Are all religions the same?

by R. Dissa, London, UK, The Buddhist Channel, Dec 18, 2005

I am addressing Visakha Kawasaki's (All religions are not the same, Nov 27) discomfort about the Dalai Lama urging Christians and Muslims not to convert but to stick to their own path.  Visakha disagrees with the Dalai Lama because as far as she is concerned, alternatives to Buddhism do not necessarily teach good conduct of body, speech and mind to the same high standard as she perceives Buddhism to teach them.

I am using this opportunity to show that actually the Dalai Lama is being very clever and by saying what he is saying, and truly meaning it, that it will draw the right sorts of people towards the wisdom of the Buddha compared to if the Dalai Lama encouraged people to become Buddhists rather like the Catholic Pope will usually seem to do for people to become Catholic Christians. If the Dalai Lama tells people who are not Buddhist to be Buddhist though he may persuade a few, many will be displeased and will start seeing Buddhism as a threat rather like some of us see evangelical types as a threat.

Firstly, let us remember the Aesop's fable of the wind and the sun. Both decided to see who could get a coat off a man. The wind blew as hard has he could but the man merely wrapped himself more in his coat. Then the Sun tried his strategy. He came out and smiled and smiled and the man was eventually so hot he took his coat off.

In the autumn of 312 Emperor Constantine became a Christian. Before him, Christians carried on alongside Pagans and Jews in the ancient world. After him, when Christians came to power, they effectively banned other religions. In fact many people fled Europe to England and further East or South to avoid being persecuted. Amongst these were Jews who settled in Arabia. Monotheism became strong in Europe and the great civilisations of Ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt (for all their faults as well) were turned upside down. The famous library of Alexandria was burned down by an irate Coptic mob and so much knowledge accumulated over thousands of years was lost. Philosophers were persecuted and shortly after the 5th century CE Europe entered the "Dark Ages" and started off the crusades a bit later. Prophet Muhammad owed as much to Christianity as to the Jews in establishing monotheism in the Middle East. Once again the "one true God" needed to have all "pagans" eradicated. T emples and ancient shrines were swept away and the religion spread eastwards largely by the sword. Taxila, the great Buddhist university in Pakistan was destroyed by the 12th century. In 1520s when the Spanish encountered an alien set of civilisations in South America did they leave them alone? No. They pillaged as much gold and silver as they could and destroyed the Aztecs and later the Incas. Of course they abolished human sacrifice as practiced by the Aztecs but they also made sure that these people knew about the one true god. I will spare the reader the various bloody incidents that mocked and savaged what was effectively an alternative human civilisation which deserved to be improved and not destroyed. Tenochtitlan, the ancient city of Mexico was so beautiful and yet was effectively razed to the ground as Cortez himself admitted.

Much of Europe today is a reformed beast. The rise of Science was a response to religious dogma. One could almost argue that dogma stimulated the rise of rationality. Rationality and tolerance are qualities that were common to most ancient "Pagan" religions including Buddhism.

All religions are the same in the sense that they are all human constructs passed on culturally from generation to generation. It is natural for various cultures to be proud and to look down on alternative cultures. People justify certain acts by claiming that that is what their god wants and as god is more important, his needs need to be implemented. We often realise that when they say "this is God's will" they mean their own will. As human beings we have to respect differences and aspire to common ideals of compassion and understanding or wisdom. Something we humans take pride in. In Buddhism we do not extend our compassion just to our own group or even just other humans, but to animals and any gods/aliens/ghosts and "Amanussa" or non humans out there. I hope that we also have compassion for other cultures, alternative visions of how things should be, even if they are supposedly mediated by a supreme being (that we may not take seriously). Because the important thin g is not that we are Buddhist, but that we have peace, understanding and happiness. Being Buddhist is not about being anything but ideally actively using and developing the toolkit that the Buddha offered to improve our happiness and the happiness of others (for starters there are the 37 tools of the factors of enlightenment). If we meet a happy Christian, it would be quite wrong to pretend that we do not share tools in common. Our tool may be sharper but only if it has been developed to a high level (say the tool of concentration) - and many of us deal with blunt instruments. So if another human being has a higher degree of concentration than me, then whatever their religion I have an opportunity to improve my concentration. If we as Buddhists meet an alien culture like the Spanish did, we should remember history and unlike the Spanish of the 17th century we should actually think about how our actions will affect that alien culture. We would not wish to harm the best aspect s of their culture though we would wish them to reduce any harm that we perceive them to inflict on their fellow creatures. So the Dalai Lama is not interested in making other people Buddhist but helping us to live more comfortably with alternatives and thus protect ourselves - because wherever we are, we would like to practice our thing in peace without fear of our lives and with the opportunity to learn from any kind of good/truth/wisom in others (How many of us have learned good qualities of behaviour by looking at our pets?).

When Upali asked if he could become a Buddhist three times the Buddha said "Upali stick to your own thing". Upali said "this makes me want to join you even more." In the sutta of the "Lion's raw to the Udhambarikans" (Digha Nikaya) the Buddha says "Nigrodha, I am not trying to change how you live or tell you not to respect what you have been respecting so far ." he gives a very long list with words to the effect of "I do not teach Dhamma because .". It is not because he wants them to become Buddhist but because there are things that manifest in harm and suffering and things that manifest in peace and understanding - and because the Buddha has seen the problem deeply, he is simply providing advice on matters that will lead to an increase in understanding and reduce suffering overall. (It is one of the best suttas the Buddha gave as usual)

Looking at history, I now see that despite the best/worst efforts of fundamentalist religious people who constantly try and convert others, actually we are now back in an age of the triumph of Paganism. People don't go to Egypt to look at old Coptic churches but the vast temples to the ancient gods. In Turkey we see the vast temple complex of Ephesus and admire it as one of the ancient Seven Wonders eventually starved out of existence by a more fundamentalist creed. In the West religion is not really too important and there is more emphasis on fairness and redistribution (though this may be more true in theory than in praxis). Above all, in the civilised world today, plurality of views is the norm as was in the ancient Pagan world when how the state functioned was more important than what particular god you believed in - though various gods also represented instruments of the state.

The Dalai Lama is simply being like the Sun in helping to take peoples coats off. How people behave and their general attitude is sometimes more important that what they actually believe in. Practicing Buddhism represents the hardest challenge and those who truly practice it, understand magic.
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