Although there is one universal state of complete enlightenment,
there are many paths to other different goals.
It is a common and idealistically beautiful notion, that all the religions of the world essentially preach the same teachings for the betterment of the world. In fact, this is part of the spirit that makes harmonious inter-religious dialogue possible – when we choose to focus on the similarities of compassion and wisdom. If we are to harp endlessly on the differences instead, there would be inter-religious conflict.
Are all religions exactly the same upon closer look? Realistically, of course not – which is why there are different religions in the first place, even though there might be some common teachings in between. If we truly wish to deeply understand various religions, we need to not only look at the similarities, which many prefer to stop at, but to look at the differences too. It should not be surprising that the deeper one looks, the more obvious it will be that there are differences aplenty. Many Buddhists too once speculated on the sameness of all religions, until they studied more about Buddhism, realising it even explains how various stems of religious thought evolved.
Is it okay for one to be a mix-and-match ‘hybrid Buddhist’ then? For instance, to be a ‘_____-Buddhist’? (Fill in your non-Buddhist faith in the blank.) While many Buddhists are not exactly sure of how others might react to that, what would the Buddha think? Although the Buddha clearly wished to benefit everyone with his teachings, he never demanded anyone to only follow his teachings fully and do so without question. In fact, he taught that ‘When you know for yourselves that, “These qualities (as learnt) are skilful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted and carried out, lead to welfare and to happiness” – then you should enter and remain in them.’ (From the Kalama Sutta, on how to wisely embrace a teaching.) This teaching implies that the Buddha allows us to be as Buddhist or ‘non-Buddhist’ as we wish, as we personally find sensible with our wisdom and others’ wise counsel. However, some might not understand what is truly sensible without further study and practice.
Out of his great compassion, the Buddha would surely prefer us to benefit with appropriate though partial practice of his teachings, than to embrace none of them at all. Free-thinkers, those of other faiths and hybrid Buddhists are thus always welcomed to learn more about Buddhism in a non-exclusivist and ‘no obligation’ way. The Kalama spirit of ‘Come and see (and ask); don’t just believe’ is also renowned in Buddhism – a probable reason why it is currently the fastest growing religion in the dogmatically saturated yet often spiritually restless West.
What worth pondering about the quote above is what truly constitutes ‘blameless’, ‘when adopted and carried out, lead to welfare and happiness’. As Buddhists, that leading towards enlightenment in one way or another, directly or indirectly, should be seen as the ultimate benchmark, with enlightenment being true ‘welfare and happiness’.
The Buddha also taught unequivocally that to become personally spiritually liberated requires complete practice and realisation of the Noble Eightfold Path (Right understanding, thought, speech, action, livelihood, effort, concentration) that he taught – ‘… in whatsoever Dhamma (teachings) and Discipline (moral guidelines) there is found the Noble Eightfold Path, there is found a true ascetic (spiritual practitioner) of the first, second, third, and fourth degrees of saintliness (levels of spiritual attainment culminating in self-liberation). Now in this Dhamma and Discipline… is found the Noble Eightfold Path; and in it alone are also found true ascetics of the first, second, third, and fourth degrees of saintliness. Devoid of true ascetics are the systems of other teachers (present then).’ (From the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, the Buddha’s last sermon.) In this sense, the extent that one practises the Noble Eightfold Path is the extent which one is truly Buddhist at heart.
The Three Universal Characteristics (Anicca, Dukkha and Anatta: impermanence of mind and matter, dissatisfaction, and non-self) are also unique teachings found complete in Buddhism alone. These are often described as the ‘Three Seals of the Law (of Dharma)’, used to authenticate the Buddha’s teachings, to differentiate them from non-Buddhist teachings.
Another major difference of Buddhism from many other religions is that the Buddha clearly proclaimed himself to be neither a god nor godsend. Having transcended limitations of all beings through spiritual perfection, he is addressed as a ‘Teacher of humans and gods’ instead. The Buddha also did not advocate belief in an almighty good God, while he explained how this creator God concept arose. (See last few articles of ‘The Daily Enlightenment Book 4.) However, he did teach about countless Buddhas and Bodhisattvas with infinite compassion, ever ready to guide all beings to attain True Happiness.
If one studies different religions on the surface level, one might be too quick to conclude that all religions simply teach us to avoid evil and to do good in totally identical manners. The Buddha’s teachings are often summarised in this verse, ‘To abstain from all evil, to practise all good, and to purify one’s mind – this is the teaching of all Buddhas.’ (From the Dhammapada) Not only does Buddhism have unmatched detailed moral guidelines of universal compassion for all beings great and small, it also systematically advocates a path for the total purification of the mind through active and meditative practices, which leads to the attainment of enlightenment (also defined as emancipation, Nirvana or True Happiness), with which one is better able to help all beings attain the same liberation. These specific teachings for doing so are unique to Buddhism.
Even if one might be able to happily reconcile one’s faith with Buddhism, there are still indeed irreconcilable doctrinal differences, which make Buddhism and other religions distinct from one another. While it might be perceived that religions are different paths to the same goal, the goals of each are usually essentially different, at best vaguely similar. To be truly open-minded does not merely entail looking beyond differences, which is to overlook them, to assume different religions have identical ideologies, when they have concrete differences too. This is important as having or promoting over-simplified and thus inaccurate conjectures of various religions is both unfair to oneself spiritually, and to those of other religions.
While we might think outsiders of other religions can see the overall picture better than the insiders, we should also consider becoming more of an insider to see the picture from within, through more study and practice of a religion to discover its essence. Otherwise, one’s vision of the whole picture would not be all-rounded.
Just as those of one religion should respect and never disparage those of other religions, to forcibly insist that all religions are exactly the same is to disparage them all, as this corrupts their original teachings, which are meant to be self-contained paths to their respective spiritual goals. Of course, whether the paths work or not, and whether the goals are true or not is another issue. As religions exist to benefit all, may they coexist harmoniously with true understanding of one another!
Understanding the goals of many different paths,
one discovers which leads to complete enlightenment.