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A Blessing from the Dalai Lama

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Twelve years ago, I went to see the Dalai Lama with the small seeds of a big dream: a movement of young people from different traditions building bridges of interfaith understanding through service. Last week, I had the chance to thank His Holiness personally for speaking encouraging words to a 22-year-old kid with a head full of radical spangles.

The Dalai Lama was in Bloomington, Indiana giving a teaching on the Buddhist Heart Sutra. He took time out to meet with a small group of Muslim and interfaith leaders to launch a new book -- and a new dialogue -- called Common Ground Between Islam and Buddhism.

Muslims have lived in Tibet for four centuries, His Holiness recounted, in full peace and solidarity with their Buddhist neighbors. The Dalai Lama told a story of one of the earliest memories he had with a Muslim, the local watch-repairer. "I was a restless child," the Dalai Lama said, that priceless smile playing upon his lips, "so I would always break my watch." The Muslim watch-repairer would come and fix the watch and lovingly admonish the young Dalai Lama to play more gently. At this point the Dalai Lama broke out in full laughter -- a Muslim telling a Buddhist to be more gentle: that is a story the world should hear more often!

And then the Dalai Lama got serious. He spoke of his sadness that the image of Islam is all violence. This was not his experience with Muslims or his understanding of their faith, and he was especially concerned about the isolation this image was causing.

Several times His Holiness spoke of the importance of "coming together", emphasizing that when people interact positively with each other they learn how similar they are, and when they are separated the gap is often filled by hostility.

The Buddhist-Muslim dialogue affirms how faith communities can come together on shared values while disagreeing vehemently on key matters of theology. Indeed, the theological core of Islam is belief in one God, while Buddhists don't believe in God at all. His Holiness is, of course, well aware of this fundamental difference, but his eye is always trained on the similarities. He writes in his forward to Common Ground:

My Muslim friends have explained to me that since God is characterized as compassionate and merciful, faithful Muslims are actually offering complete submission to the ideal of universal compassion ... Such a practice is clearly a way of purifying the mind and seems to parallel what the Buddha himself said about the importance of actually living your life in a compassionate, ethical way.

The Dalai Lama goes on to widen the circle beyond Muslims and Buddhists, and call us collectively to act on what he sees as the chief value in all of our traditions: "Clearly, compassion lies at the heart of the teachings of both Islam and Buddhism, as it also lies at the heart of other great religious traditions ... The time has certainly come for followers of the world's great religions to work together to create a more compassionate and peaceful world."

The Dalai Lama led the group in Bloomington in a short meditation, and as I was focused in on my breath and silently chanting the name of God in Arabic, I thought back to my first audience with His Holiness. I was experimenting with Buddhism back then, trying to figure out who I was and what I hoped to contribute to the world. I was eager to explain the Interfaith Youth Core to His Holiness during that first audience, but the Dalai Lama insisted on asking me questions about my own religious path first. I stammered that I didn't know. He prodded gently, asking if I was a Muslim. I said my ancestors were. He spoke back then in Dharamsala as he did last week in Bloomington, about his friendships with Muslims and his admiration for Islam. "Be a good Muslim," he told me. Only then did he allow the discussion to turn to the Interfaith Youth Core.

In my short statement to His Holiness in Bloomington, I thanked him from the bottom of my heart: "It was you, a Buddhist monk, who showed me my path and affirmed my purpose. The dream I shared with you 12 years ago, we are building it."

I told him the network of interfaith leaders is growing. I asked him to pray for us.

This piece originally appeared on the Washington Post's "On Faith."

Eboo Patel will be on a panel about interfaith cooperation with His Holiness the Dalai Lama this Sunday at St. John the Divine Cathedral in New York City. Click here for details.