Annoyed by the Dalai Lama

No, really, the Dalai Lama is a lovely man, wise and full of goodness. But his editorial in The New York Times today plucked on my last interfaith nerve. He writes of being inspired by an early meeting with Trappist monk Thomas Merton, and goes on to announce, “I’m a firm believer in the power of personal contact to bridge differences, so I’ve long been drawn to dialogues with people of other religious outlooks.”

Well, it’s all fine and dandy when a very holy and celibate Buddhist monk and a very holy and celibate Catholic monk have “personal contact” and dialogue. But when mere mortals have personal contact, they sometimes fall in love and create families. Then sometimes these “dialoguers” begin to have second thoughts about how personal the contact should be. And then they retreat to citing the importance of maintaining boundaries, and tribal purity laws. I’ve written about this before. What bothers me is what feels to me like hypocrisy: do reach out and touch somebody from another religion, but for God’s sake don’t take the ultimate step of actual intimacy.

A lot of what the Dalai Lama wrote in today’s paper is great stuff: the yearning for peace, the importance of learning, the defense of maligned religions. Refreshingly, he admits that as a boy he thought Buddhism was superior to other religions. He goes on to underscore his support for Karen Armstrong’s marvelous “Compassion movement,” and is careful to include Islam as a partner in this. But then, I couldn’t help noticing that his new book is subtitled “How the World’s Religions Can Come Together.” For those of us who are the products of this coming together, it is hard not to see that title as naive, or perhaps ironic.

I tried to explain my annoyance to my teenage daughter, who has grown up with Buddhist mentors in addition to Jewish and Christian family and education. She is far less cynical, and in general, far less annoyed, and far more, well, Zen,  than I am. “You’re looking for a problem, Mom,” she said. “As an interfaith person I’m not offended by that at all if they want to stick to their own religions, as long as they don’t tell me what to do.” Ah, but so many of them do.

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5 Comments on “Annoyed by the Dalai Lama”

  1. Mark Says:

    Sounds to me like you’ve done very well with your daughter. I can only hope my daughters come to a similar conclusion.

    I’d have to agree with your daughter as well. I don’t see the problem with what the Dali Lama said. He is a spiritual leader to millions and that is the world he lives in. You can’t really expect him to jump on the interfaith bandwagon.

    Interfaith, dual-faith, etc is a family movement…it is coming from two people who love each other and search together for a way to celebrate their heritage and/or faith. That we’ve gathered together with like minded people isn’t surprising. To expect religious leaders of one stripe or another to welcome us with open arms might be asking too much. But we’ll get there…and it’ll be through our children.

  2. Hugh Taft-Morales Says:

    Sue, your headline grabbed my attention. “Who could be annoyed by the Dalai Lama,” I thought! “Maybe the Chinese government…,but Sue?” I appreciate that interfaith individuals live the coming together of religions in a personal and intimate way the Dalai Lama probably doesn’t “get.” But that didn’t seem to be what really annoyed you. So I read his Times editorial, but it didn’t answer the questions in my head. I want to know more about your annoyance. It seems most pointedly a reaction to elements in Buddhist and Catholic discouraging intimacy, especially for monks. While I admit I don’t embrace this level of aestheticism for anyone, the Dalai Lama still manages to demonstrate great compassion for others, more effectively than me, I might add. That was the main point of his editorial, as it is of most of his writing – compassion trumps difference. I don’t think you mean to take issue with that overall claim. I want to understand more clearly understand your perspective.


  3. Hugh–
    For more on my issue with “interfaith (dialogue)” versus “interfaith (families)” read the post linked to the phrase “I’ve written about this before” in the post above. My annoyance stems from the fact that many of the “professional interfaith dialogue” folks are rather adamant about not wanting to include discussion of interfaith families. They want to be very clear that everyone will return to their camps after their interfaith “encounters” and not permanently straddle the lines.

    I don’t actually know what the Dalai Lama thinks of interfaith families: if anyone does, let me know. And yes, his essay this week was full of inspiring stuff. I’m just saying that when he writes about “preserving faith towards one’s own tradition,” and Merton being “perfectly faithful to Christianity” while engaging in dialogue, it triggers some of my issues. The religion is cast as the spouse here, and the honorable thing is to remain faithful to the spouse. In this context, interfaith families are cast as “unfaithful.” By analogy, they are not just admiring the other, but fooling around with the other.

    I did not intend my comments as a critique of actual celibacy. I think the choice of celibacy is honorable and can help to create conditions leading to insight, compassion, mysticism: it is probably not coincidental that it is common to many great religious traditions (though notably absent from Judaism).

    My point in raising the celibacy of monks is the irony in the fact that they may be particularly ill-equipped for deep understanding of the issues confronted by those of us engaged in the most intimate and sustained form of interfaith encounter. Though I have met some rare priests who have extensive experience counseling (and marrying) interfaith couples and do in fact have a fair amount of insight on these issues.

  4. Teenage Daughter Says:

    this post is most excellent, although my viewpoint still differs


  5. Okay, okay. I take it all back. The Dalai Lama is adorable and brilliant. No, really, some folks have sent me long, off-line diatribes defending him, and hinting that I may have posted a controversial title to draw traffic. (Moi?).

    On the other hand, I heard from two people who said that as a result of this post, they “finally get” my issue with interfaith dialoguers who seek to keep interfaith marriage outside the bounds of the kumbaya discourse. Not that I’m saying the Dalai Lama is in this category. I was free-associating (i.e. obsessing)…but if I was able to get a few people to see this issue from my viewpoint, then I have to stand by this post as useful.


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