By Tenzin Gyatso HH The Dalai Lama
Finding common ground among faiths can help us bridge needless divides, at a time when unified action is more crucial than ever
When I was a boy in Tibet, I felt that my own Buddhist religion must be the best, and that other faiths were somehow inferior. Now I see how naïve I was, and how dangerous the extremes of religious intolerance can be today.
Though intolerance may be as old as religion itself, we still see vigorous signs of its virulence. In Europe, there are intense debates about newcomers wearing veils, or wanting to erect minarets, and episodes of violence against Muslim immigrants. Radical ath eists issue blanket condemnations of those who hold religious beliefs. In the Middle East, hatred of those who adhere to a different faith, fan the flames of war.
Such tensions are likely to increase as the world becomes more inter-connected and cultures, people, and religions become ever more entwined. The pressure created tests more than our tolerance – it demands that we promote peaceful co-existence, and understanding, across boundaries.
Granted, every religion has a sense of exclusivity as part of its core identity. Even so, there is genuine potential for mutual understanding. While faithful to one’s own tradition, one can respect, admire, and appreciate, other traditions.
An early revelation for me was my meeting with the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, in India shortly before his premature death in 1968. Merton told me he could be perfectly faithful to Christianity, yet learn in depth from other religions like Buddhism. The same is true of me, an ardent Buddhist; learning from the world’s other great religions.
A main point in my discussion with Merton was how central compassion was to the message of both Christianity and Buddhism. In my readings of the New Testament, I find myself inspired by acts of compassion of Jesus. His miracle of the loaves and fish, his healing, and his teaching, are all motivated by the desire to relieve suffering.
I am a firm believer in the power of personal contact to bridge differences, so I have long been drawn to dialogues with people of other religious outlooks. The focus on compassion, which Merton and I observed in our two religions, strikes me as a strong unifying thread among all the major faiths, and these days, we need to highlight what unifies us.
Take Judaism, for instance. I first visited a synagogue in Cochin, India, in 1965, and have met many rabbis over the years. I remember vividly the rabbi in the Netherlands who told me about the Holocaust, with such intensity, that we were both in tears. I have learnt how the Talmud and the Bible repeat the theme of compassion, as in the passage in Leviticus that admonishes, “Love your neighbour as yourself.”
In my many encounters with Hindu scholars in India, I have come to see the centrality of selfless compassion in Hinduism too – as expressed, for instance, in the Bhagavad Gita, which praises those who “delight in the welfare of all beings”. I am moved by the ways this value has been expressed in the life of great beings like Mahatma Gandhi, or the lesser-known Baba Amte, who founded a leper colony not far from a Tibetan settlement in Maharashtra in India. There he fed and sheltered lepers, who were otherwise shunned. When I received my Nobel Peace Prize, I donated to his colony.
Compassion is equally important in Islam, and recognising that has become crucial in the years since Sept. 11, especially in answering those who paint Islam as a militant faith. On the first anniversary of 9/11, I spoke at the National Cathedral in Washington, pleading that we should not blindly follow the lead of some in the news media, and let the violent acts of a few individuals, define an entire religion.
Let me tell you about the Islam I know. Tibet has had an Islamic community for around 400 years, although my richest contacts with Islam have been in India, which has the world’s second-largest Muslim population. An imam in Ladakh once told me that a true Muslim should love and respect all of Allah’s creatures. And in my understanding, Islam enshrines compassion as a core spiritual principle, reflected in the very name of God, the ‘compassionate and merciful’, that appears at the beginning of virtually each chapter of the Koran.
Finding common ground among faiths can help us bridge needless divides, at a time when unified action is more crucial than ever. As a species, we must embrace the oneness of humanity as we face global issues like pandemics, economic crisis, and ecological disaster. At that scale, our response must be as one.
Harmony among the major faiths has become an essential ingredient of peaceful co-existence in our world. From this perspective, mutual understanding among these traditions is not merely the business of religious believers – it matters for the welfare of humanity as a whole.
Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, is the author, most recently, of Toward a True Kinship of Faiths: How the World’s Religions Can Come Together. Courtesy: The New York Times
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