The Pope, the Ayatohlla and the Dalai Lama

With the recent visits of the Pope and the Dalai Lama to the U.S. it struck me how interesting it is the way the leaders of different religions present themselves to the world and the subtle (and not so subtle messages) this conveys.

The Pope is always dressed to the nines–gorgeous, heavy, floor-length robes, usually all white or red. When leading ceremonies he wears his beautiful tall white hat. To enable visibility with security, he rides in his specially-made Mercedes Popemobile. He lives in the Vatican, amidst splendor that most of us see only when visiting historic castles. He sits on a tall, intricately carved chair covered with gold leaf during church services and ceremonies, which are filled with pomp and circumstance. Despite the fact that he is just a human being Catholics believe that, when the Pope is elected, he becomes God’s infallible human proxy. Everything is done to ensure the appearance of royalty and authority; the metaphor is undeniable—king. I wonder what Jesus, the carpenter, would think?

Islam is more decentralized and has no overall leader. Most Islamic countries have clerics who have risen to or inherited positions of authority and leadership. In Iran they are called Ayatollahs. In Iraq, Muqtada al Sadr leads a large segment of the Shiites. These men dress modestly in robes and seemingly live modestly as well. They wear long beards, which gives them a stern, authoritarian appearance. And they are always frowning; never once have I seen a Muslim religious leader smile. I suspect that most of these men are trying to convey a sense of seriousness that they believe God has toward human beings and behind this, the anger and vengeance that awaits those who disobey God. There is no sense of love or compassion in their faces. The message is clear—religion is serious business, God is an angry God, don’t screw up.

Then there is the Dalai Lama who, despite being the spiritual head of a tiny Buddhist country, Tibet, has risen to international prominence and won the Nobel Peace Prize. Rather than hate the Chinese who invaded his country in the 1950s and forced him into exile, he encourages love, forebearance and dialogue. He describes himself as a simple Buddhist monk and wears the simple saffron robes of his monastic order. His face and head are clean-shaven. For relaxation he repairs watches. Rather than proselytize Buddhism, he encourages people to follow the religion of their culture. He encourages scientific exploration and understanding, even when it might contradict his spiritual beliefs. While the Dalai Lama can be serious, he has a wonderful sense of humor and is quick to laugh. His entire approach to spirituality can be summarized by a quote of his: “There is no need for temples, no need for complicated philosophies. Our own hearts are our temples, the philosophy is kindness.”

The Pope, the Ayatollah and the Dalai Lama all wear robes; beyond that their appearances, surroundings and demeanors differ significantly, reflecting their image of who and what they represent. They are but three examples of the many religious leaders around the world. Who’s your Daddy?

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1 comment so far ↓

#1 John C. A. Manley | on 05.22.08 at 6:34 pm

I know where you are coming from with this post. Having grew up in the Catholic church, I know what you mean by the “pomp and circumstance.”

But, really, whether the spiritual leader is wearing kingly gowns or humble robes, it really doesn’t matter.

Lord Krishna was a king, wore jewelry and makeup, yet he was a fully liberated being. He was just playing a role.

Taking a vow of poverty can easily lead to pride, just as much as amassing riches.

I met the Dalai Lama in Italy. Interesting story. You can read it here…

You’re right, he’s great.

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