MR: Groundhog Day was successful without mentioning Buddhism itself. Is Buddhism, as a thing, a success?
RT: People in Buddhist magazines come to me and say, “Let’s talk about how Buddhism is really taking over,” and I say, “No, it isn’t.” Buddhism hasn’t even gotten started here. People who call themselves Buddhist aren’t even aware of their former and future lives. It’s not possible to be a Buddhist and think you are nothing at death, meaning that you’re essentially nothing now and you have no spiritual responsibility.
MR: Is Christianity taking over?
RT: Jesus is great teaching; it’s great dharma teaching: the kingdom of God is within you, it is here and now, you know you just have to let this force of love into your life and you’ll be okay no matter what, etc, etc. To the extent that there’s a spiritual opening involved, that is the dharma in Christian form. The Hasidim and Kabbalists are doing the same thing in Judaism, the Sufis are doing the same in Islam. That is the dharma. But where it falls short of what the dharma offers is by shutting down people’s understanding of what’s happening to them and by imprisoning them within what I call a conceptual cage of idolatry.
Jimmy Carter said, “I’m born-again, too. I love Jesus, too. But my Jesus that I love, He won’t start a war without a good reason. He won’t despise and then imprison women or support people who do. He won’t do that, he won’t do that.” He didn’t challenge the born-again element, but he challenged the ethical interpretation of Christianity.
What I think is really key and what I always deal with when I dialogue with born-again people, I ask them to read Jesus’ words a little more carefully. Read the Sermon on the Mount: “Love thy neighbor.” He says, I don’t think it’s exciting when you love your friends, I want to see if you can love your enemy. That’s Buddhism, that’s the dharma. And even more he says, “In the future when I’m at the right hand of the father, people will come unto me and they will say, ‘Lord, in thy name we cast out the demons and we exorcised and we preached mightily and we did great deeds of power in your name. Let us in.’ But I will say unto them, I will know ye not. Ye did not do what I told you to do. You did violent, terrible things. Therefore get thee gone.” Jesus himself is going to say sorry, you had some good moments, but the way you have behaved, you have more Groundhog lives to live.
MR: So it almost sounds like you’re saying that anybody could enter any religion and get a dharma teaching from that religion.
RT: Or even from secularism, or even from Star Trek, or even from a really good work of art, a great work of art.
MR: Is religion as we understand it really just a cultural context that people plug into?
RT: I think so, basically. Religions are kind of acculturations.
MR: Then anybody could plug their kind of spiritual aspiration into any one of those cultural systems.
RT: I believe so. That’s why the Dalai Lama sincerely says, when he gives lectures in general in public around the world: Please do not think I want you to be a Buddhist. I’m not asking for converts to Buddhism. I would like you to be a good person within whatever your tradition is. And if you learn something philosophical or psychological or meditational from Buddhism, or ethical, I’m so delighted. He sincerely means that. He’s not being cute.
Relax, he says, enjoy your gracious oneness with the loving force of the universe, without thinking you have to enforce your version of it on others. Everyone has their own version in their own heart if they turn around in their own heart. And it can be seen as Jesus, it can be seen as Avalokiteshvara, it can be seen as whatever you want to see. And you don’t need to go and have a fight with them and actually maybe kill them or get them to kill people.