Dalai Lama believes religion may be unnecessary
August 26, 1999
New York — With a round of characteristic chuckling, the 14th Dalai Lama told a small group of reporters about the arduous seven-year process it took to produce his latest book.
”Rewrite! Rewrite! Rewrite!”
Those exertions paid off. As the lama was conducting a Kalachakra initiation into Buddhist enlightenment at Bloomington, Ind., this week, his brand-new book, ”Ethics for the New Millennium,” made The New York Times best sellers list.
Not only that. He is one of the few authors ever to land two titles on the list simultaneously. ”The Art of Happiness,” billed as a ”handbook for living,” has been a best seller for 31 weeks running. (Both books are published by Riverhead.)
”Art of Happiness” was written with Phoenix psychiatrist Howard C. Cutler, while ”Ethics,” a perceptive and deceptively simple book, is the lama’s second major solo writing in English. The first was his 1990 autobiography.
With his success in the book market, the Dalai Lama joins the other two superstars of world religion, Pope John Paul II and the Rev. Billy Graham. And as a crowd-pleaser at New York’s Central Park, only those two have drawn religious turnouts larger than the 40,000 the Dalai Lama drew this month. An impressive accomplishment for a Buddhist in a traditionally Christian country.
Recommended Stories For You
The lama’s fame stems from his own sunny personality and the pertinence of his teachings. Other contributing factors are his 1989 Nobel Peace Prize and Hollywood pop Buddhism, and the mystique surrounding his office.
For centuries, each Dalai Lama has played a dual role as revered Buddhist personification of divine compassion and as monarch of Tibet. When the lama dies, monks search for his reincarnation in an infant, using various forms of divination.
He was born in 1935 and identified as the reincarnate Dalai Lama at age two. In 1959 he fled Chinese communist occupation and has since lived in India, managing the complex political task of rallying exiles and seeking restored autonomy for his homeland.
The Dalai Lama downplays his traditional status as a divine bodhisattva and, lately, as Buddhism’s first global celebrity. ”Not relevant as a Buddhist practitioner. Wrong motivation! Becomes polluted,” he remarks in clear but clipped English.
”Everybody criticize. Hostile doesn’t matter. So ultimately check myself. So not bother what people say. I am called a devil. Some say god-king. Nonsense! I am just an ordinary human being,” he says with another burst of laughter.
The Dalai Lama takes a similarly low-key approach in ”Ethics for the New Millennium,” asserting things you might not expect to hear from a world-class spiritual teacher:
”Whether or not a person is a religious believer does not matter much.”
”We humans can live quite well without recourse to religious faith.”
”I sometimes say that religion is something we can perhaps do without.”
“Religious belief is not a precondition either of ethical conduct or of happiness.”
Not that the Dalai Lama is trashing religion. In fact he believes the person who sincerely practices a faith ”will benefit enormously” and that religion can do the same for all of humanity.
Problem is, he writes, ”the influence of religion on people’s lives is generally marginal, at least in the developed world.” He doubts that even a billion people could be called daily practitioners of their faiths. So his book seeks to teach a moral consciousness that makes no appeal to religious faith.
Buddhism lends itself to this approach more than many faiths, since it is more a path than a creed, more a mindset than a worship tradition, and holds no unified view on the existence of God or gods. That is part of its appeal to certain secularized questers in America.
Though the lama uses little denominational jargon, ”Ethics” centers on a soft-sell version of the concept lying at the heart of Buddhism: People suffer because they have raging desires that cannot be fulfilled. Control of desire brings happiness and compassionate living toward others.
The Dalai Lama has been ever more convinced of this since his first visit to Europe in 1973. In more recent times he has visited the United States nearly once a year.
The rich tend to live in luxury and acquire more, he observes, rather than sharing their good fortune. The evident result is ”anxiety, discontent, frustration, uncertainty, doubt and depression” in wealthier nations. This inner suffering is connected with ”growing confusion as to what constitutes morality.”
For the Dalai Lama, the essence of morality is compassion toward other people and all creatures. But moderns are tempted to cut themselves off from neighbors and community, he thinks.
Technology and economics exacerbate the problem.
It strikes him that people in materially developed nations ”are in some ways less satisfied, are less happy, and to some extent suffer more than those living in the least developed countries… . It often seems that those with nothing are, in fact, the least anxious, though they are plagued with physical pains and suffering.”
Raised in isolation with scant knowledge of other faiths, the Dalai Lama today expresses respect for all the great world religions and thinks they should remain separate and distinct. ”For me Buddhism remains the most precious path,” he writes. But it is not necessarily best for everybody.