This week His Holiness the 14th Dali Lama visited Madison, WI, a city that time again joyfully receives him. Hundreds gathered to watch him disembark his flight at MSN airport, and tens of thousands applied to a lottery to see the Lama speak at the University of Wisconsin. Although the Lama speaks of his struggle for Tibetan freedom, he also speaks about compassion, love, and peace – that is, morality.
Madison is famously liberal, racially white (meaning non-Tibetan), and widely atheistic (it is, after all, the seat of The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, a humorous religion intended to lampoon Christianity.)
Why does the Dali Lama hold such a dear place in the hearts of such a “non-religious” community? A Madison blogger wrote on the topic: “Affluent folks who no longer have to worry about meeting life’s basic needs start to wonder what it’s all about. Their spiritual journey starts with the luxury of time and education to help them to think about it, and their inquiry tends to be less about community building and more about personal fulfillment and their own ‘journey.'” Although such people may have rejected Christianity, they still want morality and spirituality from a different source. For them, in the words of Nietzsche, although God is dead, the shadow of Buddha shall be cast upon the wall for centuries hence.
This appeal is what started the 14th Dali Lama’s ascent to stardom in the past few decades. Even for the more secular groups in which the Dali Lama’s fame first grew on the west coast, the mystery of eastern religion and perceived wisdom of a millennia-old tradition were important in reinforcing their already-held belief in such virtues as altruism; that the Dali Lama’s moral teachings are basically no different from the Christian moral substrate of his New Atheist American followers is partially the reason for his penetration in that cultural group’s authority void.
This trend can also be seen in the in-class viewing of Little Buddha, in which westerners, including an allegorically secular engineer, are introduced to the seemingly strange and mysterious Buddhism, only to learn it is not so different from their own culture, and then to embrace its teachings to some degree. In all times and religions (including non-religions) a token of similarity is the swiftest path to religious understanding, conversion, and syncretism.