Some Notes Concerning the Interreligious Encounter


  1. In May of 2010 the Dalai Lama gave a series of teachings in New York City. The audience consisted of Buddhist monks, Tibetan and others, and lay people, mostly Westerners who are interested to a certain extent in what Buddhism is all about. There were three days of teachings, and then there was a public talk by the Dalai Lama that was more general and intended for the wider public, not just Buddhists. The whole event was recorded and is available as a DVD packet of 4 separate dvds, one for each day of teaching and the public talk. I recommend it highly. I have watched it now twice and it still holds all kinds of insights, even if you are not “becoming Buddhist.” If you want to understand what Buddhism is really about, and in particular the Tibetan version of it, this is worth the time and effort—the talks are long, at least two hours long on each DVD. For contemplative Christians I think it is especially valuable in helping them get a sense for what the Buddhists are bringing to the table of the interreligious encounter, their depth, their wisdom, their contemplative experience. You probably can get this DVD from a library.


  1. One of the striking and fascinating things about the Dalai Lama’s presentation of Buddhism is how “scholastic” it can be (Merton’s term when he met the Dalai Lama back in in 1968). The Dalai Lama’s school of Tibetan Buddhism, Gelugpa, emphasizes study, learning, and philosophical issues, and this really shows. He is very systematic, very thorough, and shows a true mastery of very complex texts. In this presentation, however, he makes the point that what he is pointing to undergirds all of Buddhism in all of its various schools.


  1. Another striking and fascinating aspect of his presentation is the careful and precise use of terms. Those of us who are not Buddhists have to be very careful about what meaning we attribute to certain Buddhist language–it may not be at all what they mean. This happened a lot in early Western writings on Buddhism, especially by Christian scholars. Also there are a significant number of Westerners who take on some aspects of Buddhism, pick up some terminology from books, and generally get it wrong. That’s why the Dalai Lama emphasizes serious study to compliment meditation. As an example: a term like “emptiness” or “no-self” has a very definite technical meaning in Buddhism that is not accurately reflected in a kind of “pop spirituality” that abounds today.


  1. I certainly can’t say that I always understood what the Dalai Lama was saying. At several points I wish I could have asked him several questions. One dreams of how incredible it would have been if Nagarjuna (an Indian who was one of the greatest Buddhist practitioners and philosophers) had been able to dialogue with Thomas Aquinas. They would have needed some excellent translators!! I don’t think it is enough appreciated how difficult it is to get a grasp of what another religious culture’s language is getting at. One can too easily assume that one understands because it “sounds similar” to something one is familiar with. And this holds for Buddhist views of Christianity–I could tell from what the Dalai Lama said that in certain ways he was familiar with the essence of Christianity but in other ways he was taking some very superficial views as representative of what we hold.


  1. This brings us to a very important notion. For Tibetan Buddhism, and I think for the Buddhist world in general, statements, notions and claims are said to be stated on one of two levels: the conventional level or the ultimate level. There is “what is real” on the conventional level, and there is “what is real” on the ultimate level. There is the notion of “self” on the conventional level, and there is the notion of “self” on the ultimate level. Or something like that. In any case, you see the possible difficulties in trying to grasp a Buddhist teaching. In fact you could say there is Buddhism on the conventional level and there is Buddhism on the ultimate level. When we confuse these levels we obfuscate the encounter. Now what is most interesting to me is that this kind of division actually can be applied to the other great religious traditions. Consider my own Christianity. There is the conventional Christianity of the average pious Christian and there is the “ultimate Christianity” of the mystics. Now this seems to be saying that there are the “regular folk” and then there are the “elite folk,” which in fact would be unacceptable in any Christian context. But it is an actual fact that the piety of the average Christian is on that conventional level: belonging to a parish, going to Mass frequently, saying the rosary, doing some novena, praying to Saint So-and-So for a favor, trying to be a good person,etc., and then on top of all this trying to succeed in a secular world of secular activities. God is somewhere “out there” or even if “in here” God is still this Other who is another entity, simply the “bigger and better entity,” and little ole’ me here, in precarious existence but “solid” trying to manipulate the world as best as I can. The words and world of the mystics seems, then, far away for this person–most people are befuddled by the language of Eckhart, for example, and so they take refuge in “authoritative teachings.” It is actually the Church itself which seems to keep people at a “child’s level” in their faith–I don’t say they do this deliberately but that is the actual effect of what they do. So instead of openly and universally teaching forcefully and vigorously that every human being is called to be a “mystic”–in this immediate and incomprehensible communion as a being “one with God,” the Church seems to spend a lot more energy and at a larger decibel level on focusing on morality and church laws and all kinds of feasts and saints and so on. It is actually the Church itself which has raised mysticism to an elite level, seemingly for the very few, like “special forces” in the military, whereas it should be on an everyday level for everyone, but with “ultimate realization.” Rahner was right: every Christian must be a mystic….   In this way he was pointing at an “ultimate level” of Christianity.


  1. I wonder if Church doctrine could be seen in this way: there is a conventional level and then there is an ultimate level to the meaning. I think the Church discourages any such interpretation–there is only that one meaning that the Church articulates once and for all. But I think we can still press that issue…. Eckhart, for example, can be seen as pushing the meaning of Christian language toward new, deeper understandings. And in our time I think Abhishiktananda was doing the same.


  1. The Dalai Lama is a truly wonderful person, a truly beautiful person, a truly good person, a manifestation of real holiness. There is not a false fiber in his being. He reminded me of one of the Desert Fathers who said, “I am the same inside as I am outside.” In other words you get what you see with him! No deceit; no sales pitch; no “persuasion” needed. Maybe it was just me, but in fact watching and listening to him I felt that’s how some of the great Desert Fathers must have looked and sounded, given of course the difference in the traditions.


  1. Given all that, however, I also feel free to disagree with some things he said, and the beauty of that person is that he makes you feel that freedom also. Anyway, somewhere in the beginning he mentions his present home in India and how India should be a model for other nations in its religious pluralism and tolerance where so many different religious traditions coexist peacefully. I can understand why he would feel that to be true, considering how India gave refuge to his Tibetan Buddhist people. But the actual history of India in modern times is not so nice. The Hindu–Moslem conflicts especially have produced some of the most awful religious violence we have ever witnessed—makes Northern Ireland pale by comparison! Certainly gives fuel to the anti-religion crowd among Western intellectuals. And Christians in India, though a very small minority, have been targeted with harsh and threatening rhetoric by the Hindu ultranationalists. These are the kind of people who killed Gandhi, and the sad fact is that they are now in charge! Just a few weeks ago there was a piece in the New York Times by Indian author, Pankaj Mishra, with the title, “Modi’s Idea of India.” Here is the link to it:{%222%22%3A%22RI%3A13%22}


The reference of course is to the new prime minister Narendra Modi and the nationalist Hindu movement he is leading. He came into power on an anti-corruption move but he brings a lot more than that to the table. In the 1990s Mr. Modi was connected to several incidents in which mosques were burned down and hundreds of Moslems were massacred. Maybe he has mellowed over time, but his rhetoric is still one of Hindu nationalism, seeking a kind of “pure Hindu India” liberated from various cultural and religious “enslavements.” Mishra underscores the misleading notions of Modi’s rhetoric:

“Mr. Modi doesn’t seem to know that India’s reputation as a “golden bird” flourished during the long centuries when it was allegedly enslaved by Muslims. A range of esteemed scholars — from Sheldon Pollock to Jonardon Ganeri — have demonstrated beyond doubt that this period before British rule witnessed some of the greatest achievements in Indian philosophy, literature, music, painting and architecture. The psychic wounds Mr. Naipaul noticed among semi-Westernized upper-caste Hindus actually date to the Indian elite’s humiliating encounter with the geopolitical and cultural dominance first of Europe and then of America.”


For Western spiritual seekers and for people like the Dalai Lama, India remains an attractive ground of religious encounter, and certainly its deep and broad religious culture can be the home for profound encounters of an interreligious nature. However, we also need to be careful and watchful. But ultimately it is only the Indian people who can decide which version of India they will have.

  1. There is turbulence and controversy in the Tibetan Buddhist world also. Recently the Dalai Lama was in New York again, giving some more teachings. Here he emphasized that you must use reason and common sense in reading sacred texts and choosing a teacher. Very good advice. Here is the link to a write-up of that teaching:


But there is a lot more to this moment than just that. There was a crowd demonstrating AGAINST the Dalai Lama. There is a concerted effort on the part of the Chinese Communists to try and discredit him and make him look bad. He is coming under more and more intense attacks, yet he shows his true nature in his peacefulness and nonviolence and in gestures of compassion for all. Robert Thurman, a Tibetan Buddhist scholar, has written about that attack and here is the link: