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Joachim Valentin {*}

Giggling God-King

The Dalai Lama Continues to be a Phenomenon


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 10/2009, P. 525-529
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    At the end of July the Dalai Lama was once again for a few days in Germany, this time in the Frankfurt Commerzbank Arena. Even if his popularity in all probability has passed its zenith, the churches are to keep grappling with the phenomenon of the Dalai Lama.


He wants to "use all his energies to develop his personality, to achieve enlightenment for all living beings, and he does not want to become angry or to think badly about others." Wonderful goals, you would like to comment, but why does he want to reach them in front of thousands of spectators? No doubt, as puzzle picture [Kippfigur], i.e. as Western religious leader, role model of the suffering Tibetan people, and shrewd post-sixty-eighter Guru, the "Ocean of Wisdom" through many years of effort succeeded in making the ascetic ideals of the Buddhist Mahayana School a public event. It was long believed that he is thus able to unite the desires of a majority of European and North American social workers and other seekers after salvation, giving them not only the form of a question, but even an answer (see HK, October 1999, 506 et sequ.).


Probably up to a Quarter of a Million Followers in Germany

But his last appearance in Frankfurt (July 30 to August 2, 2009) gave rise to the suspicion that he has passed the heyday of his leadership in rebus spiritualibus for some time past.

Some years ago three German players of various Buddhist schools had already joined forces in order to make in 2009 another visit to Germany / Frankfurt/M possible, after the Dalai Lama's last public appearances in the Lüneburg Heath in 1998 as well as in 2002, 2005, 2007 and 2008: First, the German Buddhist Union (DBU, founded in 1955).



It brings together 56 Buddhist member groups from different doctrinal traditions. Then, following the example of New Delhi and New York, the Frankfurt Tibet House founded in 2005, and finally the Phat-Hue Pagoda: Monastery, Retreat House, Buddhist meeting center, health center and community and social center for the Vietnamese in the Rhine-Main area.

About 170.000 practicing Buddhists live in Germany, 100.000 of them are of non-German, mostly of Vietnamese origin (mainly former "boat-people, and guest workers from the GDR era). Probably up to a quarter of a million people informally profess their commitment to the religion which, following the model of Gautama Buddha, is targeted at enlightenment and nirvana.

The roots of the fascination for Buddhism go back to the 19th century, when the first partial translations of the Pali canon were published, and philosophers such as Hegel, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche discovered the Asian religions as brothers and sisters in the spirit and found quite a few intellectual imitators. As a focal point of the movement to the West, which in Asia gathered speed - not only in the geographical sense - is still to be mentioned the "Parliament of Religions" in 1893 in Chicago.

But Buddhism became a movement here only after 1968, when, as a result of the Beatles' and other new opinion leaders' enthusiasm for India, many people turned away from a - mainly Protestant - Christianity, which was regarded as being oppressive and fixed on guilt, and undertook pilgrimages to India and especially to Bhagwan and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

Following an American trend, since the late seventies the Dalai Lama's identification with his oppressed people in the Himalayas - already in 1959 he had fled together with 80.000 Tibetans from the Chinese Repression (expropriation, torture, murder) into exile in India - offered the exciting opportunity to combine political commitment with the enthusiasm for meditative techniques, an attitude that increasingly characterized alternative circles' perception of everyday life. Meanwhile, Buddhism in Germany is leaving behind "the infancy of a religion of converts and adopting all the characteristics of an acclimatized religious culture" (Ulrich Dehn).


The Organizers have to deal with a Minus

In Frankfurt this religio-political consolidation could not least be learned from the Deputy Chairman of the DBU, Hans-Erich Frey's several times repeated invitation to become regular members, and thus to bring the DBU closer to the desired status of a public corporation.

Those who have a look at the Internet presence, the advertising campaign ( and the running of the event must first feel respect - even though the first two days were marked by organizational hitches. The project, which according to the organizers' last information costs 1.9 million euros, has been professionally launched. Those who criticize that the festival was too much oriented toward consumption and profit can be countered by pointing out that in Germany Buddhism is a highly complex affair; it is ethnically and denominationally fragmented and only loosely held together by the German Buddhist Union.

The rent of the Commerzbank Arena, which was oversized for that purpose, and the costs of the stay of the Tibetan chief, his companions and the prominent interlocutors had therefore to be solely paid by the admission fee. In spite of slightly more than 52.000 individual visitors in four days, and repeated appeals for funds during the event, the organizers have to deal with a loss of up to 200.000 euros in the festival fund. For the fact that the plan did not work you can admittedly blame such factors as the shortening of the event from six to four days (it was pointed to the weak health of the 74-year-old religious leader) and the economic crisis. But the empty ranks in the Frankfurt stadium could just as well be due to the German-speaking audience's flagging interest in Buddhism or at least in its high-ranking representative.


A Diverse Programme

The programme was diverse. In addition to the appearance of various celebrities like Roger Cicero and Uwe Ochsenknecht Tibetan music was presented. The focus of the day's agenda was "His Holiness", who had been received already on the first day of his stay by the Hessian Minister-President Roland Koch in his usual familiarity. After detailed, not easily understood lectures on the "source text of Kamalshila", a centerpiece of Tibetan theology of the 9th Century on 30/31 July (see Dalai Lama, Die Essenz der Meditation. Praktische Erklärungen zum Herzstück buddhistischer Spiritualität, München 2001 - [The Essence of Meditation. Practical Explanations about the Heart of Buddhist Spirituality]), the Dalai Lama devoted himself on 1/2 August in talks with various partners to three main topics, which can be described without exaggeration as "the urgent questions of mankind".



The first dealt with economics, ethics & environmental awareness, global and personal responsibility. Here as a representative of Buddhist economic ethics Karl-Heinz Brodbeck, professor of economics, statistics and creativity techniques in Nuremberg and Munich, Mojib Latif, climatologist and meteorologist at the Hamburg Centre for Marine and Climate Research and oceanographer at the Institute for Marine Sciences at the University of Kiel, and Götz W. Werner, founder and managing partner of DM-markets and a professor at the Institute for Entrepreneurship at the University of Karlsruhe were available as discussion partners.

In a second round of talks about the topic "Brain Research. Impact of Meditation on our Consciousness" the Dalai Lama talked with Matthieu Ricard, the French molecular biologist, author and Buddhist monk, Tania Singer, empathy researcher, neuroscientist and psychologist at the Technische Hochschule Zurich, and Gerald Hüther, neurobiologist at the Max Planck Institute in Göttingen.

The third and final panel was about the theme of "Inner and Outer Peace" (mysticism and politics resp. social engagement). Here Anselm Grün, Benedictine from Münsterschwarzach and a leading figure of the Christian meditation scene cut a very good figure. Glasman Bernard Roshi, Zen master of Jewish origin and social activist, inter alia, in Auschwitz and the Middle East bore a powerful testimony of how spirituality and social commitment do not only fit together but necessarily belong together. The talks were all moderated by the Catholic theologians and infotainer on science at 3sat, Gerd Scobel. Not just since his book "Weisheit. Über das, was uns fehlt" [Wisdom. About what we are lacking] (Köln 2008) was published he who has turned his back to Christianity attracts attention by the fact that he in the meantime promotes spirituality, to be precise: the Buddhism of the Dalai Lama, and recommends the best possible imitation of the Dalai Lama's public relations to the churches.

Scobel repeatedly spoke of complex systems such as climate and economy with the unpredictability of which the human race is currently faced, and of the imperative need to tackle this complexity with Asian meditation techniques rather than relying on "Western" practices of mere "engineering".


Amazing Bridges Between Religion and Science

All interlocutors were markedly devoted to each other and built sometimes astonishing bridges between religion and science. One may smile about Ricard's theme meditation in the tube of the MRI scanner but one has to admit that here has been found and opened, besides many other things, one of the few gateways for religion in a society determined by scientific thought: the until a few years ago neglected measurability of religion and compassion with the help of neuroscience.



Conversely, one met in almost all discussions the as convenient as correct request, which can also be found analogously in Benedict XVI's encyclicals: The technocratic logic of science, industry and business needs to be reconstructed critically in an attitude close to religion and oriented towards general harmony and appreciation.

As for the public presentation of the mutual relatedness of sciences, economics and religion, the appearance of the Dalai Lama could certainly offer stimuli to the Christian churches' dealing both with current problems and the public of late modern societies. Maybe they should in future less often ask for expert opinion behind closed doors in order thus to produce papers the origin and target group of which remain concealed and, instead, more often with their very own spiritual and theological potential take part in public debates or initiate them and on those occasions also not hide their own helplessness. The Protestant and Catholic academies have been fulfilling this task for a long time, but could give themselves a clearer image as platforms, especially for ecclesiastical dignitaries discussing the issues of our time with today's key figures.


Theological Differences

At the same time there applies, of course, Slavoj Žižek's already in 2000 critically formulated plea against the Dalai Lama and for the Catholic insistence on presenting religion as a rock of a rigid morality in view of a general permissiveness. According to Žižek the Dalai Lama "communicates to us a vague, pleasant spiritualism without any specific obligations. Everyone, even the most decadent Hollywood star can practise it and at the same time continue his/her dissipated, promiscuous lifestyle. In contrast, by the Pope's persistent adherence to 'old values' and his disregard for the 'realistic' demands of our time we are reminded of the fact that the proper ethical attitude has its price - even if the counterarguments seem to be obvious "(Das fragliche Absolute, Frankfurt 2000, 172).

And in view of the time and again mistakenly emphasized compatibility between traditional Lamaism and Western mentality, the theologically educated contemporary actually cannot forbear differentiating and complementing Žižek's striking dualism. In the tradition of Mahayana Buddhism the Dalai Lama is understood as the reincarnation of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of compassion. This means that he actually has already attained enlightenment in the sense of a Buddha, i.e. the final separation from all earthly things, but he continues to reincarnate in order to share enlightenment with other living beings.

In Frankfurt the Dalai Lama's statements were therefore focused on compassion, in the sense of societal and social commitment. The teachings of Tibetan Gelukpa Order, which is headed by the Dalai Lama, furthermore accumulate in the knowledge that all beings deeply communicate in the one continuum of the spirit, and are indeed one. In the cycle of births all beings are related to each other and have been mothers and fathers of each other. It should be obvious that there is a clear theological difference between the Mahayana Buddhism and the Western paradigm of identity and redemption: the division between Creator and creature, and the conviction that the goal of man's striving can be reached or missed by the real and historical, unique dedication of all one's individual possibilities to love.

Despite all the parallels which the idea of reincarnation has to the Catholic purgatory, the monotheism's severe threat of the Last Judgment has produced a different dealing with guilt, but with it also a different dealing with other people's entitlement to justice, which cannot be simply sacrificed to a general pursuit of happiness, as not a few remarks of the Dalai Lama suggested.

However, it is a sign of the Dalai Lama's great dialogic experience and needs theological attention when he does not only advise all non-Buddhists against conversion (his appearance is nonetheless an effective canvassing for Buddhism), but in addition expressly uses philosophical categories in order to bring out the commonalities of all religions, of the theistic as well as of the non-theistic: every religion reduces the self-reference and opposes selfishness and materialism.



The Churches have Informed in Advance about Buddhism

In the theistic religions this is done by the belief in God, in Buddhism by the doctrine of "non-attachment," was the drift of what he said on the last day in Frankfurt. And he once again called on Christians to attend the Buddhists' school of meditation and the Buddhists to attend the Christian school of social commitment. However, it remained unclear how those are to behave who do no longer really belong to any religious tradition. One can only conjecture that many listeners do no longer feel their homelessness to be a loss, but have made themselves at home in the no man's land of interreligious harmony, which in Frankfurt, however, got a conspicuous stamp of social commitment and was marked by the shocks of the financial crisis particularly noticeable in the bank city. Anyway, one was oriented towards solutions, "You've heard what we must do - now we are only to do it", Scobel cheerfully ended the second round-table discussion.

In the public beyond the Arena grandstands the event produced surprisingly mixed responses. In almost every press release the high ticket prices, the pecuniarily connoted venue, and the variety of stalls were mentioned with a critical undertone. The tension between the seriousness of the issues and the serenity of the Dalai Lama has admittedly been rated very positively by most visitors, but in the press the remark was made "Is God perhaps a clown?" (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 3rd August 2009). The description of the visitors in the same article might probably be not completely wrong, "The participants remind of other humanity fairs [Menschlichkeitsmessen], as e.g. cancer congresses or meetings of anthroposophists, where insecure people are looking for models that can confirm their intuition that there is a spiritual reality in addition to the material", but representatives of the churches cannot agree to such malice. The question of why people in Central Europe continue to look for answers to their questions with a giggling god-king from a distant mountain region cannot leave them indifferent.

The Frankfurt parish churches have already asked this question in advance: During well-attended events of the academies and educational institutions information was given in ecumenical harmony about Buddhism, but also critically inquired after the role of women in Buddhism and the differences between Christian and Buddhist spirituality. Not all of the questions are already answered.


    {*} The theologian and religious scholar Joachim Valentin (born in 1965) is since 2005 director of the Haus am Dom in Frankfurt and extraordinary professor of Christian Religious and Cultural Theory at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt.


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