Theravada and the Dalai Lama

Despite the fact that he does not have any official status in the Theravada tradition, as the spiritual head of the Tibetan people, I am wondering if anyone has listened to his talks and teachings. His initiative to bring together Western science and Buddhist contemplation is without equal in Southern Buddhism. (Here) Some of these meetings were under the auspices of the Mind & Life Institute; the most recent conference was under the Emory-Tibet Initiative. It’s also interesting to note his attempts to build bridges with the Theravada world. In one case (here), you can see him positioning himself as an ecumenical Buddhist leader. He’s certainly one of the most charismatic Buddhist leaders in the world.

I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts.


He certainly is a good person and a smart and charistmatic one. But there is not much to bridge between tibetan and theravada. Tibetan has shifted so much away from the historical Buddha teachings that they are an entirely different religion.

Although the Dalai Lama is in general a smart person, I think it was a huge insult to 1/3 of the world population who suffered tremendous poverty and oppression to declare he is a marxist. Especially since his own China was standing at 1500$ GDP (compared to US 55.000) before they switched to capitalism. Switching to capitalism took 1 billion people out of abject poverty in china alone. I think he could have expressed his compassion toward the poor without promoting extremist ideologies. 100million people have been killed for no reason by communism. As a person living in an ex-communist country, I would like to see some more compassion towards us too.

I do not know if Dalai Lama popularity in the west in helping Theravada in any way. Some might inform themselves about tibetan buddhism and get the wrong idea about the historical Buddha because of them. I do not see what else does tibetan buddhism has to do with what Buddha taught except belief in rebirth.


It does seem odd. But I think his point is that it is harmful to only pursue materialistic goals at the expense of others. He has criticized some communist regimes for their failures.

Yes, that is true. But also, interestingly, he has championed his notion of Secular Ethics, which has some interesting parallels to Theravada.

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He could have done it without declaring himself a marxist or a nazist or etc. Name me another religious figure reckless enough to promote such ideologies. All express their compassion towards the poor, but few feel the need to promote extremism. And the Dalai Lama is an educated person. He should have known by a simple google search that marxism/communism have put 1/3 of the world in abject poverty. I’ve never heard of any other educated religious figure expressing simpathy for such things.

Yes, that is true. But also, interestingly, he has championed his notion of Secular Ethics, which has some interesting parallels to Theravada.

I am not familiar with theravada secular ethics. Are you speaking about secular buddhism ?

There is no Theravada secular ethics. That seems like an oxymoron. I’m saying the content of his secular ethics is closer to Theravada than Vajrayana is.

I am not very familiar with that. But I would also want to point out another fact: Tibet has only 3 million enhabitants. The Dalai Lama is basically the leader of an extremely small sect and became such a famous representative of buddhism in general.

I think you underestimate the number of his followers. He has millions of followers worldwide.

Some discussion in Dhamma Wheel relating to this topic.

Can we bridge the two vehicles?

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I think you underestimate the number of his followers. He has millions of followers worldwide.

I see there are supposedly 18 million tibetan buddhist world-wide. Even though this is still a small number, I have no idea where they came up with this. There are 3 million in tibet, 1 million in Mongolia and another 1 million in Buthan, Nepal, northern india. I really have no idea where these 18 million are supposed to be living.

Hi, maybe this is not necessarily 100% aligned with the topic/discussion you want to start, but I think it is worth sharing a link to a very nice website called Berzin Archives:

Dr. Berzin worked with Dalai Lama and was encouraged by him to share his archives with the rest of the world. Read more here.

In the aforementioned website there is a nice section on comparative studies:

Mind that when it comes to Tibetan Buddhism, Theravada is seldom equated with Hinayana.


“Without equal”?

HHDL may have engaged in many populist initiatives but he seems to continue to assert there is ‘Buddhist religion’ versus ‘Buddhist science’.

Further, does HHDL actually discuss ‘Buddhist science’ about ‘dukkha’ or does HHDL discuss Abhidhammic cognitive science & neurology?

Thai (Southerner) Bhikkhu Buddhadasa may have not engaged in populist activities but, more pure than HHDL, essentially asserted Buddhism is only a science.

Buddhism is a religion based on intelligence, science and knowledge, whose purpose is the destruction of suffering and the source of suffering. All paying of homage to sacred objects by means of performing rites and rituals, making offerings or praying is not Buddhism. The Buddha rejected all this as foolish, ridiculous and unsound.

Another aspect is Buddhism as Philosophy. Philosophical knowledge can be clearly seen by means of reasoned logical proofs but cannot be demonstrated experimentally. It contrasts with science, which is knowledge resulting from seeing something clearly, with our eyes, or through physical experimentation and proof, or even with the “inner eye” of intuition. Profound knowledge such as that of emptiness is just philosophy for a person who has not yet penetrated to the truth, and science for another who has done so, such as a fully enlightened individual, or arahant, who has seen it clearly, intuitively. Many aspects of Buddhism, in particular the Four Noble Truths, are scientific in so far as they can be verified by clear experimental proof using introspection. For anyone equipped with awareness and interested in studying and carrying out research, the cause - effect relationships are there just as in science. Buddhism is not just something obscure and vague, not just philosophy, as are man-made subjects

Handbook for Mankind; spoken 1956

Another book: The Scientific Cure of Spiritual Disease

From another book:

Heartiest appreciation from Buddhadasa Indapanno,
Buddhist Science ever shines beams of Bodhi longlasting,
Thus may the Thai people be renowned for their Virtue,
May perfect success through Buddhist Science awaken their heart

So this is why we will study and explain the Complete 16 Step Way in full, because it will reveal the secrets of nature through its scientific approach. This is a science which leads to a natural under­ standing of the things called kaya, vedana, citta, and Dhamma, in the best and most complete way possible, through the perspective and approach of natural science. This is a scientific approach which can regulate these four things. First, study the Complete 16 Steps, then you may trim them down by yourself. Choose for yourself what you need. Practice only two or three steps if you want. Keep just two or three or five steps as you like. But now, please allow us to explain the Complete 16 Steps fully. (B.6)


Video from 14:41.


Sure. But if you get inspired at one of these conferences and decide to visit a HHDL affiliated dharma centre, you will hear the same old Tibetan religion.


I used to have a photo of HHDL & Buddhadasa together. Buddhadasa first met the Dalai Lama in Bangkok in 1964. ‘Handbook for Mankind’ (quoted above) was spoken in 1956, while HHDL was still in Tibet.


Much mudita!

…or perhaps any other religion?

I think there still is some truth to @dxm_dxm’s words. True, Dalai Lama has millions of followers worldwide, but their numbers are much smaller than those of the Theravda Buddhists whose existence most Westerners are not even aware of and are completely negligible if you compare them to the mainstream Chinese and Japanese Mahayana. For some reasons, and I assume that they are at least partly of political nature, Dalai Lama was given an immense media exposure and is perceived by many, if not most non-Buddhist people in the West as the speaker for all Buddhist traditions, some kind of a Buddhist Pope, if you will. When I say I am Buddhist, people automatically assume Dalai Lama is hugely important for me. In my discussions with Non-Buddhists about the alleged violent nature of Buddhism or evil committed in the name of the Buddhist religion the Tibetan slavery is an argument that comes up almost inevitably and it takes me a huge amount of effort to explain to these people that accusing a Theravidin of Tibetan slavery is something like accusing a Lutheran Christian of the Crusades. Not that the Theravda was never used for unethical or evil purposes, but it is still a nuisance when your religious tradition is accused of something it has absolutely no connection with.

If you want to assess how influential a figure he is in the eyes of the Western world, you may just come into a random bookstore and look for all the books having to do with the Buddhism. At least 40% of them will have some connection with Dalai Lama or Tibetan Buddhism. With all due respect to the Tibetan traditions, this is a highly odd situation. Just imagine that 40 % of all book on Chrtistianity, sold in Asia, would be about Evangelical U.S. Christians, that people would have no idea the Orthodox Christians even exist, think that the President of the LDS Church represents the entire Christian tradition and reproach Catholic Christians of the Meadows Creek murder. Of course, this is at least partly not Dalai Lama’s fault, and I value his humanitarian effort and his popularization of the Buddhism in the West very highly. Some of this would be hardly compatible with the modus vivendi of the traditional Theravada or Early Buddhist Sangha, but we should still give him credit where credit is due.

At the same time, for me Dalai Lama is not a religious authority. I don’t listen to his talks, I don’t think he is a Bodhisattva or an accomplished meditation master or that he has attained anything worthy of mention on the Noble Eightfold Path. I could listen to his talks, but what for if I think there are much more accomplished people I can learn from? I bet not many Tibetan Buddhists are keen on reading Ajahn Chah’s Dhamma talks, he’s just irrelevant to them :slight_smile: Dalai Lama can position himself as an ecumenical Buddhist leader, but for me he is not a religiously relevant figure at all. It is not even really necessary for me personally to build bridges to the Tibetan Buddhists: I fell like they are Buddhists just like me, and they can be monks or nuns, and I respect them and their opinons and will support them with resources like food, accommodation, or money if I can. It’s just that I think a pretty good chunk of their teachings is completely wrong. Why should I build bridges to them, then? It is just as if I tried to build bridges to my non-Buddhist fiancée or my Muslim neighbour, a very nice Tunisian guy, where no bridges are really necessary, we are getting along quite nicely.

To sum it all up, Dalai Lama is for me a medially over-exposed Buddhist who has to take part in an absurd situation where he is represented as a spokesman for the entire religion. He is an ethically admirable person worthy of respect and support, his initiatives are also very praiseworthy. Some of his opinions and statements are controversial, but so are those of Ajahn Brahm, it’s normal. That is pretty much it, there’s no big difference between Dalai Lama or any other ethically accomplished Buddhist.

I mean… Does the monastic Southern Buddhism have to be brought together with science? Sure, as a layperson you can do whatever you will and maybe, just maybe there is a lack of scientific intitiatives among the Southern Buddhists, but I always thought that as a monastic person you have other priorities than bringing together the Dhamma and science. Besides, textual criticism and amazing translation work of Ven. Bodhi, Ven. Sujato, Ven. Brahmali or Ven. Analayo and many other venerable bhikkhus ans bhikkhunis, much of it having to do with pretty abstract and theoretical issues of hermeneutical nature, or distinct interest in the reincarnation research among certain Souther Buddhist circles: this is all science. It’s not even bringing together of the Dhamma and science, it is science, pure and simple.

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I am a Theravadin asking for your thoughts on the Dalai Lama. Even if I practiced a more esoteric form, I’d still expect a level of good treatment in this forum, consistent with Buddhist practice. As His Holiness is the most recognizable figure in Buddhism worldwide, and as his influence seems to define what Buddhism is (rightly or wrongly) in many circles, he seems an appropriate topic of conversation.

My take would be that the example of the Buddha is precisely to build bridges. A bridge just connects things. People can go to one side or the other, shake hands, say nice things, and share their perspective without losing their identity or belief. This is certainly in line with the practice of metta.

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You missed my point, unfortunately. Moreover, not providing the context for this phrase, more specifically the sentence about my attitude towards the Tibetan Buddhists and my willingness to share my resources with them, misrepresents my point. It’s not that I shouldn’t build bridges to them because I think their religious views are wrong, I shouldn’t build any bridges between us because there is nothing separating us. Just like I don’t have to build bridges between me and my agnostic girlfriend or me and my Muslim neighbour. I think their religious views are wrong, but that doesn’t separate us from getting along with each other and having a fairly cordial relationship. Should I really fix a bike that is not broken?

Excuse me if you think I am wrong, but I don’t feel like @Gabriel_L treated anyone in a disrespectful way. In fact, I can’t remember him treating anyone disrespectfully, whether they were Tibetan Buddhists, Theravadins or belonged to any other religious tradition.

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Indeed, I am not sure what you are taking offense at @Mr-Squeaky-The-Cat. @Gabriel_L was providing a resource to demonstrate dialogue between Theravadans and Tibetan Buddhists.

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@Gabriel_L is fine. He seemed to imply I was affiliated with a different tradition. No, there is nothing disrespectful there. Never said there was.

Then I misunderstood what you said. I’m glad that you practice fellowship with different people. I think that’s the example of the Buddha, and it’s an important point.

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You’re very right. I just sneaked in to offer that link. On the topic itself I have nothing worth reading to write! Hope you enjoy the links @Vstakan!

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H H Dalai Lama dialogue in Thailand:

The final afternoon session began with one of the Thai monks saying that while he had come to appreciate that it would be more appropriate to refer to Tibetan and Thai Buddhism as “the same goal, same path,” the Mahayana praises the Bodhisattva ideal rather than the Arhat ideal. He asked how we should reconcile this difference. His Holiness explained that the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras of the Sanskrit tradition mention the Hearer Vehicle, the Solitary Buddha Vehicle and the Bodhisattva Vehicle (Sravakayana, Pratyekabuddhayana and the Bodhisattvayana), but that it would be a misunderstanding to see them as completely different…


Thanks for posting this.