Dalai Lama asserts that compassion is emphasized by Islam

Michael Paulson

This is a scene that immediately captured my imagination: Last week, in the preacher's room at Memorial Church in Cambridge, the Dalai Lama, who received the Nobel Peace Prize for his advocacy of nonviolence, turned to one of Harvard's leading scholars of Islam and asked him about the meaning of jihad.

The 73-year-old Dalai Lama had been to Harvard multiple times, and on a couple of occasions had met William A. Graham, a noted Koranic scholar who for the last several years has been the dean of Harvard Divinity School. The Dalai Lama, preparing to give his speech about the teaching of compassion, was apparently thinking about the role of a divinity school at an institution like Harvard when he turned to Graham and asked him about Islam.

"We were simply talking about the virtues of doing comparative religion studies, which he believes in, and he said so many things are misunderstood, like jihad," Graham told me a few days later by phone. "He said he was thinking about the differences between greater and lesser jihad in Muslim jurisprudence. He had a few things to say about it - I didn't get much of a chance to respond to anything - but he's quite correct that the word 'jihad' has been misused. Any traditionalist who knows his Islamic law knows that jihad is fundamentally defensive."

In his opening remarks, the Dalai Lama not only paid tribute to the importance of educating students about religions other than their own, but he also made a more specific point, that Islam, like Buddhism and other religions, emphasizes compassion. The Dalai Lama made his point visually, as well as verbally, pulling off his wrist his Buddhist prayer beads - called a "mala" - while referring to Muslim rosaries and talking about how Islam fits into the family of faiths. Here's what he said (his English is a little rough, but his meaning is clear):

"Islam like any other major tradition. I think the very praising Allah means love, infinite love, compassion, like that. I understand Islam, they usually carry rosary, all 99 beads, different name of Allah, all refer compassion, or these positive things. No religion, no religious tradition say their god is full of hatred, full of anger, nobody say that. So Allah means infiniteness of love. So genuine follower of that kind of god, the meaning is, must practice love, compassion, because they are genuine follower of that kind of god. So in that case, more faith towards one's own god, the person should be more compassionate person."

Abuse, the Globe, and the power of God

It's now been 17 years since the spring day when Cardinal Bernard F. Law, frustrated by the news media's intensive coverage of a former priest, James R. Porter, who was a serial pedophile, called for divine intervention. In one of the most famous lines Law ever uttered, he said, while speaking at a Roxbury church, "By all means we call down God's power on the media, particularly the Globe."

In the years since, that quote has been twisted and, Law argued, misinterpreted. In 2002, in a deposition, he said, "you know, calling down God's power is not calling down God's wrath," and, "I don't think that would be a bad thing to do, even today, to call down God's power on the news media, including even the Globe, yes. I think that would be good."

Now, with our cash-strapped corporate parent, The New York Times Co., threatening to shut us down if we don't slash spending, apparently I'm not the only one recalling that quotation.

Rocco Palmo, blogging over at Whispers in the Loggia, revels in the irony for all it's worth, including the fact that the supposedly make-or-break negotiations took place at a Catholic parish in Weymouth (one that, by the way, is rich with metaphoric potential - it burned to the ground a few years back (act of God?) but had good insurance (miracle?) and has now been rebuilt (reborn?).

Although all the archdiocesan leaders I've spoken with, including Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley, have been sympathetic, at least one church employee is not so sure - Domenico Bettinelli, who works in fund-raising for the archdiocese, blogged, "Oh sure, the glitterati and the politicians that the Globe is supposed to cover have all come out of the woodwork to lament the possible loss of the newspaper. But the people have been voting with their pocketbooks for years, dropping their subscriptions to the newspaper with every bizarre anti-Bush screed or anti-Catholic editorial cartoon."

And even my former colleague, David Warsh, got into the act, blogging, "It is hard to evaluate what the vigor of the Globe's pursuit of the story of the church's tolerance of sexual abuse by priests cost the paper in good will."

I don't actually believe the Globe is going to close, and, if it does, I don't believe our coverage of clergy sexual abuse will have had anything to do with it. I also think it's kind of insane, and insulting, to imply, as Warsh does, that the abuse story was aimed "over the heads of readers. " But whatever one thinks, the story has clearly become a defining part of the paper's history - I noticed in an NECN story about the Globe's past that sex abuse and busing were the only two stories mentioned - and, whatever our future holds, it will be part of our legacy.

Posted May 10, 2009, Boston

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