I play soccer with a group of friends at the College of William and Mary, where I work as an IT staff person. At the end of one of our games, we were talking about the upcoming visit by the Dalai Lama to speak at William and Mary Hall, on Wednesday, October 10. There were several jokes about strange Eastern religious customs and how hot it would be to wear a monk robe all day long. One made a sly remark about attaining “enlightenment” from the marijuana fumes rising up from the crowded Kaplan Arena this coming Wednesday from smuggled-in contraband. This is a big deal event for the College, with several thousand tickets sold out within minutes to hear the venerable representative of international Buddhism. So what is the big deal about the Dalai Lama?
Actually, Tenzin Gyatso is the 14th reincarnation of the Dalai Lama, according to Tibetan Buddhist tradition. For hundreds of years, an unbroken line of spiritual teachers in Tibet have instructed the Buddhist faithful. But the Dalai Lama is more than a religious leader position, it is also a political role, unifying all of the Tibetan region north of the Himalayan mountains in Asia. So when Communist China invaded Tibet in 1950, it put the current Dalai Lama into a difficult situation. After a failed uprising against the Chinese in 1959, the 14th Dalai Lama fled and established a government in exile in India. The United States government has at times given support to the Dalai Lama’s efforts on behalf of the Tibetan people during the past fifty years.
Over those years, the exiled Dalai Lama has served as an international ambassador in the West for Buddhism. There are Four Noble Truths of Buddhism: (1) all of life is suffering, (2) all human desire leads to suffering, (3) the annihilation of desire releases us from suffering, which is enlightenment, and (4) there is an Eightfold path to that enlightenment; that is, right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. Buddhism, however, is not a monolithic movement. The Dalai Lama represents part of the Mahāyāna tradition. But the most popular form of Buddhism in the West is a more concentrated variant, Zen Buddhism, first propagated largely by the famous Japanese philosopher, D. T. Suzuki, in the early to mid-20th century. Oddly enough, Buddhism is considered by many to be a “religion” but the more philosophical traditions are technically atheistic. Even so, there are syncretic flavors that combine animistic beliefs with traditional Buddhist philosophy. The study of Buddhism can get very complicated very quickly. Continue reading