome fear. Build your life around these values,
rejecting the excesses of materialism and the temptations to resolve
conflict by resorting to violence. Make kindness your ethic. You
cannot be too kind.

These are messages that can be found many places, including the
religion of Christianity. What is unusual about the Dalai Lama as
teacher is that he has extracted these messages from theological
trappings and offered them as wise counsel and living directives to
those seeking spiritual enlightenment. This is radical business and
the kind of teaching that many Christians find difficult, since in
many versions of Christianity the message about what is required to
do is subordinated to requirements about belief. The Dalai Lama
dissociates the two-- he focuses on the doing, on the requirements of
peaceful living and wisdom seeking. He does not force his Tibetan
beliefs on those outside his tradition -- when people tell him they
don't accept reincarnation he laughs and says, ''How could you? How
is that a part of your life?''

And this leads to a third consideration. The Dalai Lama is important
because the challenge of his message is this: ''Stop doing business
as usual.'' The idea that we can find peace through force of arms or
happiness through acquisition is illusory. He urges people to rethink
what they want and how to get what they want, and with so much misery
and unhappiness in the world, the way to happiness will not come from
doing things as we are used to doing them. Reprioritize and revalue,
he seems to be saying. Emphasize dialogue, not confrontation. Think
about cooperation rather than competition. Think about advancing the
interests of others as much as you do advancing your own. Make every
encounter with another person the greeting of a new friend. And when
you are told this is impractical, remind your skeptic that if we do
not reshift to an alternative set of values and refocus our concern
to include all others, even the well-being of the planet itself, we
imperil our very existence.

The Dalai Lama relates this message from his Buddhist sources -- it
is not an alien message for me as a Christian. What I celebrate is
that the Dalai Lama has found a way to make this message heard today,
even if it is through massive media exposure and paper doll cut out
books. The message goes to the hope for human happiness. The message
is that business as usual is a well doomed to run dry, and
alternative values, an alternative spirituality, will be required to
energize peaceful and meaningful life in the days ahead. The Dalai
Lama offers an alternative path away form the present unhappiness; he
emphasizes a way of living that challenges what most of us value and
how most of us live-and that, for me, is why the Dalai Lama stands in
a long line of great spiritual teachers; that for me is why the Dalai
Lama is so important.

Lloyd Steffen is professor of religion studies and chaplain at Lehigh
University.
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