Interreligious Understanding and Cooperation

By Ven.Dr. Sheng Yen, D.Litt.
Dharma Drum Mountain International of Taiwan
1. Interreligious Respect
During the time of Shakyamuni Buddha, there was once a layman who, originally a devotee of another Indian religion, converted to Buddhism after meeting the Buddha. This layman was uncertain whether or not he could still make offerings to his original teacher. When he learned of the man's confusion, the Buddha told the man he could continue to make offerings to his original teacher just as before. In fact, in the Agama Sutras and Monastic Code preached by the Buddha, the Buddha frequently praises the merit of making offerings not only to the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, but also to other religious practitioners such as ascetics and Brahmins. So respecting other religions is a basic criterion for a Buddhist devotee. Therefore, Buddhists will not cause conflicts with followers of other religions, and will always get along with them peacefully, like good neighbors. This is especially true in the Chinese cultural sphere. Although at times in Chinese history arguments have erupted between Confucians, Buddhists, and Taoists, and there have even been large-scale persecutions of Buddhists, these incidents were all instigated by a small number of politically-connected Confucians and Taoists who used their influence at court to encourage misguided, anti-Buddhist policies.
However, relations between ordinary folks of different religions have actually been very cordial. For instance, up to the time when I escaped from mainland China in the1940s, itinerant Buddhist monks could seek lodging in Taoist temples, and itinerant Taoist clerics could pass the night in Buddhist monasteries -they respected one another's faith and method of spiritual practice. Chinese maintain that "all paths lead to the same destination." So any religious practitioner who does not go against the basic moral principles of love, peace, and the pursuit of true happiness is worthy of approval regardless of his method of practice. Hence the Chinese saying that "Buddhist monks and Taoist clerics all belong to the same family."
China has a plurality of ethnic groups and a great diversity of religions. At one time in history, the Confucians, due to their self-centeredness and superiority complex, viewed non-Han races as uncivilized barbarians. However, through mutual adaptation and interaction with one another over a long period of time, the Han eventually came to discover that other cultures were also very admirable: not only did these other cultures have much in common with Han culture, but they actually had merits which Han culture lacked. Therefore, in the areas inhabited by Chinese there have been neither religious wars nor implacable enmity between ethnic groups .
Chinese Mahayana Buddhists believe that the good teachings in all religions are the elementary prerequisites for attaining Buddhahood, and that the prophets of all religions are manifestations of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. They have manifested themselves in these various personas only to adapt to different cultures and living environments, so that they may use the most appropriate means to deliver sentient beings. Hence in the 12th century, the Confucian scholar Lu Jiuyuan (1139-1193), influenced by Buddhism, said that "When a sage appears in the East, he has the same mind and realizes the same principle; when a sage appears in the West, he has the same mind and realizes the same principle." This means that all prophets, from whatever geographical area and of whatever religion, have more or less the same love and realize roughly the same truth.
If we use this principle to view all religions, we will respect all religions. While it is perfectly natural for devotees of any particular religion to claim that their own religion is the best, we must also acknowledge and respect the fact that our neighbors and relatives also have the same right to claim their religion is the best. Once on an airplane I was sitting right next to a Christian missionary, who was piously reading the Bible and praying. Seeing that I had nothing to do, he gave me a Bible and showed me how to read it. I praised his good intentions and enthusiasm, and agreed with his statement that Christianity is the only religion through which one can attain salvation. He immediately asked me, "If this is the case, why are you a Buddhist monk? Isn't that a pity?" I said, "I'm sorry, but for me, Buddhism is most suitable. So I would say that Buddhism is the best religion."
II. Interreligious Understanding
As shown in the incident I just mentioned, it is necessary to respect one another before we can understand one another. I accepted the missionary's Bible, and in return gave him a Buddhist book. From his expression I could see how much he hoped that I would diligently read the Bible, just as I hoped he would look through the book about Buddhism.
In Taiwan and various parts of the world, I frequently go to the educational institutions and churches of other religions, sometimes to lecture on Buddhist studies, sometimes to participate in symposiums, and sometimes to attend religious ceremonies. I have quite a few friends from other religions. Other religions invite me to discuss Buddhism, and we also invite missionaries and scholars of other religions to our Buddhist schools and institutes to introduce their religions. And representatives from the major religions are always happy to attend religious conferences sponsored by Buddhists.
From what I know, the first people to introduce Buddhism to the West were not for the most part Buddhists but rather Christian missionaries who had gone to the Orient to evangelize.
Buddhism has been in China now for 2,000 years. When it was first introduced to China, it tried to adapt to indigenous Chinese culture as much as possible, even using Taoist and Confucian terminology and concepts to explain parts of its doctrines. This then contributed to the arising of Buddhist schools with distinctly Chinese characteristics such as the Tiantai, Huayan, Pure Land, and Chan schools. In other words, Buddhism in China first learned and absorbed elements from traditional Chinese culture, then evolved into new schools distinct from Indian Buddhist schools. Even traditional Chinese Confucians learned and incorporated Buddhist thought, which resulted in the rise of Neo-Confucianism in the Song and Ming dynasties. Chinese Taoists, in a similar manner, transformed and incorporated many Buddhist scriptures into the Taoist Canon, thereby enriching Taoist culture. In China, Buddhist monks from the generation before mine were required to be well versed in not only the Buddhist Canon, but also Confucian and Taoist thought; otherwise, it would have been difficult for them to propagate Buddhist teachings. In our age, we should open our minds even more, and learn about the various world religions, so as not to find ourselves in self-imposed isolation with narrow horizons, like a frog gazing up at the sky from the bottom of a well.
If we turn back to discuss Indian religions, we can see that they, too, have contributed to one another's growth through mutual influence and stimulation. In fact, much of the content of Buddhism was incorporated from ancient Indian religions. In the Buddha's time, different religious sects and schools filled India, some ancient, and some newly-established. Siddhartha Gautama himself humbly learned from many teachers of various spiritual schools. After becoming a Buddha, though he developed distinctly Buddhist views, and discarded many religious views and beliefs not in conformity with Buddhism, Buddhism is still a product of Indian religious culture. Hence, in turn, in the 8th century the great Hindu philosopher Shankara (700-750) consulted Buddhist Madhyamika philosophy and thereby created Vedantic philosophy.
Buddhism stresses an ethic based on cause and effect-as you sow, so shall you reap-whereas Christianity seems to focus almost solely on the believer's salvation through faith, without relating it to his ethical behavior. Actually, according to the contemporary philosopher John Hick, if one looks at the parables of the worthy and unworthy servants and of the sheep and the goats in the Gospel of Mathew, chapter twenty-five, one can see that the teachings of Jesus Christ actually have a very strong ethical and practical character: that is, one day we will inevitably reap the consequences of what we do in our daily lives now. For this reason the Apostle Paul, in chapter six, verse seven of his letter to the Galatians "whatever a man sows, that he shall also reap." In addition, Hick said that "in our own time Catholic and Reformed ...... Christians have come, at least in a significant minority, to see an authentic response to God as requiring a dedication, individually, nationally and globally, to social justice and the preservation of endangered Mother Earth." Seen from this angle, the views of Christianity are not that far from those of Buddhism and other religions.
Let us now look at the God of Islam. In the Qur'an, Allah has ninety-nine different names, including the Protector, the Forgiver, the Bestower, the Forbearing One, the All-Forgiving, the Source of All Goodness, the Protecting Friend, the Loving One, the Lord, the Pardoner, the Compassionate, and the Guide to the Right Path. From this we can see that Allah is a God who loves all humanity, as stressed in the Qur'an, sura two, verse sixty-two, "whoever believes in God and the Last Day, and whoever does right, shall have his reward with his Lord." In his book The Fifth Dimension Hick said that, when the Muslims came to India, there were some who argued that Zoroastrians, Hindus, Jains, and Buddhists were also "People of the Book." "The Book" refers to the eternal word of God that is expressed to his people in different human situations through different prophets in different revealed scriptures. Even though many mainstream and fundamentalist Muslims believe that many nonMuslims are missing their opportunity to enter Paradise, the message spread by Islam is that the possibility of entering Paradise is good news for all, not just for Muslims. The Islamic mystics, the Sufis, are especially able to believe that followers of other faiths may also receive God's mercy.
Naturally, from a standpoint of mutual respect and appreciation, religions must seek greater understanding of one another, yet there is no need to distort each other's beliefs in our search for common ground. That would not only cause great pain and trouble, but also lead to three possible outcomes: 1. twisting other religions to make them like one's own; 2. denying the position of one's own religion to comply with other religions; or 3. blending different religions together to establish a new one. None of these scenarios are healthy. Thus someone once asked His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, "If you believe that all religions are good, should we establish a syncretic religion?" He replied, "No, there are already enough religions in the world." What he meant was that, since ancient times, humanity's religions have always been diverse. Each has its own beauty. Each has its own virtue. Each has its own truth. There is no need to blend them. It might be good to seek common ground while preserving differences. For instance: Buddhism advocates the theory of conditioned arising and is non-theistic. It can respect and understand theistic religions and does not need to deny its own position in order to be on friendly terms with other faiths.
III. Interreligious Cooperation
Cooperation among religions does not mean leaders of various religions coming together to discuss doctrine to find out who is superior or inferior, higher or lower, greater or lesser, better or worse. This will only lead to conflict, deepen disagreement, increase enmity, and create opposition. If we can follow the principle of mutual respect, then we can all interact peacefully. Especially in our religiously pluralistic modem age, one has only to leave one's country, one's ethnic group, or even one's home, to come into contact with followers of different religions. In an open society, one may find several different faiths even within a family. We must respect, even support, each other's choices with an attitude of appreciation, and should never criticize other faiths based on our own subjective standpoint. We should cooperate to create a harmonious, peaceful, happy and warm community in which to live.
Today, and especially in the world of the future, due to the ever-increasing quantity and accessibility of information, the convenience of transportation, the rapid progress of technology, and the ever-changing nature of contemporary society, people separated by thousands of miles can talk as though they sat face to face. For this reason, those who would like a single faith to take over the niches of all other faiths are faced with stronger and stronger opposing influences. Unless we would isolate ourselves from the reality of the greater world, we must help one another and cooperate in sharing the various resources needed for life.
We religious believers all share a common way of thinking. We all believe that the object of our belief, be it called Jehovah, Jesus Christ, the Messiah, God, the Lord, Allah, Shiva, Vishnu, the Bodhisattvas, or the Buddha, is possessed of love, compassion, awe-inspiring presence, and great divine power; thus we believers are able to gain peace, protection, and salvation. Moreover, we also believe we must follow and practice the teachings and admonishments of our sacred scriptures, holy injunctions and revelations to help all beings also gain peace, protection, and salvation. In this way, we share the great love and compassion of God, the Bodhisattvas, and the Buddha with all people. Yet this is not limited to spreading the faith; what is more important is maintaining the safety of humanity and the peace of people's minds and raising the quality of society and people's characters. A livable environment for all requires that all work collectively for its improvement.
All the living and non-living beings on this planet are integral parts of the community of all life, how much more so the believers of various religions who are human beings. Different interpretations of sacred texts, holy injunctions and revelations have led to the differences between religions, however, if one can experience the non-personal and indivisible Ultimate Reality, he would know that in this Reality, there is no distinction between self and other, inner and outer, superior and inferior, or high and low. Yet this reality is many-sided.
Looking at the life of Gandhi, we see that he was influenced by a Jain master named Raychandbhai to accept that many different views, including religious views, may all be reasonable and valid. Thus he agreed that "religions are different roads converging on the same point. What does it matter that we take different roads so long as we reach the same goal? I believe in the fundamental truth of all great religions of the world. I believe they are all God given and I believe they were necessary to the people to whom they were revealed."
This is to say that the various religions have only one goal, which is Ultimate Reality. This is the transcendence of human nature and divine nature, the movement from a personal, differentiated God to a non-personal, undifferentiated reality. In Buddhism this is called Reality; in other religions it is called Absolute Truth. Gandhi saw that Reality has many sides, so he accepted that the differences did not contradict Absolute Truth. What the various religions argue over is the different aspects of reality. If they realized that a single reality underlies those aspects, they would cease arguing. Naturally, we don't have to completely endorse Gandhi's view, but it is something we can raise for consideration.
I'd like to relate a true story: Thirty years ago, several friends and I made a vow to save Chinese Buddhism. Thereafter, some went to south to Thailand, some northeast to Japan, and some into the mountains to practice austerities. More than ten years later, we unexpectedly all met again in the US. Each had learned different things, but they were all facets of Buddhism. Thus once again we agreed to cooperate on practical matters. Actually, there should be a lot of room for cooperation between different sects of a single religion or between organizations or individuals of different religions. This cooperation doesn't have to entail joining a single organization. It could simply be acting in cooperation to abandon violence, cast aside long-standing grudges, and not settle old scores. It could mean joining forces to eliminate the causes of starvation, diseases, natural disasters, and ethnic conflicts, to protect the environment and resources of this planet for future generations, and to protect the human spirit from being polluted by enmity, greed, envy, anger, pride, irresolution, fear, worry, arrogance, feelings of inferiority and voidness. If each religion can start by influencing and encouraging its own believers in this way, then the major religions of each country in the world can also influence that country's citizens, as well as politicians and businessmen. If everyone can share this kind of understanding, it will be a giant first step toward religious cooperation.
This article by Venerable Dr. Shen Yen was his Closing Address at the International Conference on Religious Cooperation held in Taipei, Taiwan, ROC, on the 21st of September, 2001.