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The Buddha of suburbia

The Dalai Lama's American religion

THIS WEEKEND, AN UNUSUAL encounter is taking place at MIT: The Dalai Lama meets the human brain. Along with the Dalai Lama, prominent Tibetan and western Buddhists are joining neuroscientists, psychologists, and other academics in a conference called "Investigating the Mind," where topics ranging from consciousness to the emotions are being brought under the group's collective microscope.

From a scientific standpoint, the conference promises to "identify the common ground between two powerful empirical traditionsTibetan Buddhism and behavioral science." But from a historical standpoint, the most significant fact about the conference may be that it is transpiring at all. To attend it, the Dalai Lama has had to cross the equivalent of 1,000 years of time, in one of the more improbable journeys ever.

When the Dalai Lama fled into exile in India in 1959, Tibet was a medieval country without any wheeled vehicles, and many of its citizens had never even heard of America. Tibetan Buddhism -- banned in its homeland, where the Chinese occupiers have destroyed 6,000 monasteries and killed a large number of the country's population -- seemed doomed to follow all conquered religions since the Incas and Aztecs into the ashbin of history. Even after the Dalai Lama finally got a visa to visit the United States in 1978, his supporters could worry about empty places in a 250-seat speaking hall. When they called TV programs to ask if they cared to interview the Dalai Lama, frequently the response was, "What did you say her last name was?"

But tonight a reported 13,000 people will attend the Dalai Lama's sold-out talk at the FleetCenter. In the United States, Buddhism is doubling its numbers faster than any other religion, with Tibetan Buddhism growing fastest of all. The Boston area alone boasts more than 40 Buddhist centers, and two major Buddhist presses -- Wisdom Publications and Shambhala (the latter has published over 600 titles) -- are headquartered here. How, in a mere generation, did we get from Tibetan Buddhism's near-extinction in its homeland to its remarkable flowering in America?. . .

The story begins, in a sense, with the celebrated Catholic writer Thomas Merton and his fateful voyage to the Indian Himalayas in 1968. Before Merton's visit, he had assumed the Dalai Lama was a pompous ecclesiastical bureaucrat, and he considered Tibetan Buddhism to be a backward, superstitious faith suffused with too much black magic and even sex. Like earlier Westerners, Merton had misinterpreted the religion's paintings of copulating beings, not realizing they symbolized the union of the human and the divine. In fact, those Westerners were not entirely mistaken about the sensuality they saw. Unlike other kinds of Buddhism, the Tibetan variety accepts the passions and the emotions and transforms them to fuel the difficult transition toward what Buddhists call compassionate wisdom. Tibetan is at once the most mystical and the most earthy of all Buddhisms.

In India, Merton began to understand the religion's two-sided nature as he observed the Tibetan exiles laughing and singing. They were, he noted, full of "intensity, energy, and also humor," despite the murderous ravaging of their homeland. He concluded that the source of the Tibetans' resilience must be their religion. "The Tibetan Buddhists are the only ones, at present," he wrote in his journal, "who have attained to extraordinary heights [in spiritual achievement]." In America, by contrast, he believed Christianity had adapted to an increasingly prosperous and secular era mainly by joining in the party, diluting its own most vital traditions in the process. If the essence of Tibetan Buddhism could be extracted, Merton surmised, it might help restore religion in America to its former vigor. Merton became practically the first American to decide to devote his days to studying Tibetan Buddhism -- although a freak fatal accident that very year cut prematurely short both his resolve and his life. (To Merton's perplexity, one lama, who intuited that the scholar might die soon, attempted to teach him Tibetan pre-death exercises.)

Secularism triumphant was indeed the reigning ideology in mid-20th-century America. At the time the Dalai Lama escaped Tibet, an article in The American Anthropologist explained, "To a modern intellectual, religion is probably the most unfamiliar subject in the world." Most journalists, academics, and social commentators considered religion an endangered species, whose ineffectual consolations would be rendered obsolete by ever-increasing rationality and universal prosperity. The midcentury intellectual consensus foresaw education and economic progress eradicating religious irrationality, as well as poverty, hunger, and social injustice everywhere all of which would evaporate, like clouds on a sunny day.

That utopian secular dream did not come true, of course, and some of the disappointed began to dream elsewhere. In the early 1970s, when Geshe Wangyal, Chgyam Trungpa, and other exiled lamas arrived here, they were astonished by the welcome they received from countercultural types like Allen Ginsberg, who expected those lamas to remake them into American versions of wise Eastern sages. Beyond the counterculture, many others -- including liberal, well-educated Americans who had outgrown their faith of origin and were uncomfortable with anything theological -- began to demand satisfactions reminiscent of the ones once provided by religion. As the Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow noted in 1998, ever more Americans claim that "they are spiritual but not religious, [that] their spirituality is growing but the impact of religion on their lives is diminishing." An increasing number of discontented souls turned to the exiled Tibetan lamas, who were out of work, and to Tibetan Buddhism, which, unmoored from Tibet, was free to become American Buddhism -- or at least to meet Americans halfway.

The Tibetan lamas, whose English was poor and who were ignorant of modern ways, appeared initially poor candidates for the role thrust upon them. But as they learned European languages and mastered the psychological mindset of the Westerners who approached them, they made a surprising discovery: Their religion suited, or was easily adapted to, a more secular time and place."

Modern people want a path shorn of dogma, fundamentalism, exclusivity, complex metaphysics, and culturally exotic paraphernalia, a path that can be integrated with ordinary life and practiced anywhere," one lama observed. Older Christian theologians might have responded that such a path would not be religion, but the Tibetan response was, in effect, "No problem." Indeed, over 2,500 years ago the Buddha himself declared he was not promulgating a new religion but teaching remedies for suffering, and that no one should accept his teachings on faith.

Previously the only Buddhism popular in America had been Zen, and in his bestselling "The Way of Zen" (1957) Alan Watts explained its appeal: Zen is a storehouse of Eastern wisdom and it offers a respite from the crass modern world. The Tibetan lamas, however, once they acclimatized to America, insisted there was nothing particularly Asian about their religion, and that it suited the present age as much as it did any supposedly golden past.

Starting with Chgyam Trungpa, who had also escaped Tibet in 1959, those lamas devised for their new American students a "religion without theology." Trungpa gave back his monk's robes, wanting no external difference from his new countrymen, and in 1970 he founded America's first Tibetan center near Barnet, Vt. By the decade's end, his books were selling hundreds of thousands of copies. The first American students were excited to discover in Tibetan Buddhism a religion of actual techniques, of the methods of spirituality: It provided explicit, practical, step-by-step guidelines for achieving the noble states almost all religions extol.

Lamas like Trungpa began not by teaching metaphysical truths so much as giving instructions in meditation, which supposedly requires no more faith than a medical inoculation does to be effective. By presenting their new Western pupils tangible, nondogmatic things to do, from visualizations to exercises in compassion (such as taking on another's pain), those lamas enabled them to experience the psychological effect of religion without its theological cause. Tibetan Buddhism could thus appeal to lapsed Christians and Jews who no longer attended church or temple and were left spiritually out in the cold, figuring out life's key puzzles on their own. The lamas did not even require that you convert in order to get the benefits of Tibetan Buddhism; in fact, the Dalai Lama discourages it.

When the Dalai Lama first came to the United States, his message, intellectually, did not sound so different from that of the lamas who had preceded him. But the media spotlight focused on him, and he attracted at first thousands and later millions to the Tibetan cause by living out that message of pacifism and compassion in action.

The Dalai Lama had every reason to detest the Chinese, but instead spoke of them with sympathy and understanding. Amid all his responsibilities, and despite the tragedy of Tibet everpresent to him, he obviously was a happy man, really a bon vivant who exuded a confidence that all would work out well. Westerners watching him observed a religion, it seemed, of generosity, high spirits, and good sense. (Tibetan monks and advanced Western students see a different side of the Dalai Lama, however. To them, he teaches centuries-old esoteric practices and expounds ideas about a multidimensional universe that might astound a proper Unitarian or Episcopalian minister.)

The Dalai Lama has proved remarkably adept at separating what in Tibetan Buddhism is universally valid from what was merely dispensable "Himalayan dogma." He has been known to stop in midsentence, and reverse a millennium of Tibetan precedent almost without blinking an eye. When some gay reporters quizzed the Dalai Lama about his stance on homosexuality, he voiced the typical Buddhist condemnation of it. Then he paused, reconsidered, and sent centuries of prejudice out the window: "If the two people have taken no vows [of chastity], and neither is harmed," he said, "why should it not be acceptable?"

Similarly, the Dalai Lama comes from a tradition that opposes birth control, but he recognizes the dangers in overpopulation, and believes that one can no longer forbid it. He has likewise opposed the second-class citizenship of women in Buddhism, and today a western Buddhist teacher is as, or more, likely to be a woman.

The Dalai Lama has even declared, "If the words or the Buddha and the findings of modern science contradict each other, then the former have to go." Try to imagine the pope or an ayatollah making a similar statement about the New Testament or the Koran.

In 1959, when Mao Zedong learned that the Dalai Lama had managed to escape, he groaned, "In that case we have lost." Mao was wrong, of course, for today Tibet, flooded with massive Chinese population transfers, is in effect a Chinese colony with ever slimmer chances of regaining its independence. But no Chinese political or cultural figure could draw 13,000 people to the FleetCenter -- or 50,000 to Central Park in New York, as the Dalai Lama did in 1999. The veneration that Chinese culture elicited for centuries has been supplanted by an international admiration for Tibetan religion.

The survival of the Dalai Lama and his religion evokes curiosity because it is the David-and-Goliath story, updated and rewritten in contemporary geocultural terms. The Dalai Lama's "slingshot" in this unequal struggle has certainly been the most unlikely weapon: While elsewhere fundamentalist fanaticism consumes whole regions of the globe in flames, he has redefined what religion is and given it a useful, positive role for these, our violent times.

Jeffery Paine is the author of "Re-enchantment: Tibetan Buddhism Comes to the West," forthcoming this winter from W.W. Norton. He is also the author of "Father India" and editor of "The Poetry of Our World."

Dalai Lama's visit
The Dalai Lama greeted Tsering Tsomo, 4, at the Charles Hotel in Cambridge on Sept. 12. The Dalai Lama greeted Tsering Tsomo, 4, at the Charles Hotel in Cambridge on Sept. 12. (Globe Photo / Bill Brett)
The Dalai Lama's image was projected on the FleetCenter scoreboard during his sell-out talk on Sept. 14. The Dalai Lama's image was projected on the FleetCenter scoreboard during his sell-out talk on Sept. 14. (Globe Staff Photo / Justine Ellement)
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