Milan recently joined the list of European cities to roll out the red carpet to the visiting Dalai Lama, on tour to garner support for his Tibetan homeland and expound the wonders of Buddhism. The predominantly Catholic city welcomed the spiritual leader of Tibet with all the fanfare accorded to movie stars. And with the copious attention Hollywood has recently showered on this 14th reincarnation of Buddha, the comparison is apt. In fact, at the Buddhist leader's sold-out Milan conference, many of the front row seats were occupied by well-known cinema personalities and political figures.
Whence the attraction of this smiling figure clad in a dark orange toga and sporting a crew cut? What's so special about this man and his message? Sympathy for the plight of the Tibetan people undoubtedly accounts for some of the Dalai Lama's celebrity, but not all. It doesn't explain, for example, the many conversions of Westerners to Buddhism over the past decade and the general enthusiasm Buddhism has sparked, especially among cultural progressives. What, then, is the secret to the appeal of Buddhism and the Dalai Lama?
For the political and cultural left, whose adherents make up the majority of the Dalai Lama's following, one selling point is his unabashed support for Maoist communism. “I'm not afraid of the word communism,” the Dalai Lama declared in a recent interview with the Italian newspaper La Repubblica. “As a Buddhist monk,” he continues, “I can't help but have a leftist mentality. Marxism's social and economic doctrine was betrayed by totalitarianism, but it's good.” During the mid-1950s the Dalai Lama lived in Peking — now Beijing — and often met with Mao Zedong. “We used to have long conversations,” the Dalai Lama recalled in the article. “He was a great leader and a great revolutionary. If China had followed the genuine spirit of Mao's communism of the 1950s ... it would now be a more prosperous society.” Granted, it's hard to imagine China being less prosperous; still, such candid enthusiasm for Mao sends up a whole cluster of red flags for anyone with a little historical memory.
A second reason for the Dalai Lama's popularity, and more specifically, for the rise of Buddhism in the West, can be traced to Buddhism's religious and ethical code. Buddhism promises escape from the world through meditation techniques, and asks precious little in return. No Mass on Sundays, no cult to a divinity, no Ten Commandments to cramp one's style or stir the conscience. In short, Buddhism has become the religion of choice for those who yearn for spirituality in the broad sense, but find Christianity's moral precepts too exacting or simply wish to avoid the hassle of getting up for church on Sundays.
Yet another factor behind Buddhism's allure can be found in the boredom and superficiality brought on by Western materialism. Many, particularly in Europe, have adopted a sort of “been-there-done-that” attitude toward Christianity, and eagerly sniff around for something more exotic. When a reporter asked the Dalai Lama himself why there are so many Buddhists in the West, he chalked conversions up to the quest for novelty. “It's part of human nature to always want something new,” he mused, “a change of clothing, a change of hairstyle ... and many think, why not try a new religion? I might like it.”
One can imagine how the early Christian martyrs — who willingly suffered torture and death rather than betray their faith in Christ — would have responded to such religious fickleness: Is this the legacy we left to future generations of Christians? Changing religions as one changes hairstyle?
Buddhism, attractive as it may be to a certain modern mind-set, is not without its casualties. Rooted in the doctrine of the essential evil of the world, Buddhism preaches personal salvation through escape and total detachment. It's no surprise, then, that a country like Sri Lanka has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. Nor that many become deluded with Buddhism's promises. “I know Westerners who embraced Buddhism and now are worse off than before,” admits the Dalai Lama, “with great confusion in their heads.”
The Church is committed to sincere dialogue with other religions, but such dialogue supposes a profound understanding and firm adherence to the Catholic faith. Unfortunately this grounding in the faith is sometimes lacking. At the recent European Synod, Cardinal Francis Arinze, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, expressed concern about the inroads Buddhism has been making in Christian Europe, even among clergy and consecrated persons. “We see priests and religious sitting before a blank wall,” the Nigerian cardinal explained, “and this is religious suicide, not religious dialogue.”
All of this should give Catholics pause. Faced with a widespread thirst for authentic spirituality, Christians must rediscover their rich spiritual heritage. Christian mysticism, Pope John Paul wrote back in 1994, “begins where the reflections of Buddha end.” Where Buddhism presents a message of indifference and endurance, Christianity offers a message of hope in a loving personal God, which compels us to engage the world, and not abandon it. In today's environment of despair and diffidence toward the future, this uniquely Christian gift of hope is indispensable.
Father Thomas Williams is editor of the book Springtime of Evangelization.