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Encountering the Dalai Lama

It's one thing to think about a Christian response to Buddhism in the classroom; it's quite another to actually talk about the gospel face to face with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Buddhism's chief ambassador in our world.

I interviewed him last summer at his headquarters in Dharamsala, India, and I thought of this nugget of wisdom from the great theologian Karl Barth as I formed my approach: "Only one thing is really decisive for the distinction of truth and error … Jesus Christ."

The Dalai Lama, as almost everyone knows, is one of the most influential religious leaders on earth. He is a Nobel Peace Prize winner, a best-selling author, a powerful political figure (head of the Tibetan Government in Exile), and by all accounts a dynamic and wonderful person. He is highly disciplined, humble, intelligent, and has a great sense of humour. His life has been celebrated in two major Hollywood films (Seven Years in Tibet and Kundun), and he is a spiritual guide for millions, Buddhists and otherwise.

His Holiness, born as Lhamo Thondup in northeastern Tibet on July 6, 1935, was chosen as the 14th Dalai Lama (a title meaning "Ocean of Wisdom") at age two. He was enthroned as Tibet's spiritual head at age five and forced into political leadership when Chairman Mao Tse Tung's armies raided Tibet in 1950. Exiled since 1959, the Dalai Lama has become the champion for a free Tibet, even as he spreads the dharma (teaching) of the Buddha to the nations.

Since the interview I have spent a lot of time considering what kind of Christian witness could reach the Dalai Lama. First, I believe the gospel must become incarnate in the prayers and actions of a Church that cares deeply about the brutalization of Tibet at the hands of Communist China. In the name of Jesus, we can pray for the political freedom of Tibetans. In the name of Jesus, some Christians can offer financial aid to the Tibetan Government in Exile. In the name of Jesus, other believers can write letters of protest to the Chinese government about the oppression of Tibetans.

… the gospel must be defended intelligently to His Holiness . …

Second, the gospel must be defended intelligently to His Holiness since he, like most Buddhists, places great weight on being rational. The Dalai Lama believes that Buddhism is the best philosophy to explain reality. The supremacy of Christian faith over Buddhism is best illustrated, then, by a positive defense of the gospel's historical credibility, philosophical integrity and spiritual authenticity. The Dalai Lama respects debate. In our interview, he was completely at ease when I argued for the truth and supremacy of Jesus, even laughing as he recognized, at one level, the power of the logic.

This, of course, brings us back to Barth's remark. "Only one thing is really decisive for the distinction of truth and error … Jesus Christ." On this matter, the Dalai Lama himself said one time that he is not worthy to be compared with Jesus. He wrote in one of his books that Jesus is "a fully enlightened being." Given that affirmation, I said to him that if Jesus is fully enlightened then He must have taught the truth about His identity as Son of God, and as Lord and Saviour. "Otherwise, He wouldn't be that enlightened, would He?"

The Dalai Lama's answer astonished me a year ago, and it still does. He said that Jesus was allowed to teach things that were not true because the people were not ready for the highest truths. He made it clear that he does not regard Jesus as a liar in any sense since He was teaching for a good cause.

Although the Dalai Lama's reply to my point (one borrowed from C. S. Lewis) is consistent with Buddhism, it is utterly inconsistent with any ordinary claim that Jesus is a "fully enlightened person." The whole matter shows the unseen forces at work in truth telling. Sharing the gospel is not just about reason or debate. It is ultimately about spiritual blindness and the need for illumination by the Spirit of God to the truth of Jesus as the light of God. That light is for the Dalai Lama. For me. For all.

James A. Beverley is professor of theology and ethics at Tyndale Seminary in Toronto. His lengthy article "Buddhism's Guru" appeared in the June 11 issue of Christianity Today.

Faith Today, Sept/Oct 2001,




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