Tolerance and Diversity

Bhikkhu Bodh

Today all the major religions of the world must respond to a double
challenge. On one side is the challenge of secularism, a trend which has
swept across the globe, battering against the most ancient strongholds of
the sacred and turning all man's movements towards the Beyond into a forlorn
gesture, poignant but devoid of sense. On the other side is the meeting of
the great religions with each other. As the most far-flung nations and
cultures merge into a single global community, the representatives of
humankind's spiritual quest have been brought together in an encounter of
unprecedented intimacy, an encounter so close that it leaves no room for
retreat. Thus at one and the same time each major religion faces, in the
amphitheater of world opinion, all the other religions of the earth, as well
as the vast numbers of people who regard all claims to possess the Great
Answer with a skeptical frown or an indifferent yawn.
In this situation, any religion which is to emerge as more than a relic from
humanity's adolescence must be able to deal, in a convincing and meaningful
manner, with both sides of the challenge. On the one hand it must contain
the swelling tide of secularism, by keeping alive the intuition that no
amount of technological mastery over external nature, no degree of
proficiency in providing for humanity's mundane needs, can bring complete
repose to the human spirit, can still the thirst for a truth and value that
transcends the boundaries of contingency. On the other hand, each religion
must find some way of disentangling the conflicting claims that all
religions make to understand our place in the grand scheme of things and to
hold the key to our salvation. While remaining faithful to its own most
fundamental principles, a religion must be able to address the striking
differences between its own tenets and those of other creeds, doing so in a
manner that is at once honest yet humble, perspicacious yet unimposing.
In this brief essay I wish to sketch the outline of an appropriate Buddhist
response to the second challenge. Since Buddhism has always professed to
offer a "middle way" in resolving the intellectual and ethical dilemmas of
the spiritual life, we may find that the key to our present problematic also
lies in discovering the response that best exemplifies the middle way. As
has often been noted, the middle way is not a compromise between the
extremes but a way that rises above them, avoiding the pitfalls into which
they lead. Therefore, in seeking the proper Buddhist approach to the problem
of the diversity of creeds, we might begin by pinpointing the extremes which
the middle way must avoid.
The first extreme is a retreat into fundamentalism, the adoption of an
aggressive affirmation of one's own beliefs coupled with a proselytizing
zeal towards those who still stand outside the chosen circle of one's
co-religionists. While this response to the challenge of diversity has
assumed alarming proportions in the folds of the great monotheistic
religions, Christianity and Islam, it is not one towards which Buddhism has
a ready affinity, for the ethical guidelines of the Dhamma naturally tend to
foster an attitude of benign tolerance towards other religions and their
followers. Though there is no guarantee against the rise of a militant
fundamentalism from within Buddhism's own ranks, the Buddha's teachings can
offer no sanctification, not even a remote one, for such a malignant
For Buddhists the more alluring alternative is the second extreme. This
extreme, which purchases tolerance at the price of integrity, might be
called the thesis of spiritual universalism: the view that all the great
religions, at their core, espouse essentially the same truth, clothed merely
in different modes of expression. Such a thesis could not, of course, be
maintained in regard to the formal creeds of the major religions, which
differ so widely that it would require a strenuous exercise in word-twisting
to bring them into accord. The universalist position is arrived at instead
by an indirect route. Its advocates argue that we must distinguish between
the outward face of a religion -- its explicit beliefs and exoteric
practices -- and its inner nucleus of experiential realization. On the basis
of this distinction, they then insist, we will find that beneath the
markedly different outward faces of the great religions, at their heart --
in respect of the spiritual experiences from which they emerge and the
ultimate goal to which they lead -- they are substantially identical. Thus
the major religions differ simply in so far as they are different means,
different expedients, to the same liberative experience, which may be
indiscriminately designated "enlightenment," or "redemption," or
"God-realization," since these different terms merely highlight different
aspects of the same goal. As the famous maxim puts it: the roads up the
mountain are many, but the moonlight at the top is one. From this point of
view, 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.
On first consideration the adoption of such a view may seem to be an
indispensable stepping-stone to religious tolerance, and to insist that
doctrinal differences are not merely verbal but real and important may
appear to border on bigotry. Thus those who embrace Buddhism in reaction
against the doctrinaire narrowness of the monotheistic religions may find in
such a view -- so soft and accommodating -- a welcome respite from the
insistence on privileged access to truth typical of those religions.
However, an unbiased study of the Buddha's own discourses would show quite
plainly that the universalist thesis does not have the endorsement of the
Awakened One himself. To the contrary, the Buddha repeatedly proclaims that
the path to the supreme goal of the holy life is made known only in his own
teaching, and therefore that the attainment of that goal -- final
deliverance from suffering -- can be achieved only from within his own
dispensation. The best known instance of this claim is the Buddha's
assertion, on the eve of his Parinibbana, that only in his dispensation are
the four grades of enlightened persons to be found, that the other sects are
devoid of true ascetics, those who have reached the planes of liberation.
The Buddha's restriction of final emancipation to his own dispensation does
not spring from a narrow dogmatism or a lack of good will, but rests upon an
utterly precise determination of the nature of the final goal and of the
means that must be implemented to reach it. This goal is neither an
everlasting afterlife in a heaven nor some nebulously conceived state of
spiritual illumination, but the Nibbana element with no residue remaining,
release from the cycle of repeated birth and death. This goal is effected by
the utter destruction of the mind's defilements -- greed, aversion and
delusion -- all the way down to their subtlest levels of latency. The
eradication of the defilements can be achieved only by insight into the true
nature of phenomena, which means that the attainment of Nibbana depends upon
the direct experiential insight into all conditioned phenomena, internal and
external, as stamped with the "three characteristics of existence":
impermanence, suffering, and non-selfness. What the Buddha maintains, as the
ground for his assertion that his teaching offers the sole means to final
release from suffering, is that the knowledge of the true nature of
phenomena, in its exactitude and completeness, is accessible only in his
teaching. This is so because, theoretically, the principles that define this
knowledge are unique to his teaching and contradictory in vital respects to
the basic tenets of other creeds; and because, practically, this teaching
alone reveals, in its perfection and purity, the means of generating this
liberative knowledge as a matter of immediate personal experience. This
means is the Noble Eightfold Path which, as an integrated system of
spiritual training, cannot be found outside the dispensation of a Fully
Enlightened One.
Surprisingly, this exclusivistic stance of Buddhism in regard to the
prospects for final emancipation has never engendered a policy of
intolerance on the part of Buddhists towards the adherents of other
religions. To the contrary, throughout its long history, Buddhism has
displayed a thoroughgoing tolerance and genial good will towards the many
religions with which it has come into contact. It has maintained this
tolerance simultaneously with its deep conviction that the doctrine of the
Buddha offers the unique and unsurpassable way to release from the ills
inherent in conditioned existence. For Buddhism, religious tolerance is not
achieved by reducing all religions to a common denominator, nor by
explaining away formidable differences in thought and practice as accidents
of historical development. From the Buddhist point of view, to make
tolerance contingent upon whitewashing discrepancies would not be to
exercise genuine tolerance at all; for such an approach can "tolerate"
differences only by diluting them so completely that they no longer make a
difference. True tolerance in religion involves the capacity to admit
differences as real and fundamental, even as profound and unbridgeable, yet
at the same time to respect the rights of those who follow a religion
different from one's own (or no religion at all) to continue to do so
without resentment, disadvantage or hindrance.
Buddhist tolerance springs from the recognition that the dispositions and
spiritual needs of human beings are too vastly diverse to be encompassed by
any single teaching, and thus that these needs will naturally find
expression in a wide variety of religious forms. The non-Buddhist systems
will not be able to lead their adherents to the final goal of the Buddha's
Dhamma, but that they never proposed to do in the first place. For Buddhism,
acceptance of the idea of the beginningless round of rebirths implies that
it would be utterly unrealistic to expect more than a small number of people
to be drawn towards a spiritual path aimed at complete liberation. The
overwhelming majority, even of those who seek deliverance from earthly woes,
will aim at securing a favorable mode of existence within the round, even
while misconceiving this to be the ultimate goal of the religious quest.
To the extent that a religion proposes sound ethical principles and can
promote to some degree the development of wholesome qualities such as love,
generosity, detachment and compassion, it will merit in this respect the
approbation of Buddhists. These principles advocated by outside religious
systems will also conduce to rebirth in the realms of bliss -- the heavens
and the divine abodes. Buddhism by no means claims to have unique access to
these realms, but holds that the paths that lead to them have been
articulated, with varying degrees of clarity, in many of the great spiritual
traditions of humanity. While the Buddhist will disagree with the belief
structures of other religions to the extent that they deviate from the
Buddha's Dhamma, he will respect them to the extent that they enjoin virtues
and standards of conduct that promote spiritual development and the
harmonious integration of human beings with each other and with the world.
Buddhist Publication Society Newsletter cover essay #24 (Summer-Fall 1993) Copyright © 1993 Buddhist Publication Society For free distribution only Revised: Sun 3 October 1999