Dalai Lama, London, 1996. Photograph by Steve Pyke. Used with permission of the photographer
Back in early September, His Holiness the Dalai Lama shared the following via Facebook:
All the world’s religions, with their emphasis on love, compassion, patience, tolerance and forgiveness, can and do promote inner values. But the reality of the world today is that grounding ethics in religion is no longer adequate. This is why I am increasingly convinced that the time has come to find a way of thinking about spirituality and ethics beyond religion altogether.
This is the thesis of HHDL’s book, Beyond Religion, published a year ago. Yet this Facebook status — months later — set off a small storm of blog posts, tweets, and opinions that is still rumbling about the religion sector of the blogosphere. And my own informal survey indicates no one has really paid close attention to the profound irony of a global religious leader calling for the relativizing of religion.
It is an incongruity: The Dalai Lama, a product of religion if ever there was one, saying that we must get beyond religion. He acknowledges as much in the Introduction to BR:
This [call to go beyond religion] may seem strange coming from someone who from a very early age has lived as a monk in robes. Yet I see no contradiction here. My faith enjoins me to strive for the welfare and benefit of all sentient beings, and reaching out beyond my own tradition, to those of other religions and to those of none, is entirely in keeping with this.
This is admirable in its simplicity and lack of offensiveness. I suspect many people from varied faith traditions would agree with it (although they may not use the phrase, “sentient beings”). Reaching out to others is good and well. But how many of these would go so far as to advocate for religion-free ethics? And why is HHDL doing this?
I think it’s because religion sometimes produces individuals who outgrow religion.
Let me clarify: I do not mean that the Dalai Lama has no use for religion. Or that he thinks religion is silly. But many people use religious organizations and ideas primarily as a means of belonging. Often one’s religious identity is little more than self-protection in a strange and sometimes scary world. The social and intellectual defenses provided by religion can be formidable and highly effective.
But for some people religion has the opposite result. In these individuals a religion may have the counterintuitive effect of deconstructing itself. That is, it deconstructs the social and intellectual barriers that define the religion in the first place, barriers that may turn out in the end to be the most serious threats to humanity’s common well-being.
This seems to be the case with HHDL. He has been grounded in a particular tradition, trained in its philosophy, and disciplined in its practice. But he no longer needs its community or its philosophy to distinguish himself from the rest of humanity. In him his religion has accomplished its finest goal: a human being who sees himself first and most clearly as a human being among other human (not to mention sentient) beings. Robes, Buddhism, and Tibet may define him for us, but they do not define him for himself.
But, and here’s the thing: He’s a Tibetan Buddhist, the real deal. He meditates every morning. He wears his robes. He still describes himself as “a simple Buddhist monk.” And while he may not always use the language and images of Buddhism in his broader addresses, he does when he addresses his monks and nuns. To them he speaks fluent Buddhish.
This must be one of the most obvious cases of what James Fowler called the “ironic imagination — the capacity to see and be in one’s or one’s group’s most powerful meanings, while simultaneously recognizing that they are relative, partial and inevitably distorting apprehensions of transcendent reality.” The ironic practice of religion: I suspect it happens for lots of people, not just HHDL and not just Buddhists.
It must be rather freeing to practice one’s religion while seeing it for what it is: A vessel for the universal and not the universal. It seems that such freedom would allow religion to be taken seriously but not too seriously. Such freedom might produce humility. Perhaps it is this freedom that gives HHDL his energy, his focus, and his incredible lightness of being.