Istituto Lama Tzong Khapa, Pomaia, Italy, 25 December 19828
Somehow, we’re still alive and aware enough to remember how long it is since Jesus was born. It was one thousand, nine hundred and eighty-two years ago, right? And I myself am fortunate enough to have been born in the Shangri-La of Tibet, to have come into contact with the world of Western dakas and dakinis, and to have this chance to acknowledge the history of the holy guru, Jesus.
I’ve found that having a little understanding of Jesus’s life helps me develop my own path, but it’s not easy to fully understand the profound events in Jesus’s life. It’s quite difficult. Of course, the superficial events of his life are fairly easy to understand, but there’s not enough room in our mind to comprehend his high bodhisattva actions. Even when Lord Jesus and Lord Buddha were here on earth it was very difficult for ordinary people to understand who they really were. At that time, very few people understood.
Today I was looking at the Bible, at the Gospel of John in particular, and he was talking about the miracles Jesus performed and how few people understood the profundity of his liberated mind that allowed him to perform those miracles.
Anyway, whenever I’m at a meditation course such as this at Christmas time, I like to talk about this kind of thing. But you need to understand that when I do, I’m not trying to be diplomatic. I don’t need to negotiate my relationship with you in that way. It’s just that from the bottom of my heart, I sincerely feel and believe that simply to remember Jesus’s life is an incredible opportunity.
In a way, of course, it doesn’t matter where people come from—East or West—or what color they are, those who eliminate their self-cherishing thought and give their life for others are exceptional human beings. For that reason, I’m happy just to bring Jesus to mind and reflect on what he did.
Also, to some extent I’m responsible for my Western students’ psychological wellbeing, so if we’re going to bring Buddhism to the West, we need to do it in a healthy way rather than introduce it as some exotic new trip. We don’t need new trips—we need to do something constructive, something worthwhile. Anything truly worthwhile does not diminish any light; it only enhances it.
And with respect to psychological health, we’re part of the environment and the environment is part of us. Therefore, those of us who were born in the West should not reject the Christian environment into which we were born. We should consider ourselves lucky to have been born into a Christian society and to have the wisdom to understand what that means for our mind. Such understanding is very useful if we’re to remain healthy. Especially these days, when there’s dangerous revolutionary technology everywhere and the world is overwhelmed with fighting and war, we really need to actively remember the lives of our unselfish historical predecessors.
So, John was explaining how God sent Jesus to us as a witness to the truth, but most unfortunately, some ignorant people failed to recognize who he was or understand what he was teaching and killed him.
In my opinion, the Buddhist point of view is that Jesus was a bodhisattva, not only in the sense that he had realized bodhicitta and overcome selfishness, but in the sense that, as a performer of miracles, he was a saint, like Tilopa and Naropa or, to name a living example, His Holiness Zong Rinpoche—somebody completely free of superstition who sometimes instinctively does strange things that the rest of us don’t understand.
For example, John says that one day Jesus was near the water when a woman came by to fill her pot. Jesus said to her, “How can you satisfy your thirst with water? It’s water that makes you thirsty in the first place.” He told her that since it’s water that makes her thirsty, how can water be the solution to her thirst. It’s some kind of reverse thinking. Who can understand that? It sounds crazy, doesn’t it?
What he meant was that only spiritual water can truly slake your thirst. So you can see, the actual meaning is somehow beyond words. The woman’s taking water; he says, “Why are you doing that? It’s not going to solve your problem of being thirsty.” It’s crazy talk. Nowadays we’d probably hit somebody who spoke to us like that. But luckily, back then Jesus didn’t get beaten up for talking in that way.
John also said that since Jesus was born from God, his disciples were also derived from God’s energy. That’s similar to what the Buddhist teachings say when they explain that all shravakas and prateyakabuddhas are born from Shakyamuni Buddha. The sense here is that such followers are born from the teacher’s wisdom truth speech. Through internalizing that, they discover the truth for themselves and become such realized beings.
Philosophically, of course, we can say that Buddhism doesn’t accept that God is the source of all human beings and other things. But from another point of view, we can say that Buddhism doesn’t contradict that statement either.
For example, where does the human realm come from? The Buddha said that the human realm is caused by good karma. That’s true. If the upper realms do not come from good karma, then where do they come from? Then, from the Buddhist point of view, all good karma comes from the Buddha . . . or, you can say, God. Therefore, the human realm comes from God, from Buddha. Because of the Buddha’s holy speech, sentient beings create good karma. I want you to be clean clear about this.
Still, philosophically you can argue this point one way or the other. It depends on how you interpret it. You can interpret the statement negatively or positively. Actually, you can do anything with philosophy.
Now, concerning God, what is the difference between Buddha and God? Today, I’m going to say that according to Buddhism and Christianity, the qualities of the Buddha and the qualities of God are the same. People always worry about creation. “God is the creator of everything; Buddha is the creator of everything.” Does that mean the Buddha created negativity? Well, the Buddha said that ultimately, there’s no positive, there’s no negative.
Tibetans address this issue with the example of a river. When you’re standing on one bank of the river you call the opposite bank “the other side.” When you’re on that bank you call this one “the other side.” There’s this side and that side, that side and this side. It’s interdependent. Without each other, this side and that side wouldn’t exist. In the same way, if positive doesn’t exist, negative can’t exist either. In other words, negative comes from positive, positive comes from negative.
Then maybe you’re going to argue, “Well, if God is the creator, if God is the cause of everything, such as organic things like plants, then how can God be permanent?” People say God is permanent—then how can something that’s permanent produce something impermanent, like a plant? The principal cause of an impermanent phenomenon has to also be impermanent.
That sort of argument comes from Buddhists, so I’m going to debate with them: “Then how can you say shravakas and pratyekabuddhas are born from Buddha? Buddha is permanent.” The answer to that is that such statements are not meant to be taken literally. In response to that, I’m going to say, “Well, God can be the same as Buddha, in the sense of a personal being. God can be a person in the same way Shakyamuni Buddha was.” It’s not as if a permanent God is sitting up there somewhere. God can be something organic, a personal being with whom you can personally relate.
I tell you, philosophers always try to make everything very special. “God. Buddha. God is this; Buddha is that.” They put God and Buddha up on some kind of untouchable pedestal, so ordinary people can’t relate to them. They make it impossible to understand the nature of God, the nature of Buddha. That’s stupid. They just create more obstacles for people.
Then human beings, with their limited minds, try to put cream on God, chocolate on God, like with a knife. They put their own garbage on God. That’s all wrong; definitely wrong. I truly believe that sometimes philosophy can become an obstacle to people really understanding the nature of God or Buddha. Maybe I’m a revolutionary, but I reject many of the philosophical positions on these matters.
However, personifying God or Buddha doesn’t contradict their omnipresent nature. We can talk about the personal qualities of Heruka, for example, but at the same time, he is universal and omnipresent. We need to understand that.
One of the problems we find in the Western environment is the low opinion people generally have of human beings. They consider them to be on the same level as fish and chickens: they’re a hassle; they’re too complicated. We have no respect for human dignity. People can have transcendent qualities while at the same time being human, but we don’t understand this. Therefore, people who try to explain the Bible and God have to separate human beings and God: “The humans down here are the worst. They’re like hungry ghosts, negative and sinful, while God is up there, perfect and pure.” That is wrong. If you want to touch God with the human mind, you have to make a relationship between God and human beings. You cannot say God is perfect, humans are dirty. No way. Also, the Bible uses the term personal God or something like that.
When His Holiness the Dalai Lama visited Spain earlier this year we stayed in a Christian monastery. There were about thirty elderly monks there; some were very old. We were all sitting together having a fantastically good time, communicating really well, sort of totally unified, having a long conversation about religion, and one monk, he must have been about fifty, described God in exactly the same way as I was thinking. I was in shock. I said, “Is the way you’re describing God explained in the Bible?” He said it was. Somehow, we were thinking about God in the same way.
Then we had a discussion about emptiness. His Holiness asked the monk, “What do you think emptiness is?” The monk replied, “Nonattachment is emptiness.”
For me, that was a completely satisfactory answer. I prostrate to anybody who replies in that way. I have no question for anybody who thinks nonattachment is emptiness. That’s super. I was greatly impressed.
Well, what’s the difference? If you ask intelligent Buddhists what emptiness is, they’re going to say non-self-existence, but for me, the answer nonattachment is much weightier. I’m talking about my experience. If somebody tells me nonattachment is emptiness, it touches my heart. Philosophically, the answer non-self-existence is perfect, but it’s totally dry. It doesn’t have any feeling. From the philosophical point of view, saying nonattachment is emptiness may even be wrong. Tibetan philosophers are going to look askance and say, “Wow, what kind of answer is that?”
There’s that story of an intellectual geshe asking the great yogi Milarepa, “What is the Vinaya?” Milarepa replied, “I don’t know Vinaya from non-Vinaya. All I know is that if my mind is subdued, that is Vinaya.” That was an incredible answer, wasn’t it? An unbelievable answer. Again, philosophically, Milarepa’s answer was wrong, but in truth, it was really the perfect answer. If you look back into the real Vinaya, that was absolutely a Vinaya answer. But if you’re just playing with words, it was a disaster!
Then the geshe asked another question, trying to control the situation: “What is dichotomy?” Milarepa said, “Well, I don’t know.” Here I don’t remember exactly how it went. My memory is not so good. Anyway, Milarepa said, “Well, I don’t know, my dear friend, but I think if your mind is opposite to Dharma, that is dichotomy.” That was a good answer, too, wasn’t it? You probably remember that story.
The Vinaya is not only for monks and nuns. It’s for everybody, to integrate their mind with the Dharma; to subdue it with the Dharma. So when a Christian monk says that nonattachment is emptiness, to me that is an answer that gets to the essence. The mind of attachment holds a conception that is the opposite of the wisdom of emptiness because attachment overestimates the quality of its object and projects that onto its reality. Attachment exists because we don’t understand the nature of the object. If we understand true Christian thinking, that attachment is a human problem but we can go beyond it, we have a profound answer.
From my point of view, those Christian monks were living a more ascetic life than most Tibetan monks do. That’s just my opinion. I’m not putting Tibetans down. I’m Tibetan. There’s no reason for me to put myself down. I’m not stupid. Or maybe I am. . . .
And the monastery where those monks lived is so isolated. Each monk has his own cell, which has a small opening through which food can be passed. They are totally self-contained. There’s a small garden in back, which can’t be seen from the outside. It was unbelievable. I was very impressed with and have great respect for Western Christianity. I’m not joking. I’m too old to joke! And I’m not saying “Christianity is great” for some political purpose. I’m too old for politics as well. Those people just touched my heart. I’d never seen this before; I’d never seen such a Western monastery with monks living such pure, ascetic lives in strong practice. That was the first time I’d seen it for myself. I was so happy.
Well, I guess my time has run out. Now I have to finish my performance. But I’m not sure how to finish it. I can’t integrate. Nevertheless, my conclusion is I would like you all to try to unify your attitude toward Buddhism and Christianity; to see how Buddhism can somehow help your own country’s religion. Help Christians understand Buddhism better and help Buddhists understand Christianity better so that we respect each other, have devotion toward each other, touch each other. That’s the healthiest way to be.
Since I’m outside of Western society I just observe it objectively. You watch it subjectively; you roll with it; you can’t really see it that much yourself. But I just sit back and watch. From my perspective, Western people have been greatly influenced by Jesus and the Christian religion. That’s so valuable, so valuable. Your goodness, your peacefulness, your loving kindness—all that actually comes from the Christian religion. You don’t get any of that from politics, do you? What your country’s politics brings is bloodshed.
So from my point of view, I hereby give you permission to become Christians tomorrow. I rejoice. I’ll tell you something: I’m not attached to these things. I truly believe this. If you were to come to me tomorrow and say, “Lama, I’ve discovered that my traditional religion has so much value that I’ve decided to become a Christian,” I’d say, “Thank you so much.” It wouldn’t hurt my ego. “I rejoice! Great, go to church.”
All right. So, at this time we are very fortunate just to be able to remember the profound lives of the Christian saints and the hard work they did. It is so worthwhile to rejoice at what they accomplished. Not only the past saints but the present ones as well, those who are leading ascetic lives, giving their lives to help and work for others in their society. We should pray for their success in their spiritual growth, that they will soon realize and unify with Godhood.
Historically, we can also see other unselfish people who have come to earth, such as Gandhi-ji. While some did not appreciate him, he was a great man who helped the Indian people free themselves from the English nose! And while he was a very skillful politician, his basic philosophy was ahimsa and compassion, and with that he freed the Indian people from British oppression. In return, he was assassinated, but he accepted that, too.
You can see how many billions of people there are on earth, and that number keeps increasing, yet how many are prepared to sacrifice themselves for others? It’s very rare that anybody does that, like when in one of his previous lives as a prince, Shakyamuni Buddha sacrificed his body to the starving mother tiger and her cubs. Jesus gave of himself and so did Gandhi-ji. Who else was able to do what they did? Publicly offering your life to save that of another is very rare, isn’t it? I haven’t studied much history, but I don’t think there are many like that.
Now, we don’t have to give our life or our body, but we can decrease our selfishness, we can develop more concern for others’ happiness than our own. So motivate strongly, like this: “Those people were incredible. They had not a selfish bone in their body and totally gave themselves to others. I just can’t imagine myself doing that. They were so great. Their bodhicitta must have been so amazingly well--developed; they must have had such enormous loving kindness and compassion for others; they must have transcended all pain.
“So as much as I can, for the rest of my life I will dedicate my body, speech and mind and whatever wealth I have to benefiting others. From now on, I belong to others and they can use me as they wish. May I and all mother sentient beings never be separated from the bodhisattva teacher in this and all future lives.”