The Dalai Lama on Compassion

This morning’s Keynote at the International Symposium for Contemplative Studies featured the Dalai Lama. After some opening remarks, he responded to questions by two panelists about the ongoing dialogue between Buddhists and scientists.

In discussing the value of science, one of the points the Dalai Lama made repeatedly is one he has made before: the need to ground compassion in something other than religion. Starting from the premise that all people desire happiness, he argues that, both because many people are “nonbelievers” and because religious faith sometimes leads to suffering, the way to grow compassion is to help people understand that a more compassionate mind leads to greater well-being, whereas anger and fear are bad for health and happiness. Therein lies the value of science in his view: to demonstrate without resort to religion why compassion is beneficial.

The problem with that approach from the point of view of a Christian is that it treats as the ultimate goal happiness in this life. Although I appreciate the desire to find a language all can speak, for me it is far too small a goal to seek happiness in this life, a life that is only a speck when measured against eternity.

The Dalai Lama addressed those who believe in God by asking a challenging question: If one seriously believes everyone is created by one God (or Allah – or whatever name one gives God), then how can one ever give harm to others? If one truly believes one God created us all, then we are all brothers and sisters, and how can one bring harm to one’s brother or sister?

Rarely does the Dalai Lama say something that I find bordering on insulting, but he did so today. Referencing his conversations with the late Wayne Teasdale, a Christian monk, he said that when Teasdale asked him to explain emptiness, the Dalai Lama declined, expressing concern that hearing about emptiness might adversely affect Teasdale’s faith in God. Immediately thereafter, he talked about another Christian who tried to convince him that God exists. Since Buddhism has no concept of a creator God, he listened with respect, but found the explanation “useless.” The idea that a Buddhist could hear about God without his Buddhist beliefs being shaken but that a Christian’s faith would be brought into doubt by hearing about emptiness was strange to say the least.

Notwithstanding that one comment, as usual I found much in the Dalai Lama’s talk I will ponder.