Mutual Knowledge and Understanding as the Basis for Religious Harmony
Klagenfurt, Austria, 18 May 2012
Transcribed and slightly edited by Alexander Berzin
I am very happy to speak about Buddhist philosophy to people who mostly come from non-Buddhist countries. This is important for developing mutual understanding. Mutual understanding is necessary because we all live on this one planet and this planet has many religions. Information is now available on so many of these traditions. Sometimes in the past when people remained more isolated, then it was OK to have a concept of one truth, one religion, and this was good. It suited them. But now, today, our very way of life implies that we need to interact, and we do interact. In such a period, sometimes belief in one religion and one truth can be very helpful for one individual; it’s very useful for that person to develop single-pointed faith. But in terms of the larger society we must develop the concept of multiple truths. This is reality. Over centuries there have been understanding of many truths and the development of many religions. So, to develop a concept of several religions and several truths, it’s useful to learn about other religious traditions.
As for myself, in Tibet, Muslims, Tibetan Muslims, have been living there for several centuries, so, we knew that Islam exists, but there was not much serious discussion about their beliefs. We thought only that our Buddhist tradition was the best. But coming to India we encountered many faiths, many people, so we began serious talk about different religions. I learned about the differences concerning Christianity and Islam and Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism, and Sufism, and so, there’s been more contact with people of these different religions. It’s very helpful to learn about them in order to develop respect. This is the basis for developing religious harmony. That’s why, when people ask me about the basic teachings concerning Buddhism, my thought is not to convert them, just to inform them.
Some Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns have spent several weeks in Christian monasteries, and they’ve learned to see the value of the Christian tradition. I tell them that we Buddhist monks and nuns must take more concern about social service and about education and health, which the Christian monastics do. The Christian brothers and sisters have made great contributions in education and health, and we must learn also to offer great service to humanity. But, on the other hand, sometimes missionary work has caused some problems. We can learn many useful things from other traditions and you of different faiths can learn much from us.
Buddhism is one of the ancient Indian religions. Over three thousand years in India there has developed the concept of secularism. This does not mean disrespect for religion, but respect for all religions, including respect for nonbelievers. The ancient nihilists, the Charvakas, did not believe in future lives; they did not believe in any spirituality; but secularism means respect for these nonbelievers, as well. Buddhism developed in this type of environment, so, also Buddhism has respect for different people with different views. That’s why Buddha taught different philosophical views, because among his own disciples there were those with different mental dispositions. Some views and philosophical positions seem contradictory to each other, since his disciples had many different mental dispositions, so one philosophical view might not help all of them. Therefore, this means that Buddha respected different individual points of view and taught according to their dispositions. This is a clear sign of respect and acceptance of even nonbelievers as human brothers and sisters. So some Buddhist knowledge about our minds, about our emotions for nonbelievers is also useful for being able to tackle disturbing emotions. That’s why I’m happy to give some lectures about Buddhism here in an audience that includes both believers of other religions and nonbelievers.
We human beings started out on this planet and eventually our intelligence increased so that it provided certain concepts that helped us when we face really helpless, difficult situations in life. We needed to develop some ideas, some concepts that could help people to keep up their hope and that truly evolved into developing faith: faith that there is some hope in difficult situations.
Over the past five thousand years in different places, people developed different forms of faith. Faith is very useful for keeping up our hope; and that faith gradually, together with reasons, developed into some philosophical views that would help to strengthen that faith. Then, on the basis of that, different religions with different philosophical views arose. From that we get our major world religious systems.
Over the last few thousand years we simply put all our hope on religious faith, but during the last three hundred years, again, our human intelligence found ways to have more basic investigation of what is reality. So, modern science developed, and then from that modern technology developed as well. Technology brings us what we want immediately, and so humanity developed interest in materialism. Because of that, many people were no longer so serious about God, about religious faith.
Nowadays we can see that those who follow Jesus Christ or some other god or goddesses, even those who follow Buddha, consider themselves believers, like among Buddhist believers, but in real-life situations they don’t have much concern about what their own faith teaches. They follow worldly means in order to get more wealth and power, and so they use lies and they bully others. This indicates that they are not very serious about their religious faith. That category of people seems to be increasing. And so, I consider all those people who claim to be following the religion like that actually to be nonbelievers.
A genuine believer is somebody who, twenty-four hours a day, practices love and compassion. As for self-love, even animals have that. But the real type of love is the love that involves concern for others’ well-being. With that as one’s basis there is no room for lying, cheating or bullying. How can we use an unjust way to get our own way? Those who do that I consider nonbelievers, or those who are not serious believers. Some people even openly criticize religion because so many so-called believers don’t actually practise its teachings. Therefore we need some effort to promote inner values, whether we are a believer or a nonbeliever – a more scientific way.
Now, it’s possible to do that. Two factors indicate that. First, there are many people with every facility there for an easy life, but as human beings, deep inside something is missing. They feel anxiety, fear and stress, so they are unhappy, they are very lonely. These people eventually realize the limitation of material values. They see that it alone won’t bring inner strength, or a joyful, more peaceful mind.
The second point is that over the last two or three hundred years science has developed. Scientific research is seeking the truth. They are examining reality. Genuine scientists have open minds. They are skeptical, they make investigation. Buddhism also emphasizes skepticism; skepticism leads to asking questions and that brings investigation and seeking answers. So skepticism is useful, provided it is objective. Therefore scientific research finds out about reality.
Then in the late twentieth century modern science started to do research more about the brain, about particles, about matter, and especially brain specialists with medical science have come to realize that emotions are important for health. There is a strong connection between our emotions and the way that our brain works and the way that our body responds. According to some scientists, when we develop fear, blood circulation goes more strongly to our legs, and so that prepares us to be able to run away. When we have anger, then the circulation goes more to our hands, so we are ready to fight and defend ourselves. Like this, the emotional and biological factors are very interdependent. Sometimes the physical side brings about an emotional effect and sometimes emotions bring about a physical effect. Because of that, brain specialists nowadays are showing more interest in emotions and how they develop.
Emotion is part of the mind. Already, some scientists are conducting experiments: they give some training to people, even children, on mindfulness and compassion. Before that training, they check the blood pressure and level of stress hormone and after three or four weeks they check these again. They found that blood pressure and stress were reduced by these practices. Even students find that their power of concentration has improved and their social relations also become more peaceful and friendly. Therefore some universities, especially in the United States, but also in India, are carrying out some pilot projects. So now, since the later part of the twentieth century and during the beginning of the twenty-first century, the scientific field has conducted more research about emotions, about the mind.
Several thousand years of religious tradition in different ways have also dealt with the mind. All religious traditions carry the message of love, forgiveness, compassion, and self-development; these are all related to the mind. Faith is also something on the mental level. Single-pointed faith brings inner strength, some kind of bliss. Among the major religions there are two categories. One is theistic, they believe in a creator God, an absolute permanent type of God; this is found in Judaism, Christianity, Islam and many Hindus believe in that as well. The second type are the Jains, Buddhists and one group of the Samkhyas who don’t accept a creator God. So there’s no concept of a God the creator; things happen due to their own causes and conditions. These three religions of India believe in causality similar to Darwinism: everything happens according to cause and effect, without a creator.
Theistic religions believe that God created everything, especially us, so he is truly our father. With single-pointed faith they submit to God the creator. This reduces self-centered arrogance. “I’m a creation of God, so I serve God.” Part of serving God is prayer, but the main principle of serving God is to show love to fellow creatures, fellow creations. So, theistic religions more or less have the same effect of reducing self-centeredness and developing altruism.
Buddhism and Jainism also try to reduce self-centeredness and arrogance. Buddhists emphasize not having belief in an independent, solid, existing self; the “I” or the “self” is a merely designated thing. This is a way to reduce one’s self-centered attitude. So, there are different approaches but they have the same effect: to decrease self-centeredness and to increase altruism.
If we look at the ancient Indian Buddhist tradition, especially the Nalanda tradition, we see that their texts always mention different philosophical views. The later Tibetan writings take for granted that the audience is mostly Buddhist, so we need, I think, to go back to the Indian tradition. There were so many traditions there and so they analyzed the different views and sometimes debated their views. But in Tibet since the eighth or ninth century, the majority of Tibetans became Buddhist, so there was not much relevance in discussing these different philosophical views. But now, outside of Tibet, there are so many different religions and views that are there, so it’s important for us to know them so that with correct knowledge we develop mutual understanding, and with mutual understanding we develop mutual respect and religious harmony.
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