The Pope and the Dalai Lama

13 Mar

Have they ever met, the Pope and the Dalai Lama?

I’m sure that many individual Roman Catholics and many individual Tibetan Buddhists have met. Perhaps some are neighbors and tend flower gardens side-by-side. Perhaps some’ve discussed their religious beliefs in a panel discussion at some august university. And perhaps some have just met in passing at a bus stop. But met they have in the course of their lives.

The Pope and the Dalai Lama are different. They are the heads of their religious groups. They have responsibilities and symbolic significance. They represent Roman Catholicism and Tibetan Buddhism to the outside world and, of course, to their followers as well. The Pope and the Dalai Lama are not merely individuals, but they, if you will, are offices too. Offices that individuals occupy, for a time. But the office itself persists.

The Papacy is unoccupied as I write this. There is no Pope, only a conclave of cardinals seeking to elevate one of their number to that office. It is otherwise with the Dalai Lama. That office has an incumbent.

I suppose that the Pope is more visible in the world than the Dalai Lama and considerably more powerful too. Yet I also suppose that while all those cardinals are aware of the Dalai Lama, he isn’t necessarily aware of any of them beyond a few particularly prominent ones. There is a difference between the head and the rest, a dramatic difference.

The Pope sits atop a hierarchy, and a vast one at that. Tibetan Buddhism isn’t organized like that. To become Pope one must ascend through the ranks. One must work for it. It’s a political process. It takes a lifetime to do that. Popes are old men, or late middle age at the youngest.

The Dalai Lama is born to his office. Actually, he’s reborn to it. But no one knows it at the time. The Dalai Lama is recognized by other monks only after he is born. Once recognized he is then raised in the office.

Very different processes. Very different religions. Different worlds.

Ever since the West recognized itself as such the Pope has been a prominent figure within that geopolitical sphere. That happened several centuries ago. As the West came to dominate the rest of the world, so the Pope’s sphere of recognition and influence has grown.

It is only quite recently, I believe, that the Dalai Lama has become known outside Tibet. That is the result of China annexing Tibet unto itself and the Dalai Lama fleeing into exile. The Dalai Lama’s visibility thus arose on the back of the Cold War conflict between America and its allies on the one hand and the Soviet Union and its allies on the other. Though that conflict has collapsed, the Dalai Lama remains at odds with China.

And he is still visible on the world stage, though not so well known or influential at the Pope.

But have they ever met, the Pope and the Dalai Lama?

I do not know.

The world doesn’t have a Council of Religious Heads that meets to conduct this or that business. Nor is there any other institution that would have brought the two together as a routine matter. If they were to meet, what would they say?

Or would they just play a game. Chess perhaps? Poker? Paper-rock-scissors? Patty-cake?


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