Buddhism without the Dalai Lama?

Religion, spirituality, and sacrilege.
July 6 2006 12:35 PM

Many Happy Returns, Your Holiness

The Dalai Lama is turning 71. Where will Buddhism be without him?

The Dalai Lama. Click image to expand.
The Dalai Lama

Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, holds a unique position in the Western imagination. He is one of the world's most visible religious figures, comparable in status to the pope or the Rev. Billy Graham, a revered political leader and advocate of nonviolence, and an enormously popular author. His life story, told in many books and movies, is perhaps the best-known of any contemporary religious leader, and his personality—humble, wise, patient, humorous—gives him the aura of a saint. When Barbara Walters interviewed the Dalai Lama recently for a television special about heaven and the afterlife, she asked, in earnest, "Are you a god?" He laughed and said no, but she didn't look convinced.

In sum, despite his humility and protestations to the contrary, the Dalai Lama has become an icon—even, we might say, a brand. For millions of people he embodies Tibet, Tibetan Buddhism, and Buddhism in general. This raises an important and delicate question: His Holiness turns 71 on Friday, and though he appears to be in excellent health, his passing lies in the foreseeable future. What will happen when he dies?

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The Dalai Lama's death, of course, will be felt most immediately in Tibet and the Tibetan Diaspora. If he dies without having achieved any significant détente with the Chinese government over Tibet's future, there will probably be a battle over the naming of his successor. (This has happened before.) China's campaign to "Sinicize" Tibet—by displacing Tibetans with large ethnic Chinese populations, building up transportation links, and exerting control over Tibetan Buddhism—may thoroughly succeed by the time the new Dalai Lama is identified and accepted by the Tibetan people and becomes an adult. He may very well be the first to confront the question of Tibet's cultural survival in the face of permanent exile and dispersion.

On the world stage, the Dalai Lama has increasingly taken on the role not only of leader of Tibet, but also of the representative of Buddhism as a global religion. This is a new development for a faith—really a group of faiths—that until the 20th century had virtually no transnational identity and relatively little common doctrine. It often puts the Dalai Lama in the position of answering unanswerable questions such as, "What do Buddhists believe about karma and reincarnation?" Tibetan Buddhism, Mahayana Buddhism (practiced in East Asia) and Theravada Buddhism (practiced throughout Southeast Asia) each takes a different position on this issue.

The Dalai Lama's solution to this problem has been twofold. First, he spends much of his time fulfilling his duties as the leader of the Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism. This requires him to oversee monastic training programs, to teach canonical works in his tradition, and to act as a guru in tantric initiations—extended ceremonies in which the most complex and secret teachings are transmitted individually from teacher to student. A concession he has made to his global popularity is to conduct the beginning stages of one of these initiations, to the Kalachakra Tantra, in the presence of large audiences around the world.

In general, however, the Dalai Lama seldom encourages foreigners to become monks or otherwise embrace the particular religious practices of Tibet. Instead, he has developed a method of presenting simplified, and secularized, Buddhist teachings in titles like An Open Heart, The Art of Happiness, Destructive Emotions, A Simple Path,and How to Expand Love.Some have been produced in tandem with prominent authors of Western self-help books, such as Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence.Like self-help books, the Dalai Lama's titles of this kind are largely rooted in the charisma of the author; The Art of Happiness, narrated by Howard Cutler, an Arizona psychiatrist, explicitly advertises itself as a guidebook modeled on the Dalai Lama's own happiness.

As one might expect, this approach—which, in truth, is a highly disciplined marketing campaign designed by Western advisers—has had its detractors. Scholar Donald Lopez caused a major stir with his 1998 book Prisoners of Shangri-la: Tibetan Buddhism and the West, which argued that the Dalai Lama has allowed himself to become an object of Western fascination, a figure confirming centuries-old stereotypes and distortions about Tibetans and their religion. Publicly and privately, many Buddhists of all traditions lament the way the Dalai Lama has allowed his teachings, and his own image, to be commodified, even as they express great admiration for him and his leadership.

How will the Dalai Lama's enormous popular success affect his legacy? His Holiness no doubt hopes that his teachings, even in generalized and somewhat diluted form, will have a lasting impact and be widely read after he is gone. But self-help movements are notoriously short-lived. It seems unlikely that interest in the Dalai Lama's popular works will continue when he is no longer here to exemplify and promote them.

All branches of Buddhism share the teaching of the Three Jewels: Buddha (teachers of the past, present, and future), Dharma (the wisdom of the tradition), and Sangha (the fellowship of those who practice the Buddha Way). I'm an American Buddhist, and what troubles me the most about the Dalai Lama as popularizer is that he places little emphasis on sangha. There is a historical explanation for this: Until the 20th century the word referred only to members of the Buddhist monasticcommunity. In Buddhist cultures, laypeople rarely belonged to congregations the way Christians did, for example. As a Tibetan monk, in particular, the Dalai Lama has no particular need to create such communities, because Buddhism is woven into every aspect of Tibetan society.

But the opposite is true for Westerners who hear the Dalai Lama speaking on television or who pick up one of his books at Barnes & Noble. There are Buddhist groups of many kinds throughout the United States and Europe, but they are tiny compared to the Dalai Lama's audience of millions. Surely some of the curious are interested in learning about how to practice his teachings the way they were meant to be practiced—as a lifelong commitment within a community, not at a weekend seminar or via a Buddhist "thought of the day" calendar. The Dalai Lama doesn't discourage Westerners from becoming more serious about Buddhism in this way, but he doesn't ask them to, either.

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