An ethical life: Buddhism and religious tolerance

This post was inspired by a post on one of the Buddhist groups I follow on Facebook, which is unfortunately the nexus of pretty virulent Islamophobia. This honestly shocks me, because Buddhism is about tolerance and acceptance of others’ life choices. However – especially in regions that where Buddhism is a majority religion – many use Buddhism as an excuse to discriminate against others.

I don’t think I have to tell you that this goes well against the original teachings of Buddha, who preached tolerance and restraint from judgment.  In an excellent book by Canadian  scholar Richard P Hayes, he notes that “the Buddha tells the residents of a small town that they should believe nothing simply because it is taught to them by someone who is learned in scriptures and has been hailed as a great teacher.” Buddha didn’t want to forcibly convert people or to demand they believe him, but offered everyone the choice to follow him or to continue on another path. In encouraging people to question him and other spiritual leaders, he hoped to help foster critical thinking and a deep examination of one’s beliefs, beyond what teachers may say or what a community might demand of its members.

Buddhism isn’t about blind faith, but about judging for ourselves what is the right path: being guided by our teachers and leaders, but not immediately presuming they have the answer. We are encouraged to find a middle way between extremes, refraining from judgment until we have an answer that satisfies. This is incredibly freeing, because it reminds us that we don’t have to accept dogma just because it’s given to us.

Demanding others follow our path just because we do is a severe violation of this tenet: we would be demanding the unthinking devotion which Buddha so strongly cautions us against. If we really do want others to believe in what we do, we need to offer them a good answer as to why. That doesn’t come from disparaging others, but in engaging in genuine, thoughtful dialog, learning what leads someone to their religion of choice and, if we feel it is truly necessary, arguing our case. No one is going to convert to Buddhism because a Buddhist tears down their beliefs.

Furthermore, Buddhism is fully aware of its place as only one of many answers to life’s deepest questions. Bikkhu Bodhi writes that “the Buddha Dhamma is only one more variant on the “perennial philosophy” underlying all the mature expressions of man’s spiritual quest. It may stand out by its elegant simplicity, its clarity and directness; but a unique and unrepeated revelation of truth it harbors not.” Many of us fall into the traps that Bodhi writes about: either believing that we have the only answer, or thinking that all religions teach the same thing if one only reads into them close enough. Both are harmful, because they ignore why religions speak to people and assume that everyone thinks the same deep down.

There are a variety of reasons why might follow a different path than Buddhism. Western thinkers tend to underestimate the role of tradition and precedent in peoples’ lives, because we live in a world where anyone can be just about anything. That level of religious freedom isn’t the norm: most people follow the dominant religion in their communities and countries because it is what they have been taught since birth, and the one they are expected to follow. Choosing a different path can lead to exile or real punishment: why would one choose to place themselves in harm’s way when they have a perfectly good spiritual path offered to them?

For most of us in the Western world, legitimate punishment for our religious choices is unthinkable, because freedom of religion is enshrined in the fabric of our societies. This isn’t the case everywhere and is an excellent reason why tolerance is so crucial.

We, like others, have been shaped by our upbringings and the dominant thoughts in our society. Each of us have come to Buddhism both through a specific need and for a specific reason. Maybe it was the religion of your parents; maybe you started reading Buddhist works because you were going through a hard time and needed a way to understand why it might be happening. Others in a similar situation have been moved to find something else, whether that’s Islam, Christianity, Judaism, or any other path. They need something different to bring them peace, and that’s perfectly ok. As long as we each work to create a better society, we should each be allowed the path that brings us closer to our best selves.

Sadly, many of our great teachers have fallen into the trap of rigidity and intolerance. Nichiren, the teacher I follow most strongly, can be quite intolerant in his exhortations, claiming that Nam Myoho Renge Kyo is the only way to salvation. In reality, people find peace in many different places. I believe strongly in Nam Myoho Renge Kyo and its power to change lives, but just because Nichiren’s path speaks to me doesn’t mean it will speak to everyone. Perhaps that goes against Nichiren Buddhism, but it doesn’t go against Buddha’s tenets of recognizing we all have our own path.

What about kosen-rufu and the encouragement to help others find the way? I interpret kosen-rufu as “walking the walk and talking the talk.” If we want others to come to Nichiren Buddhism, or any other sect of Buddhism, we must show them, through our behavior, that it’s a good path. If we truly embody the Buddhist life – including tolerance for others’ choices – others will see that our way is genuine and helps us to lead a good life. We should act out our doctrine in everything we do, and by being a good example, we can encourage others to see the great things Buddhism can do for personal growth and transformation.

More than anything, Buddhism teaches us to think for ourselves, to investigate the causes of suffering in the world, and to help others live well. Causing more strife and pain for others by being intolerant of their worldview doesn’t help to bring about enlightenment for ourselves or others. For that reason, and for our own peace of mind, it’s essential that we respect every walk of life that helps to better the world.



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