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“Who am I?” and “Why am I here?” and “What is man’s purpose?” Two of the world's most influential spiritual leaders go head to head.

As old as mankind itself is man’s desire to understand his origin.  Questions such as “Who am I?” and “Why am I here?” and “What is man’s purpose?” have long pervaded the collective mind of humanity.  From these pontifications have sprung creation theories and rules for living, all of which have ultimately led to various forms of organized religion.  With so many differing forms and varying explanations for one’s universe, the pressing need for leadership from within these organizations has led to long-standing traditions of doctrine, pomp and circumstance, and massive public followings.  Today, the heads of the major world religions are coming under increasing scrutiny, particularly in terms of their ethics and politics. 

According to Catholic theology, the first Pope was St. Peter, who was designated as such by Jesus when, in Matthew 16, He states: “That you are Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.  And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatsoever you shall bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever you shall loose upon earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven.”  Catholic legend states that this was the first designation of the Papacy.  Most historians, however, agree that St. Peter was not a “Pope,” in the modern meaning of the word, and that the actual title was created with this lore as its foundation in the year 1073.  The current reigning Pope is Benedict XVI.

In Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama is said to be the present incarnation of Avalokiteśvara, or the bodhisattva, who embodies the compassion of all buddhas.  The first Dalai Lama was declared in 1391, and fourteen successive Dalai Lamas have followed; the current leader, Tenzin Gyatso, has been serving as the Dalai Lama since 1950.

Both the Pope and the Dalai Lama have held governance over the lands in which their office resides.  Tibet was united under the rule of the fifth Dalai Lama in the seventeenth century; thereafter, the Dalai Lama served as the head of the Tibetan government, ruling from the capital city of Lhasa.  In 1959, however, when China took total control of Tibet after a 10-year invasion, the fourteenth (and present) Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, fled to India and has since ceded temporal power to an elected govenment-in-exile. 

The Christianization of the Roman Empire in the fourth century led to the gradual withdrawal of imperial authority as the bishops took control of the land.  By the fifth century, the bishops had spread out to take control in other cities of the Western Empire, leaving the Pope as the senior imperial civilian official of Rome.  The Holy Roman Empire was established in the year 800 when Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne as emperor; thereafter, the Pope ruled the Papal States and crowned each successive Roman emperor until Italy’s annexation of the Papal States in 1870.  Today, the Pope’s political authority exists only within the walls of Vatican City.

Following a Pope’s death, a new Pope is elected by a two-thirds majority vote by ballot by all the high bishops of the Catholic Church.  Each elected Pope is said to be infallible when he speaks ex cathedra (from within the cathedral) and his word is immediately accepted as dogma.  Following the death of a Dalai Lama, his monks institute a search for a small child who is said to be the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation.  The search often takes several years.  When the reincaranate is located, the monks bring the child to Lhasa, where he is trained by other lamas to assume the position as leader of the faith.  The current Dalai Lama has made statements suggesting that he may choose to be the last Dalai Lama by not being reborn, although he has also stated that the purpose of each reincarnation is to complete unfinished work and, if the situation of Tibet remains unresolved at the time of his death, he will reincarnate.  He has ruthlessly stated, however, that he will not reincarnate in any territory controlled by the People’s Republic of China.

The Catholic Church has long been criticized for its conservative values and its dogma; particularly in the West, it has been under scrutiny for its refusal to acknowledge same-sex marriages and for its positions on legal abortion and birth control.  Pope Benedict XVI has stated, “The various forms of the dissolution of matrimony today, like free unions, trial marriages and going up to pseudo-matrimonies by people of the same sex, are rather expressions of an anarchic freedom that wrongly passes for true freedom of man...from here it becomes all the more clear how contrary it is to human love, to the profound vocation of man and woman, to systematically close their union to the gift of life, and even worse to suppress or tamper with the life that is born.”  Western liberals have been highly critical of the Vatican’s stance on these issues. And for many years, the Catholic Church has been heavily criticized for its religious intolerance, particularly citing the belief that all non-Catholics (including non-Catholic Christians) will burn for eternity in hell. 

In recent years, however, the office of the Pope has spoken out as one for peace and religious tolerance.  In his encyclical Redemptoris Missio, Pope John Paul II wrote, “But it is clear that today, as in the past, many people do not have an opportunity to come to know or accept the Gospel revelation or to enter the Church.... For such people, salvation in Christ is accessible by virtue of a grace which, while having a mysterious relationship to the Church, does not make them formally a part of the Church but enlightens them in a way which is accommodated to their spiritual and material situation. This grace comes from Christ; it is the result of his sacrifice and is communicated by the Holy Spirit. It enables each person to attain salvation through his or her free cooperation.” 

Additionally, the current Pope, Benedict XVI, has been a major advocate for tolerance of Islam, stating that, “for believers, as for all people of good will, the only path that can lead to peace and fraternity is respect for the convictions and religious practices of others.”  Pope Benedict XVI was highly critical of the recent publication in a Danish newspaper which depicted the prophet Mohammad as a terrorist.  He stated, “In the international context we are living at present, the Catholic Church continues convinced that, to foster peace and understanding between peoples and men, it is necessary and urgent that religions and their symbols be respected.”  Pope Benedict XVI has been highly critical of George W. Bush and the US-led invasion of Iraq, stating that, “The concept of preventive war does not appear in ‘The Catechism of the Catholic Church.’”  He has also advocated for Palestine, stating: “May the international community, which reaffirms Israel's just right to exist in peace, assist the Palestinian people to overcome the precarious conditions in which they live and to build their future, moving towards the constitution of a state that is truly their own.”  Although he was severely criticized upon his initial election for having allegedly been a member of the Hitler Youth, the current Pope’s politics have suggested that he is supportive of the respect for all religions and the independence of all nations.  The current Pope has stepped up to modern times and taken aim at addressing current issues and presenting the politics of his faith.  Even his 2006 Easter message did not focus on dogmatic recollections of the Savior’s crucifixion, but rather, began with a call for a peaceful solution for the nuclear conflict with Iran.

The Dalai Lama’s primary focus has been the status of Tibet.  Living a life of exile in India, he has focused most of his energy throughout his rule advocating for Tibetan autonomy.  Thousands of Tibetans fled to India with him when China took over forty-two years ago.  He has long been an advocate for non-violence, yet seeks genuine autonomy from Chinese rule.  The Chinese government argues that Tibet is an integral part of its territory, and that, by taking over in 1959, they liberated the people of Tibet from “a feudal theocracy led by Dalai Lamas.”  Tibetans who have remained in the territory following the exile of The Dalai Lama claim that they have suffered human rights abuses, as well as “cultural and ecological destruction.”  In 2001, the Dalai Lama met with US President George W. Bush, who, according to a White House statement following the meeting, promised a “strong commitment of the United States to support the preservation of Tibet's unique religious, cultural and linguistic identity and the protection of the human rights of all Tibetans.”  The Chinese government, which refers to its 1959 take-over of Tibet as a “peaceful liberation,” was outraged by the Dalai Lama’s meeting with Bush.  Chinese Foreign Ministry representative Zhu Bangzao, called the Dalai Lama “no ordinary religious figure” and “a political exile engaged in separatist activities.”  Zhu furthermore stated that, “China has long opposed [The Dalai Lama’s] visit to the United States and any official meetings and contacts between him and the U.S. administration.”  Other world government officials have also defied China’s disapproval of meeting the Dalai Lama, including former president of Taiwan Lee Teng-hui, Danish Prime Minister Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, and members of the Israeli Parliament.  The Dalai Lama has also defiantly met with many religious and political leaders in countries all over the world, including Canada, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, Mongolia, Greece, Japan, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Nepal, Costa Rica, Mexico, the Vatican, and Australia.  Recently, The Dalai Lama has developed a strong following in Hollywood; stars such as Harrison Ford, Goldie Hawn, Oprah Winfrey, Martin Scorsese, and Richard Gere have attended his high-profile appearances in New York and Los Angeles, where he spoke about compassion, altruism, and spirituality. The Dalai Lama won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989.

Two religious leaders: each revered by his people, each referred to as “His Holiness.”  Both criticized, both praised.  Despite their differing religious beliefs, each has taken a stance, not only as a spiritual leader, but in the world of politics and global awareness.  Whatever their religious convictions, it is comforting to know that some spiritual leaders of the world have risen above their roles as interpretators of ancient texts and have taken their knowledge and their beliefs to their people as real voices on global issues.

1st July 2006

FACE OFF:  The Pope vs. The Dalai Lama
By Jill A. Bolstridge