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LEAVING THE COMFORT ZONE
1956, The First Opening
When I was growing up in Tibet, and especially after my serious engagement in studies of classical Buddhist thought and practice from the age of fifteen, I used to feel that my own Buddhist religion was the best. I thought that there simply could not be any other faith tradition that could rival the depth, sophistication, and inspirational power of Buddhism. Other religions must, at best, be “so-so.” Looking back, I feel embarrassed by my naïveté, although it was the view of an adolescent boy immersed in his own inherited religious tradition. Yes, I was vaguely aware of the existence of a great world religion called Christianity that propounds the way of salvation through the life of its savior, Jesus Christ. In fact, as a child I had heard the story of how some Christian priests had once established a mission in western Tibet in the seventeenth century. There was also a small community of Tibetan Muslims right up until modern times, who had lived in Lhasa city for over four centuries. As for Hindus and Jains, followers of the two other major religions native to India, I was convinced that the philosophical arguments, found in the classical Buddhist critiques of their tenets, had effectively demonstrated the superiority of the Buddhist faith centuries ago.
Needless to say such naïveté could be sustained only so long as I remained isolated from any real contact with the world’s other religions. The first time I had any direct contact with a real Hindu was when a sadhu, an Indian holy man, with matted hair and white lines of ash painted on his forehead, appeared at the Potala Palace when I was a child. He was shouting “Dalai Lama, Dalai Lama!,” and appeared to have wanted to see me. Of course, he spoke no Tibetan and nobody in the vicinity spoke any Hindi. There was quite a commotion as my attendants, bodyguards, and all sorts of onlookers tried to stop him! Nobody had any idea who or what he was, or from what religious background he came. The pivotal moment of contact came when I had the opportunity to visit India for the first time in 1956. Before this, the only other country I had been to was China, which was then in the full swing of communism.
It was the crown prince of Sikkim, in his capacity as the president of the Maha Bodhi Society, as well as the special committee set up by the government of India to organize the 2,500th anniversary of the Buddha’s death, known as the parinirvana, who officially invited me to India. My spiritual colleague, the late Panchen Lama (who later suffered a lot in the wake of the communist takeover of Tibet yet did so much for the Tibetan people until his untimely death in Tibet in 1986), also joined me on this historic visit to India. During more than three months’ stay in India at that time, I had the honor to meet many people from all walks of life, as well as from all kinds of religious backgrounds. The president of India, Dr. Rajendra Prasad, graciously engaged me in deep conversation on several occasions. A noted legal scholar, India’s first president was also a deeply religious man who took seriously the historical legacy of India as a birthplace of some of the world’s great religions. His humility and his deep humanity made me feel that in being with him I was in the presence of a truly spiritual man, a being dedicated to the ideal of a genuinely selfless life of service. India’s vice president then was Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, a famed scholar of Indian philosophy and religion. Speaking with him was like being treated to an intellectual feast. On the personal level, getting to know the president and vice president, as well as Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, made me feel somehow close to the great being Mahatma Gandhi, whom we Tibetans used to call at that time Gandhi Maharaja (literally, “Gandhi, the Great King!”).
One meeting that left an enduring memory was a surprise visit from a senior Jain master who came to see me with an assistant monk. I remember clearly being surprised by the asceticism of these two Jain monks. It was, I later came to know, part of their everyday lifestyle always to sit on hard surfaces and not on soft cushions. Since we were in an official guesthouse, there was hardly any furniture without soft padding on the seats. So, finally, the monks sat on the coffee table. We had a lengthy conversation on the similarities between Buddhism and Jainism, which historians often refer to as twin religions. Here, for the first time in my experience, was a real Jain practitioner whose articulation of his own faith tradition had little resemblance to the characterization of Jain views in the scholastic texts and refutations I had studied in my youth!
After the official celebrations of the Buddha’s parinirvana, I was able to go on pilgrimage to the ancient Buddhist holy sites, especially Bodh Gaya, where the Buddha attained enlightenment; Lumbini, where he was born; and Sarnath, near Varanasi, where he preached his first sermon on the Four Noble Truths. Face-to-face with the holy stupa at Bodh Gaya and standing in front of the Bodhi Tree, which is descended from the very tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment more than 2,500 years ago, I was moved to tears. This holy place is revered by Buddhists the world over—in Tibet there was even a custom of sculpting miniature models of the stupa at Bodh Gaya as objects of veneration. In my first autobiography, written soon after my going into exile in India, I described my emotions when I first saw the Bodh Gaya stupa:
From my very early youth I had thought and dreamed about this visit. Now I stood in the presence of the Holy Spirit who had attained Mahaparinirvana, the highest Nirvana, in this sacred place, and had found for all mankind the path to salvation. As I stood there, a feeling of religious fervor filled my heart, and left me bewildered with the knowledge and impact of the divine power which is in all of us.
While on pilgrimage to the Buddhist sites in central India, I had the chance to witness a truly historic event. At Rajgir—where the tradition believes that the Perfection of Wisdom scriptures, so dear to the practitioners of Mahayana Buddhism, were originally taught—a grand ceremony took place in a colorful tent. Prime Minister Nehru had come to formally accept a gift to the people of India that was brought in person by the then Chinese premier, Zhou En-lai. This was a holy Buddhist relic that, I was told, had been brought to China from India in the seventh century, possibly by the famed Chinese pilgrim Xuán Tsang, and was now being returned to its original home. I felt so deeply honored to be present at this ceremony, which was what we Tibetans call a tashipa, or auspicious occasion. Nehru was agitated at the time because the Tibetan officials who accompanied me to India were divided in their thinking. One group suggested that I remain behind in India until the political situation inside Tibet became more settled, while the other group urged me to go back to Tibet and negotiate with the communist authorities in Beijing.
It was also during this Indian tour that I saw the famous Elephanta Caves, a historically significant sacred site for the Hindu tradition located just off the coast of Mumbai (Bombay). Dated to around the ninth century ce, this temple complex of caves contains many beautiful rock carvings of important divinities from the Hindu pantheon. The central image is a twenty-foot-high three-headed Shiva, whose three faces, I learned, represent the divinity in his three distinct but interconnected forms: the right face, which has a sensuous appearance, represents Shiva as the creator of the world; the left, which has an expression of anger, represents Shiva as the destroyer; while the central face, which has a gentle expression, symbolizes Shiva as the preserver of the universe.
As a Tibetan Buddhist, a follower of a tradition that takes great pride in its continuous lineage from the ancient Indian monastery of Nalanda, with its unsurpassed religious and philosophical legacy, to actually visit the site of Nalanda was truly memorable and moving. It was from here that came most of the great masters whose works are closely studied to this day in the Tibetan monastic colleges—works many of which I had myself studied as a young monk. In fact, one of the founders of Buddhism in Tibet, Shantarakshita, was a noted philosopher from Nalanda in the ninth century and the initiator of an important Buddhist school, the Yogacara Madhyamaka. Shantarakshita’s classic Tattvasamgraha (Compendium of Epistemology) is highly admired to this day as a philosophical masterpiece, both in India and in Tibet. It was wonderful, too, to have the opportunity to pay homage to Nagarjunakonda in southern India, a monastic site associated with the great second-century Buddhist master Nagarjuna, to whom the Tibetan tradition refers as the “Second Buddha.” By the 1980s, the monastery’s actual location was under water, as a result of the construction of a large electrical dam near the site. Personally, being able to walk on the very site where Nagarjuna once lived was truly meaningful. Nagarjuna remains to this day one of the deepest sources of spiritual inspiration and philosophical insight for me.
Looking back to this trip in 1956, I realize that my visit to the Theosophical Society in Chenai (then Madras) left a powerful impression. There I was first directly exposed to people, and to a movement, that attempted to bring together the wisdom of the world’s spiritual traditions as well as science. I felt among the members a sense of tremendous openness to the world’s great religions and a genuine embracing of pluralism. When I returned to Tibet in 1957, after more than three months in what was a most amazing country for a young Tibetan monk, I was a changed man. I could no longer live in the comfort of an exclusivist standpoint that takes Buddhism to be the only true religion. When tragic political circumstances in 1959 forced me into exile in India to live as a refugee, I was paradoxically afforded the freedom to deepen my personal journey of understanding and engagement with the world’s faith traditions.
Ironically, as political circumstances compelled me to move out of the physical comfort zone of my homeland of Tibet, my exposure to the grandeur of India’s great religions brought me to let go of the mental comfort zone, a space where my own Buddhism was the one true religion and other faith traditions were at best mere similitude. As so often happens when we are confronted with tragedy and suffering, we come closer to reality—and this leaves little room for pretence and wishful thinking. Such were the circumstances as I began to establish my second home in India and helped to lay the foundation for the new lives of so many of my fellow Tibetans who came to India, Nepal, and Bhutan as refugees. On the personal level, this new situation—being a refugee and a guest of India during one of the darkest periods in Tibet’s long history—brought with it a degree of freedom that I could never have imagined in my previous life as the head of a country, struggling under an ever-increasing loss of freedom. This new life allowed me to be what I call a “simple Buddhist monk,” now free to forgo the ceremonial trappings that were such a pervasive aspect of the life of the Dalai Lama. I never really liked the ceremonies anyway, so I was happy to see them disappear. Perhaps, the most precious thing that this life in exile has brought me is the ability to meet so many people, especially ordinary people, from all backgrounds.
A Knock on the Door from the West
One remarkable person who crossed my path during my first decade of exile was a Christian monk who left a lasting impression. To this day, I vividly remember my meeting with Father Thomas Merton. He came to see me at my residence, in Dharamsala in northern India, in November of 1968. As a Trappist monk, Merton wore a white robe with a hood and a broad leather belt around his waist. In addition, he wore a pair of tall brownish boots, which looked quite out of place in Dharamsala. In appearance, nothing could be more striking than the contrast between our robes. As a Tibetan Buddhist monk, I wear maroon robes with a patch of golden yellow on my sleeveless vest. Our monastic robe is made of two pieces. The lower part is a robe that has several folds to allow easier movement of the legs when walking; this is tied with a sash around the waist. The upper part is a sleeveless vest with a loose shawl-like maroon cloth around it covering the left arm but leaving the right arm exposed. So, except for our hairstyle—in my case a shaved head and in Merton’s case a natural baldness—there was hardly any similarity when it came to our appearance.
Merton’s visit came at a perfect time. The initial task had been completed of ensuring the rehabilitation of the thousands of Tibetans who had fled mainly to India in the wake of my escape. The other priority for my community—the establishment of Tibetan schools for our refugee children—had also been accomplished, thanks to the kindness of the Indian government. So, the period from the mid 1960s to the end of that decade happened for me personally to be a wonderful time of critical reflection, spiritual contemplation, and meditation practice. In particular, I was able to revisit the great texts that I had studied in Tibet and delve into a series of new teachings and practices. I also had the opportunity to dedicate weeks at a time—sometimes even a month or two—to deepening my meditation practice and to philosophical reflection. My two tutors were with me in Dharamsala, as were several other great Tibetan masters who provided wise counsel when needed. So I spent many hours in meditative cultivation of universal compassion, as well as in deepening my understanding and experience of emptiness—the truth of the profound interdependent nature of all things—that the Nalanda tradition understands to be the ultimate reality. When Thomas Merton came to see me, I was able to explore deeply with him, in a series of conversations, some personal spiritual experiences on my part.
Merton was a robust man, both in the physical sense—he had a bodily frame with big bones—and in the spiritual sense. In him I saw a monk who cared deeply for the world, passionately believed in the power of spirituality to heal the wounds of humanity, and had an intense spiritual search. An advocate of inter-religious dialogue, Thomas Merton would penetrate into the realms of other faith traditions—Buddhism, in the case of discussion with me—so that he could, as it were, taste the actual flavor of the teachings that other traditions represent. For me, there was a real inspiration in Merton’s engagement with Buddhism in that it reflected great courage on his part to explore traditions beyond his own. In our discussions, every now and then he would cast a deep, penetrating gaze at me, suggesting the full awareness of his presence in our conversation.
There is no doubt that my meeting with Thomas Merton opened my eyes to the richness and depth of the Christian faith. Later I found out that there were quite striking similarities between our lives. At his monastery, Merton’s day began at 2:30 am, while mine begins at 3:30 am. He, too, spent many hours in the morning in contemplative prayer and silence, and had his breakfast early, which I do as well. Merton was a great and deeply knowledgeable advocate of interreligious dialogue while remaining true to his own Christian faith. He, too, was a proponent of harmony among the followers of the world’s great religions, based on a deep understanding of each other’s profound spiritual teachings. Of course, as a monk, like me, he led a life dedicated to celibacy and service to others.
The key thing I learned from Merton was his profound clarity on a point that I have thought about many times since and have come to share deeply. Merton told me, and this is something he later published in his Asian Journal, that we, as a community of practitioners in the world religions, “have reached a stage (long overdue) of religious maturity at which it may be possible for someone to remain perfectly faithful to a Christian and Western monastic commitment and yet to learn in depth from say a Buddhist discipline and experience.” Exactly the same is true from the Buddhist side as well. And, indeed, I have come to think that the essence of genuine interreligious dialogue must be founded on this conviction.
With Thomas Merton’s tragic accidental death in Thailand at the age of fifty-three, only weeks after I met him, the world lost a truly spiritual man who had so much to offer, especially in the critical area of inter-religious understanding and harmony, as well as understanding between the perspectives of the faithful and the wider secular world. On a personal level, I lost a friend, an important ally in the promotion of inter-religious dialogue, and a mentor.
Almost twenty years later, I finally had the opportunity to visit Merton’s monastery, Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky. It was deeply moving to see where he lived, especially his cell, which was quite bare and austere, reflecting the ideal of a true monk who is dedicated to silence, tranquillity, and awakening. The simplicity of his life brings to mind a Tibetan expression: “In relation to oneself, few needs and few tasks; in relations to others, many needs and many tasks.” Since then, I have visited Gethsemani again during a series of Christian-Buddhist monastic dialogues with participants from different Christian monastic orders, as well as Tibetan Buddhist monks.
Some Echoes from Tibet’s Past
Later, looking back into the history of Tibet, I realized that Tibetan Buddhism had encountered Christianity as early as the seventeenth century. The then Guge kingdom in western Tibet had allowed a Goa-based community to open a mission in Tsaparang, where the foundation stone for the first Christian church in Tibet was laid in 1626. One of the priests who came to Tibet as a missionary toward the beginning of the eighteenth century was an Italian by the name of Ippolito Desideri. Remarkably, Father Desideri was able to spend almost twelve years in central Tibet, most of it in the capital city of Lhasa. Fascinated by the complexity of Buddhist thought and religious practice, this Jesuit not only mastered the Tibetan language but also embarked on a rigorous study of some of the key Buddhist texts that form the heart of the academic curriculum in the scholastic monasteries. It is said that Desideri established friendships with many monks from the great monastic university of Sera, which lies on the outskirts of Lhasa city, and that he would engage in hours of debate and discussion with them.
It turns out that, during his stay in Lhasa, Desideri composed a lengthy text in Tibetan. His book uses the model of many Tibetan Buddhist scholastic works, which typically treat a key topic within the framework of three broad headings: 1. refutation of the standpoint of others; 2. positing of one’s own standpoint; and 3. rebuttal of objections against one’s own standpoint raised by others. The work presented his critique of the key Buddhist theories of karma, rebirth, and emptiness. Then, remarkably using Buddhist philosophical language and phraseology, he argued for the Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity and dealt with possible objections against this doctrine that might be raised from the Buddhist philosophical standpoint. Desideri’s original text, handwritten by him in Tibetan, survives to this day in the Vatican library, I am told. Although he came originally as a missionary, intent to convert the Tibetans to Christianity, Desideri’s experience of immersion in Tibetan culture produced a remarkable and very early testament to inter-religious dialogue. According to a Tibetan scholar who has read Desideri’s text (which is as yet unpublished), the work begins with a robust argument for the value of comparative religious study. For example, I am told that Desideri argues that if one finds a convergence of one’s own tradition with another, this can serve as an indirect affirmation of both. He uses the image of a tree watered by different sources—rain water, a stream, and so on—where the tree resembles the human soul while the water represents the different spiritual traditions that can sustain and nurture it. I hope that one day a translation and a careful study of this important document will be undertaken to make it available to the wider world. In later years, on a trip to Italy, I made a point of visiting the monastery from which Desideri originally came.
In delving so deeply into the philosophy and practice of Buddhism, at a time when the notion of inter-religious dialogue, especially with a major Asian religion was, to say the least, alien, Desideri was truly a pioneer in the field. I see him as an early precursor of Thomas Merton.
Among my Tibetan predecessors, perhaps the monk who had the closest encounter with the Abrahamic religions was Palden Yeshe, the Sixth Panchen Lama, who was one of the most prominent spiritual leaders in Tibet in the eighteenth century. Palden Yeshe’s mother was from Ladakh, in northern India, and because of this he spoke Hindi fluently. It is said that he enjoyed engaging on a regular basis in long conversations on religion and philosophy with scholars and practitioners of different faiths. In fact, his establishment at Tashi Lhunpo Monastery supported a community of more than a score of assorted religious teachers—Hindus, Muslims, and Christians—and his immediate officials included a few Hindus and Muslims. The Sixth Panchen Lama also established a longstanding friendship with the British officer George Bogle, through whom he was able to hear about the modern scientific and technological world. Bogle is supposed to have brought to Tashi Lhunpo, at the personal request of the Panchen Lama, an assortment of scientific instruments, including a telescope. It is a pity that the Panchen Lama’s engagement with the scholars and practitioners of other faith traditions remained a personal pursuit and did not have a wider impact on the Tibetan Buddhist establishment. It would have been wonderful if Palden Yeshe had chosen to write something about his personal views on the convergence and divergence of Buddhism and the world’s other great traditions, especially the Abrahamic faiths.
There is an intriguing legacy that came out of the Panchen Lama’s engagement with Islam, however. A short text attributed to a Muslim named Palu Ju appeared in Tibetan and became hugely popular among the ordinary people in Tibet, as it remains to this day. Written in verse in a strong vernacular style, this “counsel from an old Muslim” begins with a salutation that includes the following lines:
In Tibetan language you’re known as Konchok Rinpoche (the Precious
In my language you’re known as Qudha (Allah), to you I pay my homage.
This poem weaves the essence of ethical teachings that are common to both Buddhism and Islam in simple language. It speaks of the need to distinguish between one’s well-being in this life and the more important life beyond. The text suggests that the essence of spiritual practice lies in establishing a basis of happiness for all; it shows how the consideration of others’ welfare is an important ethical precept, and how serving others constitutes the heart of religion. Many have suspected that the author of this work was the Sixth Panchen Lama himself, or one of the scholar monks closely associated with his inner circle. In any case, it is so popular that even illiterate Tibetans know lines from it by heart. I remember how some of the sweepers at the Potala Palace, who were my playmates when I was a boy, used to recite lines from it. One of their favorites, which has virtually become a Tibetan proverb, goes:
I, Musalman Palu, have said what is my heart’s counsel;
Whether you listen or not depends on your mind.
Clearly, when the Tibetan lama Phakpa was in the Mongol Yuan court as the principal priest of Kublai Khan in the thirteenth century, he must have crossed paths with religious figures of other traditions, including the Abrahamic ones. Nestorian Christians remained active in central Asia for many centuries, while Catholics like Marco Polo were present at Kublai’s court. Many central Asian communities had by the end of the twelfth century adopted Islam as their dominant faith. Of course, when Kublai conquered China, the country had a rich range of indigenous religious traditions—not only Confucianism and Daoism but also Buddhism. So, Phakpa Lama must have had exposure to the teachings and practices of many of the world’s religions within the Khan’s domain. Unfortunately, again we have no record in Tibetan of Phakpa Lama’s engagement with other religions, nor do we have any text that articulates Phakpa’s views regarding other faith traditions. As more literature from this period in other languages comes to light, perhaps we will gain some understanding of the intricacies of the interrelations among the various religions in Yuan China.
In terms of literary accounts of the views of other religions, the Tibetan tradition has a long history of studying so-called doxographies (druptha)—that is, discussions of the philosophical tenets of all the major classical Indian schools both Buddhist and non-Buddhist. As a young man, I remember reading the early twelfth century text by Üpa Losel that presents in quite some detail the views of many non-Buddhist Indian sects. The most extensive among these Tibetan doxographical works is that of the seventeenth-century author Jam-yang Shepa, widely known for An Extensive Exposition of the Philosophical Systems, which I had studied in my youth.
It is within this genre of literature that we find the remarkable text The Crystal Mirror of Philosophical Systems, a comparative history of Asian religions and philosophies, by the eighteenth-century Tibetan author Thuken Chökyi Nyima. In this book, Thuken dealt with the origin and the key tenets of the traditions that are native to the Asian continent. The book is divided into three parts. Part One deals with the religions and philosophies of classical India. Beginning with the presentation of the Vedic traditions, such as the five classical Brahmanical schools of ancient India as well as Jainism, Thuken then proceeds with a clear account of the doctrines of the four principal classical schools of Indian Buddhism. Part Two presents in some detail the origin and development of the main Tibetan schools, including the pre-Buddhist Bön tradition. The final part includes a brief presentation of the history and an account of the religions of China, especially Daoism and Confucianism, as well as Chinese Mahayana Buddhism. In writing about the development of Confucianism in China, Thuken notes the fact that the adherents of Confucianism tend to relate to their tradition more as an ethical teaching than as a religion. He acknowledges that many of the important religious themes characteristic of Asian religions, such as bondage and salvation, life after death, and karma, do not feature in Confucianism, and that the central teachings of the key texts of Confucianism, such as Confucius’ (fifth century bce) The Analects and Mencius’ (third century bce) Meng-tzu (The Book of Mencius), are best understood as presenting a system of humanistic ethics. Given the far-reaching impact of the Confucian teachings—spiritual, cultural, and political—in China and in other East Asian societies, Thuken considered Confucius and Mencius to be great spiritual teachers.
For me, one of the most attractive aspects of Confucianism is its advocacy of the notion that basic human nature is good. Remarkably, Mencius goes even so far as to argue that because human nature is good, love is an inborn moral quality. Like Buddhists, Mencius understood that this quality of love can be cultivated and enhanced through practice. He insisted that the practice of love must start with one’s family, echoing the Buddha’s teaching on maitri (loving-kindness), where one cultivates loving-kindness by first focusing on a loved one and then gradually extending that feeling to an ever wider circle of beings, including even one’s enemy.
The other major ancient Chinese tradition presented by Thuken is Daoism. The Chinese word Dao (or Tao) means “path” or “way,” and Daoist ethical teachings emphasize what are called the “Three Jewels of the Dao”: compassion, moderation, and humility. According to this tradition, this Dao, or the Way, is the One Truth, which is both the beginning of all things and the way in which all things pursue their course. In Daoism, there is a great emphasis on spontaneity and action in accord with nature. Thuken admits that he had not read the great texts of Daoism, but he mentions both of Daoism’s two great teachers, Lao Tzi and Zhuangzi. He even refers to Zhuangzi’s famous puzzle about whether he is a man dreaming that he is a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming that it is a man. Thuken speaks also of the deification of Lao Tzi and the Daoist tradition attributing some eighty-one incarnations to the teacher, somewhat in the manner of the incarnations of the Hindu god Vishnu. Thuken was a native of Amdo province, where I was myself born, close to mainland China, as well as being a principal student of the great master Cankya Rolpai Dorje—a personal friend of the Qing emperor Quan-long. Thuken’s treatment of the religions of China was based on personal contacts with practitioners of the respective traditions. Needless to say, reading about these great Chinese traditions in Tibetan at a young age was a source of deep wonder for me.
Looking back I see that, my crucial learning experience was the shift that took place away from a parochial and exclusivist vision of my own faith as unquestionably the best. Such a view is understandable in one who has insufficient experience and exposure, and may even be laudable in demonstrating a deep respect for one’s own tradition. But it has elements of self-congratulation and even a kind of arrogance born of ignorance. The move to a pluralist position of interchange with other religions by no means involves abandoning one’s central commitment to one’s own faith; it hugely enriches the understanding and practice of one’s own religion, as Desideri argued. It allows one to see convergences with other religions, to sharpen one’s grasp of one’s own tradition by seeing its specific and distinctive characteristics by way of contrast, and to broaden one’s respect for the extraordinary range and diversity of spiritual approaches developed by humankind entirely outside of one’s faith tradition. This book tells the story of how my own journey into inter-religious understanding, which began in 1956, came to unfold over the course of more than half a century, taking me into the beginning of a new millennium.
From the Hardcover edition.