Holy Men: Encounters with Pope Benedict XVI and the Dalai Lama

By Suzanne Degnats

On September 22, 2010, I attended a blessing service given by Pope Benedict XVI at Vatican City in Rome.  One month later, I attended two sessions with the Dalai Lama in Atlanta, Georgia during his visit to Emory University. Being an outsider both to the Catholic religion and to Buddhism, I found many similarities at the events surrounding these two political and religious leaders.

I’m an outsider, sort of.  As a toddler, my 16-year-old cousin baptized me into the Catholic faith at the behest of my mother.  She feared that our plane to England would crash and that her five un-baptized children would be destined to hell for eternity.  Before boarding the plane, my mother spoke by phone to a priest, who assured her (since he was unavailable on short notice), that ‘in a pinch’, any Catholic can officiate a baptism and that the baptism would be recognized as legitimate.  However, I did not keep up with my catechism, so I am not sure where this leaves me (Purgatory?). 

Likewise, I am not a Buddhist.  I am, however, a dues paying member of the Drepung Loseling Buddhist Center where I sometimes attend services and festivals and have my statues consecrated.  I joined as a way to support the monks and the temple, which is located in my neighborhood (I figured a temple was better than a crack house, so I needed to do my part).  Therefore, I enjoy the benefits of both religions: the pageantry, the chanting at services, the ornate beauty of the sacred space, and the beauty of religiosity, without having to sell my soul or sign on the dotted line.  According to the beliefs of some, I am obviously not going to make it into heaven or become enlightened in this lifetime.

Enough about me, let us turn to the two special men I have recently encountered.  And I mean MEN; the Dalai Lama spoke of the possibility of future incarnations in the feminine, but the Pope has made no such promises.  The current Pope, Benedict XVI, is the 265th in a lineage (but not a patriarchy as the Pope is not supposed to be married or have children) that began in the year 32 AD.  Since 1059, the death of a Pope initiates the meeting of the College of Cardinals in a ritual laden and secret conclave whose purpose is to elect the new Pope.  Before 1059, papal selection was by appointment of (secular) European rulers, sealing an historical legacy of association with church and state in Rome (to this day, the Vatican is a sovereign city-state; the Pope is its ruler).  

The current Dalai Lama is the 14th incarnation of the leader of the Gelugpa branch of Tibetan Buddhism, and the leader of Tibet in exile.  There is a correspondingly similar, yet somewhat more mysterious process for choosing the Dalai Lama.  By tradition, it is assumed that His Holiness will reincarnate and to this end, each Dalai Lama leaves hints for where and how he will be found in his future incarnation.  A few years after the Dalai Lama dies, certain children (boys, to date) are tested to see if they are the latest incarnation.  Unlike those who hold the Papal office, the new incarnation of the Dalai Lama assumes the office as a child, and like the Pope, holds the appointment for a lifetime.  Both of the current leaders are elderly men; the Pope is currently 83 and the Dalai Lama is 75 (neither are married nor, to public knowledge, have any offspring). 

Both events had the requisite security procedures that you would anticipate in order to be in the presence of a world, and religious, leader.  The security at the Vatican however, was much simpler and quicker.  The Vatican service included thousands of people filling most of the vast expanse of St. Peter’s Square.  Tickets were required but were free of charge (in contrast to the sessions with the Dalai Lama that started at $25-$40 and up per session).  At the Vatican, attendees and pilgrims were queued up through a metal detector, and bags were searched before entering the square.  When the Pope made his entrance in his Pope-mobile, his physical person was out in the open, not behind glass, bulletproof or otherwise. 

For the Dalai Lama’s visit, security was much tighter.  DeKalb County police, Emory University police, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, and the FBI were numerous and highly visible.  Privately hired security personnel had a variety of rules that were randomly enforced.  Cameras & computers were not allowed; some people were forced to carry their too large purses back to their cars, any food and drink had to be thrown in the trash.  The differences in security and procedures between the events may be due to the fact that the Pope was on his home turf, and the Dalai Lama was a visiting dignitary.  As such, he had the requisite Diplomatic Security Service detail and motorcycle/black car motorcade wherever he went.  I could not help but think how all of this must have amused a man who has dedicated his life to simplicity and peace.  Security lines have become a strange norm in the world in which we live.  Catholicism and Buddhism both have strong lineages of peace and non-violent activism, and yet the advisors and bureaucrats feel a need to protect their leaders from potential violence.  Regardless of their religious offices, they are both political figures who need to be protected from perceived enemies.

Who exactly are these men who require such complex modes of protection?  Both figures can be considered ‘holy’ men; pious robe clad religious and political leaders.  In my experience, the persons before me did not appear holy; I saw no halos or mystical auras.  

In my experience, the Dalai Lama came across as a highly intelligent, yet a very simple person.  His simplicity struck some as signifying ignorance, and I heard more than a few people around me express their disappointment at his physical person and his words; they expected more.  I enjoyed his simplicity, humor, and innate happiness.  It felt healthy and healing to be in the presence of someone who laughs with every other sentence, and exudes an understanding and acceptance of human folly.  Questions addressed to him elicited responses that showed he is simply on a different plane.  One man asked: “If you were mute your entire life and you could finally speak and give one message, what would that message be?”  The Dalai Lama answered, “That’s a silly question.  If I were hungry, I’d say ‘I’m hungry.”  NOT the answer anyone expected, but this was an excellent example of a person who is in the moment, who is present and mindful.  It was hard for me to distinguish between the personality of Tenzin Gyatso and the representation of the 14th Dali Lama.  

The theme of this year’s conference was compassion.  After the chanting and procession of Tibetan Buddhist monks onto the stage, the Dalai Lama addressed the audience and described the levels of compassion.  The first level of compassion is biased and based on attachment: we show love and compassion to our families and to the people to which we are close.  Buddhism, on the other hand, can teach a second level of compassion—compassion for all sentient beings (especially the ones who cause us trouble, according to Dalai Lama), and this compassion is learned by training of the mind and education.  He talked about negative and positive emotions, and about the commonality of human experience.  His lessons were not earth shattering or new, and not unique to Buddhist doctrine; however, they were a good reminder of generally accepted human principles that tend to be, in my personal experience, forgotten. Although the Dalai Lama has had his share of controversy, for this occasion he was the messenger of a non-confrontational and non-controversial message; a message that appeared larger, at least to this non-Tibetan Buddhist American audience, than his physical presence.  

Seeing and hearing Pope Benedict XVI speak was a compelling experience in a different way.  Many of those that gathered in St. Peter’s Square came for his blessing (not a mass or a catechism) and the opportunity to experience a community with the thousands of Catholic pilgrims in attendance.  

I am well aware of the scandals involving the Pope and the Catholic Church, and I empathize with anyone who has been negatively affected. Nevertheless, my honest experience of him was that of being in the presence of a sweet little old man, not a God or an ordained being who had superior consciousness, but a human being who was conscripted to hold a very high office.  After circling the crowd several times in his “Pope mobile” and allowing, unlike the Dalai Lama events, the audience to take pictures, the Pope made his way up to a simple covered stage.  The Pope addressed the audience in Latin and described his recent trip to England in the manner of a travelogue, recounting how he spent his time, with whom, and spoke specifically of the recent Beautification of Father Newman.  Following his address, nine priests from different countries came up to the podium and spoke to the crowd in their native languages.  Groups of pilgrims, who had journeyed to Rome for the event, were then introduced to the Pope.  Each group stood when introduced, most in matching hats or shirts, cheered, and waved as the Pope waved back in acknowledgment.  The priests explained the blessing in their language, and then gave the Pope a paper to read (in their language) which turned out to be a shorter version of his original speech.  When all of the priests had finished, the Pope gave his blessing to the crowd, which was explained as,

A blessing for each of us that extended to our families, particularly our children, and especially anyone who was sick or struggling.  Additionally, any religious items that we had in our possession were also blessed. 

In my experience, the men I observed were not so much charismatic leaders but were in essence, two human beings chosen to, temporarily, hold the highest positions in their particular religious tradition.  Social systems are usually based on levels of hierarchy, from schools to corporations to governments.  Likewise, many religions are based on this hierarchy, and someone (however they are chosen) has to hold the essential position or top office.  We are so used to this paradigm of organization that it can bring stability and a sense of normalcy to know that someone is in charge, regardless of whether or not we like them personally.    

I enjoyed hearing the Dalai Lama’s inspirational words, and being ‘blessed’ by the Pope; these were both positive events within establishments that are oftentimes wrought with controversy.  Being with and observing the participants of the events, knowing that many if not most were followers of the respective religions, was fascinating. Those in attendance at both events came voluntarily, from all over the world, in anticipation of the event (children dragged in by their parents notwithstanding). 

The audience at Emory University was very quiet—more staid; the crowd at the Vatican sometimes resembled a sporting event.  People came to experience and receive something positive: a message, darshan, a blessing.  It is wrong to essentialize their motives; I have no idea of the personal beliefs of the attendees at either event.  However, the experience of being in a place where thousands of people are giving their attention to the same person is humbling, and anciently human.  It is easy, for some, to be cynical and to say that these men (one or both) do not deserve the respect, adoration, and devotion that the crowds directed towards them.  However, I think that for many attendees, the primary attraction and experience was not the physical person of the Dalai Lama or the Pope but the office that each holds—a representation of their faith bound up in an historical moment. 

I didn’t convert to either religion, but I appreciated the events as cultural, historical, and artistic experiences.  There is a pageantry and solemnity in religious tradition, a continuation of human mythology from the past into our modern present.  As an American, I appreciated witnessing adoration directed at someone other than a politician or a rock star.  Countless people over hundreds of years have come together to listen to and see these representations of their faith; there is something to be said about letting yourself just get into the stream of history, regardless of your beliefs.

Postscript:  I am aware that some may think that I am glamorizing or glossing over the crimes committed by officials of the Catholic Church.  I am not, but I also feel that we must not “throw the baby away with the bath water.” The Dalai Lama made a few statements that are relevant to this topic.  He spoke about not turning your back on crimes—that people must be made accountable, but he also talked about forgiveness in relation to Tibet’s struggles with China.  He said that Tibetans were finished with being victims and that their main concern now, regarding the Chinese, was the compassion they felt as they knew that, someday, China would feel the repercussions for the atrocities committed against the Tibetan people.  At the end of day, forgiveness is what heals victims and even their perpetrators, not retribution.

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