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!