Last Sunday, after attending early services at my home church, me and 8000 of my closest friends attended an event held by the Theosophical Society in America called “Bridging the Faith Divide,” where His Holiness the XIVth, the Dalai Lama of Tibet, was the main event. The topic of his appearance: the need for inter-religious harmony and understanding.
I called ticketmaster at 11AM that morning to see if the event was sold out, and they told me that they had just released a bunch of tickets. I hopped in a cab in the sweltering downtown Chicago heat and headed over to the UIC pavillion. When I arrived at the UIC Pavilion, I saw people everywhere. I went to the ticket office, and bought the cheapest ticket. I had learned my lesson from my experience going to Saviours Day at the United Center last February, when I assumed that the more expensive tickets would get me closer to the stage (they didn’t) and more able to see the main speaker. This time, I was just happy to be “in the building”, so no need to pay for front-row seats.
There were three lines of people waiting to enter the pavillion. Before getting in the first ridiculous line I saw, which snaked down one side of the UIC Pavilion, I decided to investigate. I walked to the front of the building and saw another very long line that snaked down the other side of the building. But I also saw a third line directly front of the building, which was much, much shorter. I asked one of the official looking people standing around if I could get in the short line. He said yes. I was inside the building in 10 minutes. Thank goodness, because it was really, really hot outside.
As I made my way to my seat, I noted that in some ways, this seemed like just another day at a sports arena. The grill was open; people were buying hot dogs and cold drinks. As I made my way to my seat, I was amused to see a tiki bar with a grass skirt on it. “Smoothies for sale,” the sign said. There are t-shirts and other souvenirs for sale – the only difference was, instead of the shirts advertising a sports team, they were advertising enlightenment, and peace.
I found my seat and took some time to look around. I saw all different kinds of people- of all different races and different walks of life. Some wore t-shirts and shorts, some wore honorific Asian-inspired clothing, and some were in their Sunday best. I was intrigued as I think “what kind of person spends an afternoon and some hard earned money in this economy to hear the Dalai Lama speak.” Were they believers? Buddhists? Skeptics? What is on their minds and on their hearts?
Around the arena, instead of advertisements, quotes from sages scrolled horizontally around the perimeter of the pavilion. In some ways this was one of the best parts of the event for me, because sentiments shared in these quotes resonated so deeply with My 52 Weeks of Worship experience, and the wisdom that I have been exposed to from so many religious traditions around the world. These are the quotes that I read on the neon screens as we all waited for the event to start:
“There are many paths up the mountain, but the view of the moon from the top is the same.” – Ancient Japanese Proverbs
“If we have no peace, we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”- Mother Teresa
“World peace must develop from inner peace. Peace is not just the absence of violence, but the manifestation of human compassion.” – Dalai Lama
-“Interfaith understanding will bring unity necessary for all religions to work together.” – Dalai Lama
“Happiness is not a matter of intensity, but of balance, orders, rhythm and harmony.” – Merton
“The highest form of wisdom is kindness.” – Talmud
“Mankind is naught but a single nation.” – The Holy Qur’an
“Read sympathetically the scriptures of the world.”- Gandhi
“Those who want truth should practice reverence for life.” – Lao Tzu
“My humanity is bound up in yours.”- Desmond Tutu
“Truth is one; sages call it by different names.” – Hindu
“Friendship to all living forms.” – Jain Prayer
On the stage were two flags – an American flag and a Tibetan National flag. There are several microphones, plants and a blue podium with a microphone.
- A menorah
- A Buddhist wheel
- The Hindu “Om” symbol
- The Jain hand symbol
- The Islamic crescent moon and star
- The Faravahar, a Zoroastrian symbol
As part of the pre-Dalai Lama portion of the program, Jennifer Beals was on stage to introduce the Dalai Lama. She shared with us that she was honored to be there and that she felt giddy; that it “felt like Christmas.”
Ironic choice of words for a Buddhist, I thought, and looked around to see if anyone else noticed. If they did, I couldn’t tell.
She explained that the symbols on the stage were created by people of different ages and faiths, and that in the process of creating them, people were inspired to reach out to others who have a different faith than their own.
Then came the president of the Theosophical Society of America. In his introduction, he shared a memorable viewpoint – regarding the importance of interfaith understanding – “Mere toleration is not an option.”
The Dalai Lama comes out in Cardinal and Gold robes, and he gets a standing ovation. He is greeted by the governor, and by Jennifer Beals, and he places long scarfs around the necks of both. The president of the theosophical society gets a scarf too.
His Holiness sits, and then decides he would rather stand. He walks to the podium, places one hand on it, and starts to talk. After a while, he is guided to the chairs on the stage, where he completes his talk.
To be honest, the sound system was not great, so I could not hear everything clearly. I looked later for a transcript of the talk, so I could read it, and didn’t find one, although I did find pictures of his time in Chicago, transcripts of other talks, and stories about his time in Chicago.
I was struck by the times that it was clear that he had a sense of humor – when he cracked a joke and the whole place erupted in laughter.
After he completed his formal talk, there was a time for questions, and there were three questions asked:
1. “Why is Buddhism becoming more popular in America?
2. How do you deal with intolerant religious leaders, and
3. Can science and religion coexist?
All the answers were thought-provoking, but it was something that was said as he answered the first, which stayed in my mind.
He had shared earlier in his talk, that when he was in Tibet that he thought his religion, Buddhism was the best religion and the other religions were “So so.” But it was when he travelled and interacted with wise people of other traditions that he came to appreciate the significance of all faiths.
He also cautioned that people should not adopt other faiths just to “do something new.” He mentioned that as he preaches in the west he tells people that if they are not traditionally Buddhist, it may be better to worship within their own tradition so as not to be confused.
I was pleasantly surprised by that viewpoint.
It reminded me of my own journey. I started as a Christian, travelled around the world of faith, and was not moved to suddenly embrace another faith tradition. I still have plenty to learn about my own religion. So, it’s not about just chucking your religious framework out the window, just to find one that is hipper, or shinier. But I do see value in knowing about other faith traditions, embracing those who worship within those other traditions, and respecting everyone no matter how they seek God.
As I contemplated this, I was reminded of something I wrote when I visited Temple Sholom on September 17, 2010 for their Kol Nidre service:
At one point during the service, I grabbed and began to play with the cross that I always wear around my neck. And then all at once I had a realization:
I am wearing a cross in a Jewish temple.
But after that realization, my next thought was:
I am not conducting this project to pretend that I am something that I am not. Although, every week, I did try to blend – it was mostly so I would not disrupt the worship experience of those who came there to worship and not to watch me make a scene in their house of worship.
I am not making any bones about who I am and why I am here. I am a Christian on a respectful journey. And that is in included in the “All is Welcome” message that most places of worship espouse, right?
I thought so.
The afternoon ended with Buddhist singer Ani Choying singing “Amazing Grace” after the Dalai Lama’s talk.
It was a beautiful ending to a beautiful experience.