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Talking with the Dalai Lama: What Would You Ask if You Had Just Ten Questions?

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A couple of nights ago, I was channel-surfing, trying to find something mindless to watch after a difficult day. Something like "Liar Liar" or "Uncle Buck." But there was nothing on -- 500 channels and nada. Or so I thought. Then, I switched to the "On Demand" feature on our cable system and, after pausing a moment on "Don't Mess with the Zohan" (I'd seen it, but momentarily considered giving it another go), a listing in the "Indie" section caught my eye.

"10 Questions with the Dalai Lama" was the title -- a documentary by American filmmaker Rick Ray who more or less Forrest Gumped his way into a 45-minute private audience with the spiritual leader of the world's Tibetan Buddhists in 2001 at his monastery in Dharamsala, India. (Ray e-mailed the Dalai Lama. Really. And it worked.)

The delightfully imperfect 87-minute documentary, which tells part of the Dalai Lama's story -- from impoverished obscurity to world peacemaker -- with rare historic footage, got me thinking: What would I ask His Holiness if I had 45 minutes alone with him?

By virtue of my chosen profession, I've had the great fortune of meeting and spending time with some of my heroes. Political and religious leaders. Rock stars and poets. Culture shapers and world changers. After meeting Archbishop Desmond Tutu a few weeks back, the long list of spiritual giants I'd love to talk to about faith before I die (or they pass on to the Great Reward) is down to three: the Rev. Billy Graham, Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama.

I'd give just about anything to sit by Graham's rocking chair in the mountains above Asheville, N.C., and pray with him; or to ride through the streets of Pretoria with Mandela and listen to his stories of reconciliation. And the thought of being able to ask 10 questions of the Dalai Lama makes my mind (and heart) race.

In the documentary, Ray asks a lot of things that wouldn't have been on my list. "How do you reconcile a commitment to nonviolence when faced with violence?" "Must a society lose its traditions in order to move into the future?" "Why do the poor often seem happier than the rich?" They're good questions, and the answers the Dalai Lama gave, always with his infectious, mischievous giggle providing a soundtrack underneath, were thoughtful and, yes, profound.

But there was something less than transcendent about the interview. Not that the Dalai Lama has to float on a cloud of incense and speak only of the spiritual. No. He's very much a man, a point he often makes to counter the misconception he is, somehow, divine.

The 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, now 73, is believed to be the reincarnation of the Buddha. But he is not a god. The Buddha, for that matter, didn't consider himself a deity, either. Surely, the Dalai Lama is more enlightened than most of us. And anyone who is that plugged-in spiritually, and has made a life's work of peacemaking and the search for justice, is someone I'd very much want to ask a few of life's more eternal questions.

And, no, I wouldn't start with "Do you really think sex leads to suicide and murder and that we'd all be better off celibate?" -- a follow-up to His Holiness's comments this week to reporters in Lagos, Nigeria. Sex wouldn't make my list of 10. It's just not that interesting in the eternal scheme of things. Neither would the problem of evil or which albums he'd put in his desert-island disc collection (although that might be No. 11 if we went into overtime).

For sure, if given the chance, I would ask him:

No. 1: Is it possible for any of us to know God (realizing, of course, that Buddhists don't so much believe in God), and if it is possible, how do we know when we know?

No. 2: What is love?

No. 3: How do you know when you are acting in love?

No. 4: What does it mean to be loved, and how are you loved?

No. 5: How can we create a lasting peace, a more just world, a compassionate community?

No. 6: What inspires you?

No. 7: What is grace? When have you experienced grace?

No. 8: What do you regret?

No. 9: What is the best thing?

No. 10: What is true, and how do we know?

If you had the chance to ask the Dalai Lama (or Graham or Mandela) 10 questions, what would you ask? E-mail tenbigquestions@yahoo.com.

Cathleen Falsani is religion columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and author of the new book, Sin Boldly: A Field Guide for Grace.

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