Press Column

He gives good interview. None the less, the saturation coverage of the Dalai Lamaís visit this time was astonishing. There really is no other spiritual leader whom the Guardian would refer to without irony, as holy; and who could in the same week get a respectful full page in the Daily Telegraph, which listed his other PR successes. "you can now buy £300 shoes in Bond Street imprinted with the Dalai Lamaís photograph. His admirers include Richard Gere and Stephen Spielberg and his autobiography has topped the New York Times best seller list. He has even done an interview for Playboy, appeared on Terry Wogan and guest edited French Vogue."

"Arenít you in danger of being trivialised?" Alice Thompson asked him. His answer was that "I am a screen saver for computers. I donít mind. People can use me as they want. My main practice is to serve human beings." And this is the clue to his attraction ó it is impossible to imagine anyone else as famous as he is delivering the line so that it still sounded humble and funny when spoken. Of course he has done all these interviews a million times before, and I have to say that his message for the West is a little worn. He is much more impressive discussing theology in Tibetan. But even when dealing with a question for the five thousandth time, he still gives the impression that he would like to find the truth in the answer somewhere, and that there is still a chance that this will break through.

Like many monks, he has the most extraordinary effect on women. He made Alice Thompson blush, by gesturing to express the Buddhist distaste for masturbation, and even got Madeleine Bunting to confess to religious enthusiasm. "I booked tickets for myself, friends and relatives for Wembley months ago." She wrote, in an op-ed piece. "I had attended one of his talks and found his explanation of Buddhism compellingly straightforward and sensible."

Perhaps you donít have to be a Tibetan philosopher to be called straightforward and sensible in the Guardian, but I canít think of any non-Tibetan thinker to disprove the theory.

The role of the Church of England in all this was curious. The Guardian pointed out that "No Archbishop of Canterbury could sell out Wembley for 10 hours of sermons". Iím sure this is true; less certain why. One answer is that the Dalai Lama preaches better than the competition. The modern Christian sermon is generally boring without being rigorous whereas Tibetan sermons have the merit of novelty. But even if the archbishops offered to speak in Tibetan through an interpreter I donít think they could hold an audience for ten hours. Another may be that listening to a teacher is about the least demanding part of Tibetan Buddhist practice. If you had to choose between philosophy and the cold water, vegetables and meditation side of religion, abstract thought would seem a lot more attractive, whereas almost every part of a Christian service is more engaging and fun than the sermon.

No wonder that the only serious use for the Church of England in all this appeared in the Daily Telegraph piece, where it was revealed that the Dalai Lama will be accompanied, on his vist to Tony Blair, by an Anglican prelate as a "chaperone" to make sure that he is received as a spiritual and not a political leader. Itís good to know that the man who appoints the bishops still finds some use for them.

Thereís no substitute for knowledge of a subject if you really want to be upset a journalistic treatment. The Financial Times had a long article on the neurological correlates of religious experience by Raj Persaud, who of course took the view that it was some kind of brain malfunction. The point of this research is to find which parts of the brain are involved in religious or mystical experience. This is parallel to all sorts of research involved in scanning the brain to discover what parts of it are involved in certain experiences and functions. Neurologists are, for example, mapping the visual system in some detail, or the parts involved in the production of speech. But the assumption is always made that when specifically religious experience is studied, there is nothing out there to cause it. Persaud quoted all the right research names: Ramachandran, Michael Persinger, and Newberg and DíAquili. It upset me quite irrationally that he made it obvious that he hadnít noticed that DíAquili died earlier this year, a fact which, since he was a close friend of a friend of mine, seems at the moment more important than any of his theories.

But the most spectacular example of religious ignorance came in the Observer, which carried a long and sympathetic profile of Sinead OíConnor, looking tremendously vivacious and sexy in her clerical gear. As she put it "Iím going to put on my earrings and Iím going to put on my proper make-up and Iím going to put on my lipstick and body lotion and my best underwear and Iím going to be a sexy motheró-Ėing priestess and if anybody doesnít like it they can (mother) off."

"I cast my mind back to my time as an altar boy in the same parish where OíConnor spent some of her teenage years." Wrote John Mulholland. "The parish priest never used to talk like this". What do you expect, I ask myself. Irish clergy have got into enough trouble just for wearing their sexiest underwear and lipstick without ever talking about it. But the best bit of the story, for connoisseurs of religious language, came when Mulholland tried to explain her theological views. "Though unorthodox, her letter to the Pope does raise serious questions about the role of women, the issue of celibacy and the suppression of God'í female side. Bearing in mind that the Greek Orthodox Church, practically a facsimile of the Catholic Church, allows women priests, and given the already significant movement for the ordination of women, these ideas are not necessarily the preserve of Ďmadí people."

The sane ones, though, do not introduce themselves to the Pope with an open letter of which the third paragraph is ALL CAPITALS. Of course, he is a man, so he may not understand joined up writing.

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