In 1994, the Dalai Lama was invited by Fr. Laurence Freeman OSB to lead the John Main Seminar sponsored by the World Community for Christian Meditation. The Dalai Lama, seminar panelists, and other participants meditated together and discussed eight key scriptures from the Gospels:
- Love Your Enemy, Matthew 5:38-48
- The Sermon on the Mount: The Beatitudes, Matthew 5:1-10
- Equanimity, Mark 3:31-35
- The Kingdom of God, Mark 4:26-34
- The Transfiguration, Luke 9:28-36
- The Mission, Luke 9:1-6
- Faith, John 12:44-50
- The Resurrection, John 20:10-18
This book is a record of their dialogue, and presents fascinating reflections on parallels, intersections and differences between Christianity and Buddhism. While the focus is on Christianity, both traditions are represented authentically and respected as living embodiments of truth. The Dalai Lama makes it clear, as he has often done in other venues, that he has no intentions of converting Christians to Buddhism or attempting to blend them into an amorphous universal religion. Instead, he encourages people to plumb the depths of the religions to which they were born. At no point does he presume to tell Christians what their scriptures should mean to them, but asserts that his views are only interpretations from an outsider. It’s obvious that he admires Christianity and intends to speak in support of its followers.
Here is a beautiful story the Dalai Lama shared about his experience of Christianity through Christians he has known:
…on a visit to the great monastery at Montserrat, in Spain, I met a Benedictine monk there. … After lunch, we spent some time alone, face to face, and I was informed that this monk had spent a few years in the mountains just behind the monastery. I asked him what kind of contemplation he had practiced during those years of solitude. His answer was simple: ‘Love, love, love.” How wonderful! I suppose that sometimes he also slept. But during all those years he meditated simply on love. And he was not meditating on just the word. When I looked into his eyes, I saw evidence of profound spirituality and love — as I had during my meetings with Thomas Merton. … These two encounters have helped me develop a genuine reverence for the Christian tradition and its capacity to create people of such goodness. I believe the purpose of all the major religions is not to construct big temples on the outside, but to create temples of goodness and compassion inside, in our hearts.
One of the most interesting things about this book may be how much it offers in the way of fresh and penetrating insight into some of the most well known Christian scriptures, and their implications for doctrine and spiritual living. Not only are the Dalai Lama’s reflections poignant, but Fr. Freeman consistently offers views on Christianity that lead us well beyond the literalism that tends to dominate mainstream ideas about the Christian faith, and in so doing points toward freedom from many of the absurdities, self-contradictions, and oversimplifications that tend to characterize such ideas. Consider this excerpt:
Dalai Lama: So that means we need not think of heaven and hell in terms of an external environment?
Fr. Freeman: No. Hell would be the experience of separation from God, which in itself is unreal. It is illusory because nothing can be separated from God. However, if we think we are separated from God, then we are in Hell. … There is a poetical metaphor in the Bible in which God punishes humanity for its sins. But I think the image of Jesus takes us beyond that image of God and replaces it with an image of God as one who loves unconditionally. Sin remains. Sin is a fact. Evil is a fact. But the punishment that is associated with sin is inherent in sin itself.
This book is highly recommended for anyone with a dawning interest in Christian-Buddhist dialogue, for how it can enrich a Christian’s understanding and living of our faith, and for suggesting how we can embrace each other as spiritual siblings serving many of the same values and principles. For the most part it is a light and easy read, and those who are looking for more extensive probing of intellectual depths or considerations of spiritual practice and service may be disappointed. Even so, it’s a good starting place in its genre, and more seasoned thinkers in this area may enjoy it like a refreshing cup of tea.