Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Tradition Speaks: The Dalai Lama On Interfaith Practice

About a week ago, I attended four dharma talks by the Dalai Lama. Immediately afterwards I went to a weekend retreat with a well-known Benedictine teacher.

Before I get into the topic of this post, let me say that both were illuminating. The combination applied directly to my personal journey and was very healing. No one will be surprised if I say that the Dalai Lama blew me away - in the very best sense of that term.

However, what I want to address here is a similar statement both teachers made about interfaith practice.

What I heard from the Dalai Lama was that switching from the tradition in which you were raised was dangerous. You would be prone to confusion. The concepts in Buddhism (or any other faith) grow out of cultural assumptions. Not raised in an Asian culture, a westerner following Buddhism could fail to understand the concepts. Confused by her misinterpretations, instead of gaining liberation, she would become mired in further illusion.

He didn't say not to switch, but that switching had a specific danger: confusion.

Of course, he also took the time to honor other paths. Final liberation from suffering only comes out of understanding, and experiencing the truth of, emptiness and no-self. But one from a tradition of faith (in a teacher or God), love or compassion, could cultivate those traits. And that is of great usefulness.

The Benedictine also spoke of not straying from an original tradition. Not surprisingly, she was a bit more dogmatic. For example, she told a woman who'd practiced Buddhism for awhile but returned to Catholicism that she'd been "lucky" to "escape unharmed." This teacher trotted out the ol' spiritual mountain metaphor, assuming that any interfaith practice was a cover for dalliance in the foothills - with leaps to a new path every time the previous one demanded hard work - and so meant no real spiritual growth.

My response (despite my admiration for the Benedictine teacher, and the whole world's admiration for the Dalai Lama - which he clearly earns as an exemplar of monastic practice, presence and humility): These are old paradigm views.

There is no place in this philosophy for people like me who were raised without religion or spiritual tradition of any kind.

There is no place in this philosophy for people like one of my best friends - a long time participant in Buddhist and Benedictine communities. She says neither faith is broad enough to hold her entire experience.

There is no spiritual good in making my agnostic, humanistic upbringing a straight-jacket that I am somehow "not allowed" to leave - either for fear of "confusion" or "harm?" It was delightfully useful to grow up in, but it no longer fits. I'd cripple myself if I clung to it now. Jesus - to cite one spiritual teacher - repeatedly said, "Do not fear." I'm not going to let fear of harm or confusion or anything else turn me from the adventure of spiritual exploration.

Besides, my inner spirit is a better guide than that.

A last observation to consider: My spiritual guide is a Dominican in her late 70s. She mentioned that many serious spiritual seekers she's met recently seem not to need to climb the mountain. Somehow they are simply getting through without that.