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May 17 - May 19, 2002



Sunday 19th May, 2002


"Peace and Love and So On" - Dalai Lama Update

Read Tim Blair to learn how the Australian media are covering the Dalai Lama's visit. And find out what Tim thinks of the man himself. (Hint: His posting is headed "Eastern Arrogance" and the Dalai Lama is referred to, respectively, as Rolly Polly Holy, Mr Lama, Daily Llama, Dolly Lamer and the Dalster.)


-posted 11:25pm



The Religion to Have When You’re Not Having a Religion

The Dalai Lama received a pop star welcome in Melbourne last night. And the papers debate whether Australia is turning Buddhist.


In a full-page article (available online only for a fee) The Age says:


Australia today has 348 organisations that describe themselves as Buddhist, more than twice as many as in 1995. The Dalai Lama’s book, The Art of Happiness, has sold more than 150,000 copies in Australia and is among a series of Buddhist best-sellers in Western countries. They include The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, whose author Sogyal Rinpoche, spoke on business ethics to a seminar organised by Sydney’s Commonwealth Bank. Buddhism also has a huge presence on the internet. The world’s most visited Buddhist website, Buddhanet, is run from a Sydney office by an Australian-born Thai-Buddhist monk.


The paper interviewed many Australian Buddhist converts, who gave a variety of reasons for choosing their new faith.


Lindsay Falvey, a professor of agriculture at Melbourne University…developed a deep respect for Buddhism over 25 years of visiting Thailand as an agricultural aid worker. This has shaped his ideas of the need to take a moral approach to agriculture, which includes a responsibility both to the environment and to feeding people.


Contrast this with my own observations from living in Japan for 17 years. I too became deeply attached to Buddhism, only to become disillusioned. Here is an excerpt from Chapter 8 of my book Living Water to Light the Journey (which I am slowly putting online).


I saw the dreadful despoliation of the environment that had occurred in Japan and in other Asian Buddhist countries, far worse than anything in Australia or in most other Western nations. And I also could not help but notice that Japan, one of the world’s wealthiest countries, devoted relatively little attention to helping the poor of the world. I became disillusioned with a religion that at heart seemed to me then to be mainly concerned with the self.


I tend to agree with the comments of two academics in the article in The Age:


“People grossly over-estimate Buddhism’s Western numbers,” says Professor Gary Bouma, a Monash University sociology professor and Anglican minister. Bouma believes many more people profess vague allegiance to the ideals of Buddhism than are card-carrying members. “Buddhism,” he adds, “is the religion to have when you’re not having a religion.”


Similarly, Greg Bailey, a reader in Sanskrit at LaTrobe University, believes the allure of Tibetan Buddhism is fuelled by Western fascination with the exotic. The Dalai Lama, he says, “is promoting a particular image of Buddhism popular with the middle classes.”


That fits in with my own experiences in Japan. Here are more excerpts from Chapter 8 of my book:


I loved these Buddhist services: monks wearing colourful robes chanted sutras; there were bells, gongs, drums and chimes, and the fragrances of incense; and there were all kinds of dazzling Oriental rituals. It was all very exotic, and for me, coming from a non-religious background, the whole atmosphere always seemed to be one of great holiness and the presence of the supernatural.


I sometimes experienced a real spiritual buzz from these flowing, dream-like Buddhist services, seated with dozens of priests on the tatami floor, listening to the soft-percussion melodies, and chanting long, layered sutras that seemed to soar upwards and then float to earth in deep, guttural growls. Often an entire face of the temple building was opened to reveal a mountain or lake setting. Some of these services were real theatre, with chanting priests walking in single file slowly through the morning mist into the temple.


And here are my warnings in Chapter 9:


The spiritual and mystical traditions of Christianity have become an important part of my life. Yet I also see dangers in veering too far towards this side of religion—in putting all the emphasis on the experiential.


That is what worries me about idealistic young Australians who seek out an adviser for instruction in Eastern and New Age spiritualities. Too often, these people operate in “pick ‘n’ mix” fashion, moving from one fashionable, articulate guru to the next, absorbing a bit of Oriental philosophy and timeless wisdom and achieving some transcendental-like experiences. They feel they are on a voyage, journeying closer to the divine. Often it is little more than a pilgrimage deeper into their own egos.


In Japan, the country of the East that I know best, a person engaged in a spiritual journey will normally become attached to a teacher, and that teacher will be attached to a hierarchy of other teachers, some of whom will have many decades of experience. These teachers will be revered and respected, and they will put enormous stress on hard work and discipline, some of it intensely unpleasant. Dedicated study of traditional scripture will be required, and the teachers will also be likely to emphasise continuing humility, duty and service. There will probably be a strong ethical overlay.


Unfortunately, too often the Australian Oriental experience is designed to give people a quick fix, to make them feel better about themselves. And though there is, of course, nothing intrinsically wrong with feeling better about yourself, especially if you have problems, the point is that it is a short-term fix only. When big difficulties crop up in your life, you may find that you have nothing solid supporting you. For me, it is the support of God that has proven to be one of the major differences between my past Buddhist experiences and my present life as a Christian.


I find that I am continually drawn back to the Bible, and to the figure of Jesus….In our society, where so many are seeking values, and where so many feel such a spiritual desolation in their lives, I suspect that the answer is a genuinely listening heart, open to the message of Jesus.


Meanwhile, the newspapers miss what I believe is a big story: the steady move to Christianity by so many Chinese and other Asian migrants to Australian, many of them from a Buddhist background. It’s a story I intend to cover on this website. Please stay tuned.


-posted 2:00pm



Saturday 18th May, 2002


Christian BlogList Continues to Grow

That’s what happens when you neglect your email for a few days – more than 20 new blogs for the Christian BlogList, which continues to grow and now numbers more than 180 sites. Some are blogs I simply hadn’t discovered before. But quite a few are brand new.


Some of the sites came from a new list, Some Catholic Blogs, drawn up by Gerard Serafin. He has divided this list into 45 Catholic blogs, six Orthodox and two Christian. (I’d be far too nervous to categorise blogs – or anything else – into Catholic, Orthodox and Christian; I guess I’m just an over-sensitive Evangelical.)


Gerard himself has a new blog, A Catholic Blog for Lovers. It’s a deeply spiritual site, and also extremely attractive, incorporating Christian artworks.


I got bitten by the blog bug. Decided to launch out into the deep (even if I am not particularly deep myself): and I guess I see my Catholic Blog for Lovers as another nook in my rather rambling garden of a website. I hope to share images, poetry, prayers, reflections from the saints and mystics, readings and a few comments here and there on the current life of the Church (mostly the Catholic Church).


Another list of Christian blogs is at the manna cabana site (thank you to Joyful Christian Jeffrey Collins for telling me of it). Most of the blogs on this list are personal diaries of Christians, often with little actual Christian content. Many are very touching. But I have decided that with my own list getting so large I’m not going to include these personal diaries any more (unless diarists themselves ask to be included – I wish to manage the list under grace, not law).


Of the new blogs on my list, one I particularly liked was, from Tim Bednar, a former inner-city pastor in Minneapolis, and now a web designer. He bills himself as pastor of e-church, and plans to write about the church in the world, “what it means to think and act as a Christian in the world as it actually exists”.


He has a lively style and plenty of ideas. In one posting he reflected on why people nowadays seem more comfortable getting their ethics from a humorist such as Randy Cohen (who writes about ethics for the New York Times) rather than from Christians.


My answer is that [a humorist] is perceived as being closer to humans. Many outsiders perceive that Christians walk five feet above the ground…


In thinking about this, I would like to work to cultivate a sense of wit and humour that is disarming. I think that would be a powerful way to help outsiders hear the truth as truth.


I want to affirm Christian humorists to shout louder, to become more daring. Those of quick wit: do not concede to boredom or to the opinion of others. Learn to balance your humour with prophetic poignancy. Learn how to pierce the soul with laughter. The Kingdom needs prophet/clown/comedian to help us see ourselves as we really are – this is comedy at its best and most glorious.


And check out Stranger in a Strange Land, the blog of Ellen Hampton, a Christian worker in Bosnia.


We decided to continue our church tour, and found ourselves at the Serbian Orthodox church just as the service was ending. Happy Easter! It was orthodox Easter on Sunday, and after our experience there we felt welcomed and blessed, for as we were standing around the back of the church, enjoying the gold and blue painted ceiling and the painting of the Last Supper over the iconostasis, one of the church members motioned for us to come forward to the front of the church and proceeded to give us each an egg dyed dark red. I felt very joyful in seeing how the celebration of our risen Lord had affected these believers to welcome us strangers (despite the fact that we were tourists and Protestants) in this way. We felt graced.



Friday 17th May, 2002


All Spiritual Leaders Are Equal – But Some Are More Equal Than Others

Prime Minister John Howard will refuse to meet the Dalai Lama, who is due in Australia tomorrow for a 10-day tour.


"Well, he's a spiritual leader. I don't see every spiritual leader who comes to Australia on every occasion that he or she comes to Australia," he said. "I saw him in 1996. There is no particular reason why I should see him on this occasion."


In fact, there’s a very good reason why Prime Minister Howard does not want to see him on this occasion – the PM is off to Beijing next week to promote an Australian bid for a $26 billion project to supply China with liquefied natural gas.


According to the Dalai Lama’s Australian representative,


the reaction from the Chinese Government [is] always the same. "There's no difference," he said. "Wherever he visits, the Chinese warn them. They (the Chinese) get very upset before he visits, but some countries tend to withstand that and others give in. Australia is in the middle."


Instead, a Parliamentary reception is being organised by Greens senator Bob Brown, who is clearly not afraid of meeting spiritual leaders.


Actually, there's one spiritual leader the senator seems scared of meeting. Bob Brown is, of course, the politician who tried to ban the Lord’s Prayer from Parliament.



Heathens of Sydney and Perth

I noted yesterday (scroll down) that according to the Operation World handbook, Papua New Guinea is 97.3% Christian, one of the highest percentages of any country. It also has a huge number of foreign missionaries, many from Australia.


A reader asks:


Why not, other than the sexiness of going to the Deep Dark Jungle to Civilize the Natives, send some of those missionaries to Sydney and Perth rather than Port Moresby?


Australia is just 67.5% Christian, according to Operation World.



Wild About Balkenende

Turning again to the highly detailed Operation World handbook, we learn that just 55.9% of the population of the Netherlands is Christian, one of the lowest rates of 52 European countries (Bosnia, at 35.0%, is bottom).


So Christians should be rejoicing at yesterday’s Dutch election results. The country’s new Prime Minister seems likely to be Jan Peter Balkenende,


a Christian philosophy professor who takes a dim view of cannabis cafes, gay marriage and euthanasia.


Just one problem. The Christianity Today weblog wonders if American Christians will like him. After all, he looks - gulp - just like Harry Potter.


-posted 11:30am