No more karma chameleons, please

Followers of the Dalai Lama may be unhappy with the Tibetan leader's latest lesson for life: don't convert to Buddhism. Has the monk revered by millions and courted by movie stars had enough of his Western hangers- on and spiritual tourists?ner
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The Independent Culture
THOUSANDS OF people will flock to Wembley Stadium in London this weekend to listen to the Dalai Lama's teachings. The tickets sold out four months ago, without any advertising. However, his message may not be the one they want to hear. For he is saying that people brought up in other faiths should not convert to Buddhism.

To Westerners, Buddhism has an allure and exoticism personified in the figure of the Dalai Lama. His late-20th century trendy status is something about which he feels uneasy. He would prefer people to stick to the religion of their heritage. He feels it would be "safer".

"Individuals thinking of converting should question themselves again and again," he writes in his new book, Ancient Wisdom, Modern World: Ethics for a New Millennium (Little, Brown). "They must ask: Am I attracted to this other religion for the right reasons? Is it merely the cultural and ritual aspects that are appealing? Do I suppose that, if I convert to this new religion, it will be less demanding than my present one?

"I say this because it has often struck me that when people do convert to a religion outside their own heritage, quite often they adopt certain superficial aspects of the culture to which their new faith belongs. But their practice may not go very much deeper than that."

Such superficial converts are a feature of the Dalai Lama's day-to-day life in Dharamasala, the small town in northern India, in the foothills of the Himalayas, where he has lived for the past 40 years. The town has become a pilgrimage site for spiritual tourists, a must-see on the hippy backpack trail. The streets are lined with what the Dalai Lama's deputy describes as "leftovers from the Seventies"; people who shaved their head in spiritual solidarity and acquired some de rigueur prayerbeads. No doubt some of them will be at Wembley, too.

In an interview with The Independent at his home last month, the Dalai Lama expanded on his conviction that conversion is not a quick fix, that the fashionability of Buddhism is just as much of a problem as "what do you call it, New Age... Something from here, something from there... but nothing authentic," he said. "I believe in a more authentic way." Religious tradition is not like art: "That is ultimately our own creation... so we can create new things."

Indeed the Dalai Lama does not believe it is necessary to be religious to be a good person: an unsurprising claim in itself, but unusual given that it comes from a world religious leader. "I have come to the conclusion that whether or not a person is a religious believer does not matter much. Far more important is that they be a good human being," he said in his book.

There is a certain pragmatism about his position. He recognises that "the influence of religion on people's lives is generally marginal... in the developed world," and has tailored his message accordingly.

Alexander Norman, one of the Dalai Lama's editorial assistants for the past 10 years, explained: "As Dalai Lama, he feels he has a particular duty towards all Tibetan people, as a Buddhist he feels he has a responsibility to Buddhists, but as a human being he feels he has a much greater responsibility towards all humanity. He is forever quoting this poem, almost as a mantra, which goes, `For as long as space endures, and for as long as living beings remain/ until then may I, too, abide to dispel the misery of the world'."

In his new book - his first major publication since his autobiography, Freedom In Exile - the Dalai Lama calls for a "spiritual" rather than religious revolution. He stresses that there is no reason why individuals should not develop spiritual qualities, such as love, compassion, and a sense of responsibility, without recourse to any religious or metaphysical belief system.

For those attracted by the trappings of Buddhism, there is a tension between what they want from the Dalai Lama and what they get. As Mr Norman put it: "Some Dalai Lama enthusiasts find their expectations confounded. He points people back in the very direction from which they come."

Mr Norman recalls a conference in Dharamasala five years ago which was attended by a number of Western scientists and academics. "They felt somewhat disappointed, perhaps let down, because the Dalai Lama spoke from what might be called a universal, secular perspective rather than a Buddhist perspective."

Where once the Dalai Lama was happy to expound Buddhism to an audience unfamiliar with Buddhist teachings, now he does not bother, focusing instead on the broader field of human ethics. "More and more he's trying to speak not as a Buddhist, but as an advocate of what he calls universal responsibility," said Mr Norman.

"In many ways his message is quite austere - in the sense that it is quite rigorously intellectual and somewhat unemotional - which I think surprises some people when it is contrasted with a man who is obviously a very warm and feeling person."

Lord Weatherill, the former Speaker of the House of Commons and patron of the All-Party Parliamentary Group For Tibet, describes himself as a Christian who believes in reincarnation. Applauding the Dalai Lama's injunction to stick to one's own religion, he said: "It's the old grass-is-greener syndrome. I think he's right that those of us who are brought as Christians should espouse that faith. That doesn't mean we shouldn't appreciate the similarities with the others, not least the Buddhists. We read in the Bible that `as ye sow, so shall ye reap'. What is the difference between that and karma?"

The Dalai Lama is a keen promoter of religious dialogue - next Tuesday, he is giving the Lambeth Interfaith Lecture at the Archbishop of Canterbury's residence in London - but is by no means in favour of religious meltdown. Despite his emphasis on universal ethics, he does not advocate a grand syncretism, a new world religion or "super religion", as he puts it.

Few Westerners go the whole hog. But one, Tenzin Josh, 35, gave up his life in England to become a Buddhist monk at the School of Dialects in Dharamasala. He believes Westerners can make better monks. "Most Tibetans come into monasteries because it's their culture, or their parents sent them. Theirs is often a worldly motivation. In most cases it's not a feeling of renunciation and a desire for spiritual development, whereas for Westerners it usually is."