Friday, July 20, 2007

Still inspiring me

Over my 64 years, I have been lucky enough to meet a number of extraordinary people. When, in 2000, I was on a Spiritual Direction training course, we were asked to find an image for our personal spiritual journey. My own choice was a Monopoly board. Although I am still working through the different components of the board, I was clear that the "Chance" cards would be the names of people that I had met. Among them, of course, would be my parents and some of my teachers at the Lycèe and at Oxford, clergy who have directed my studies and friends. At the top of the list must be Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, whom my son Jack and I met in a private audience in April 2001. A photo of the meeting sits on my desk and my blog would not be complete without it.

Here is what I wrote shortly after returning to the UK:
This April, Jack and I spent just over two weeks in northern India. The journey was sparked off by the time we had spent, while Chris (my wife) was dying, two years ago, watching Martin Scorcese’s film Kundun about the childhood and adolescence of Tenzin Gyatso, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama of Tibet.

Tibet is currently occupied by the Chinese who are undertaking the systematic destruction of thousands of years of history, the genocide of the native Tibetan population and the eradication of the Buddhist way of life. Monks and nuns are tortured, humiliated and forced to break their vows. People may no longer even have a picture of the Dalai Lama in their homes. Since 1959, the present Dalai Lama has been living in exile in India. In 1989, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work, world-wide, travelling and speaking out for the freedom of his people.

There have been thirteen previous Dalai Lamas since Gedun Drub in the fifteenth century. Each one is believed to be the reincarnation of the previous one and the incarnation in the world of Chenrezig, the bodhisattva of compassion. A bodhisattva is an individual who has achieved perfection and could go on to Nirvana but chooses to return to incarnation out of love and compassion for all sentient beings. The title, Dalai Lama, is a Mongolian title given to the third Gyalwa Rinpoche (Precious Victorious One) when he reconverted the Mongols to Buddhism. It means “Ocean of Wisdom”.

I wrote to His Holiness’s secretary in May 2000, telling him about Jack’s wish, after his mother died, to see the Himalayas and meet His Holiness. The secretary emailed me back with a date of April 20th this year. I was stunned: who are we, after all, to be given a private audience with a man who is feted by presidents, popes, monarchs, etc.?

After visiting Delhi (mercifully for only 24 hours), Manali and Rewalsar, we arrived in Dharamshala where the Tibetan Government-in-exile has been set up. On 19 April , we celebrated Jack’s 11th birthday with a party at our guesthouse. Amoing us were a lot of the other pilgrims and researchers, Tibetan, American, Australian, Swedish and Indian whom we had met as we travelled.

The audience with His Holiness was due to last 15 minutes. He kept us for 45! He asked us about Chris and wept as we talked. He made jokes, spoke about his faith and said, to me: “Lord Jesus is your door. Lord Buddha is my door.” And he gave us presents: a small diptych of Christian icons, a thangka (painted representation of the Shayamuni Buddha) which he signed, writing (in Tibetan): “To Simon and Jack, in memory of your visit to Kundun”, and, for Jack, his Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism.

I am still assessing and integrating all that happened on our trip but I am convinced that I have met the truth of Christ’s promise in Matthew 28:20 in the person of the Great Fourteenth Dalai Lama and, through him, am learning the joy of seeing Christ in each sentient being that I meet.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Where to find real ecumenism?

For some years now, I have been a contributor to discussion boards. It all started when I came across a daily quotation, by email, from the work of Anthony de Mello, the Indian Jesuit who wrote extensively about ways of prayer. His work fitted my own growing sense that the old separations between religious traditions were impediments to spiritual growth in the modern world.

After a Yahoo group was formed to discuss the work, it became clear that our moderator did not want open debate and a few of us decided to form a more accepting and 'liberal' group. This group still, sporadically, functions.

After my visits to India in 1998 and 2001, I began contributing to Buddhist and Christian discussion boards. In both cases, I found a worrying degree of dogmatism and a level of personal invective that went directly against the basic principles of both traditions as I understood them.

Following a link in one of the more interesting posts, I began to post on Ezboard fora and, in due course, was persuaded to administer and moderate one of them.

As time went on, I found that there were like-minded people out there for whom the spiritual quest was important but who could no longer could accept the exclusivity that many other demanded. My own studies of Christian and Buddhist scripture, alongside a renewal of regular practice and retreats, led me to a number of conclusions that suggested new vistas of co-operative spirituality. Even apparently exclusive texts, like that often quoted from Saint John, opened themselves as possible inclusivity:

"No one can come to the Father except through me." (Jn 14:6)

Time and again, this verse was quoted as evidence that only by becoming a Christian could an individual gain salvation. The definition of 'Christian' and the meaning of 'gaining salvation' were both circumscribed and exclusive, sectarian.

Because I had become convinced that the Jesus message, like the BuddhaDharma, was inclusive rather than exclusive, I spent some time reflecting on the meaning of these words, particularly their sense in Greek. It did not take me too long to see that there was a completely different meaning that could be found. Elsewhere, Jesus calls himself "the gate of the sheepfold" (Jn 10:7) which chimed with words which His Holiness the Dalai Lama spoke to me at a private audience in 2001 when he said: "Lord Jesus is your door; Lord Buddha is my door."

As a result, I began to glimpse that Jesus could be revealing that liberation is here and now for all people, through him, whether they claim it or not. It is, for some, simply a random and anonymous gift, like alms dropped into a blind beggar's cup.

With that in mind, I began to re-read the gospels as inclusive.


When I share this vision of the teachings of Jesus and Gotama as inclusive and applying to all people, here and now, not depending on membership of any particular sect or group, I find that the idea is pretty unacceptable to many people.

There are those who are, themselves, members of a particular group such as a church. They are hostile to the idea that outsiders are also "co-heirs to the Kingdom". Others have rejected their view of Christianity and do not want to imagine that its root is other than that which they dislike.