Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Dalai Lama and "New Pope"

Late Friday I stuck my head in the office of my company's IT manager. He is relatively new with us, an interesting guy, very knowledgeable about history and music, laid back and jovial. A pleasure to chat with. In recent weeks, we have discussed a wide range of topics albeit usually brief and punctuated with snide comments and humor. Nothing too serious.

But this time our conversation drifted over to the fact that his wife was reading a book by the Dalai Lama, which naturally caught my attention. He and his family are Episcopalian, which is often one of the more open and liberal of the many Christian pathways.

So I sat down and we talked a bit about Buddhism. I mentioned to him, for the first time, that I had spent six months in India in the mid-1980's mostly studying yoga (which, as I pointed out to him, had more to do with Hinduism). And that I had personally met the Dalai Lama in the late 1980's after a talk he gave at Emory University. I was part of a Buddhist meditation group at the time.  The IT guy's bright, expansive mind fired questions. The dialog continued. I reached a point where I was struggling to put an idea into words.

"The Dalai Lama's view on things has....evolved....over the past couple of decades. He has really become much more in your face about openness." His fairly recent comment that "religion is no longer adequate" as a basis for ethics in society was a mind-expander to me. I asked our IT guy what other renowned religious leader of the world would be allowed to say such a thing and remain the figure head of his religion? Buddhism, it seemed to me, was the only religion where such a statement by such a power figure would be possible.

The conversation quickly shifted gears though when the IT guy mentioned what his family calls "New Pope" and how impressed he is with some of New Pope's comments. It brought to mind a conversation I had with Will up at Dream Lake several weeks ago. I offered the Pope's very open (for Catholicism) comment on homosexuality. He said recently, "Who am I to judge?" The IT guy knew this quote and smiled broadly saying "Yes, now isn't that different? I'm liking New Pope" said with a warm, joyful smile.

We agreed that a new openness might be developing among some of the world's major religious leaders and that this, perhaps, reflected good things happening in society as a whole. Of course, the mass of followers are still in their tribal, phobic, narrow-minded condition. They are religious because they need to raise families, deal with the death of their parents, survive the challenges of one week to the next, so they don't think much beyond all that and the assistance religion gives them in dealing with daily life. Nothing wrong with that. But the masses are a far cry from accepting homosexuals and searching for ethics outside of religious foundation.

The conversation lasted about a half hour, just up until it was time to leave for the weekend. Still, it was nice to find this open-minded guy whose wife was reading a book on happiness by the Dalai Lama, and who was willing to discuss matters of the highest importance to me, beyond this mundane realm of things. Apparently, he is a cool guy who takes matters a notch above the herd. So we connected.

He was especially interested in my trip to India so many years ago. I spoke in general terms except, for some reason, one vivid memory popped into my mind. I was sitting around having afternoon tea with everyone at the ashram in January 1986. While I met a lot of Americans traveling in India, on this occasion I was the only American around. Everyone else was either Indian or European or Australian. Anyway, someone mentioned that they had just learned that the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded. I have mentioned this previously in this blog.

I was suddenly isolated. To everyone else this was a tragic loss of life. But, to me, it was a loss of a distinctively American kind. It was a deeper and broader wound. Without expecting it, I almost immediately felt the distance between my culture and all the others represented. They could not understand what the shuttle program truly meant from a sociological perspective. It was almost a spiritual crisis for me. How incredibly sad.

And yet, simultaneously in that moment, I became aware of how any culture, how any of these other seekers of truth around me enjoying a tea break on a warm tropical January afternoon 27 years ago within their own traditions and accepted norms, their Lifeworlds, scientific or not, could experience themselves as I was experiencing myself. Paradoxically, the moment taught me something I have carried with me ever since. The distances between our cultures are actually in harmony with their universal aspect, and that which seemingly separates us actually unites us, if you can only apply your experience to the perspectives of others during their moments of crisis or sadness.

So, while I felt isolated I also experienced a greater unity. That powerful moment of empathy and compassion has been applied countless times by me in the decades of my life that followed and it turned out to be one of the most powerful and obviously lasting experiences in my Indian adventure.

Then the IT guy was interrupted by a phone call and work had to resume. You can only drift in and out of these types of conversations with people. But, I know he and I connected at that level, each in our own way, of course. I look forward to further discussions with him on religion, art, music, technology, whatever might come up between us. It is a great and rare thing to find a fellow traveler in tune with the zeitgeist. I think we can learn from each other. And the memories he triggers help me recalibrate the importance of certain things...which, in turn, takes me down the path a few steps more.

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