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The celebrity status of the Dalai Lama

By Peter Sellick - posted Tuesday, 25 June 2013

I have just read in the Weekend Australian about the latest visit to Australia of the Dalai Lama. As are all such visits they are nothing less than a celebrity event, eager crowds, press, security. However the Dalai Lama's advice about our present condition leaves Christian theologians like myself scratching their heads. His main pitch during this visit is that we must all become more moral and that ethics must be taught at school in order to achieve this. Many of our problems will be solved if only we behaved better and had better values.

Certainly this is not the whole story, there is much said about mindfulness and the training of emotions through self-reflection. My argument is not about this aspect of his teaching that seems to be a good thing.

There are two things that come from the Dalai Lama that puzzle me. The first is the simplistic concentration on happiness. This coincides with the modern emphasis on the individual that sets as the aim of life an emotion. This seems particularly trivial against the background of Christian eschatology that looks hopefully towards the healing of the whole of creation. I wonder if the reason that the Dalai Lama is so popular among the unchurched is that he feeds into the spirit of the times.


The second thing that puzzles me is his insistence on ethics as the key to a better world and presumably to a happier people. Indeed, he contrasts ethics with religion that he parodies as belief in life after death and going to heaven. It puzzles me because Pauline theology about the law and grace is at the centre of Christian faith and it appears that the Dalai Lama would take us back to what Paul describes as the ministry of death; the observance of the law as fundamental to human being and life.

Again we see the Dalai Lama mimicking moves in our society towards "values" education. The idea is that if we teach people to have good values then they will behave ethically and all will be well. What these values are is a bit of a mystery. Being Australian I guess they will be something about mateship and sacrifice.

The problem is that this does not address the tragedy that is at the centre of human being; that our lives are lived out on the precipice of physical and spiritual death and there does not seem to be a damn thing we can do about it. Living a good life will precipitate suffocating piety that masks the desperation for meaning in the face of death that we all face. This character is the stuff of perceptive fiction, the person who is a pillar of community but whose inner life is fraught with lies and perversion.

The Dalai Lama is a modern celebrity and is obviously a charismatic personality. He is also on the side of the good because of his denunciation of China's occupation of Tibet. He is every ones hero, a favourite and wise uncle from the mysterious and spiritual East. He is a romantic figure. However, his prognostications about our spiritual malaise, is wanting. The solution to this malaise is not, as he suggests, the abandonment of religion and the assumption of secular ethics. That is a laughable suggestion. Ethics will not make us good. It was the ethically obsessed who crucified Christ. St Paul, followed by Martin Luther came to understand that this was not the path to life but to death. Of course we should all live moral lives, but this is only a foundation to the transformation of our being through the death of the self, especially the death of the idea that happiness is any great goal.

I am aware that many will think me churlish in criticising this obviously lovely man. But no one should be able to get away with uttering obviously superficial solutions to deep problems that accompany our humanity. The fact that this happens time and time again indicates that by turning our back on our own religious traditions we have become theologically naïve and will accept all manner of proposals from a man in a monk's robe whom thousands flock to hear.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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