THE NEW MANDALA
Eastern Wisdom for Western Living
Rev. John Lundin
His Holiness the Dalai Lama
The New Mandala, Eastern Wisdom for Western Living, is a journey toward
spiritual awakening and rediscovery. On one level it is an engaging and entertaining
journal of a Christian clergyman’s quest for enlightenment. On another level it is a road
map for the reader’s own spiritual journey.
Written in collaboration with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, The New Mandala is
a guide for all who are on the journey of life, and who desire a movement away from the
constructed boundaries in their lives toward the divine energy of their center. It is an
invitation to the readers to explore the wisdom and practice of an ancient new tradition,
while at the same time illuminating and reclaiming the inherited faith of their formation.
The author, an American Protestant minister, speaks to all who are walking the
same path he is on - the path toward a deeper spirituality. With his feet firmly planted in
the Christianity of his faith tradition, Rev. John Lundin enters into the world of Tibetan
Buddhism in search of a new spirituality. The quest takes him - and the reader - on a
journey to Dharamsala in north India, the home of His Holiness the Dalai Lama of Tibet.
In private dialogues with His Holiness, the author discovers the empowering affinity
between Buddhism and Christianity. Reverend Lundin weaves the personal experiences
of his own pilgrimage with the wisdom and teaching of the Dalai Lama himself.
This simple, easy-to-read glimpse at the heart of Buddhism offers seekers from
the West a structure and a practical guide to meditation and spiritual practice that can
become an integral part of their own faith. The Middle Way that the Buddha taught, and
which Reverend Lundin and the Dalai Lama present to the reader in a clear and
accessible manner, can become the way for anyone - Christian, Jew, even the non-
believer - to grow spiritually.
The New Mandala is an opportunity for discovery and a valuable guide for
everyone who wishes to travel from here to there, for anyone who wishes to make the
ultimate pilgrimage toward becoming fully human.
The New Mandala has been written in twelve brief chapters that allow the reader
to explore each new topic and then to reflect upon it before moving to the next. Each
chapter begins with an issue drawn from the author's spiritual questioning, then expands
on the topic with illustrations drawn from his Dharamsala experiences, and ends with a
challenge to the reader to relate the teaching to his or her own personal life experience.
The entire book is intended to be experiential, and includes a practical guide to
meditation and daily spiritual practice. The New Mandala is an engaging and
entertaining sharing of the author’s journey of discovery that becomes, in the end, the
reader’s journey - an invitation to enter into the metaphorical spiritual path of the
Rev. John Lundin with His Holiness the Dalai Lama
Dharamsala, India – August 2000
Rev. John Lundin earned his Master of Divinity degree from Chicago Theological
Seminary at the University of Chicago and was ordained by the United Church of Christ.
(U.C.C.) He served as a parish minister, hospital chaplain and pastoral counselor on the
south side of Chicago before making his journey to Dharamsala. Rev. Lundin is retired
from the ministry and is now an environmental activist and clean energy advocate. He
also teaches classes and workshops and leads retreats focusing on world religions, cross-
cultural spirituality and meditation. He currently lives in the Lake Tahoe area of the
A special thank you is offered to Tenzin Gyatso, His Holiness the 14th
Dalai Lama of
Tibet, without whose support this book would not have been possible, and to the Office
of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Tenzin Geyche Tethong, Secretary to Hs Holiness,
who facilitated the Dalai Lama’s participation. Additional thanks to the Library of
Tibetan Works and Archives for transcripts of His Holiness’ teachings, some of which
are included in this book and used with permission. The author also gratefully
acknowledges the assistance and support of the Dalai Lama’s sister, Ama Jetsun Pema
and the staff of the Tibetan Children’s Village, as well as the entire Central Tibetan
Administration, in particular Tempa Tsering, Secretary of the Department of Information
and International Relations and Tenzin Topgyal, Deputy Secretary of Religion and
THE NEW MANDALA
Eastern Wisdom for Western Living
Rev. John Lundin
His Holiness the Dalai Lama
1. The New Mandala 1
2. Who Are You and Where Are You Going? 12
3. Venturing Forth 30
4. The Four Noble Truths 46
5. The Middle Way 59
6. The Illusions of Emptiness 73
7. The Reality of God 88
8. Resurrection and Rebirth 109
9. Meditation and Contemplation 122
10. Taming Your Monkey Mind 144
11. Cultivating Compassion 163
12. Spiritual Exercises 179
The New Mandala
I, an ordinary monk in the lineage of Buddha Shakyamuni, humbly
urge you to make efforts in spiritual practice. Examine the nature of your
mind and cultivate its development. Take into account your welfare in this
and future existences, and develop competence in the methods that
produce happiness here and hereafter. Our lives are impermanent and so
are the holy teachings. We should cultivate our practice carefully.
- His Holiness the Dalai Lama
“This is the path to the domain of the Deity.”
The smiling monk speaks even as he concentrates on the Mandala, gently tapping
the narrow silver flute to add a few more grains of colored sand to the lotus-blossom
border that is taking shape around the geometric design.
“But the path exists only in the mind. Each time a new spiritual journey is
initiated the path must be constructed anew - one grain of sand at a time. And the path is
never the same as the last one - always new, always changing, always impermanent.”
Tap. Tap. Tap. Each grain of sand falls into its place, exactly as the monk’s
mind’s eye recalls the intricate pattern.
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“Once the journey is initiated, the path is dissolved, returned to the stream from
which it came, to flow back into the sea from which we all come. There it rests,
indistinguishable from all other sand that is the earth, until one day it is reborn again as a
new path, for a new journey about to be initiated.”
Tenzin shifts position and adjusts his burgundy robe. Cross-legged on his saffron
cushion he leans forward and peers intently into the Mandala. “It is like the kingdom of
the Deity - with chambers and hallways, places to discover, places to get lost - but it is
only represented in the sand. In reality, it is only ever discovered in the mind.”
I had often appreciated the sand Mandala as a beautiful and intriguing expression
of Tibetan art and culture, but now I was entering into it at a deeper level. The oddly
intersecting patterns constructed in the colored sand were beginning to resonate with the
seemingly coincidental intersections of events in my own life. Even as the various paths
and spaces in the Mandala all eventually lead to the center, so, too, were the various paths
and spaces in my life becoming more integrated and drawing me toward my own center.
Whether constructed as a path of sand within this Buddhist temple of the Dalai Lama, or
illuminated in the rose window of Chartres Cathedral in France, or inscribed as a
labyrinth on the floor of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, the Mandala circle has
historically been an archetype of wholeness, a sacred space and form that transcends
religion and touches the spirit in a manner that calls one into the calm depths of the soul.
Tenzin turned toward me and smiled. “John-la, this is your path. This particular
Mandala is a representation of the domain of Yamantaka, protector deity of wisdom who
personifies the triumph of wisdom over ignorance, suffering and death. But it also
represents the interconnectedness of all things, the entire universe, what you would call
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creation. And finally, John-la, it’s a way of understanding your journey, a map of your
self, a path leading inward, away from the borders you have imposed upon yourself and
toward the energy of your own center.”
He handed me the silver flute. “It’s your turn. Tap it gently and add your part to
the whole. Be careful not to disturb the rest of the sand. Go ahead, give it a try.”
The sand Mandala had been painstakingly constructed over ten days so far, and
was the most detailed I had ever seen. I was in awe and visibly nervous as I leaned over
the magnificent creation and ever so gently tapped a few grains of colored sand into a
small chocolate-chip shaped mound next to a hundred other mounds like it. The final
border was being completed, and now my small effort was a part of it. Tenzin was right,
I felt connected to the whole. I knew I had been blessed and honored with this
opportunity to participate, and I returned the flute of sand to Tenzin with a broad smile of
my own. Then I sat on the cushion and gazed silently into this path of life with wonder.
I pictured myself as any one of the solitary grains of colored sand in the pattern
before me. Where was I in my life’s journey? Was I in that bright orange high point
over there, or in the dark blue box of walls to the right? Was I on the twisting, turning
path that led toward the center, or was I wandering among the lotus blossoms at the
fringe? And I couldn’t help reflecting on the maze of twists and turns, peaks and valleys,
dead ends and new beginnings that had brought me to this unique place and time. Here I
am in Dharamsala, perched on a promontory of the Himalayas with all of India spread
below me, sitting crossed-legged before this new Mandala in the temple of the Dalai
Lama, a Christian minister entering into the meditation of the Buddhist monks and
contemplating my life’s journey.
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And life is a journey. Allowing myself to enter into the Mandala, I am reminded
that the real journey of life - the real twists and turns, peaks and valleys, dead ends and
new beginnings - is an inward journey, or, in Tenzin’s words, “a path leading inward,
away from the borders you have imposed upon yourself and toward the energy of your
own center.” I recall the words of Thomas Merton, the Christian monk who wrote in his
journal while visiting this same holy ground some twenty-five years earlier: “Our real
journey in life is interior: it is a matter of growth, deepening, and of an ever greater
surrender to the action of love and grace in our hearts.” I am on that journey. Thomas
Merton was on that journey. You are on that journey.
As my mind’s eye wanders the colorful maze of the sand Mandala, I am
fascinated by the intersections that have colored my spiritual journey. I am reminded that
I am a pilgrim on a long and broad path, a path that has intersected that of Thomas
Merton, of His Holiness the Dalai Lama of Tibet, and even the path that you are on. You
and I are sharing this path with everyone who has ever questioned the meaning of life and
pondered his or her place in the great scheme of things. This new Mandala, this path to
the domain of the Deity, this collection of myriad grains of sand has become for me a
poignant meditation on connectedness. I am orienting myself in relation to all those who
have ever traveled the path before me, those who will travel the path after me, and
perhaps most importantly, those who are on the journey of life alongside me this day.
For me, spirituality has become a matter of relationships: my relationship with my
self, with others, with the Divine, and with the divine creation. To grow in one’s
spirituality is to grow and become more mature in each of these four relationships.
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Examining the myriad patterns in the Mandala, I am meditating upon my place in relation
to my center, my interconnectedness, and my boundaries.
This book is my meditation, and it has been written for you. You are my traveling
companion on the journey to the domain of the divine. I know you. You may be my son
or daughter, my mother or father, my wife or my ex-wife. You may be the checker in the
grocery store I shopped at yesterday, or you may be the parishioner I greeted in church on
Sunday. Perhaps I visited you in the hospital or in prison, or you may have visited me in
my office for counseling. You may have been a student in one of my classes. More
probably you are someone I have never encountered in person on my journey, but
nonetheless - I know you. We share the same long and broad path on the Mandala of life.
We have the same hopes and fears; we have shared many of the same joys and concerns.
And, most important, we are seeking answers to many of the same questions.
I rise from my cushion and bow with my palms together in a gesture of
thanksgiving toward my host and teacher, the venerable Tenzin. As I step out into the
morning light I face the Dalai Lama’s residence across the square and again recall a
journal entry of Thomas Merton. He noted that all of Dharamsala, with its stupas and
shrines, its residences of monks and rinpoches, its collection of monasteries and temples,
and its meandering paths reminded him of the Mandala itself, with the Dalai Lama in a
sort of center, a “central presence...a fully awake Buddha.” I share that feeling in this
The sun is just rising above the peaks of the Himalayas as I walk the path that
rings His Holiness’ compound, joining the faithful who daily circumambulate this living
shrine counting their mantras with their prayer beads. This has become my daily prayer
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walk as well. At the south end of the circuit is an elaborate stupa adorned with thousands
of brightly-colored prayer flags, offering their prayers of the people to the Buddhas with
every breath of the wind. As I look out over the vista of India far below from this finger
of land that is Dharamsala, I am approached by a young lady whose British accent
intones, “Excuse me...aren’t you the priest who’s also a Buddhist?”
I smile, having heard numerous variations of this introduction in Dharamsala
before. “I am a Protestant minister, and also sort of a Buddhist, yes.”
“Hi, I’m Christine...and I was raised Catholic...but I was sort of turned off by the
Church...but I think of myself as a very spiritual person...and I like what I’ve learned
about Buddhism. But my Mum would disown me if I ever became a Buddhist!” With a
smile she continues, “Do you suppose we could talk sometime?”
I have heard this same spirit of inquiry and incredulity often during the course of
conversations with seekers in Dharamsala and among students in my classes in
California. How can one be both a Christian and a Buddhist? Perhaps her thoughts are
your thoughts. Over lunches and dinners of noodles and rice, I have responded to similar
inquiries many times, and on each occasion I have moved deeper into my own Mandala,
examining the path that has brought me to this place and time. By articulating what I
have experienced and learned I have come to a greater personal awareness of the affinity
that exists between Buddhism and Christianity, between Buddhism and the Truth of all
the world’s great religions. I have discovered, as did Merton, that the real journey of life
is taking place in my soul, not under my feet. And I have experienced how the wisdom
and practice of the Buddha can actually provide a framework for personal growth within
the faith of my formation, my inherited Christianity.
THE NEW MANDALA
Out of my conversations with Christine and others has come this book, and I
intend it to be a sharing of my spiritual journey in a dialogue with you. We will be joined
by a wise teacher, His Holiness, the Dalai Lama of Tibet. I will share with you his
teachings and his private conversations with me as we look for ways that Eastern wisdom
can illuminate our Western living. We will look at the new Mandala each of us is
constructing as we embark on another stage of our respective spiritual journeys.
Together we are about to discover how the wisdom of the East - the enlightened teaching
of the Buddha - shares an affinity with the faith we have each inherited, and how it can be
borrowed by those of us in the West and made a valuable part of our spiritual quest and
our daily spiritual practice. We will have some of our questions answered by the Dalai
Lama, and still others by the historical Buddha, whose universal teachings are older than
those of the Christ. We are going to explore a discipline and a structure that can guide us
toward unlocking the wisdom of our own faith. We are going to walk the labyrinth. We
are going to create a new Mandala. And we are going to start with a journey to
Where exactly is this Dharamsala and why the journey there? As with the
Mandala, the answer is found on more than one level. Dharamsala is a real place. The
village of Dharamsala, in the region of Himachal Pradesh, at the base of the foothills of
the Himalayas in northern India, is a former “hill station” of the colonial British who
occupied India until 1947. The officers of the Royal Army would escape to the cool, dry
elevation of Dharamsala for rest and relaxation. Then came Partition and independence,
and Dharamsala returned to being a quiet, sleepy, largely forgotten dot on the map. In
1959, the religious and temporal leader of the nation of Tibet was forced to flee the
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mounting oppression, torture and killing of his people by the invading communist
Chinese government. The Dalai Lama, and several thousand of his followers, crossed the
rugged Himalayas to find sanctuary in neighboring India. Soon, residents of Dharamsala
invited the Tibetans to make their village the home of the government-in-exile.
Today, Dharamsala is still the seat of the Tibetan government which is continuing
its struggle for recognition by the world community and for the eventual return of the
Tibetan people to their rightful homeland. It is also the home of the recipient of the
Nobel Peace Prize, the fourteenth reincarnation of the Dalai Lama. This simple monk, as
he describes himself, has become a living saint. For many, his voice is now the spiritual
conscience of the world. Pilgrims and the curious alike journey here each year to be a
part of this unique community of monks, nuns and ordinary Tibetans, and perhaps to see
and hear the Dalai Lama. Surrounded by India and Indians, this Buddhist refugee
community coexists with Hindus, Sikhs and Moslems while also welcoming the Jews,
Christians and others who come here from all over the world seeking some form of
I have made the journey to this Dharamsala. I was invited and encouraged by a
family friend, the Reverend Doctor Rafael Bastianni, a kindly, self-effacing French
Catholic priest and medical doctor who has given half of each of the past thirty years
providing rehabilitation services to orphaned refugees in a small dispensary in the
Tibetan Children’s Village. I have made my own pilgrimage of discovery to Dharamsala.
I have lived with the ever-smiling Tibetans. I have worked with them, shared tea with
them, shared my faith with them and learned from them. Buddhist monks have invited
me into their monasteries and the Dalai Lama has challenged me in dialogue. The gentle
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wisdom of the Buddha has been a gift, shared with me by fellow travelers on the Path.
Paradoxically, I have been strengthened in my Christian faith. Though I am an ordained
Protestant minister, I, like you, struggle with questions that my inherited faith does not
always seem complete enough to answer. My time in Dharamsala has been an inner
journey of spiritual growth. In the pages that follow, I hope to share that journey of
growth with you. I invite and encourage you to initiate the creation of your own new
Mandala by joining me in this journey to Dharamsala.
But this is not the only dharamsala we will visit. In fact, this tiny Tibetan village
is not our true destination, though much of what I will share with you on this journey has
been gleaned from my time there. In India a dharamsala is any simple, temporary shelter
that is made available to religious pilgrims for a brief stay while journeying. India was
home to the original Buddha, Gautama Siddhartha, though Buddhism migrated and
flourished outside of India. India is also home to several other religions, most notably
Hinduism. Each of these faith traditions honors its respective shrines and holy sites.
Pilgrims of all faiths traverse India to pay homage to the sacred people and places of their
faith. Along the way, they are welcomed into the hospitality of the local dharamsala, a
sort of hostel for the often weary sojourner.
So the dharamsala we will share is a stop along the way, a place of communion
for the one who is at the same time both faithful and seeking, both believing and
questioning. It is a place of shelter for the one who is reclaiming his or her past, while
also asking today’s questions of fellow travelers. It is a place to get one’s bearings, to
orient oneself, to reflect on where one has been and to seek direction for the next portion
of the journey. It is here that we will create a new map for ourselves, a new Mandala. It
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is to this refuge that we journey, and it is in its inviting shelter that we can encounter the
love and hospitality of fellow travelers and experience what Thomas Merton experienced:
that our real journey of life is interior, that it is a matter of growth, of deepening, and of
an ever greater surrender to the creative action of love and grace in our hearts.
Dharamsala will therefore be for us not so much a place as an experience.
But an experience must be experienced. I will share with you my experiences, my
search, my discoveries, but if this journey is to be your journey, then the pages that
follow must become an invitation to a path that we walk together. With the road map, the
new Mandala, that has been shared with me by my Tibetan friends I can lead the way, but
the sights and sounds, the trees and flowers, the birds and the monkeys that are constantly
to the left and the right of the path will have to be your sights and sounds, your trees and
flowers, your birds and monkeys. The memories evoked by the stories we hear will have
to be your memories. The responses to the wisdom we encounter will have to be your
responses. The answers we find will have to arise from your questions. In other words,
just as you can’t curl up in a corner easy chair and “read” a road map, you can’t simply
“read” this book if you want to allow it to spark that real journey - the inner journey.
For that you will have to put this book down every once in a while and just reflect
upon it. Let my stories resonate with your stories. Stop where you are and put the map
away, then just absorb the presence of where you are before continuing on. Remember,
life is a journey and we will spend a lifetime taking our place on the great Mandala as it
passes through our brief moment in time. Our destination is our center, and we can only
get there by turning inward. So let’s be open to just that. Let’s pause. Close this little
book and reflect on the Mandala. Consider your journey of life. Where are you? Where
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are you going? How are you going to get there? Then consider your deepest questions:
Does life make sense? Does it have meaning for you? Does your faith tradition help you
in your meaning-making?
If you ask yourself these questions, as I have done, and then, just as I also have
done, still find yourself asking more difficult questions, still searching for meaning, still
trying to make an historical faith relevant to your life today, then you have begun your
meditation. You have entered into your journey and are already applying the grains of
sand to your own new Mandala. You are ready to begin exercising your mind and
strengthening your spiritual foundation.
Who Are You and Where Are You Going?
No matter how much faith we have, if we do not constantly
maintain an inquisitive and critical attitude our practice will always
remain somewhat foolish.
- His Holiness the Dalai Lama
I am often asked how it is that this Protestant minister wound up in the company
of the Dalai Lama, and is now a Christian preacher and teacher of Buddhist wisdom and
practice. I generally respond by noting that I was never one to “color within the lines.”
So the story of my spiritual journey - my Mandala, if you will - has its own unique
pattern with a lot of fuzzy margins.
The bend in the road, the turning point in my spiritual journey occurred as a direct
result of an auspicious conjunction of anxiety, curiosity and opportunity.
In the classic story of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Dorothy is lost, disoriented,
confused, even frightened when she first encounters the Scarecrow who greets her with
the words, “Who are you and where are you going?” It’s a metaphysical question that
confronts us all at some point as we find ourselves stumbling along the yellow brick
paths of our lives. Her reply, “I’m Dorothy, and I’m going to Oz - to see if the Wizard
can help me get home,” is her way of responding for all of us: I am what I have named
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myself, and I’m exploring, seeking a wise guide who can help me return to my roots, the
ground of my being, my center.
In the summer of 1993 the Scarecrow’s questions were often being asked in the
silence of my mind. One particular evening that summer I found myself asking the
questions out loud: “Who are you? Where are you going? How are you going to get
there?” I was leading a discussion among the members of my parish, and my questions
were addressed to this suburban Chicago congregation of ordinary people who were
struggling with the direction of their church in a time of change. Their children were all
grown now and lived somewhere else, earning their living doing something other than
fabricating steel as their fathers had done, most likely some high-tech job their parents
didn’t really understand. Most of the old neighbors had left, too, either by choice or by
death, replaced by people whose culture they also didn’t really understand. A post-war
community of European immigrants seeking a better life was rapidly being replaced by a
community of immigrants from the ravaged inner city, also looking for a better life.
White was being replaced with yellow, with brown and with black. The churches that
had nurtured them, and which had once been filled every Sunday with the sounds of
families recalling Dutch and German hymns, were now filled only on weekdays, serving
as daycare centers nurturing the children of working mothers, children who now danced
to seemingly strange African and Mexican rhythms.
My parishioners knew who they had been, but they were less certain about who
they had become. And the reality was they didn’t want to “go” anywhere - not
physically, not emotionally. They wanted things to remain as they used to be. They
knew about change, all right, but they wanted their church to be their one sanctuary from
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it, the one unchanging monument to the way things once were, the anchor in a disquieting
sea of change.
I had been called as their interim pastor, one who would bridge the gap between
the old and the new and guide them during their “in-between” time. I was expected to be
a little like the Prophets whom I once heard described as “the ones who point the way,
but who never get there themselves.” I was not merely a caretaker minister, charged only
with keeping the pulpit warm until a real minister was chosen. No, in my denomination
an Interim Minister is a special calling, and is acknowledged as such by appointment and
training. An experienced saint of the faith once explained the interim time in the life of a
congregation with this image: the covered bridge. Those picturesque clapboard-sided
wooden bridges that colored the New England and Midwestern landscape provided more
than inspiration for painters and photographers. They were built in a time when the path
from this side of the stream to the other side needed to offer some degree of protection
for the journey or else the flock would balk, afraid to make the crossing. The shingled
roofs kept the rain and snow from accumulating along the span. The barn-red planks that
formed the sides of the bridge obscured any frightening view of the dizzying height and
the dangerous currents below. With the security of a protected pathway leading toward a
shining view at the end of the tunnel, even the most timid sheep would venture forth and
arrive safely on the other side.
We all have interim times in our lives - in our solitary lives and in our
congregational lives - when we need a covered bridge. For the tribes of Israel, the
wilderness experience of the desert required a Moses and even a parting of the waters.
For some of us a two-week vacation is that bridge, for others the safety of a
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psychologist’s guidance is the path from here to there. For the congregation in Chicago,
on this day and in this place, the interim was now and the shepherd guiding the anxious
flock across the bridge was me.
“Who are you? Where are you going? How are you going to get there?” These
were the questions I had been called to ask. These were the questions I was expected to
help them answer.
And, more and more frequently I was discovering, these were the same questions
that were troubling me.
Who are you, I was asking myself. This has been the question posed by the
Greeks and by the philosophers and by the psychologists, even by both the disciples and
the enemies of Christ. I had no simple answer for myself. Perhaps I knew better who I
wanted to be than who I was. I wanted to be more spiritual, I knew that. And I wanted to
be more religious, but in the authentic sense. I was already religious in the superficial
sense. I was, after all, a man of the cloth, a leader of the Church. But I longed to wrap
myself in the essential garments of a religion that would transform me, that would help
me answer the questions of my soul, that would give voice to my calling and put passion
into my response.
As I spoke to this meeting of the mothers and fathers, the widows and widowers,
the sons and the daughters of this anxious worshiping community of faith, I feared that I
might not be adequately equipped to lead them on their journey. Even as I challenged
this band of weary pilgrims to question what was right and good within their church, to
reclaim the faith of their formation, and to use that strength in the building of a bridge to
their church’s future, my troubled heart was silently challenging me with its own soul-
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searching questions. As I faced the next bridge in my own spiritual journey, I found
myself unsure that it was capable of carrying me safely toward my destination. Over and
over, I now more frequently felt the timbers under my feet creaking and the voice in my
heart asking, “What’s wrong with my religion?”
I have often noticed that it is the coincidence of simple events which marks the
turning points in life. I have come to view these not as coincidence at all, but rather as
significant “co-incidents.” As I was dealing with my anxiety and questioning the faith of
my formation within the sanctuary of my Midwestern church, I was invited to participate
in the global Parliament of the World’s Religions. Representatives of the world’s
religions had come together this summer, exactly one hundred years after the first
Parliament of the World’s Religions was held on the same ground as part of the Chicago
World’s Colombian Exposition in 1893. Today they had transformed the lawn of Grant
Park into a colorful bazaar of the dress and the music and the dance and the prayers of the
world’s peoples. Today I would again be confronted with the question of what’s wrong
with my religion. And today I would hear the teachings of the Dalai Lama for the first
“No matter how much faith we have, if we do not constantly maintain an
inquisitive and critical attitude our practice will always remain somewhat foolish.” These
words of the Dalai Lama rang true since curiosity has always seemed a natural part of life
to me. Nonetheless, as a minister of the Christian Church, I have frequently encountered
some who openly wondered why I would be looking for Truth outside my own religion.
Even as I sat with my thoughts among this diverse assembly, protesters surrounding the
park were proclaiming the position of the evangelical and fundamental Christian
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perspective that what was taking place at this ecumenical Parliament was a heresy.
Sadly, years of conditioning had quelled their sense of curiosity and taught them to be
suspicious of inquiry.
And it’s no wonder. History is rife with examples that have given us the message
that inquiry is always suspect and often dangerous. It is a sad commentary on the
religions of our world, not singling out Christianity alone, that most protests against
inquiry come from the faith traditions that portray themselves as the bearers of Truth,
while history reminds us that our religions have constantly endeavored to set up
roadblocks and detours on the path toward the discovery of any new revelation of that
Truth. Religious leaders in the past who have dared to suggest that inquiry, even when it
conflicted with the current and accepted teachings, might be the appropriate path to Truth
were typically silenced. Jesus was a devout Jew who called the faithful to move beyond
the confining legalism of his inherited religion toward a spirituality that would replace
tired old doctrine with love and compassion. He was neither the first nor the last to be
crucified for questioning the status quo, and no single religious tradition can be awarded
all the blame.
This suspicion of inquiry seems to be related to issues of vulnerability. When we
embark upon a journey we inevitably discover things, whether that journey is to the
Grand Canyon or an interior journey to the heart of what we believe. Journeys are never
passive; they always lead to discovery. Such discovery may open us to a new vision that
brings our old view into question. We may even find we have to abandon the old in favor
of the new. This is the vulnerability we fear. It’s hard to let go, and going forward
always involves letting go.
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No one feels more vulnerable than someone who is standing upon the weak
foundation of an unsupported idea. This was the vulnerability felt by the leaders of the
dominant religion of the Western world in the early sixteenth century. Ever since
Aristotle, three hundred years before Christ, the politically correct idea was that the
whole universe revolved around the Earth. This was a neat bit of thinking since it
complemented the more insidious notion of the day that Man was actually the center of
the universe, and it just so happened that Earth was Man’s home. This was a particularly
attractive arrangement of things for those men who were in positions of authority and
privilege in the Church.
Along comes Nicholas Copernicus who argues that his observations have
convinced him that the Earth and the other planets revolve around the sun. The Earth is
not the center of the universe, nor, for that matter, is Man and his Church. Unfortunately
for Copernicus, his ideas predated the printing business, and his discovery was not widely
circulated, and even less widely accepted. By the year 1600 there were only about ten
known advocates of his ideas alive in the world. One of those was Galileo.
Galileo was a true seeker, a master of curious thinking. His curiosity led him to
develop the modern compass and the telescope. By simply keeping his eyes wide open,
by not limiting his vision to that of his predecessors, by using the tools he had, Galileo
journeyed into the heavens and discovered that the nearly forgotten Copernicus had been
right. The Earth did, in fact, revolve around the sun. However, following the publication
of what was quickly labeled heresy, Galileo was summoned to Rome by the Inquisition
and ordered to renounce his findings and was sentenced to life imprisonment. His
published discovery was ordered to be burned, and the sentence against him was read
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publicly in every university. This was not a promising step by Western religion toward
the advancement of the cause of curious thinking!
With respect to perhaps the greatest search for knowledge imaginable - the
inquiry into the origins of the universe and the mysteries of our own origin - curious
thinking is, today, fighting for its life with every new revelation. The poetic Jewish myth
that traditionally explained our human relationship to the divine creation has seemed by
many to be somehow threatened by curious thinking. The Genesis account of the
creation story is reduced by many in the West to mere details of archeological history,
when the reality is this beautiful myth seeks to display a cosmic wonder of relationships
that is much greater than mere facts. The amazing mysteries that science is daily
unfolding regarding the origins of the cosmos and the baffling adaptability of the human
and other species should be expanding our curiosity into the wonders of the Divine.
Instead, the scientific journey of inquiry is continually the object of religious scorn.
Roadblocks are constantly thrown up to thwart our curious thinking.
Charles Darwin had also been guilty of curious thinking. Traveling the world in a
little boat, he had wondered how animals were so wondrously adaptable, and he had
speculated on what implications this might have for us, the human animal. The rest of
the world had been conditioned to accept the old answers and attempted to suppress his
theories, afraid and unwilling to let go, feeling too vulnerable on their weak religious
foundation to accept the possibility that serious inquiry might result in the need to
assimilate new Truth.
I put forward this brief history lesson because these historical seekers remind me
of a consciousness that is alive within each of us, and which was a flame burning within
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me that day in Chicago. It is this flame of consciousness that fuels the natural spirit of
inquiry. Galileo, Copernicus and Darwin were each discovering the structure of the
universe and the place of their world within it; humankind has always been searching for
the origins of the universe and of itself. It is the mind’s calling to be about the unraveling
of the great cosmic Mandala. It is the need we have to resolve these questions of our
place in the great scheme of things that is basic to our every wandering. It is our thirst for
meaning in the seemingly chaotic that causes us to journey from the less-than-satisfying
here to the inviting but unknown there. Life is movement, from where we are now
toward somewhere new. To be alive is to be searching, to be inquiring. To be alive is to
be filled with curious thinking. The reverse implication, then, is that to be static, to be
content with where we are, to have ended the journey - this is to be dead.
But our religions and our Western culture have often failed to nurture our inborn
spirituality and our natural tendency to question, to seek the difficult answers. Not only
have Western cultures and religions unwittingly advanced the “God is dead” mentality,
they have managed to effectively dampen the human spirit of curious thinking.
Acceptance and conformity have become the hallmark of both religious and secular
education, hence, the hallmark of Western lives that have ceased exploring. You and I
are the products of Western religion, culture and education that have systematically
attempted to extinguish the burning inquisitiveness we were born with. You and I were
taught in public schools and in Sunday school to memorize and regurgitate without
The true prophets of the world’s great religions would have had none of all this.
Curious thinking was their hallmark. The Jewish and Christian sages and saints, the
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historical forerunners of my inherited faith, were always questioning that which was
currently accepted. The prophets, from Moses to Isaiah to Jesus, all exhorted the faithful
to question the conventional wisdom and to discard the false, following only the revealed
Truth. On this day I was among the faithful in that Parliament of the world’s diversity
who believed that knowledge and practice which proves to be false should be discarded,
and that which is discovered to be in harmony with reason, inquiry and experience should
be appropriated as new Truth by the discoverer.
I continue to believe that. Seizing upon Galileo as an example, I don’t want to be
satisfied with answers I have so far been given regarding my place in the universe. Like
Darwin, I should continually be striving to know why I have evolved into the person I am
today. Like the child I used to be, I should be asking why, why, why. My growth toward
full human adulthood can only come with questioning the adolescence I find myself in at
any given moment. I will never be mentally and spiritually mature if I accept where I
have been as my final destination in life. Living and growing requires an ever-expanding
vision which comes from eyes that are inquisitive and curious. When I don’t understand
why life is handing me a raw deal, I should be asking why. When I am fortunate enough
to have all I ever thought I wanted, and then am not really satisfied, I should be asking
why. When I see others suffering due to political or economic injustice, I should be
asking why. When politicians offer simple answers to immensely complicated problems,
I should be asking why. When I am feeling depressed or when the relationships in my
life seem shallow and meaningless, I should be asking why. When I am laboring day
after day in endeavors that don’t challenge my talents and gifts, I should be asking why.
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When God seems absent in my day to day living, I should be asking why. When God
suddenly and mysteriously acts in my life, I should certainly be asking why.
And so it was that my curious nature and my insatiable spirit had brought me to
the historic Parliament of the World’s Religions. All the truths of the world’s religions
are contained in the stories they tell. So it was no surprise that this Parliament of the
World’s Religions became a time for sharing of each other’s stories. One of the stories I
heard was especially poignant as I explored the smorgasbord of religions that was shared
during this ecumenical event, while also struggling with questions about my own
As we sat on the lawn, awaiting the arrival of the keynote speaker, His Holiness
the Dalai Lama, an American student of Buddhism shared the story of an earlier public
teaching offered by the Dalai Lama in the south of India. He described a huge open-air
arena where monks and nuns from throughout Asia, together with thousands of lay
Buddhists, had gathered on the lawn. To their side sat another crowd: a fairly large group
of Americans and Europeans who had converted to the Buddhist faith and who were now
monks and nuns themselves. Heads shaved and clothed in the saffron and crimson robes
of the Tibetan monastic, they too eagerly awaited the arrival of His Holiness, the most
venerated figure in all Buddhism.
When the Dalai Lama entered that Indian arena, an awesome silence swept over
the crowd. There was not a sound to be heard as his incense-carrying attendants led him
to the platform where his raised throne had been prepared. The air was filled with a
gentle, fragrant smoke and a deep spirit of reverence.
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His Holiness stood facing the throng of Buddhist faithful. He then surprised
everyone by walking over to the monks and nuns and greeting them, some with a
handshake, most with a smile or a disarming wink of his eye. Then he offered the same
informal greeting to the lay men and women who had crowded in. Finally he took a few
steps toward the Westerners.
The American and European monks and nuns, some of whom had traveled
thousands of miles to be in this place at this exact moment, each straightened his or her
spine, sitting perfectly erect, legs crossed and hands positioned in a prayerful gesture of
respect. Each was secretly hoping to be recognized by His Holiness as the epitome of
The Dalai Lama greeted them all right, but not in the manner they were expecting.
As their idol surveyed this collection of former Jews, Catholics, Protestants and atheists,
he began to speak.
“Why are you wearing those silly robes?”
There was not a sound from the crowd as he continued, “We Tibetan Buddhists
wear these robes only because of an accident of geography and birth. It’s our historical
custom. We inherited the tradition. We are supposed to dress like this, but you - you
look silly!” He chuckled with his inimitable childlike laugh.
Then he asked the most incredible question: “What’s wrong with your religion?”
Again his question was greeted with stunned silence. He continued, “Would you
all like to be good Buddhists? Yes? Then why don’t you do this: go back to your
country, get a job and practice being compassionate. Your own faith has plenty of
teachings that can help you with compassion. Do that, and you will be good Buddhists.”
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One can only imagine the interior reaction of that stunned group of westerners. A
once-in-a-lifetime encounter with the world’s foremost spiritual leader, and he pulls the
rug out from under them.
While I was not a part of that Indian crowd of western mendicants in the story,
His Holiness’ piercing question hit home that afternoon in Chicago. What is wrong with
my religion? It’s a rhetorical question, of course, and it implies that perhaps there is
nothing wrong with your and my Western religion. The Dalai Lama was in fact
suggesting that his listeners would do well to return to their faith, that their tradition
already held all the answers. Yet here in this little story, and on the lawn here at the
Parliament of the World’s Religions as well, were converts from some Western religion
which, for now at least, seemed to be wrong for them. Somehow their religious
inheritance had been insufficient, unable to answer the questions they were wrestling
with at the moment.
The Dalai Lama was not suggesting that westerners were not invited to become
Buddhists. Quite the contrary is the reality. Many truly spiritual westerners have found
in Buddhism the religious answers they were seeking, and have joined Tibetan
monasteries and nunneries. Some of the most helpful Buddhist teaching I would later
receive in Dharamsala would come from the compassionate western Buddhist monks and
nuns I came to know there.
The Dalai Lama was suggesting, however, that I don’t have to become a
Buddhist, or even a Christian, Jew, Hindu or Moslem. I don’t have to become a member
of any organized religious group; I don’t need any labels, new or old. What I do need to
become is fully human. What I need to become is liberated from all that is holding me
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back from being fully human. What I need is to live my life in accordance with the
wisdom of all the world’s great religions, Buddhism included. This was the Dalai
Lama’s argument that day in India. This had been the Buddha’s teaching two thousand
Has our religion failed us? As a minister of the Church, my response may
surprise you. Yes! Yes, institutional religion in the West has failed many of us. That’s
part of the reason some of us find ourselves on a quest for something more.
I am troubled by the institutions of religion that seem more concerned with their
self-preservation than with the spiritual needs of real people. Men and women have
burning questions about the purpose of life and death, about the pain and suffering that
are constant companions to them; they want to know why a loving God seems at times
too distant; in a troubled world they wonder if their life can make a difference. As an
ordained leader within the institutional Church, I struggle with the same concerns, and
then feel embarrassed when the Church responds by creating a new committee,
establishing another social service program, or remodeling the church kitchen and hosting
more potluck dinners.
Like many others I have encountered in my ministry, I want to grow in my
spirituality and humanity. We are asking heartfelt questions and all too often are being
told to attend worship on Sunday and serve on the church council - become involved. I
want to feel that I am part of a spiritual community that, like me, is asking questions of
itself, not merely reacting to a rapidly changing world with the litany, “We’ve always
done it this way.” As a vehicle for the transformation I seek, my religion has all too often
left me wanting.
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For many of us, the religion we received from our parents has been insufficient,
but has it been wrong? Is there something wrong with our religion? Ah, now that’s
another question, and here I offer a qualified “No.” If we mean by that question is there
something inherently wrong with the historical teaching of our faith, the answer is no.
The wisdom and Truth are there. But if, on the other hand, we are asking about the
priestly function of organized religions, which is to interpret the teachings and to pass
them on, then yes, organized religion has all too often been a failure in the West. There
is something wrong. Western religion is our culture’s repository of wisdom and Truth,
but all too often the gatekeepers of our traditions have kept their treasure hidden away
like a miser’s hoard. My discovery and my quandary has been that the religions of the
West have repeatedly been guilty of providing time-honored - but not timely - answers to
questions that today’s seekers were not, in fact, asking, then rebuking those who were
asking for more.
Those were among my concerns on this final afternoon of the Parliament, which
was to be a celebration of all that had happened during one whirlwind week of
interreligious and inter-cultural sharing. On this warm late summer’s day, the Parliament
was culminating with a joyous and prayerful celebration, with the Nobel Peace Prize
laureate, His Holiness the Dalai Lama of Tibet, delivering the keynote homily. Blankets
and picnic baskets had been laid out on the lawn of Grant Park and thousands were
gathering in a sort of religious Woodstock to hear Arlo Guthrie sing songs of a bygone
era, and to bask in the warmth that had been created by the coming together of such a
vast collection of spiritual folk from every walk of life throughout the world. The
divisions between souls, which religion has often been guilty of creating, had somehow
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been suspended for one incredible week, and this was the time to mark that with prayer
and alleluias and a ritual of true communion.
Waiting in the summer sun for the ceremonies to begin, my wife and I had spread
out our blanket and enjoyed a picnic lunch. As the crowd grew, one couldn’t help
noticing the peace and joy that pervaded this makeshift holy place. Among those arriving
were a busload of Tibetan refugees, expatriates living in Madison, Wisconsin, under the
auspices of the Tibetan Resettlement Program. This initiative of the American
government had allowed one thousand Tibetan refugees to enter the United States as
immigrants and to live and work here. One day soon their families would be allowed to
join them as well. Each Tibetan was assisted by host sponsors in selected cities across
America. This particular group had journeyed from Madison with their sponsors to hear
their revered spiritual leader address the followers of all the world’s religions and to catch
a glimpse of the Dalai Lama himself.
A small group of these excited Tibetans spotted our only partially occupied
blanket and asked - mostly with gestures - if they might share our space. We were
pleased to have them join us. What better way to listen to His Holiness than in the
company of eager Tibetans.
That day I was struck by the smiles. The Tibetans never stopped smiling. These
righteous people, these people who for no reason had been stripped of their land and
possessions, forced to trek over the Himalayas to shelter and who now found themselves
displaced in America, these folks never stopped laughing or at least smiling. In an
instant, we felt as though we were among friends, our new Tibetan friends, our laughing,
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smiling, Tibetan friends. And when the Dalai Lama arrived at the pulpit, he was smiling,
he was laughing. There was joy on every wide-eyed, cherubic Tibetan face that day.
There was also a sacramental electricity in the air as His Holiness stepped to the
podium and began to speak with a gentle smile in his heart.
“Nowadays the world is becoming increasingly materialistic, driven by an
insatiable desire for power and possessions. Yet in this vain striving, we wander ever
farther from inward peace and mental happiness. Despite our pleasant material
surroundings many of us today experience mental dissatisfaction, fear, anxiety, and a
sense of insecurity. There is some kind of vacuum within the human mind. What I think
we lack is a proper sense of spirituality.”
I knew I wanted to cultivate a greater sense of spirituality. I listened with my new
Tibetan friends as he continued, “The purpose of religion is not merely to build beautiful
places of worship, but to cultivate positive human qualities of tolerance, generosity, and
love. Whenever we pursue noble goals, obstacles and difficulties are bound to occur. As
human beings, we may lose hope. But there is nothing to be gained from
discouragement; our determination must be very firm. According to my meager
experience, we can change. We can transform ourselves. Therefore, if we all were to
spend a few minutes every day, thinking about these things and trying to develop
compassion, eventually compassion will become part of our lives. Generally speaking,
religion in the real sense has to do with a positive mind. A positive mind is what
ultimately brings us benefit or happiness. The essence of religion is therefore the means
by which these things are generated.”
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In the company of strangers who had become friends, in the sanctuary of that time
and place, in the hearing of this simple monk’s teaching, I resolved to experience more of
this clear and gentle wisdom. And as fate would have it, the anxiety I was experiencing
over my inherited faith and my place in it, and the curiosity that led me to this hearing of
the words of the Dalai Lama, would soon be conjoined with a unique opportunity to enter
a rich new path on my spiritual journey.
When we compare two ancient spiritual traditions like Buddhism
and Christianity, what we see is a striking similarity between the
narratives of the founding masters . . . In both the lives of Jesus Christ and
the Buddha, it is only through hardship, dedication, and commitment and
by standing firm on one’s principles that one can grow spiritually and
- His Holiness the Dalai Lama
At any given point in the Mandala that is our life’s story, we are where we have
been, and we are becoming where we are going. We are at once the I Am of our past and
the I Am of our future. There is little distinction between our good-byes and our hellos;
between our letting go and our venturing forth.
“You must go,” Father Bastianni was telling me now, “not to discover
Buddhism...but to discover your own spirituality.”
For a few years now, it had become my custom to escape the cold of the Chicago
winter and retreat to the south of France just after the Christmas holidays each year to
join my wife’s family for vacation. This year, one of my first destinations was a return
visit to the medieval church and parish home of the Reverend Doctor Raphael Sanzio
Bastianni. During each of my previous visits this aging Catholic priest and long-time
friend of my wife’s family had been gently but persuasively urging me to make a
pilgrimage to Dharamsala. It was in this same country church - with its ancient walls
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displaying figures of the Buddha alongside images of Christ, its stone fireplace hung with
garlic braids and dented copper skillets, and its windows open to a view of the golden
sunflower fields in the farming valley below - that I first heard the stories of Father
Bastianni’s “other ministry” with the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan refugee community.
He had been a medical doctor many years ago, before following his call to the
priesthood. In the nineteen-sixties, he had traveled to Dharamsala, then the new home of
the Dalai Lama who had recently fled to north India to escape the onslaught of the
Chinese communist army into his native Tibet. Father Raphael had asked His Holiness if
he might conduct research among the monks into the long-term effects of meditation on
the hypothalamus of the brain. After a year of conducting his research among the Tibetan
monastics, Father Raphael spoke with His Holiness and asked what he might be able to
do for the Tibetan community to repay their warm hospitality during his stay. The Dalai
Lama did not hesitate, and suggested that the new Tibetan Children’s Village, a home and
school for orphaned Tibetan children, was in need of a medical clinic. Reverend Doctor
Bastianni returned to France, raised the funds and recruited the personnel, then returned
to Dharamsala the following year to establish the clinic. The kindly priest-doctor
continued to return to Dharamsala for a major portion of each year thereafter to staff the
clinic himself. Over the years this pious Catholic cleric had become enamored with the
wisdom and practice of his Buddhist hosts, and had discovered the empowering affinity
between Buddhism and Christianity. It was this discovery that he was encouraging me to
experience for myself.
I had been yearning to make this pilgrimage, particularly since that day in
Chicago when I first heard the Dalai Lama speak, but I felt somehow inadequate. I
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reminded the good doctor that I had no medical skills to offer the refugees, and that in
Hindu India these Tibetan Buddhists probably had no need of a Christian preacher! He
replied simply, “They will find ways for you to help...and they will share their homes and
their wisdom with you.” In the past, I had been able to claim other commitments and
responsibilities that kept me from responding to this ever-clearer call to embark on my
journey of discovery. This time, however, there were no excuses. My interim
responsibilities with my Chicago parish were concluding, and I had accepted no new
church assignment. Seemingly before I could make the decision myself, Father Raphael
had contacted the office of His Holiness and the abbots of the monasteries of
Dharamsala, and they were warmly indicating their readiness to welcome me.
Each new beginning starts with farewell. It was with a mix of sadness and
trepidation that I was bidding farewell to the comfort and security of the familiar to
venture forth toward the unknown. As pastor of a local church, my role provided a fairly
clear definition of identity and purpose. Even though I questioned the spiritual vigor of
the contemporary church and its capacity to lift me to another level in my spiritual
growth, the uncertainty of the change that lay ahead was disquieting
Nonetheless, it was with more anticipation than apprehension that I said my good-
byes and packed my bags.
The first stop was Paris, then non-stop to New Delhi. Our flight plan took us
toward Switzerland, then over the northern edge of Italy and past Sarajevo (where I
imagined someone was shooting at his neighbor down there), over Bulgaria to Turkey.
Most of the flight was above clouds, but at Istanbul we could clearly see the Bosporus
Straight, just as I had drawn on a map in some long-ago geography class. From there it
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was over Iraq and across Iran (where I was briefly wondering if someone might be
shooting at us), into Afghanistan and Pakistan toward north India. I had left Paris in the
early morning and would arrive in New Delhi in the dark of night.
Since clouds obscured most of the view out the window, I used the time to begin
my inquiry into Buddhism. I had made a conscious decision early on not to read too
much about Buddhism before arriving in Dharamsala, as I wanted to experience it, not
study it in the academic sense. But I was well aware that any understanding of Buddhism
must begin with an introduction to the life of the Buddha, and, since his life pre-dated
that of Christ, and I would only be able to experience him through second-hand sources
anyway, I opened the first of several books that would guide my exploration and
discovery of Buddhism. I will share with you that elementary introduction to Gautama
Siddhartha, since it colored my initial experience of India, even as I stepped off the jet-
way into the smells, the noise, the heat and humidity, and the people - all the people - of
this amazing land.
It was Joseph Campbell, in his Power of Myth, who had initially led me to
examine the life of the Buddha. He wrote, “Read myths. Read other people’s myths, not
those of your own religion, because you tend to interpret your own religion in terms of
facts - but if you read the other ones, you begin to get the message. Myth helps you to
put your mind in touch with the experience of being alive.” He was saying, in effect, that
we don’t study Buddhism to learn about Buddhism, per se; we study Buddhism to learn
about ourselves. As my magic carpet winged its way toward India, I was beginning my
inner journey toward a deeper understanding of myself, and I was doing so by looking at
this person we call the Buddha in an effort to discover how his life might also be my life.
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I opened Thomas Merton’s Asian Journal, and read his entry, written years earlier
in the airplane that was taking him to the East, where he wrote, “I am going home, to the
home where I have never been in this body.” It was his Journal that had suggested I read
Christmas Humphrey’s Buddhism, among others, as an introduction to the life of the
Knowledge of the facts of the Buddha’s life are sketchy, at best, and like the
Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life or the scriptural record of Moses and others in the Jewish
texts, the legends have become larger than life. The received tradition of the lives of the
saints, of Jesus, Moses and the Buddha has entered the realm of myth. But the myths of
our world are the basis for our structuring of our lives, so they are of monumental
importance. Each of us has already incorporated guiding myths - stories from our culture
and stories from our own experience - into a framework by which we live. As I glanced
out the window toward Asia to the East, I knew intuitively there was room to add another
myth to my life’s mosaic: the myth that is the story of Gautama Siddhartha, the Buddha.
His life is a story; a story with birth, happiness and pain, old age, and finally
death; a story like many that preceded and that have followed. Everyone has a story. In
fact, it is largely our stories that define who we are. When someone says, “Tell me about
yourself,” we can’t really describe our self, so we tell a part of our story, a part of who we
are. When we look at the wisdom of the world’s great thinkers, it is always best to start
with a look at their life story. The philosophers, the movers and shakers, the sages of our
culture have all pondered and written from the depths of their own personal stories. Who
they really are is revealed not only in their writings and thoughts, but in their stories.
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Among the stories contained in the traditions of the world’s great religions, that of
the Buddha is particularly intriguing. Gautama Siddhartha is perhaps the only founder of
a religion, if we can rightly call him a founder, who is not portrayed by his followers as a
God-figure. The Buddha was just an ordinary human being, like you and like me. In
Judaism, Moses and the prophets spoke on behalf of God. In Christianity, Jesus was God
incarnate. Buddha, on the other hand, was just an ordinary seeker, troubled with
questions and finally discovering some answers. His journey of birth, adolescence,
questioning, seeking and discovery is one that begins to look surprisingly similar to my
When we were taught the story of Adam and Eve or of Noah and the Ark in
Sunday school or synagogue, it was not because these were merely fun stories that our
ancestors wanted to share with us. These stories of the faith were mytho-poetic
explanations of our relationship with the creator God and with everyone around us in that
creation. These stories, and all others in scripture, were templates for living, examples
that allowed us to participate alongside all who have come before us in the journey of
life. Moses’ story of being called, of hesitating, of journeying in the wilderness - this is
my story, your story. The disciples’ stories of simple lives being transformed by their
encounter with God incarnate - these are our stories. When Cain and Able live out their
sibling rivalry, we find their story in our own family history. When Job struggles with
the seeming unfairness of life’s troubles, we struggle with him, because his quandary is
our quandary. His story is our story. When Jesus is finally crucified for his beliefs, we
are hanging in there with him because we, too, have found ourselves being crucified for
our differences with others around us. And when Christ rises to new life, we are given
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hope that we, too, will have a new tomorrow following some of the deaths we face in life,
because we realize at some deep spiritual level that his story is our story.
Stories don’t have to be from scripture in order to become guiding myths for us.
The stories of our grandparents, the ones who came to a new land in search of something
better, can be driving forces in our lives. Even a favorite sports figure or the hero in a
classic novel can become for us a pattern for life when we discover ourselves in their
story. C. S. Lewis, the Christian writer, is quoted as having said, “We read to know we
are not alone.” By reading he meant reading other’s stories, and he knew the importance
of discovering from our reading that we are not alone in our birth and life, in our pain and
joy, and in our old age and death. C. S. Lewis knew that the journey of life is both easier
and richer once we discover that we are on a road that has been traveled, and is being
traveled even today, by fellow pilgrims, companions on the way who share with us the
same questions and struggles, the same joys and concerns we have. When we are truly
fortunate we discover that some of our traveling companions have found answers,
answers to the same questions we are asking, answers that help us find direction in our
own journey. That was my hope as the 747 brought me closer to the footpaths of
The Buddha has walked these paths before us. If we look at his story in the same
way we might have first looked at Moses’ story, or hear it in the same way we first heard
our grandparent’s story, we may find a little of ourselves in it. If we do, then some of the
Buddha’s answers may become answers for our lives. As the proud monks and eager
teachers of Dharamsala would soon share with me their legends of the Buddha, I would
come to discover that my story was not at all unlike that of the young Siddhartha: an
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ordinary person who doesn’t have all the answers to questions about the meaning of life
and his place in the great scheme of things. I still don’t have all the answers, I’m still just
an ordinary seeker, but I can tell a story. Sit with me as I try to piece together the myth,
the legend, the story, if you will, that is both universal and at the same time specifically
that of the Buddha.
As we look at this story, keep in mind that the term “Buddha” is an honorary title
given to a real person, Gautama Siddhartha. The title was known to the people of India
long before Siddhartha was born. The term “Buddha” literally means “enlightened” or
“mentally awakened.” This title has come to be synonymous with Gautama Siddhartha,
the Buddha, so to speak, but actually anyone who achieves enlightenment becomes a
Buddha, and each of us can develop our own Buddha nature according to the Buddha’s
teaching. This honorary title is not unlike the title of Christ, which means “anointed” or
“sent by God,” and which was given to the person, Jesus of Nazareth. The same
honorary name changing occurs often in the Jewish scripture, for example when Jacob
was given the name “Israel.” When Simon Peter proclaims in the Gospel of Matthew,
“You are the Christ,” he is echoing the first of Gautama’s disciples who proclaimed
Siddhartha to be enlightened, to be the Buddha.
The term Buddha also points us toward our first understanding of this eastern
philosophy. In the teachings of the Buddha, enlightenment is of paramount importance.
The Buddha attains enlightenment as he passes from this life. Enlightenment is his
“liberation.” It is the Buddhist view of perfection, of liberating Truth, that one starts with
humanity in ignorance and progresses toward full humanity enlightened. That is
liberation. In the Jewish and Christian approaches, however, perfection starts with
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humanity and progresses toward God. Perfection, according to both the Jewish and
Christian traditions, comes with a right relationship with God. I would learn that the
humanity-centered approach of Buddhism is only the first of several ways in which the
philosophy of the Buddha differs from the teachings of the western faiths, and it is an
important difference which I shall examine on my journey.
A look at the life story of Gautama Siddhartha may help us to understand, from
the outset, the reason for this different approach to the ordering of things. In a country
that historically had worshiped myriad Gods, Buddha finds his answers in other sources.
The Gods of his forefathers and mothers no longer sufficed as his own Gods. Why?
What was there about Siddhartha’s family life, about his early attempts at living life
according to the norm, about his successes and failures, about his questioning that
ultimately led him to new answers? These are the questions I tried to keep in mind as I
looked at the life, at the story, of the Buddha. How is the Buddha nature in him? How is
the Buddha’s nature in you and in me?
The birth legends of the Buddha are filled with mythic embellishments, just as are
the birth narratives of Moses and Jesus. Gautama Siddhartha was born while his mother
was on a journey. She was traveling from Kapilavatsu to her parental home in Devadaha.
(I couldn’t fail to notice the parallel with each went to be registered, everyone to his own
city, out of the city of Nazareth into Judea, to the city of David.) In India it is common
for a woman to go to her mother’s home for the delivery of her first child. According to a
virgin-birth legend, Gautama came into the world from the side of his mother, without
causing her any pain, while she was holding a branch of the sal tree under which she lay.
This was in the park of Lumbini, in what is now Nepal, and which is today an important
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pilgrimage destination for the Buddhist faithful. Gautama’s mother, the princess
Mahamaya, died seven days later, and Siddhartha was raised by his mother’s sister.
His father was a chief, or king in some traditions, and Gautama was raised and
educated as a nobleman. He was Prince of the Shakyas, hence his reference in Tibetan
Buddhism as Buddha Shakyamuni. As is the custom in India, he entered into an arranged
marriage - to another princess - at the age of sixteen, and she bore a son.
Gautama’s father had lofty plans for his first-born son: he wanted the young
Siddhartha to have a glamorous political career, not unlike his dad’s. To encourage his
development on the right track, his father was what we would today label “over-
protective.” He tried to provide his son with all the luxuries of life and to take special
precautions to keep the miseries of life from his son’s inquiring eyes. But, as the Buddha
would later teach, reality can never escape the person who is mindful and alert.
The story tells us that, in spite of his father’s efforts to keep all knowledge of
worldly woes from his eyes, the young prince, venturing forth from the palace one day,
saw an old man, and then a sick man, and then a dead man being carried to his funeral
pyre. At the sight of each he asked his charioteer the meaning of what he saw. “This
comes to all men,” said the charioteer, and the Prince’s mind was troubled that such
would be the effect of birth. Then he saw a recluse, a monk with shaven head and a
tattered saffron robe. “What man is this?” he asked, and was told it was one who had
gone forth into the homeless life of an ascetic. Gautama was struck by the calm and
serene face of this mendicant holy man. For the Buddha, these visions were of three
facets of the sorrowfulness of humanity, and the other a vision of release from that
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This startling discovery of the impermanent nature of life, and the subsequent
folly of being attracted by transitory values, led Gautama to renounce the world and
become an ascetic himself. He was twenty-nine years of age when he left behind his wife
A western Christian or Jewish reader of twenty-nine might well be shocked at the
idea of a married person leaving his wife and child behind to enter the monastic life. I
could relate a little with this as I had entered seminary at the age of thirty-nine, and
coincidentally ended my first marriage shortly thereafter, but it still struck me as radical
for a prince to walk out on his family to join a monastery. I would soon learn, however,
that leaving home for the practice of asceticism, after a period of marriage, was an
approved form of behavior in Hindu society. According to the Hindu ideal, a person
aspiring to perfection had to organize his life in a certain gradation. He first had to be a
celibate student (a vanishing breed in the West!), then a married man, and finally either
an ascetic or a hermit. According to that commonly accepted tradition, Gautama’s
behavior was not at all abnormal.
Actually, Gautama did not at first join a monastery or become a Hindu ascetic.
He first placed himself under the guidance of two well-known yogi teachers of the time
and trained in yoga and meditation. While meditation would later become a very
important part of the Buddhist life, Gautama at this time was soon disillusioned with
meditative trances that seemed to be entered into only for the sake of meditation itself.
For Gautama, the right type of meditation had to lead an individual not just to an
ephemeral experience but to an insight into the deeper realities of life.
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So he abandoned yoga and joined an ashram as a true ascetic, practicing the
strictest forms of self-mortification and self-torture and fasting. It was not long before he
realized the utter futility of such mortification to achieve the liberation he was seeking.
He soon saw that what is required for self-liberation is not self-mortification but self-
discipline or self-mastery. As soon as he discovered that pure asceticism could not give
the deeper form of mental liberation he sought, he left the ashram and began to pursue
his search by himself.
Gautama’s rejection of rigorous asceticism led him to advocate a “middle path,”
somewhere in-between the harmful extremes of penitential torture and material self-
Well known in the legend is the story that Gautama then reflected in solitude
under the shade of the Bodhi tree and meditated on his past life and on the sorrowful state
of the lives of others. He sought in his mind the reasons that kept men and women in an
unliberated state and there he discovered the real nature of human suffering, the cause of
it, the possibility of escape from it, and the path for such an escape. It is this discovery -
or awakening - that is referred to as enlightenment, which for the Buddha meant seeing
the reality of human suffering and the possibility of human joy in a way that he had never
seen before. We Christians would express this experience in language familiar to us as
revelation, but for Gautama it was something that arose in him by itself as a direct result
of his own concentration.
I was awakened from my own concentration by an announcement from the cabin
speakers that we were beginning our approach into New Delhi, and a glance out the
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window revealed the snow-capped Himalayan range bathed in the light of the nearly full
moon. My journey toward some form of enlightenment was nearly at hand.
As soon as I stepped off the plane and into the terminal it was clear I was in
another world. As I alluded to earlier, the faces and clothing of the crowds of people, the
intense smells, the babble of a hundred languages, the heat and the thick humidity strike
you as soon as you leave the modern jet-way and immediately plunge into ancient India.
As my senses were bombarded by the sights and sounds and colors and smells and heat, I
thought to myself, “This is the land and the culture that has given birth to the Buddha,
that has seen the change brought about by Gandhi, and that is now going to give birth to
change in me.”
Outside the airport I was mobbed by cabbies and negotiated with the most
aggressive one for a ride to the central bus station, then squeezed my over-weight bags
into the little taxi. It was about two in the morning, yet even in the darkness the sights of
crowded Delhi were amazing as the driver weaved his way through left-hand traffic like a
madman, avoiding bicycles, mopeds, and cattle along the route.
In the bus station I had my first taste of the real India: lepers hobbling alongside
me on their stumps of limbs, begging for a few rupees; all manner of food cooking in
open-air stalls; sacred cows walking freely in and out, and every vendor and bus
conductor yelling over the other. I still don’t know exactly how I found the right bus
after waiting for several hours in this amazing bazaar. At 6:00 a.m. I boarded a bus that
looked like something straight out of a National Geographic photo, and watched in fear
as a porter loaded my bags onto the roof of the bus, carrying them on his head! I died a
thousand deaths as my computer and other worldly possessions tottered precariously up
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the ladder to the top of the rickety “Greyhound.” The bus ride lasted fourteen hours,
from before sunrise ‘til after sunset. I saw a lifetime of sights in just that one journey
alone. Birds of every description: egrets, herons, turkey vultures, hawks and eagles, even
flocks of green and red parrots. There were water buffalo and oxen; carts filled with
cargo larger than seemed possible pulled by horses, mules and oxen, all vying for the
same space on the narrow road as our bouncing bus. Taxis, rickshaws, livestock, wildly
decorated busses and cargo trucks all managed to turn a two-lane road into a ballet of one
passing the other, every moment punctuated with the sounds of horns honking.
The flat expanse of India seems to extend forever. We passed by rice paddies and
tea plantations and through small cities and villages with cow dung drying in front of
huts. Garbage and flowering crops were seemingly strewn together along the roadside.
The smell of India is nearly overpowering for the newly arrived. Sewage and jasmine,
incense and perfume, rotting garbage and decaying bodies, exhaust and curry - all of
these at one time takes some getting used to.
And then there are the people - everywhere, people. People in the streets, people
on top of buildings, people sleeping along the road, people working in the fields. You
can’t look for a moment in any direction without seeing people in the picture, people in
places where my western eyes said they didn’t belong. Suddenly I felt a little like the
young Siddhartha, away from my overly protective home for the first time. While I knew
of disease, old age and death, of course, and I had traveled outside the U. S. before, I was
struck with the poverty and the sprawling humanity that spread out before my eyes. As I
gazed out the dusty window of my dilapidated chariot, I watched an elderly weather-worn
Indian woman struggling with a wooden plow as it turned over the parched soil behind a
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weak old ox whose ribs were clearly visible through his meager flesh. I silently heard
Gautama’s charioteer whisper in my ear, “This comes to all men,” and I realized that
what I was seeing before me was the norm in the world. With more than half the world’s
humanity living in China, India, Africa, this is what comes to most men and women, and
today I was venturing out of the sugar-coated protectionprovided by the princes of
America with whom I had been living as one of the privileged few in the industrial West.
As I pondered the suffering in the world that I was seeing illustrated on those dry,
flat river beds of India, the landscape and foliage began to change rapidly as we climbed
gently from the plains to the lower plateau, and even more dramatically as we approached
the foothills of the Himalayas. Soon we were surrounded by forests of evergreen and
rhododendron trees as the winding road up the hills caused some in the crowded bus to
suffer the discomfort of motion sickness. Not I, fortunately, even in spite of the spicy,
intriguing food I ate during lunch stops at amazingly primitive roadside eateries along the
way: rice, dal, curry and masala, and the ubiquitous flat bread chapatti.
It was dark when I arrived in Dharamsala at about eight, and again Sherpa porters
toted my bags on their heads, this time up a steep hill to the first cheap hotel I could find.
Collapsing onto the hard bed, I quickly fell asleep.
The brilliant sun awakened me early the next morning, and I stepped out onto a
small balcony overlooking the already bustling marketplace. I was immediately
confronted by a magnificent view of the Himalayas, a sheer wall of the most incredible
snow-covered mountains I have ever seen, appearing to be thrusting themselves still
higher into the deep blue sky. It was breathtaking. Then I was startled by the chatter of
some company on the terrace. Monkeys! They were apparently hoping to share a little
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breakfast with me. From my hillside perch I surveyed this exotic village that would
become my new home, vaguely aware of the deep throbbing of temple horns across the
valley calling the monks to prayer. I had left behind the walls of my isolated kingdom,
and I silently wondered what I would discover as I explored the colorful sands of the new
Mandala I had entered.
Perhaps you, too, find yourself looking out over the landscape that is your future
and pondering which questions and whose answers may ultimately chart the turning
points of your own Mandala journey. In the pages that follow, I will share with you my
discoveries of the affinity between Buddhist wisdom and the truths of my inherited faith
tradition, and how a new Eastern understanding has illuminated my Western spiritual
path. With the help of the words of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the grains of sand
which form the collage of Buddhist teachings will be gently placed alongside each other
until a new and possibly liberating Mandala begins to take form.
The Four Noble Truths
The teachings on the Four Noble Truths clearly distinguish two
sets of causes and effects: those causes which produce suffering, and those
which produce happiness. By showing us how to distinguish these in our
own lives, the teachings aim at nothing less than to enable us to fulfill our
deepest aspiration - to be happy and to overcome suffering.
- His Holiness the Dalai Lama
“Emptiness. Learn all you can about emptiness.”
I had asked the Dalai Lama a simple question: As a Christian, seeking to
understand Buddhist wisdom and practice, where should I start? What would be the most
important concepts to grasp in order to comprehend Buddhism? His answer had been
equally simple: Emptiness. Learn all you can about emptiness.
Father Bastianni had graciously arranged for me to have the honor of an audience
with His Holiness shortly after my arrival in Dharamsala. I was led into his office by
Tenzin Geyche Tethong, his personal Secretary, and was immediately overwhelmed as I
was greeted with a radiant, gentle smile by this living saint. My initial nervousness at
meeting such a renowned spiritual leader was quickly assuaged by his self-effacing,
almost casual manner, and by the genuine interest with which he approached our wide-
ranging conversation. Little did I know then that this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity
would, in fact, be the beginning of a lasting friendship, and that I would be blessed with
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several wonderful opportunities to share intriguing conversation with His Holiness again.
And I would have more than one occasion to remind him of his challenge to pursue an
understanding of emptiness, a challenge I accepted that spring day in a meeting which
often seems so long ago, but which has had such a lasting impact on my life that it is
fondly remembered as though it were yesterday.
During the intervening years, I have attempted to follow His Holiness’ advice,
and have discovered the depth of the ironic humor of this fourteenth reincarnation of the
Dalai Lama. In suggesting I learn everything I could about emptiness, His Holiness knew
all along that in so doing I would have to plumb the depth and breadth of Buddhist
wisdom and practice itself. His answer had been more like a trick question than any real
answer at all. It was similar to many Buddhist stories that are told of a student asking the
master a weighty question only to receive a puzzling challenge in response. The
knowledge of emptiness, I would discover, is not the starting point for the journey, but in
fact the destination. In seeking this center of Buddhist understanding, one must enter the
maze of the Mandala from the gates at the perimeter. One must begin by grasping the
outer petals of the lotus before they can be peeled away to expose the bare core that is the
life-giving heart of the flower.
I will share with you my journey of discovery, beginning with the beginning.
The path to the heart of the Buddha’s teaching has as its road map the Four Noble
Truths. Just as one can get to the heart of Christ’s message by examining his first public
teaching – Jesus’ beautiful Sermon on the Mount - one can find the framework of all
Buddhist wisdom and teaching in Siddhartha’s first public discourse, his First Sermon.
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I have read the First Sermon, and I have heard it taught by monks and high lamas,
and I have even taught it to students myself. I can no longer recall exactly how and when
I first heard the deceptively simple logic of these profound Truths, but I know they have
remained for me the starting point and the outline for all my subsequent discovery of
Buddhist wisdom and practice.
Simply stated, the Four Noble Truths are the truth of suffering, the truth of the
origin of suffering, the truth of the cessation of suffering, and the truth of the path leading
to the cessation of suffering. Even more simply one can say that we are all suffering, our
suffering has causes, the causes can be eliminated, and there is a path of living that can
enable us to achieve that perfect liberation.
In public teachings, the Dalai Lama says, “The Four Noble Truths are the very
foundation of the Buddhist teaching, and that is why they are so important. Therefore I
am always very happy to have the opportunity to explain them.” For many, His Holiness
is the embodiment of Buddhist compassion and loving kindness, and the voice of
Buddhist wisdom, so I will allow his teaching to illuminate an understanding of this
important foundation of my new Mandala journey:
“The first of the Four Noble Truths is the Truth of Suffering, or duhkha.”
Actually, Gautama Buddha said “life is duhkha,” but the English language
doesn’t provide us with a neat, simple, one-word equivalent for the Pali word duhkha.
The suffering to which Gautama was referring is our internal suffering, the sorrow that
arises from real or imagined loss, such as the loss of a loved one or the unfulfillment of a
wish or desire. This sorrow is a constant companion to all of us on the journey of life,
Buddha argued. Life is sorrow-full.
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His Holiness continues: “What is duhkha? What is suffering? Buddhism
describes three levels or types of suffering. The first is called ‘the suffering of suffering,’
the second, ‘the suffering of change,’ and the third is, ‘the suffering of conditioning.’
“When we talk about the first type, the suffering of suffering, we are talking in
very conventional terms of experiences which we would all identify as suffering. These
experiences are painful. In Buddhism there are four main experiences of this type of
suffering which are considered to be fundamental to life: the sufferings of birth, sickness,
aging and death. The significance of recognizing these states as forms of suffering, and
the importance of this recognition as a catalyst of the spiritual quest, is very strongly
demonstrated in the Buddha’s own life story. According to the story, when he was the
young Prince Siddhartha, the Buddha is said to have caught sight of a sick person, an old
person, and a dead person being carried away. The impact of seeing this suffering
apparently led him to the realization that so long as he was not free of the infinite process
of birth, he would always be subject to these other three sufferings. Later, the sight of a
spiritual aspirant is supposed to have made the Buddha fully aware that there is a
possibility of freedom from this cycle of suffering.
“So in Buddhism there is an understanding that so long as we are subject to the
process of rebirth, all other forms of suffering are natural consequences of that initial
starting point. We could characterize our life as being within the cycle of birth and death,
and sandwiched in between these two, as it were, are the various sufferings related to
illness and aging.
“The second level of suffering, the suffering of change, refers to experiences we
ordinarily identify as pleasurable. However, in reality, as long as we are in an
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unenlightened state, all of our joyful experiences are tainted and ultimately bring
“Why does Buddhism claim that experiences which are apparently pleasurable are
ultimately states of suffering? The point is that we perceive them as states of pleasure or
joy only because, in comparison to painful experiences, they appear as a form of relief.
Their pleasurable status is only relative. If they were truly joyful states in themselves,
then just as painful experiences increase the more we indulge in the causes that lead to
pain, likewise, the more we engage in the causes that give rise to pleasurable experience,
our pleasure or joy should intensify; but this is not the case.
“On an everyday level, for example, when you have good food, nice clothes,
attractive jewelry and so on, for a short time you feel really marvelous. Not only do you
enjoy a feeling of satisfaction, but when you show your things to others, they share in it
too. But one day passes, one week passes, one month passes, and the very same object
that once gave you such pleasure might simply cause you frustration. That is the nature
of things - they change. The same applies also to fame. At the beginning you might
think to yourself, ‘Oh! I’m so happy! Now I have a good name, I’m famous!’ But after
some time, it could be that all you feel is frustration and dissatisfaction. The same sort of
change can happen in friendships and in sexual relationships. At the beginning you
almost go mad with passion, but later that very passion can turn to hatred and aggression,
and, in the worst cases, even lead to murder. So that is the nature of things. If you look
carefully, everything beautiful and good, everything that we consider desirable, brings us
suffering in the end.
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“Finally, we come to the third type of suffering, the suffering of conditioning.
This addresses the main question: why is this the nature of things? The answer is,
because everything that happens in samsara (the cycle of existence between life and
death) is due to ignorance. Under the influence or control of ignorance, there is no
possibility of a permanent state of happiness. Some kind of trouble, some kind of
problem, always arises. So long as we remain under the power of ignorance, that is, our
fundamental misapprehension or confusion about the nature of things, then sufferings
come one after another, like ripples on water.”
Here His Holiness is introducing three very important concepts in Buddhist
thought - ignorance, impermanence, and karma, or cause and effect. We ignorant human
beings don’t understand the true nature of reality, we don’t grasp fully the total
impermanence of every thing and every phenomenon, and we are subject to causes and
conditions from the past that affect us now and will affect us in the future. And this
“condition of things” is the root of our suffering, of our unhappiness, of our less than
Is life suffering? Is life really suffering and sorrow? This is a new way of asking
the same question every theologian has pondered at some time or another: What is the
human condition? For Buddha, the human condition is one of sorrowfulness. For
Christians and Jews the human condition has been, ever since Adam and Eve, our fall
from God’s grace due to our sinfulness. Adam and Eve grasped at the fruit of knowledge
of good and evil and, from that time on, humanity has been banished from the idyllic
Garden of Eden, suffering, if you will, from the wrath of God. Suffering. God says in
Genesis, “Because you have done this, cursed are you among all animals and among all
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wild creatures: upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your
life.” This was the Hebrew’s explanation for the suffering of the human life. It appears
they agreed with the Buddha. Humanity is cursed. All the days of our lives will be filled
with suffering. The author of Ecclesiastes put it this way: “For what has man for all his
labor, and for the striving of his heart with which he has toiled under the sun? For all his
days are sorrowful...”
For Buddhists, the “condition of things” is the less-than-satisfactory nature of life,
and it is our ignorance of the impermanent nature of reality, and the consequence of our
actions borne out of that ignorance that lead to our sorrow-full existence. The Dalai
Lama elaborates on this subtle level of the transient, impermanent nature of reality:
“There are two levels of meaning here. One can understand impermanence in
terms of how something arises, stays for a while, and then disappears. This level of
impermanence can be understood quite easily. However, there is a second, more subtle
understanding of transience. From this more subtle perspective, the obvious process of
change I have just described is merely the effect of deeper change. At the deeper level,
everything is changing from moment to moment, constantly. This process of momentary
change is not due to a secondary condition that arises to destroy something, but rather the
very cause that led a thing to arise is also the cause of its destruction. In other words,
within the cause of its origin lies the cause of its cessation.
“Momentariness should thus be understood in two ways. First, in terms of the
three moments of existence of any entity - in the first instant, it arises; in the second
instant, it stays; in the third instant, it dissolves. Second, in terms of each instant itself.
An instant is not static; as soon as it arises, it moves towards its own cessation.”
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His Holiness is speaking of the Mandala of all existence. It is born with the
painstaking application of the first and the second and the third grains of sand. It exists
long enough to contemplate and to assume a sense of identity, and then it is dissolved.
Inherent in the construction and in the contemplation is the knowledge of its eventual
destruction. The very act of creating sets in motion the process of change and ultimately
of loss. Our inability to understand this fully - our ignorance, if you will - sets the stage
for our inevitable suffering.
His Holiness says, “It is very important to understand the context of the Buddhist
emphasis on recognizing that we are in a state of suffering, otherwise there is a danger we
could misunderstand the Buddhist outlook, and think that it involves a rather morbid
thinking, a basic pessimism and almost an obsessiveness about the reality of suffering.
The reason why Buddha laid so much emphasis on developing insight into the nature of
suffering is because there is an alternative - there is a way out, it is actually possible to
free oneself from it. This is why it is so crucial to realize the nature of suffering, because
the stronger and deeper your insight into suffering is, the stronger your aspiration to gain
freedom from it becomes.”
The Dalai Lama often explains this with the analogy of a sick person: “In order
for a sick person to get well, the first step is that he or she must know that he is ill,
otherwise the desire to be cured will not arise. Once you have acknowledged that you are
sick, then naturally you will try to find out what led to it and what makes your condition
even worse. When you have identified these, you will gain an understanding of whether
or not the illness can be cured, and a wish to be free from the illness will arise in you. In
fact this is not just a mere wish, because once you have recognized the conditions that led