This past Sunday Molly and I attended the Interfaith Summit on Happiness at Emory University, part of the Dalai Lama’s annual visit to Emory and featuring in addition to His Holiness: The Most Reverend Dr. Katharine Jefferts Schori, the 26th Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church; Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth; and George Washington University Professor Seyyed Hossein Nasr. It was moderated by NPR host Krista Tippett.
It was a fantastic panel.
Once the video is released on YouTube , I’ll embed it here. :
His Holiness tends to speak in public panels like this more from the perspective of his humanist, personal philosophy than from a strictly Buddhist perspective. As he alluded to in the talk, he believes there are techniques, perspectives, and approaches from his tradition that are useful for everyone to consider, even and especially separately from considering Buddhism itself. He’s not a strong advocate of folks abandoning their own tradition to try to pick up Buddhism whole hog, or even piecemeal. He advocates holding on to your own culture and beliefs but thinking about incorporating what might be useful from the Buddhist approach into one’s way of approaching the world in general. When I met with him in Dharamsala almost 15 years ago, I was told that he recommends against Westerners taking part in the simple ritual where a visitor takes refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha through him, unless one insists.
I think this decision to focus on this particular way of looking at things in public talks is in part because there’d be so much to unpack in order to get an audience of 4,000 to a level playing field where you can meaningfully compare a particular branch of Buddhism (with its own particular cultural, intellectual, and philosophical underpinnings) and Judaism/Christianity/Islam. In part I also think it’s because the former is the helpful agenda he believes in advancing in this world. It’s also perhaps an application of Upaya, or skillful means, to carefully choose his words and explanations to match what would be most useful to a particular audience.
As luck would have it, we were seated next to two monks from Tibet. It always makes me a little happier just to be in the presence of those devoting their lives to advancement along the path – I really look up to them. And it’s also fun to experience the world through their eyes a little bit. One of my best friends when I lived in London for a year was a very accomplished Thai Buddhist monk named Tan Suvit who was experiencing European life for the first time, including attending academic classes on Buddhism from a Western perspective, experiencing his first celebrated birthday and seeing and touching snow for the first time. It was so much fun to see all of these simple things through different eyes.
With this blog entry from Susan Hellein still fresh in my mind, at the Interfaith Summit I kept one eye on the monks and one eye on the dialogue unfolding on stage. At one point as one of the speakers made a particularly insightful point, I noticed the monk to my right rummaging through his bookbag. He pulled out his notebook and layed it on his lap. He then started rummaging through his notebook again, and after what seemed like an inordinately long time, finally pulled out a nice fine point Sakura pigment pen. As he opened up his notebook to write, he started to laugh. Hard. I looked over and saw that there was already another pen sitting in the middle of his notebook, where he must have left it last he left off and forgotten about it. I started to chuckle as well. As he explained with a smile what had happened to the monk to his right, we made eye contact, and he repeated what he had said once in Tibetan and then in English – “it was there all along!” and we both laughed some more.