On the surface this sounds like a reasonable and responsible piece of advice. It may well have allayed the fears of church leaders that the decline in their congregations would not be further accelerated by calls from this charismatic and charming Buddhist "Pope". The disquieting fact nonetheless remains that there are few others at the head of a major religious denomination who could fill the Albert Hall - let alone one who would then tell his audience not to look to the tradition he represents for answers to their questions. It seems that it is not so much what the Dalai Lama says that attracts people to his gatherings, but the authority with which he says it.
This advice of the Dalai Lama appears to grant broadly equal value to the world's established religions, to the point where it does not really seem to matter into which one you happened to be born. While he encourages mutual tolerance and ongoing dialogue between these faiths, the Dalai Lama seems unwilling to challenge the status quo. Yet one of the reasons why a small but steadily growing number of Europeans and Americans are drawn to Buddhism and other non-Judaeo-Christian traditions is precisely because they do question the status quo.
The Dalai Lama has come to represent far more than just Tibetan Buddhism. Whether he likes it or not, he has become a post-modern icon, an uncannily successful performer on the stage of a pluralistic and individualistic world; religious belief and spiritual practice are here no longer regarded as elements of an inherited faith to be uncritically accepted but rather as choices to be made freely and responsibly. It is all too easy for traditional religious figures (including the Dalai Lama himself) to speak dismissively of a "supermarket spirituality". In so doing, they risk further alienating themselves from those who question the authority of their ancestral religion and seek instead commitment to and engagement with a practice that responds to the specific demands of their personal and social experience.
If the Dalai Lama's injunction is valid now, then presumably it would have been valid in the past too. In which case is one to assume that he disapproves of Tibetans having converted to Buddhism from their indigenous animist faith in the eighth century? But if, as one might reasonably expect, he regards the transmission of Buddhist teachings from India to Tibet as the glorious beginning of the religious culture he now struggles to preserve in exile, then on what grounds does he discourage his Western admirers from adopting Buddhism now?
In the past, whether in Lhasa or Rome, conversion was forced on subject peoples by a rhetoric of superiority and uniqueness, the repression of alternatives, threats of hell or simply imperial decree. But today, when freedom of choice is celebrated as one of the great achievements of liberal democracies, why is the exercise of this freedom not more actively encouraged in addressing the most important and profound questions of our existence? Such encouragement might inspire each of us to face these questions honestly and directly rather than simply acquiescing in the established beliefs of our traditional religious and secular institutions.
Addressing people who were similarly confused as to what path in life to follow, the Buddha once suggested:
Do not be satisfied with hearsay or with tradition or with legendary lore or with what has come down in scriptures or with conjecture or with logical inference or with weighing evidence or with liking for a view after pondering over it or with someone else's ability or with the thought "The monk is our teacher". When you know in yourselves, "These things are wholesome, blameless, commended by the wise, and being adopted and put into effect they lead to welfare and happiness", then you should practise and abide in them.
Although delivered to an audience in north India more than two and a half thousand years ago, the Buddha's sceptical and pragmatic advice has a curiously contemporary ring. Rather than suggest to his listeners that they either stay with the tradition in which they were born or convert to another because they are impressed by the credibility of its doctrines or a teacher's authority, he advises them to find out for themselves what actual benefits the practice of such a teaching can bring.
Those who adopt Buddhist ideas, values and practices today in the West are not necessarily interested in joining another religious institution. They find the Buddha's "test it and see" approach to be perfectly compatible with a healthy scepticism. If one interprets the Dalai Lama's advice as an encouragement for Westerners to remain within their own secular traditions, then atheists and agnostics may be reassured to find the non-theistic and self- reliant approach of Buddhism to be broadly in keeping with their own outlook. At the same time, Buddhism may also be enabled to recover its own critical and pragmatic perspective, which, historically, has often been overshadowed by its having assumed the identity of a religious creed.
Stephen Batchelor is the Director of Sharpham College for Buddhist Studies and Contemporary Enquiry