Originally printed in the FAll 2011 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Richard Smoley. "The Dalai Lama Comes to Chicago." Quest 99. 3 (Summer 2011): 126.
By Richard Smoley
The Theosophical Society presented its largest event in decades on July 17-18, 2011, when it hosted three appearances in Chicago by the Fourteenth Dalai Lama of Tibet. The theme was "Bridging the Faith Divide: Compassion in Action," emphasizing a major concern both for the Dalai Lama and for the TS leadership in recent years.
At the first day's event, which took place at the University of Illinois in Chicago, the Dalai Lama addressed a crowd of over 8000. He was introduced by TS president Tim Boyd, who called him "one of the greatest people on the world stage today." Boyd noted that the Dalai Lama's first contact with the Society came during a visit to the Society's headquarters in Adyar, India, in 1956, during a trip that was only his second out of Tibet. The Dalai Lama confirmed this, saying that he was impressed by the atmosphere of the Adyar headquarters, which he said was both "spiritual" and "respectful of all religions."
The Dalai Lama also congratulated the state of Illinois for its recent abolition of the death penalty and presented a traditional white blessing scarf to state Governor Pat Quinn, who was on hand for the event. "I think most religions [that] believe in God make a distinction between sin and sinner," the Dalai Lama said. "God condemns sin, but not a sinner. [For a] sinner, there must be forgiveness." Blessing scarves were also presented to Boyd and to former TS president Betty Bland.
While the Dalai Lama's speech was sometimes hard to follow—he joked at one point about his broken English—his message was clear and compelling. For the last 3000-4000 years, he observed, the goal of religion has been "to help humanity, to bring inner peace. The use of religion for money, power, fame [is] not [the] proper use of religion." But it was these uses, he said, that are the leading causes of religious conflict in the world today. "Conflicts [are] not for the sake of religious faith, but for power."
The Dalai Lama observed that there are some crucial differences among the world's religions, notably between the theistic faiths, such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, on the one hand, and the "nontheistic" faiths on the other, which, he said, included not only Buddhism but Jainism and the Samkhya school of Hinduism. "One [group of religions] has a creator, one does not," he pointed out. "To carry [the] message to followers, theistic religions use the idea of God. [The] real meaning of God," he said, is "infinite love and compassion." The nontheistic religions, by contrast, say that the universe arose out of "causes and conditions."
Despite these differences, all religious traditions have the same goal, he went on to say. "Spirituality is like medicine for illness. Although there is a "variety of medicines for different illnesses, [medicine as a whole] has the same purpose—to bring better health to humanity." Religion can be seen as a medicine for the mind, he added.
Nevertheless, the Dalai Lama also stressed that "there are honest, truthful people who are not religious. [For] basic human moral principles, religion [is] not necessary." This represented a key point in his discourse. The basis for universal understanding will never come through some kind of grand unification of religions, he contended, but rather by emphasizing the basic moral values that everyone, believer and nonbeliever alike, shares. The "number one commitment," he said, should be to promote "warm-heartedness" among all peoples.
The Dalai Lama also emphasized the need for separation of religion from the state. "No one can force religious belief," he said. He held up India over the last thousand years as a model of tolerance and respect for all religions. On several occasions during the two-day event, he praised India and its heritage, noting that Buddhism was introduced to Tibet from India in the eighth century ad. "Every particle of my brain is filled with Indian thought," he observed at one point, adding, "For the last fifty years, my body [has been] sustained by Indian rice and dal," a lentil stew that is a staple of Indian cuisine.
The Dalai Lama went on to warn against changing religious traditions. One reason for Buddhism's popularity in the West, he contended, was that "modern people love something new. For a few months, [they] show interest, then forget. Better to keep your own traditions—it is much safer. Otherwise [there is a] danger of confusion."
The Dalai Lama concluded Sunday's gathering with several suggestions for promoting religious harmony. In the first place, he suggested meetings among scholars of different faiths to discuss their differences and similarities. Second, he said, it would be useful to have meetings of practitioners of each faith "who have some deeper experience." (He recounted a meeting of his own with a Catholic monk in Spain who had lived for five years as a hermit." The monk's summary of his experience was, according to the Dalai Lama, "meditate on love.") Third, he encouraged "group pilgrimages to different holy places of different religions," a practice he has engaged in since 1975. Finally, he said that conversations among religious leaders themselves were necessary.
At the Monday event, which took place at Chicago's Harris Theater, the Dalai Lama conversed with religious leaders of the three Abrahamic faiths, in a panel moderated by Eboo Patel, a Muslim and founder of Interfaith Youth Core, an organization that brings together young people of different religious and moral traditions for cooperative service and dialogue. Other panelists were the Rev. Canon Peg Chemberlin, president of the National Council of Churches of Christâ€“USA; Rabbi Michael Lerner, a spiritual progressive and founder of Tikkun magazine; and Ingrid Mattson, former president of the Islamic Society of North America. (An interview with Mattson can be found on page TK of this issue.)
The Dalai Lama's comments on Monday were largely restatements of points he had made the previous day, although he also spoke out against blanket condemnation of any religious faith. "Some people generalize Islam as a militant religion," which, he said, was "unfair," calling it "totally mischievous" to stigmatize whole traditions. Actually, he said, there are a "few mischievous people" among all faiths.
Among the panelists, Ingrid Mattson stressed that "personal encounter" was the key to success in interfaith activity, a point that was echoed by both of the other panelists. Chamberlain cited an instance of an interfaith service at the Roman Catholic Cathedral of St. Paul in Minneapolis on behalf of victims of the 2008 Minneapolis bridge collapse, while Lerner pointed out that it was exchanges between the Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel and Pope John XXIII that led to the elimination of anti-Jewish references in the Catholic liturgy after Vatican II.
Lerner's were among the more interesting comments by panelists. He said that according to Judaism "a central part of our task is to embody God's being in our own reality....God-energy transforms the world from the way the world is to the way it ought to be." What ordinarily counts as "realism"—dismissing ideals and higher values as impractical—is, from a Jewish point of view, "idolatry," since the familiar reality of the world as we know it is not God, and it is wrong to put this reality above God. "Don't be realistic!" Lerner urged.
In his address, the Dalai Lama said that it was "wrong to expect that everyone is going to be good. Even nonbelievers are part of humanity. Everyone wants to be happy. No one wants to be violent. Everyone wants peace, [a] happy life [in a] happy world." He added that "no one wants trouble"; people only act in violent ways "out of ignorance." He genially differed with Lerner's comments about realism, saying that "realistic action" was necessary. "You have to know [the] situation; wider investigation [is] necessary. You must be objective and realistic in order to develop."
On Monday afternoon, there was a special event for members of the Theosophical Society, which chiefly consisted of a question-and-answer session. At one point the Dalai Lama asked Boyd, "Do you have publications?", to which Boyd replied, "Yes, Your Holiness, as a matter of fact, we published you," referring to the Dalai Lama's book The Opening of the Wisdom-Eye, published by Quest Books in 1966 and still in print. The Dalai Lama praised the TS highly, citing the organization's open-minded approach to the study of religion, science, and philosophy. In response to a question, he described his flight from Lhasa, Tibet's capital, on March 17, 1959 to escape invading Chinese troops, giving a powerful first-hand account of a major historical event by one of its chief participants.
Despite some complaints by conference attendees about the sound quality, particularly of the Sunday event, the conference went smoothly and marked a major triumph for the Theosophical Society. The event had been organized in short notice; the date for it had only been set in February 2011. "From the beginning the event was planned in a way that would put the minimum stress on the TSA staff," Tim Boyd points out, adding, 'Of course 'minimum' is a very relative term. Every department and every staff member had some role in making the occasion a success. The sometimes hectic requirements of the event were met with poise and grace. One of our visiting members put it well when she said, 'I want to thank every staff member for the loving and patient way they served' during the conference. It was a good time to be a Theosophist."