During the millennial TV extravaganza of Dec. 31, there was a defining moment that for me demonstrated both the wonderful promise and the frustrating failure likely to accompany the early years of the new millennium. The wonderful promise was visible in the images rushing onto my screen from all over the globe, diverse communities around the world gathering to celebrate the coming of the year 2000 on the Christian calendar. What wonderful faces and places were present for me through the wonders of satellites and a network of electronic miracles. I felt a sense of the "global village" we have heard so much about.
A representative of my own time and place then took the screen to interview some of the spiritual giants of our age, to tap their wisdom concerning the millennium. There was Larry King in his trademark shirtsleeves and suspenders. He told us of the marvel worked to bring us the Dalai Lama from his Tibetan Buddhist Study Center in "remote Sarnath, India."
The next moment, there was the image of the Dalai Lama, leaning toward us, waiting for King's first question. Then came the words that demonstrate the opposite of the promise of the future, the words that mark the frustrating failures we are likely to experience. King opened his mouth and, unbelievably, said, "Your Holiness, tell me, is this also the millennium for you Muslims?"
One might excuse King for a slip of the tongue, calling the spiritual leader of the Buddhist world a Muslim. But it was not a slip of the tongue. After the Dalai Lama went on to graciously note that the Buddhist era began 2,500 years ago, considerably before Christ, Larry King looked down at his research notes and said, "Of course for you people this is a year in the 1400s." King, or his staff, had taken the time to look up the year on the Muslim calendar, 1420, to prepare for interviewing the Dalai Lama. Suddenly the entire past thousand years might have passed before our eyes. For Christians, since the time of the Crusade, the "other" on our globe has been the Muslim, the Moor, the Musselman. Buddhists must be some of "those suspect outsiders."
The interview moved from that unbelievably low note to even lower tones. Did King listen to the wisdom of the East from a spiritual leader who had seen his people through a genocide, had courageously created a new Tibetan community outside the homeland, and had opened the secrets of Tibetan meditative arts to the world? No. King had a lame set of questions, barely waited for answers, and then ignored what the Dalai Lama said. King's questions: "What do you people think of Jesus Christ?" "Do you sometimes doubt your own Buddhist beliefs?"
I'll admit I have no transcript of the interview. It took me by complete surprise. I scribbled the notes I've used here to recreate the scene. And there was a moment, after the break, when someone must have called in, or nudged King, and whispered, "Tell him that you realize he is a Buddhist, not a Muslim." But even this seemed to confuse King, whose notes clearly told him that the Buddhist leader, the Dalai Lama, was one of those Muslims.
The morning of Jan. 1, the mother of a youngster from a third grade where I had given a lesson on the world's religions phoned me. She reported that she had let her daughter stay up to watch the millennial celebration, and her daughter told her King didn't know the difference between a Buddhist and a Muslim. Was that right? I told her that I wish her daughter had been there to do the interview.
I do celebrate the wonder of communication by satellite and other miracles of our time that bring people from across the globe together on the television screen. My great worry seems well-founded, that once we are face-to-face, we won't much know who it is we are facing, and we will not be willing to take the time to listen. We have come to the moment of a global conversation. I wonder whether we have prepared ourselves to listen intelligently; I wonder whether we have anything meaningful to say.
Cliff Edwards is the director of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University.