The Dalai Lama and the Pope: renewing the power of holiness

by - 12th August 2015

TWO figures of undoubted moral stature now dominate world affairs. Each of them is a religious leader.  Each is known by the title His Holiness, but seems to wear the title lightly.

For neither of them is virtue a lost ideal, neither is morality a private matter.

Each preaches compassion, consideration for the poor, spirituality above materialism, and the care of the natural world.

What do these two men have in common, that distinguishes their voices from those of other office holders and persons of power and influence?

Certainly, each has been featured in Rolling Stone, which indicates their popular appeal.

Each one’s office has a long pedigree, and each just might be the last of his kind. Perhaps there’s a clue there.

Last of the kind?

His Holiness Pope Francis, born Jorge Mario Bergoglio, is the 266th in descent as Bishop of Rome from St Peter, and may be the final Pope if a prophecy attributed to an Irish Archbishop, Saint Malachy, can be believed.

Saint Malachy predicted that there would be ‘many tribulations’ during the final Pope’s reign, after which ‘the seven-hilled city’ of Rome would be destroyed and ‘the dreadful Judge will judge the people.’ 

We should not forget, perhaps, that Malachy was Irish, a nation long famous for its poets and tellers of tales.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama, birth name Lhamo Thondup, is the 14thin his line, and has said himself that he may well be the last.

The Dalai Lama’s own prediction of the end of his line comes with gentler imagery and a finely-tuned sense of humour.

When the communist Chinese objected to his saying he might be the final incarnation of the Dalai Lama, he responded: ‘The Chinese Communist Party is pretending that they know more about the reincarnation system than the Dalai Lama. The Chinese Communists should accept the concept of rebirth. Then they should recognize the reincarnation of Chairman Mao Zedong, then Deng Xiaoping.’

Only then, he suggested, would they have the right to discuss the topic of the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation.

Let’s admit, though, that Saint Malachy is apocryphal, and the Dalai Lama is kidding.

Being the last of their respective kinds is not the secret of their success, or their moral stature.

And in this world where sceptics, cynics, agnostics and doubters increasingly speak for the majority of us, the fact that the two humans of greatest moral stature in our times are both religious figures should give us pause.


They are great because they are consciously small. Their virtue is humility.

The Dalai Lama speaking for his Tibetan people’s culture, said, ‘Both our culture and peoples' basic admiration of humility provided a climate in which it flourished.’

He then distinguished between ‘the entirely appropriate aspiration to succeed in wholesome tasks’ – which he admires – and ‘ambition’, which he described as ‘a quality which leads all too easily to self-centred thinking.’

On the Thursday before Easter, Pope Francis enacts the Gospel passage in which Christ washes the feet of his disciples and instructs them, ‘”If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another's feet.”’

He travels to a prison and washes and kisses the feet of twelve incarcerated young people, two young women, one a Muslim.

He tells them, ‘To wash your feet, this is a symbol, a sign that I am at your service ... But it also means that we have to help each other.’

For the Dalai Lama, too, humility is essential. ‘To counter one's arrogance or pride, you need to reflect upon shortcomings in you that can give rise to a sense of humility.’

‘I have always considered myself just a simple Buddhist monk - no more, no less,’ said the Dalai Lama after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. ‘There is no change now.’

And humility, in Pope Francis’ view, is not merely a virtue to be cherished but a practical necessity if humankind is to survive.

‘Once we lose our humility, and become enthralled with the possibility of limitless mastery over everything,’ he writes in his Letter to the Bishops, Laudato Si’, ‘we inevitably end up harming society and the environment.’

St Francis, in whose memory Pope Francis took his papal name, goes so far as to address God as humility in his text, The Praises of God: ‘You are love, charity; You are wisdom, You are humility, You are patience, You are beauty, You are meekness . . . ’

We are getting to the heart of the matter.


Each of these two men received his early training as a member of a religious order – Pope Francis as a Jesuit, the Dalai Lama as a monk of the Gelugpa or ‘Yellow Hat’ order of Tibetan Buddhist monks.

Each practices and promotes contemplation in action.

‘From contemplative prayer,’ Pope Francis told a crowd in Rome, ‘is born in us the capacity to live and carry forth the love of God, His mercy, and His tenderness toward others.’

‘First, we must contemplate, and pray, and try to understand, understand, understand’ the Dalai Lama told the crowd at Glastonbury Festival in June this year. ‘This builds our conviction. And then we must act.’

First contemplation, then action: this is the secret uniting heart, mind and hand which gives these two figures their appeal and stature.

And the need to join together to combat climate change is one arena in which these two men are in strong agreement.

The Guardian reports from Glastonbury, ‘The Dalai Lama has endorsed the pope’s radical message on climate change and called on fellow religious leaders to “speak out about current affairs which affect the future of mankind.”’

The Pope writes, ‘The urgent challenge to protect our common home includes a concern to bring the whole human family together to seek a sustainable and integral development.”

Where will these two religious figures – moral icons of our age – lead our arrogantly secular world?