On the banks of the holy Ganga in North India, 40,000 people were gathered to hear the Dalai Lama speak. It was in January, 2001 and the audience included Hindus, Muslims, Christian, Buddhists, Jews, and Sikhs. When His Holiness took the microphone, a silence settled over the crowd. He spoke at first in his usual style which included telling a few jokes, reciting a prayer for the peace and welfare of mankind, and then he began explaing what the essence of dharma is. Dharma is the virtuous path, but it means more than accepting the beliefs of a specific religion. The Dalai Lama explained that compassion is the core of dharma. When you embrace all and exclude none, when you love all and hate none, selfless service becomes a natural part of your life, he said. Your inner conflicts and restlessness melt away, and you become established in peace. This peace begins to fill your surroundings. You are no longer a source of fear for others, and others are no longer a source of fear for you. This is how you create heaven, or paradise, here and now. It is within you.
Finally, at the end of his talk, questions were invited from the audience. A man said, "I understand Buddhism does not believe in God. What is your opinion about God? Does God exist or not?". His Holiness laughed, grabbed the hands of the two spiritual leaders on each side of him, lifted them in the air, fixed his gaze upon the audience, and said emphatically, "God exists or God does not exist. Leave it for us. Your task is to learn how to live peacefully."
The audience was awestruck. Many appeared perplexed at his reply. But, many did get it. Think of this: the Buddha , 2,500 years ago, was a spiritually enlightened leader who refrained from speaking about God. India possessed thousands of scriptures which were believed to be living revelations that proclaimed God's existence, gave methods for reaching God and receiving his grace. Yet, India was torn by strife. People believed that God was one and all-pervading, yet that belief did not lead them to experience their underlying unity. People believed God was an embodiment of love and compassion, yet that belief did not stop them from their hatred and cruelty. It was clear then, and it is clear in today's times, that a mere belief in God does not automatically make us good, and that a lack of such beliefs do not make us bad. Mere belief does not take away doubts, fear, or destructive and negative behaviour.
The Dalai Lama was telling everyone there that belief in God or religion doesn't ground one in the direct experience of the truth. To experience that truth, one must have a clear, calm, and tranquil mind, and this mind must be turned inward. Sadhana is the practice of turning inward. "Upon protection of the mind, the whole world is protected, and upon its destruction, the whole world is destroyed", say the scriptures. Cultivating a virtuous mind, then, is our dharma.