On July 13 I departed with a friend for Wheaton, IL to be part of the annual meeting of the Theosophical Society with a two day meeting with the Dalai Lama in Chicago. This is a summary of some thoughts and feelings.
The Theosophical Society was created in 1875 in America by three individuals led by a woman named Helen Blavatsky who was born in 1831 in the Ukraine province of Russia. A few years later an international headquarters was established near Madras, India in the town of Chennai. The US national headquarters remained somewhat mobile until in 1926 it settled in Wheaton, Illinois. Today Theosophical Societies or Lodges exist through the country and in many nations, many of them represented at the last week’s meeting. A lodge exists in Buffalo known appropriately as the “City of Light”!
The purpose of the Society is “to encourage open-minded inquiry into world religions, philosophy, science, and the arts in order to understand the wisdom of the ages, respect the unity of all life, and help people explore spiritual self-transformation.” Termed as a “modern form of ancient Gnosticism,” the society holds no dogmatic theological positions except that the knowledge and experience of the Divine comes from within a person and their world rather than from adhering to external beliefs and doctrines in holy places. Many of their practices seem close to the Eastern disciplines of Buddhism and Hinduism. The Society is made up of scientists, researchers and teachers of the “inward way”. They love and honor the teachings of Jesus as one who taught the presence of the Kingdom within and that we are to love and forgive our enemies. Further they honor all the traditions of various religious societies over the ages and welcome the respective inward or esoteric teachings from each. The opening invocations for the annual summer meeting came from eight difference traditions.
In 1953 the Dalai Lama, then newly appointed Prime Minister of Tibet as the 14th Dalai Lama, left Tibet for a brief visit to India. He visited the Theosophical headquarters in Chennai in order to learn from them and has since been a friend and contributor to the Society. In the early 1980’s, he was the featured summer presenter at the National Headquarters in Wheaton.
My interest in both the Theosophical Society and this summer’s visit came from my 25 years of seeking to practice and learn the experience of following the Christ within. The Society and His Holiness have been respected and often read. A scientist friend of mine, born and raised in Hamburg, including membership in the Wayside Presbyterian Church, had encouraged me for years to read and be part of the Theosophical Society. He accompanied me on this past week’s trip. The Dalai Lama notified the Theosophical Society in February of his intended visit and welcomed their sponsorship and special presence with him.
The meeting with His Holiness on Sunday, July 17, was conducted in the auditorium of the University of Illinois. It included several thousand attendees but members of the Society were seated in front of the Dalai Lama. It was an exciting time. The Dalai Lama, now at 76 years, spoke for about an hour. He is a very direct, simple and self-effacing person. On Monday, the meeting had fewer attendees in the Harris Theater in downtown Chicago. Social leader Jesse Jackson was in attendance and had asked for conversation with him. Exiled since 1959 from Tibet, the Dalai Lama now lives in Dharamsala, a small town in Himachal Pradesh, India, in the northern part of the country. He refers to India now as “his country.”
Some highlights of his talk and question time to me were the following. The Dalai Lama does not urge people to leave any present organized religion they might be within. Rather he encourages participants to become an active part of any religious or “secular” organization but daily practice compassionate living and loving of all, especially one’s enemies. He commends Christianity for bringing quality education to the world through its often failed efforts to “missionarize.” His Holiness does not criticize any one or any religious organization but continually urges compassion, forgiveness and love for all.
His Holiness, as he was addressed, does not urge a singular religious form but feels differences in form are “good competition” yet each needing to respect and honor others. He urges respect and honor for Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Native “earth” religions, and the various varieties of Buddhism. He urged us to become involved in interreligious organizations, sharing ideas and working together to build a safer and more humane world society. He urged dialogue on the great issues of the world such as global warming and dignity for all peoples with an end to expensive and destructive wars.
The Dalai Lama was asked his opinion on the continual rise of Buddhism in the United States as traditional religions continue their decline. He answered that Americans like variety, living with sort of a “tourist mentality” enjoying novelty and newness. Thus many chose a “new religion” like Buddhism as the “latest trend” of the day. The secret of any such journey is the practice of opening our awareness or consciousness to a deeper level of daily experience. Always sprinkled with humor, he urged us to simply stay open and work within groups to teach love and compassion by experiencing it foremost in ourselves.
I was moved again by being in his presence and words. He spirit, words and advice are simple and clear with humor and candor. He tends to move myself and many to a sense of overwhelming peace and hope amid a world of divisiveness. I found tears welling in my eyes often. In 2006, I heard him with nearly 30 others from the Wayside Presbyterian Congregation in Hamburg as we traveled to the University of Buffalo stadium. He resonates with the best teachings I learned while in India Ashrams during my journey there in 1987. He speaks of his deep respect for Fr. Thomas Merton, coming to America to meet him and again to join in a Buddhist/Christian Monk memorial service in Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave.
The special events and presentations at the Society headquarters were equally engaging and helpful. We were urged as members to spurn “theosophical gossip” (constant obsession with auras, chakras and reincarnations) and work consciously to live with compassion and love. Accomplished musicians and artists gave memorable presentations each evening. Delicious vegetarian meals were served three times each day, although my friend slipped out twice to the Arby’s across the street!
Thus I bring home a desire to continue my journey of seeking and living God’s Wisdom, the essence of the word “theosophy.” I feel inspired anew to practice a deeper compassion and patience with myself and all others including the sentient beings in my life. Thus may my speaking, singing, teaching, and moderating be more deeply permeated with the Eternal Spirit of Oneness and Love.
God’s peace to you all.
Pastor Dave…thanks so much for sharing..a sign of a good teacher. I have always loved your writing and especially this piece about one of my favorites…the Dalai Lama.
Thanks Dave for this interesting insight into a great spiritual leader. Following the inward path can be hard for us activist Americans.