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Home > Approaching Buddhism > Buddhism in the World Today > How to Live and Work in a Multireligious Society > How to Live and Work in Harmony in a Multireligious Society

How to Live and Work in Harmony in a Multireligious Society

Alexander Berzin
Elista, Kalmykia, Russia, April 2011

Unedited Transcript
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Thank you very much for this very kind introduction and invitation. I’m very delighted to be here in Kalmykia, the homeland of the great Kalmyk Geshe Wangyal, who inspired and helped me on my path toward Tibetan Buddhism. And the way that Buddhism has flourished and spread, and practiced in the various Mongol cultures, like here, Kalmykia, and his work in helping to establish it in the United States… [in all of that] he worked tirelessly in a multireligious environment, and it’s very important that we continue with his efforts.

I’ve been asked to speak about living and working in harmony in a religiously diverse society, and there are many different aspects that this topic covers. As our distinguished host mentioned, one is what His Holiness the Dalai Lama always emphasizes, which is human values and secular ethics. That despite what differences we might have in beliefs among all of us who live in a particular society, ethics does not need to rely solely on a specific set of religious beliefs, but there’s a certain set of ethics based on basic human values which is accepted in common by all religions and by non-believers as well. These values are based on the recognition that we are all equal: Everybody wants to be happy; nobody wants to be unhappy. In that respect, we are all the same. We all have feelings. Everybody wants to be liked and accepted. Nobody wants to be rejected or persecuted. Everybody wants to be respected and wants to have the consideration of others. The basis, then, for this general approach to secular ethics is one which, as His Holiness the Dalai Lama always emphasizes, is based on compassion, which is defined as the wish for others to be free of suffering and problems and their causes.

Now, what are these sources of problems and unhappiness? There are many of them. We live in a time in which, of course, there are economic problems, problems of various types of conflict around the world. And we are all interconnected, so what happens in one part of the world affects everyone; it’s no longer the case that we can live in an isolated manner.

And so when we look at various religious beliefs, it’s very important, of course, that the differences in these belief systems don’t contribute to even more problems. And so the question, of course, is: How can we avoid disputes, conflicts, misunderstandings that might arise because of different belief systems? It is really not satisfactory to say, “Well, all religions are the same. All non-religions as well, secular beliefs – that’s all the same. We all believe in the basic work of trying to make this world a better place.” That’s not sufficient. Even though it might be true that we all share the same value and aspiration and goal, still there are differences; and it’s not fair to the various religions to say that there are no differences.

But what causes disharmony very often is based on our ignorance of each other’s beliefs. That’s compounded and made worse by, often, our lack of any deep knowledge about our own tradition. So rather than based on any knowledge and understanding, our attitudes about our own background and the background of others can easily degenerate into what can be called a “football team” mentality. Football mentality means, “This is my football team and this is the best, and we have to win, and we have to compete and beat every other football team.” It’s the belief that my religious system is the best simply because it’s mine and my family’s tradition.

Once, His Holiness the Dalai Lama was asked, “What is the best religion?” And His Holiness replied, “The best religion is the religion that helps you to become a kinder person.” And so, obviously, for each person, one religion or another might be the most helpful for making them a kinder person. This, I think, is a very, very helpful way of approaching religious diversity. We need to recognize and acknowledge that each religion is trying to help to offer its believers to become kinder and better persons. In order to recognize and acknowledge that, we need to have knowledge; we need to have education about our own religion, about others’ religions. This can be done in a very scientific type of manner in education systems without trying to convert anybody and without any type of judgmental attitude, just general knowledge; that’s very, very helpful and important.

Very often there are various meetings that are held between different religious leaders. His Holiness the Dalai Lama likes to participate in such interfaith meetings very much. He finds them very helpful. I am reminded of several meetings that I myself personally took part in. One was an advance meeting with Patriarch Bartholomew, the Orthodox Christian Patriarch in Istanbul. I met him very soon after he took this office, and he was about to leave for Japan, at which he was going to, for the first time, meet a Buddhist leader. And he said to me that he was very grateful to some of the writings of His Holiness the Dalai Lama about Buddhism, because previously he didn’t really know very much about Buddhism and these books helped him very, very much to be able to meet and dialogue in a meaningful way with the Buddhist leaders in Japan. So we find this type of open attitude that acknowledges that the basis for understanding and cooperation among religions is education, knowledge. We find this among leaders of various religions.

I have been particularly involved with the Buddhist-Muslim dialogue. I was originally drawn to this area in the middle of the 1990s because of the situation in Tibet in which a lot of Chinese Muslims were settling in Tibet, particularly the northeastern area.

Traditionally, there were Muslims living in central Tibet. They were mostly Muslim traders coming from Ladakh and Kashmir. This was at the time of the Fifth Dalai Lama, in the seventeenth century. He established various laws which gave the Muslims all the rights that they wanted in terms of building a mosque, having their own cemeteries, and being exempt from the various Buddhist rituals or procedures or things that happened during certain holidays of the year. So traditionally in Tibet there wasn’t a clash between these two religions. But in more recent times there’s been a lot of economic competition with the influx of Chinese immigrants, and among them – into Tibet – a lot of Muslims have been moving in.

So, thinking on a larger scale of Central Asia and the history of the interaction of the Buddhist and Muslim and Christian societies, I felt that it was very important to start to have a dialogue and more understanding among these groups, particularly the Buddhist and Muslim. This would help for the development of the whole region. One of the things that I set out to do was to write a more objective history of the interaction of the two cultures, and this gave me the perfect opportunity to travel to Islamic countries in the Middle East and to consult with scholars there. Because I was seeking knowledge, then there was tremendous openness among the Muslim scholars to help dispel the misunderstanding that has abounded about the interaction of these two cultures. Many accounts just portray the interaction as: “The Muslim invaders came into India and so on, and just destroyed everything Buddhist.” And although there was certainly some destruction, that is not a fair representation of what actually happened and what the long history is. But as long as Buddhists would regard Muslims as the ones who destroyed the monasteries in India, or the Muslims think of the Christians as the ones who led the Crusades against them, as long as that is the main memory of the interaction, that just perpetuates more problems between the two, more conflicts.

So I travelled around in places like Egypt and Jordan, Turkey, etc., and met with professors and theological leaders of Islam. Actually, I was paid a very high compliment by the rector of the Theological University in Cairo [Al-Azhar University]. He said that I was a real fighter for truth, the real meaning of mujahedin. So I was trying to bring truth to what really had happened. I found that not only the professors and religious leaders that I met, but the students as well, were extremely interested. 300 students came to a voluntary lecture at Cairo University that I gave about basic Buddhism. Anyway, if you’re interested in reading what I wrote, you can find it in the Russian section, translated into Russian, on my website berzinarchives.com.

Once, His Holiness the Dalai Lama asked me to do something for him. (Every now and then he would give me what I would call a mission impossible.) He said, “I want you to find me and bring me a black African Muslim Sufi leader.” What does one reply to a request like that, except “thank you very much”? His Holiness has this amazing ability to know the karmic connections that people have, and whenever he’s asked me to do these seemingly impossible things for him, it has been extremely easy to do – e verything just automatically falls in place. Soon afterwards, I travelled to Europe – I used to do a lot of lecturing around the world – and I met a German man with whom I got to speaking, and he was actually a diplomat in Africa, and so I told him about the Dalai Lama’s request, and he said, “Oh. I just happen to know a good friend of mine who is the Sufi religious leader of the country of Guinea.” Guinea’s in West Africa, and I forgot to mention His Holiness also specified that the leader be from West Africa. This leader was in Europe, and he was going to India for some ayurvedic medical treatment. And it just happened that he would be in Delhi exactly when I was scheduled to be back in Delhi, and it just happened that he had a few extra days before he had to leave India, and he would be very willing to meet me and to have me accompany him up to Dharamsala to meet the Dalai Lama. So absolutely no effort was required to arrange this.

So I met this Sufi leader. He was magnificent looking. Very big, like an African tribal chief, and very, very dignified. We went up to Dharamsala, and I accompanied him on his meeting with the Dalai Lama. He was dressed in these very elegant white robes. And when the two of them met it was such an emotional, warm meeting between the two, like two old friends meeting each other, and the Sufi leader actually started to weep. And the Dalai Lama jumped up and went over to his anteroom – t he room right outside, where he meets visitors – and personally brought back a tissue for the Sufi leader to wipe his tears, which is something that I had never seen the Dalai Lama do before. He always had an assistant or attendant to do things, to get things for him; he wouldn’t get up and get them himself. And they had a very warm discussion about the basis for compassion in Buddhism and in Sufism. After that, over several years, they had further meetings.

So the Dalai Lama himself has been greatly interested in this dialogue, not only with the Muslims, but with leaders of other religions around the world. And he has encouraged me to have large parts of my website translated into the Islamic languages to make available more knowledge to the Islamic world about Buddhism, about Tibet, about his own writings and speeches about religious harmony and secular ethics. So another impossible mission. But amazingly we have been able to put, already, large portions of the website into Arabic and Urdu. (Urdu is the language of Pakistan and the Muslims of North India.) And in the last weeks, again without looking for it, without seeking them, a team has appeared that is interested in translating our website into Indonesian. Indonesia has the largest Muslim population in the world.

So as I say, the basis for religious harmony is education, knowledge about each other’s beliefs. Then one sees that there’s nothing to be afraid of. And while acknowledging the differences that we have, emphasizing what we share in harmony.

Now the question becomes: How do we actually live and work in such a multireligious society as you have here in Kalmykia? And in particular, since this is an engineering college, I was thinking about what considerations might be relevant for you as students of this faculty. In other words, when you’re building something, designing something, what considerations can we take in order to accommodate these different religious beliefs and practices? And on a larger scale, how do we structure a society, a government, local government, etc., if we have some ability to help to structure it?

The first thought that came to me was that there are certain religions that ask their believers to pray at certain times of the day – like a Muslim, five times a day. So if you are supervising a building site in which some of the workers might be Muslim, or if you’re building a public building, a school or whatever, in which they would have Muslim students or faculty, it can be very helpful for creating a harmonious atmosphere if there is a prayer room, if it is perfectly okay for those who would like to pray during the day to be able to follow their beliefs and customs. Similarly, if there are customs of other religions that one could accommodate, in terms of designing a building, this is wonderful to do. In other words, take into consideration what are the distinguishing characteristics of a belief system that would make people feel welcome and comfortable.

You see, there’s always an issue involved with loyalty. Loyalty is a very important concept in terms of the emotional well-being of people. We want very much to be loyal to our family, loyal to our ethnic background and religion. And then there’s loyalty to the state, to the country. And what often causes difficulty is when people are not allowed to show loyalty to all of these in a harmonious way, where they are forced to be disloyal, let’s say, to their religious background in order to be loyal to the customs of the society at large.

I’m thinking of examples of religious dress. In Muslim societies, the women cover their heads, and sometimes their whole face, with a veil, and there’s been a lot of controversy about that being banned in France, recently. Sikhs – that’s a religion in India – never cut their hair; the men never cut their hair, and they always wear a turban. Well, some places say that they’re not allowed to do that in the workplace; so in the army, if they join the army. Or Buddhist monks being discouraged from wearing their robes if they’re working in an office or a school. And some places even wearing a cross, if you are a Christian, is seen as a little bit too aggressive about your religion.

And again, I think that it’s very important to allow people, in a sense, to still be loyal to their tradition if it doesn’t cause a major problem in the society. What’s the harm if you wear a turban and you don’t cut your hair if you are in a school or in the army or whatever? Is there any problem? Well, not really. You can still do your job quite well. What’s the problem if, as a Buddhist, you say a prayer and make an offering before you eat? What’s the problem? If you are wearing a veil that covers your face completely – well, that might be a problem driving a car, for example; your vision is limited. So okay, you could say, “Well, you can’t wear a veil over your entire face if you’re going to be driving a car.” But in other circumstances what’s the harm? Or if you’re a woman, what is the harm in insisting that if you go to a hospital that you be treated by a woman doctor, women nurses? There are many people even who are non-religious who would prefer that as a woman.

So I think that in designing a building, for example, you might take into consideration things like men’s section, women’s section, if you’re in a society in which there’s a considerable number of people that would really appreciate that as part of their customs. And if you are working with a society, to see what steps we can take that will allow people, as I say, to be loyal to their tradition in situations in which it doesn’t cause a problem within the functioning of society.

In short, as the Dalai Lama always says, His Holiness, that it’s wonderful that there are many different religions – and not only religions, but secular beliefs as well – in the world because, like the example of food, if there were only one food available to eat for everybody, that would be pretty boring and it wouldn’t suit everybody. So similarly with belief systems: what suits one person might not suit another person at all. There are many, many belief systems that can help us to be a kinder person, a more considerate person, more loving, which can teach us methods for living in harmony with others. And as His Holiness says, the best religion is that one which works for you in helping you to be a kinder person. So it’s like: “Just because I like chocolate ice cream, doesn’t mean that you have to like chocolate ice cream.”

So, thank you, those are my thoughts. And we have time for questions or discussion.

Questions and Answers

Host: Thank you very much, dear professor. If possible we will ask you some questions.

Alex: Yes. I would welcome them.

Host: And while people are thinking, I will allow myself to ask a question. I share your opinion that all relationships should be harmonious, but I would like to ask you specifically: What do you think when you say harmony? This is my first question and then I will have a second one.

Alex: “Harmony” means to live together in peace, without conflict. But it’s not merely the absence of conflict. It has a positive aspect of respect for each other, so that the various elements within a society work together in a way that is mutually beneficial to the society as a whole.

Host: Thank you very much. Actually I agree with you, although living without conflicts is not necessarily in harmony. And I have one more question that maybe is connected also with the first one and will elaborate it: From the beginning, you specified that there should be equal attitude towards all religions, but then in your following speech, on the basis of your own practice, you made the conclusion that now we should be more interested in Islam. And I want to ask you if it is really like that, that you think that Islam should be on the first place, or was it just in that context, or you really think that now Islam is of the most importance? Thank you very much.

Alex: In general, I don’t think that any religion is more important than another, in terms of our focus and consideration. But in our present world there is a lot of difficulty and misunderstanding and conflict which unfortunately revolves around a lot of members of the Islamic faith. The Dalai Lama points out that there are mischief-makers (that’s the term that he uses) in all religious groups and that it is unfair to characterize a whole religion and all the people who follow it by just the small troublemakers. So there are troublemakers in Buddhism as well, but the small number of troublemakers from the Islamic world have been getting a great deal of world attention. And the trend that we see is that, in places like the United States and so on, that Muslims are getting demonized and are the object of suspicion and paranoia as a people in general. So at this particular moment in history, I think it is very important to work to try to minimize this feeling of threat and: “We against them, them against us.”

If there is an attack in the news, it’s called an Islamic terrorist attack. You would never say a Christian terrorist attack or a Buddhist terrorist attack, if the person who perpetrated it were Christian or Buddhist. But they would say Islamic, just like before they used to say, if it was an African, they would say it was a black terrorist; they would never say white terrorist, but they would always specify a black one. This is clearly prejudiced.

And so one more thing, one more point, is that people tend to think that the problem is a conflict of religious beliefs, but when one looks more deeply, that really is not the problem. There are economic problems, social problems, historical problems, etc., that are behind all the troubles that are going on that we have mentioned, and to just blame it on religion is extremely naive. So I involved myself in this Buddhist-Muslim dialogue primarily because I saw that not very many other people were willing to do that and it needed to be done. There are plenty of other people dealing with Buddhism and Christianity, etc.

Host: Thank you very much for this elaborate answer.

Question: I’m a student of the fourth grade [year] and my question is: Why did you get attracted to Buddhism? Why did you get interested in that?

Alex: It’s very hard to give a specific answer for that because I was just instinctively drawn to it from a very early age. I started doing yoga when I was 13. I read whatever was available about Buddhism at that time. I studied the Asian Buddhist languages at University. It was always very clear to me what I was interested in. It had nothing to do with my family. And based on that instinctive interest, then as I read and learned more, I saw that the Buddhist teachings made sense to me. There are certain things that we call the “of course!” test of truth. In other words, you read this or you hear about it and you say, “Well, of course that’s true.” Like our problems are all really caused by our attitude, by our way in which we approach life – of course that’s true. So I saw this in the Buddhist teachings, and this made it even more attractive. And what was the most convincing was that Buddhism was a living tradition and that they had methods that actually worked for helping us to overcome anger, attachment, insecurity, etc. So this is great. All you had to do was put it into practice. It wasn’t an ancient wisdom that was dead. And this living aspect of it, of living masters, like your Geshe Wangyal, made all the difference.

Question: My name is Angelika Abaeva. I am a student of the fourth grade [year]. And my question is about your experience in visiting Kalmykia. What do you think in general about it?

Alex: I have been to Kalmykia, now, a number of times, and what encourages me and pleases me the most is to see the progress that has been made here in terms of revival of your traditional culture in harmony with general modern development – so the building of the hurul [temple], for example, and the activities that are centered there.

For, again, some what we would call karmic reason in Buddhism, not only was I first… The first live Buddhist that I met was Geshe Wangyal, a Kalmyk, but also I was involved with the first group of Kalmyk young boys who came to India to become monks and study in South India. The first group, I think there were about 15 of them – I don’t remember the exact number, something like 15 or 20 – they were all young teenagers; they’d never been away from home. And they came to India, to Dharamsala, to study in the south, and there were bureaucratic problems in getting the permission for them to go to Mundgod, in the south, and they were stuck in Dharamsala for about six months. And because I had been to Russia and Kalmykia before, then I was asked to look after them – in the sense of they would come to my small, little cottage that I lived in, very small, and we all stuffed into my room. And there was one Russian who was studying there who was the translator, and I taught them – I forget if it was every day or a few times a week (it was quite long ago) – about basic Buddhism, about how to deal with life in India, the food, the living conditions, just in general trying to be a little bit of a father to them. So I’m very, very happy to see that some of them, obviously not all of them, have completed their education. They’re working here. More and more students are studying at the monasteries in India, getting training, and that this is growing and being very successful. So I’m very, very delighted to see all of this progress here in Kalmykia.

In the whole process of modernization this issue of loyalty is, again, very important. It’s important as you progress economically or socially, or whatever, in the modern world, that you can feel proud of your background and maintain a loyalty to that. That gives you a sense of self-worth and value, which is very important for success.

Question: In some professions – for instance, I’m going to be working in the legal profession – and sometimes we have to be strong, and the question is how not to lose our sense of harmony when we have to be strong or strict.

Alex: Are you speaking in terms of being strict in terms of enforcement of the law?

Translator: What is enforcement?

Alex: Putting the law into practice. Making sure that people follow the law.

Participant: Yes, that is the question.

Alex: One needs to examine the motivation and the state of mind behind enforcing the laws. The point of law, at least in theory, is to allow the society to function harmoniously in a way that will bring about the mutual benefit of everybody. If one has to arrest somebody, or put them in jail, or something like that, then rather than seeing it as a punishment for somebody being bad and so on – doing this with anger and hostility toward them – one needs to also look at the criminal as a part of society: They’re a human being, as well. And that by preventing them from committing more crime – by putting them in jail, for instance – is actually benefitting them. It’s not punishing them; actually it’s benefitting them. The wish, then, is for them to be helped to overcome whatever hostility, anger, unhappiness, problems – whatever it is that drove them to commit a crime. In other words, in short, your attitude as a lawyer or judge, or part of the police force, needs to be that of compassion, wishing to alleviate the suffering of society, rather than: “I am the powerful one and I’m going to go around and punish everyone.” It’s a state of mind that makes all the difference.

Host: In the first place, we have the impossibility to avoid the law. But the question is, for a female, how not to lose your feminine qualities.

Alex: First of all… Now, this gets into a very delicate topic. This gets into a delicate topic. I find that in terms of female equality, of women being able to do whatever jobs men do, that it is sad when women feel that they have to dress like men and be like men in order to do the type of work that men traditionally have done. Of course, you don’t have to look sexy on purpose and wear clothing that would be regarded as sexually provocative; nevertheless, you don’t have to dress like a man, either.

I think the example that can be helpful is that, within the family, the mother disciplines the child just as much as the father does. And the mother isn’t less female when she’s doing that, is she? So I think using the model of being like a mother and wanting to discipline the naughty child is perhaps a helpful model for women in the legal area.

Host: Thank you.

Question: First, I want to thank you very much for your lecture. And the first question is about what you said about France. So I guess that what is going on there in terms of cultural dressing – probably local people from Islamic culture who are living there in France, they show loyalty, and they also at the same time protest against Western civilization that is a little bit aggressive. This is the first of my considerations. And the second consideration is that now, on the other hand, we have the other trend in Muslim countries where we have revolutions. Maybe it is possible to say that now we have a democratization process in these countries. And so, in terms of these last events, what can you say? Maybe the Islamic world very soon will change a great deal.

Host: If possible, not very elaborate, because we have a shortage of time.

Alex: In terms of the customs within society – for instance, of the women covering their face or not covering the face – as I said, one can look at it from one point of view, that the authorities are afraid that some sort of terrorist might dress up as a woman, covering their face with a veil, and cause problems. So one can understand their concern. On the other hand, it’s highly offensive to women of that culture to not wear a veil. So it seems as though some compromise is necessary on both sides.

In terms of these uprisings in the various North African and Middle Eastern countries, these are very complex and each country is quite individual, but the difficulty is that most of these societies traditionally are tribal societies. In other words, they are not unified societies; you have different tribes living there. The only thing that seems to have worked in making a centralized state out of all these different tribal factions and religious factions is a very strong authoritarian figure. Well, that’s unfortunate because many of them are rather corrupt. So you get rid of a corrupt dictator and you might be left with various fighting factions within a society, like in Iraq. So it’s not an easy situation, and we shouldn’t expect that Western-style democracy is going to solve it.

Participant: Recently we spoke about dialogue between Hindu tradition and Buddhist tradition, and we can speak not only about dialogue but also about adaptation, one tradition into another, or in terms of other traditions. And when we were discussing this, we thought maybe if we call atman, the Hindu term, we call it pure awareness – what we call “pure awareness” in Buddhism – maybe then all the contradictions between Hindu and Buddhism will be gone.

Alex: One has to be a little bit careful in comparative work between two religions to say that one thing in one religion is really just what we’re talking about in our religion, but just with a different name. In religious studies this is known as inclusivism, in which you say that your religion is really just our religion, or part of our religion, but with different words. And actually it can be taken as being disrespectful.

I think more productive is that, in terms of this issue of atman, is that… The term “atman” is used in Buddhism. The atman is the self. The question really concerns the qualities of the self, and each religion has certain assertions as to what the qualities of the self are and what are not the qualities of the self. So they’re talking about the same issue, but just defining the qualities differently. But pure awareness, what’s called “ rigpa” in Tibetan, is really quite different from what either Buddhism or Hinduism are talking about when they talk about the self, or atman.

Host: So I think here we can finish if nobody has objections. One more time I would like to express my appreciation and deep gratitude on behalf of the teachers and students. I guess many people have a lot of questions, and the fact that we have such a lot of questions means that we are really sincerely interested in that. It is always a pleasure to be in a dialogue with an intelligent person who is an expert in such complicated issues. And so today we have the opportunity to set a dialogue between America and Kalmykia as part of the Russian Federation, so through the ocean. And even if it is just a small drop, nevertheless we are going towards achieving harmony in our relationships.

And so this is the end of our talk, and according to our tradition we would like to give you some present if you have no objections. Please take it. I think you understand what this is.

Alex: It’s beautiful. Thank you.

Host: And to the young man who is accompanying you, this is a book about tea ceremony, Kalmyk tea ceremony. We hope that he likes Kalmyk tea, because he is young; and if you don’t, then we will teach you. And we would like you to give us a little bit more of your precious time. We’re really sincerely glad to see you here. And so in order for you next time to come directly here and meet our collective, students will show you some small art performance.

Alex: Oh, wonderful.

Host: If you have no objections.

Alex: Not at all. This is wonderful.

Host: Thank you very much.