The Dalai Lama charms Chicago

The Dalai Lama jokes with his audience during his July 17 speech at the UIC Pavilion in Chicago (Photo © John Rodriguez, Claretian Publications)

I had the opportunity yesterday to hear the Dalai Lama speak at one of two events the Theosophical Society in America was hosting with him in Chicago. Addressing an audience of about 8,000 at the University of Illinois Chicago Pavilion, the Dalai Lama talked about “Bridging the Faith Divide: Compassion in Action.”

What struck me most about the event was not so much the Dalai Lama’s message but the way he connected with his audience. Poking a little fun at himself as he posed for photographers before his talk, the Dalai Lama expressed concern that the position of his chair for the talk might not afford the audience a good enough view of his smiling face. “People tell me they like to see me smile,” he said. His assistant then tapped him on his arm and pointed to the jumbotron behind him, on which a close-up of the Dalai Lama filled most of the width of the arena.

In the subsequent two hours the audience did indeed get a good view of his smiling, chuckling, and laughing face as the 76-year-old Tibetan Buddhist leader interspersed his speech with frequent displays of his legendary sense of humor. To be honest, it made me a little envious, secretly wishing His Catholic Holiness possessed a little more of the charisma and charm of His Buddhist Holiness (something the pope’s predecessor certainly knew how to work to his full advantage).

In the talk—as he has also done in his most recent book, Toward a True Kinship of Faiths: How the World’s Religions Can Come Together (Random House)—the Dalai Lama recounted how in his  youth, having been steeped and educated in Tibetan Buddhism, he was convinced that “our religion is the best, and other religions are only so-so.” He said he only gradually came to recognize the beauty and wisdom of other religions. He credited his first trip to India with opening his eyes and his subsequent friendships with followers and leaders of other religions with making it “very clear that all religious traditions carry the same message of compassion, love, forgiveness, tolerance, moral principle, justice and truthful[ness].”

The Dalai Lama repeatedly mentioned Thomas Merton as one of the big influences in his life. “I considered him a spiritual brother. He was like a strong bridge between Eastern and Christian traditions.” Recalling his visit to Gethsemani Abbey (the Trappist monastery where Merton lived) years after his friend’s death, he again chuckled as he told the audience how he found out that while he had prided himself on getting up at 3:30 a.m. every day, Merton got up a whole hour earlier, at 2:30 a.m.; and that he goes to sleep at 8:30 p.m., while Merton went to bed at 7:30 p.m.

In a question-and-answer session following his talk, the Dalai Lama was asked about the growing interest in Buddhism in the United States today. He didn’t seem overly impressed. “Modern people love something new,” he said comparing it to a kind of “tourism.” “Tourists find something new, but after a few months they forget.” He recounted Buddha’s advice to “investigate other traditions” and to sort through what makes sense and what doesn’t. But he added, “I always stress to you who are traditionally not Buddhist that it is much better to keep your own traditions, much better and much safer.” He said a woman once told him, “’In this life I’ll be a Christian, but in the next life I’ll be a Buddhist.’ A clear sign of confusion.”

There were a couple of other interesting side notes—from a Catholic perspective—when the Dalai Lama talked about the three ways in which he was pursuing interreligious harmony: 1) through meetings with scholars of different religious traditions; 2) through meetings with practitioners of different religions who have a ”deeper experience” (he again mentioned his friendship with Merton as well as with other Catholic monks and with Mother Teresa) and 3) through “group pilgrimages” with representatives of other faiths.

Talking about such pilgrimages, he spoke in particular about an interfaith pilgrimage to Jerusalem as well as his experiences at the two Marian shrines of Lourdes, France and Fatima, Portugal. After praying with an interfaith group at the statue of Our Lady of Fatima, the Dalai Lama said that, as he was getting up to leave, he noticed that “the Mary statue was smiling toward me. Perhaps Mary made a mistake thinking that I’m not Buddhist, that I’m Christian,” he joked.

With a 25th anniversary gathering scheduled to take place this fall, the Dalai Lama paid particular tribute to the World Day of Prayer Pope John Paul II convened in 1986 in Assisi, saying it sent a “powerful message to millions of people around the world,” reinforcing that the world’s major religions proclaim the same core message of compassion, love, forgiveness, and peace.

In an answer to another question about the relationship between science and religion, he quoted Pope Benedict XVI’s plea that “faith and reason must go together.”