What to buy for a man who has little and wants even less? That's the question I've pondered ever since I met the Dalai Lama last month at Salve Regina University in Newport.
First I should say, very sincerely, that it was a privilege to meet the Dalai Lama. He is a renowned and impressive figure, the head of state and the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people. He travels the world to meet with popes and presidents. When he speaks of peace and justice, people listen. For his commitment to a non-violent liberation of Tibet from China he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989.
His appearance at Salve Regina University was a result of his longtime friendship with former Rhode Island Senator Claiborne Pell after whom The Claiborne Pell Center at the University is named. It was an historic moment for Salve Regina, a stunning accomplishment for its leader, Sister M. Therese Antone, R.S.M., and a wonderful opportunity for the students and members of the surrounding community. Upon meeting the Dalai Lama I knew, without a doubt, that I had encountered a good and holy man.
The theme of the Dalai Lama's talk was "A human approach to world peace," and his message was simple but profound. In clear, unassuming and sometimes metaphorical language, he spoke of the importance of fostering positive emotions, instead of negative emotions. He taught that the key to world peace is personal, interior peace. Inner peace spreads to families, and then to the community, and eventually to the whole world. Compassion, understanding and tolerance are the building blocks of a humane society. Patience is essential, he reminded the young and idealistic college students, lest they become discouraged by the lack of peace and justice in the world around them.
The Dalai Lama's message was well received by the rapt audience and it warmed the cold and breezy tent in which we huddled.
I need to confess, however, that I came away from the presentation with a feeling of emptiness, almost sadness. The Dalai Lama's message was wonderful, but incomplete. "There was no core to his teaching," another listener observed. Upon reflection I realized that what was missing was any reference to a personal God, any reference to the Lord Jesus Christ.
The Dalai Lama, of course, was just being true to his own religious principles, a tradition that doesn't emphasize salvation by a personal God. For Buddhists, the path of "enlightenment" results in "nirvana," a state of detachment from the world which is the source of evil. In Buddhism, there is no earthly discourse between God and His people, no incarnation of God's Eternal Word, no personal redemption in the death and resurrection of a Savior, and no union with a loving God in heaven. It is for this reason that Pope John Paul in his memoirs spoke of Buddhism as an "atheistic system" - not to disparage a noble religious tradition, but simply to identify the source and goal of its mystical instinct.
In listening to the Dalai Lama I thought of St. Paul's address to the Athenians as recorded in The Acts of the Apostles: "I see that you are very religious. For as I walked around looking carefully at your shrines, I even discovered an altar inscribed 'To an Unknown God.' What therefore you unknowingly worship, I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and all that is in it, the Lord of heaven and earth . . . In Him we live and love and have our being." (Cf. Acts 17: 22-31)
Christians believe that Jesus Christ is the revelation of the "Unknown God," or as St. Paul wrote, "the image of the invisible God." (Col 1:15) The Gospel of St. John explains the universal nature of salvation in Jesus Christ: "God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish but may have eternal life. God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him." (Jn 3:16-17)
For that reason the Church teaches that "It must be firmly believed as a truth of Catholic faith that the universal will of the One and Triune God is offered and accomplished once for all in the mystery of the incarnation, death and resurrection of the Son of God." And again, "One can and must say that Jesus Christ has a significance and a value for the human race and its history, which are unique and singular, proper to Him alone, exclusive, universal, and absolute." (Dominus Jesus, #14-15)
In short, no one can replace Jesus Christ and without Him every religious experience is imperfect. He is the Savior of all people, those who believe in Him and those who don't.
So, I think I've found the perfect Christmas gift for the Dalai Lama. With respect and affection, I would like to give him Jesus, because Jesus is the fulfillment of the love and compassion, the peace and justice of which the Dalai Lama spoke so well.
(This column originally appeared in The Providence Visitor)