Originally published May 2, 2007


The first day of the Dalai Lama’s Madison, WI teaching just wrapped up a bit ago, and I had a bit of time to reflect on his opening remarks as I spent 40 minutes getting out of the parking lot. 

His Holiness often seems to speak extemporaneously, so even when there is an announced topic for the training you can never be quite sure how he’s going to kick things off.  Today, after some humorous remarks, he began by noting that most Americans and Europeans have a Judeo-Christian background.  By itself, not a very unique observation, but he quickly moved into a quick discussion about the importance of NOT leaving the spiritual tradition you grew up with on a whim. 

He also spoke for a bit about the importance of gaining familiarity with other spiritual traditions: in today’s world of historically unprecedented economic and cultural interconnectedness, a level of familiarity and respect is not a luxury.  It simply makes sense to have some literacy in the outlook of those who we are working with around the planet, whether directly or indirectly. 

The Dalai Lama finished this part of his talk by suggesting that while each of the world’s religions are broadly capable of helping people establish an ethical system and grow as caring individuals, there will be individuals who are not served by the faith of their parents and neighbors.  When a person finds that the religion they are culturally associated with simply isn’t working for them, then it makes sense to assess the possibilities of other traditions, with an eye to converting if something that fits better is found. 

This is not the first time I’ve heard a similar sentiment from His Holiness.  For years he has been asserting that his visits to the West are not for the purpose of converting people to Buddhism (though they have undoubtedly helped that process), and insisting that his students here encourage people to find value in their own established tradition, whether that be Judaism, Christianity, or Islam. 

Perhaps this message jumped out at me a bit more this time because of my work in making the sophisticated spiritual techology of Vajrayana Buddhism available to Christians.  There are many wonderful things that can be said about Christianity; having a strong set of tools which directly foment emotional and spiritual change in believers is not one of them.  With those tools in hand, events like today’s teaching can become approachable by many who today consider listening to HHDL, or other prominent non-Christian leaders, with some fear that their own beliefs will be threatened.  That can certainly lend strength to our ability to treat other traditions with respect and admiration, even where we acknowledge differences in outlook.