The Importance Of Inter-Religious Harmony

As featured in Singapore’s Inter-Religious Organisation’s 2009 commemorative magazine for the China-Singapore Religious and Cultural Exhibition, by committee member Shen Shi’an, who co-represented the Buddhist faith.

It is a common and idealistically beautiful notion, that all the religions of the world essentially practise and preach the same teachings for the betterment of the world. In fact, this forms 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 on the differences to one another instead, there would be inter-religious conflict.

But are all religions exactly the same upon closer look? Realistically, of course not – this is why there are different religions in the first place, even though there might be certain teachings which overlap in between. If we truly wish to deeply comprehend various religions, we need to not only look at the similarities, which many tend to prefer to stop at, but to look at the differences too. However, this should be done for greater understanding and acceptance, not for debate.

In this ever-shrinking global village called the world, there is increasing interaction between adherents of various faiths. Depending on how this happens, it can be for better or worse. Rub shoulders in a friendly way and mutual understanding is fostered. Rubbed the wrong way, enmity is stirred up instead.

The most common problem in inter-religious dialogue is disagreement on perspectives of Truth. But disagreement is not the real problem if there is mutual agreement to disagree. The true problems arise from insisting to others that one’s disparaging view of their religion is correct, and the imposing upon them that one’s own religion is the only true one worth following.

There is nothing wrong though, with sincere personal belief that one’s faith is the best. That would be “making peace” with oneself. However, when one insists others to agree likewise, that would be “making war” with others. Asoka, the great Buddhist emperor (circa 304 B.C.) had this to say —

“Growth in essentials can be done in different ways, but all of them have as their root restraint in speech, that is, not praising one’s own religion, or condemning the religion of others without good cause. And if there is cause for criticism, it should be done in a mild way. But it is better to honour other religions for this [or that worthy] reason. By so doing, one’s own religion benefits, and so do other religions, while doing otherwise harms one’s own religion and the religions of others.”

There is a diversity of religious beliefs in our world simply because there is a corresponding diversity of mindsets. Even two random adherents of the same faith are unlikely to have totally identical views. We need to respect this worldly reality — before arguing on any spiritual reality. If not, there would be no harmony but only conflict. Surely, a religion that is pro-conflict is not one we need. What if it is a central tenet of a religion that it cannot agree to disagree with others? Thankfully, there is no such religion in practice today, or there would be inter-religious chaos. With all orthodox religions advocating peace, this implies that those who cannot agree to disagree might not really be religious at heart.

When any inter-religious dialogue is not so much to learn, but to be preachy, there is no true dialogue. One will notice that those truly interested in understanding others ask and listen more than they speak. Sadly, those uninterested in dialogue are usually the close-minded ones too sure and proud of themselves, while belittling others’ religions. This itself is potential for conflict.

During inter-religious dialogues, it is wise to discuss in a “monkly” manner — in a way calm, kindly, harmonious, rational and gentlemanly — a manner similar to the Buddha’s, as opposed to rude and impatient name-calling or ridicule – which often happens anonymously in cyberspace. We need to be mindful that this virtual tension can spill over into the real world.

When we lose our compassion and wisdom while sharing or defending the beliefs we profess to represent, surely, we are misrepresenting our faiths with our very loss of compassion and wisdom — which are undoubtedly virtues universal to all respectable religions, and even to free-thinkers. The basic ethics of free speech (or any other form of expression) with responsibility should be followed both offline and online, by sticking to the so-called golden rule found in many religions — to not do to others what you do not want others to do to you.

In sincere dialogue, there is gentle nudging to reflect, instead of proselytising with threats of spiritual damnation. Real dialogue never insists on acceptance of one’s beliefs, but merely offers them respectfully for rational consideration.

When learning about a certain faith, we need to be wary of its misrepresentations by those not of that faith — since outsiders often generalise other faiths in inaccurate ways, albeit accidentally. While being open-minded to hear outsiders’ views, the insiders’ should be heard too — for balanced and right understanding.

The Buddha himself actively engaged in much skilful inter-religious dialogue with great compassion and wisdom. As there were more than 60 different stems of religious thought in his time, the feat of being able to engage in harmonious dialogue is most remarkable. His is the example that Buddhists aspire to follow.

The Buddha’s timeless advice on critical-thinking is still valid. Buddhists are first and foremost encouraged to self-reflect, to be critical and even doubtful about their own faith before accepting it, and to always balance faith with sound reason.

Which makes more sense on the path to Truth? To engage in harmonious dialogue with an open heart and mind, or to refuse dialogue, while insisting others are totally wrong, that only oneself is totally correct? We all already know the answers. Since religions exist to benefit humankind, may all religions co-exist harmoniously in the light of true mutual-understanding!


  • It’s good to see so many religions co-existing in harmony in Singapore. Hence,
    inter-religious harmony is very important here. However, most people gets easily upset when certain issues are viewed by others from a different religious viewpoint. Hence, I think sometimes it’s just better to leave people alone to their own thoughts.

  • “Real dialogue never insists on acceptance of one’s beliefs, but merely offers them respectfully for rational consideration”.

    How that is actually done in various real-life circumstances with people of different temperament should be shared freely and continuously by those who have or are still attending such interfaith dialogues.

    What one party considers as offering his beliefs in a respectful way for rational consideration may be considered as disputing the validity of the other as viewed from the other party.

    Mutually agreeing to disagree is indeed the mature and peaceful way to go. However, I do not think that will lead to real interfaith harmony. It merely prevents all parties from questioning one another further and end up having one party to leave his seat at the interfaith dialogue abruptly.

    Remember, the Mahayana and Theravada split after Buddha’s passing away?

    If Mahayana and Theravada schools still cannot reconcile fully, much less Buddhism with other religions.

    What we see is not true harmony. What we see is not true respect. What we see is mere adult civility and courtesy.

    This is not to say Buddhists are picking a fight with those from other religions. No true Buddhist who understands the real meaning and purpose of inner cultivation, and practising universal compassion would do that.

    Just stating a fact that what we see is not what we can actually wholeheartedly believe to be true harmony and respect.

  • The points mentioned in that Wiki article is a mere declaration of agreeing on some fundamental teachings.

    While recognising and accepting the path of a Samyaksambuddha (Perfectly and Fully Enlightened Buddha)to the highest, noblest and most heroic, Theravada practitioners do not emphasise on striving for it as much as those from Mahayana.

    Mahayana teachings emphasise on the Bodhisattva and fully-enlightened Buddha. Whereas for Theravada teachings, being able to achieve Arahanthood is already a very great achievement. A even better one would of course be the Pratyekabuddhas.

    This wiki article, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pratyekabuddha, mentions the Mahayana schools consider the Pratyekabuddhas to be self-centred and contrasted them unfavourably with the Bodhisattva.

    The only time we know Mahayana and Theravada are truly reconciled and united is when their labels are no longer used and can no longer be heard. When those who do not think of striving to be a Bodhisattva and/or a fully-enlightened Buddha as their spiritual goals, are not in any way slighted by those practising the Mahayana ideals, that is when Mahayana and Theravada has become one yana in our human world.

    Like the verse in small Amitabha Sutra that mentions ‘Sariputra, in this Buddhaland not even the names of the three evil ways exist, how much the less their actuality!’

  • Every Buddhist of every tradition acknowledge the goal of Buddhahood to be the loftiest because it is perfect compassion and wisdom actualised. As long as compassion is not expanded to encompass all, it is of course to that extent ‘self-centred’ for the time being. Mahayana teachings believe everyone enlightened or not can eventually work towards the ultimate enlightenment of Buddhahood when the right effort is put in. It is perfectly fine for a Buddhist tradition not to have the same goal as another due to different karmic affinities. It is natural for there to be graduated goals with contrasting labels for communicating their differences as long as their are different karmic affinities in this world.

  • [As long as compassion is not expanded to encompass all, it is of course to that extent ‘self-centred’ for the time being.]

    It is that perception of being ‘.. ‘to that extent ‘self-centred’.. ‘ from the Mahayana point of view, that sort of maintains the subtle but yet existing spiritual and psychological distance between Mahayana and Theravada traditions.

    [Mahayana teachings believe everyone enlightened or not can eventually work towards the ultimate enlightenment of Buddhahood when the right effort is put in.]

    Which sort of implies quite clearly, this is what differentiates Mahayana and Theravada fundamental teachings. This also somehow implies Theravada traditions do not believe in the concept of everyone enlightened or not can achieve Buddhahood through the right effort.

    [It is perfectly fine for a Buddhist tradition not to have the same goal as another due to different karmic affinities. It is natural for there to be graduated goals with contrasting labels for communicating their differences as long as their are different karmic affinities in this world.]

    I wouldn’t exactly say perfectly fine, but have all along accepted the rationale about having different karmic affinities and thus different spiritual goals. The point of discussion is, when viewed from the historical point that Mahayana and Theravada traditions didn’t become so distinct before Buddha’s passing away, I realise that without the Buddha, even disciples who had followed him all the way could not help but to disagree with one another on what’s self-centered or not, what’s truly wholesome or not in terms of spiritual goals, despite knowing or understanding the fact about each having different karmic affinities.

  • The distance between is there because it really is. Simple as that. If A believes he can run 100 miles and B 200 miles, so be it. A after 100 miles might change his mind and run on. It’s the same one track. Everyone just do their best please. There are Theravada masters who vow to walk the Bodhisattva path too. No need to think so much. PRACTICE of the Dharma matter most. If not, the more we just think and talk, we are wasting life.

  • If fellow Buddhists only know how to merely to dismiss others as thinking too much and assuming that everything that others say is just think and talk, then there would no need for any form of verbal or written discussion, isn’t it.

  • peaceful co-existence needs all-concerted efforts based on mutual understanding of all beings. Buddhist ideology enlightens the brains whosoever comes to its contact,hence more the Buddhism spreads, more the brighter opportunities for making this planet worth living place.

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