DHARAMSALA, India – When posed a policy question, the Dalai Lama is surprisingly (for a religious leader) un-prone to moralism. What, I asked him, does he think of the European backlash against migration? “In the name of sympathy, for the few who are desperate, [resettlement] is worthwhile.” But Europeans, he continued, “have a right to be concerned for their own prosperity.” Better, he said, “to help people in their own land.” He added: “It is really complex.”
In conversation, the Dalai Lama’s cast of mind is thoroughly empirical. You can see him considering a matter from various angles and revising his views based on new input. He is a Buddhist who recommends “analytic meditation” instead of employing spiritual exercises as a “tranquilizer.” Self-reflection, he believes, should be the basis for action in the world. Vague talk of peace, he said, “will only disturb some pigeons.”
For decades, the Dalai Lama has embodied the Tibetan cause, which was once at the center of America’s Cold War interests. With that cause now something of an international orphan, the Dalai Lama has cultivated a different type of influence – global celebrity based on spiritual charisma.
I saw that charisma up close as the fortunate witness to a singular event. Under the auspices of the United States Institute of Peace, the Dalai Lama spent two days mentoring 28 exceptional youth leaders – men and women doing peacebuilding in conflict zones across Asia and Africa, often at great personal risk.
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The Dalai Lama is, despite recent health issues, energetic and apparently (at 80) tireless. He is informal and mischievous (at one point rubbing his bald head into the beard of a very dignified Muslim cleric). He is disarmingly self-effacing: “I am not god,” quoth the 14th reincarnation of the Lord of Compassion. “I don’t know” is a consistent refrain.
But his view of the world is also highly consistent, and occasionally controversial. He argues that ethics are primary and unifying, while religion belongs to “a secondary level of difference.” What he calls “secular ethics” can be derived from “common experience and common sense,” which teaches the “sameness of humanity” and the universal capacity for, and need for, love and compassion. For evidence, he turns to neuroscience and social scientific research on child development rather than to scripture (he has mandated a science curriculum for Tibetan monasteries). Human beings, in his view, are essentially good, and responsible for doing good. “We promote a more compassionate world,” he said, “through education, not through prayer.”
If this sounds familiar, it is not far from the social ethics – not the theology – of some strains of liberal Protestantism. And the Dalai Lama shares something with Pope Francis: an impatience with institutional religion, which he says is prone to be “narrow and rigid.”
The Dalai Lama is keen to argue that “all religions carry the message of love and compassion.” In more careful moments, he says, “all religions have the same potential.” This is true – from a certain perspective. Each of the world’s major religions has resources of respect for the other that can (and should) be emphasized at the expense of less attractive elements.
Some of the faithful will resist the Dalai Lama’s frank insistence that religion be modernized. “Some traditions must change. I tell my Hindu friends, they must change their treatment of outcasts.” In Islam, “the meaning of jihad is not hurting other people.” His own tradition he described as “too close to the feudal system.” “This is not a change in religion. It is changing habits due to social tradition.”
This religious essentialism – defining a core of humane teaching that stands in judgment of a tradition’s cultural expressions – is what helps ensure that religion is a positive cultural force. Conservative Protestants in America who dispute this idea still demonstrate it. The treatment of women in most evangelical churches is closer to common American practice than to the Apostle Paul’s first-century attitudes, and should be.
The uniqueness of the Dalai Lama’s voice in global debates is his emphasis on the inner life. He roots the pursuit of peace in a “calm mind” – and displays it. “Eternal disarmament,” he told the gathered young activists, “begins with internal disarmament. If you show anger, things get worse. A genuine smile and warmheartedness and a joke are the only way to cool things down.”
It is good advice for anyone facing conflict – as well as the only basis for a peace that involves trust, forgiveness and healing.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.