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Lions Roar : September 2010
SHAMBHALA SUN SEPTEMBER 2010 18 of genuine interreligious harmony based on mutual understand- ing possible at all? scholars of religion speak of three different ways in which a follower of a particular faith tradition may relate to the existence of other faith traditions. one is a straightforward exclusivism, a position that one’s own religion is the only true re- ligion and that rejects, as it were by default, the legitimacy of oth- er faith traditions. This is the standpoint adopted most often by the adherents of the religious traditions. another position is in- clusivism, whereby one accords a kind of partial validity to other faith traditions but maintains that their teachings are somehow contained within one’s own faith tradition—a position histori- cally characterized by some Christian responses to Judaism and islam’s relation to both Judaism and Christianity. Though more tolerant than the first position, this second standpoint ultimately suggests the redundancy of other faith traditions. Finally, there is pluralism, which accords validity to all faith traditions. so, with these considerations as background, how does a follow- er of a particular religious tradition deal with the question of the legitimacy of other religions? on the doctrinal level, this is a ques- tion of how to reconcile two seemingly conflicting perspectives that pertain to the world’s religious traditions. i often characterize these two perspectives as “one truth, one religion” versus “many truths, many religions.” How does a devout person reconcile the perspec- tive of “one truth, one religion” that one’s own teachings appear to proclaim with the perspective of “many truths, many religions” that the reality of the human world undeniably demands? as many religious believers feel, i would agree that some ver- sion of exclusivism—the principle of “one truth, one religion”— lies at the heart of most of the world’s great religions. Further- more, a single-pointed commitment to one’s own faith tradition demands the recognition that one’s chosen faith represents the highest religious teaching. For example, for me Buddhism is the best, but this does not mean that Buddhism is the best for all. Certainly not. For millions of my fellow human beings, theistic forms of teaching represent the best path. Therefore, in the con- text of an individual religious practitioner, the concept of “one truth, one religion” remains most relevant. it is this that gives the power and single-pointed focus of one’s religious path. at the same time, it is critical that the religious practitioner harbors no egocentric attachment to his or her faith. once, at a conference in argentina, the well-known Chilean scientist Humberto maturana, who incidentally was a teacher of a close scientist friend of mine, the late Francisco varela, said that, as a scientist, he should not be attached to his field, for this would obstruct his ability to study it with objectivity. This, i think, is an important insight that we in the religious world should also embrace. it means that i, as a Buddhist, must not feel egocentric attachment to my own faith of Buddhism, for doing so obstructs me from seeing the value of other traditions. in the context of society, however, the concept of “many truths, many religions” not only becomes relevant but also necessary. in fact, where there is more than one person, already the pluralistic perspective of “many truths, many religions” becomes critical. Thus, if we relate these two seemingly contradictory perspectives to their differing contexts of society and the individual, we can see no real conflict between the two. This still leaves unanswered the question of how we should re- late to the divergent and contradictory doctrinal teachings of the religions. From the Buddhist point of view, the belief in a transcen- dent god, with its emphasis on the idea of a first cause that in itself is uncaused, amounts to falling into the extreme of absolutism, a view that is understood to obstruct the attainment of enlighten- ment. in contrast, from the monotheistic religions’ point of view, Buddhism’s nonacceptance of god and divine creation amounts to falling into the extreme of nihilism, a view that is dangerously close to an amoral and materialistic view of the world. But, on the other hand, from the theistic religions’ point of view, if one believes that the entire cosmos, including the sentient beings within it, is a creation of one all-powerful and compas- sionate god, the inescapable consequence is that the existence of faith traditions other than one’s own are also god’s creation. To deny this would imply one of two results: either one rejects god’s omnipotence—that is to say, that although these other faiths are false ways, god remains incapable of stopping their emergence— or, if one maintains that although god is perfectly capable of preventing the emergence of these “false” ways, He chooses not to do so, then one rejects god’s all-embracing compassion. The lat- ter would imply that, for whatever reasons, god chose to exclude some—in fact, millions of His own children—and left them to follow false ways that would lead to their damnation. so the logic of monotheism, especially the standard version that attributes omnipotence, omniscience, and all-embracing compassion to god, inevitably entails recognition that the world’s many re- ligious traditions are in one way or another related to god’s divine intentions for the ultimate well-being of His children. This means that, as a devout follower of god, one must accord respect, and if possible, reverence to all religions. From the Buddhist point of view, given the tremendous di- versity among sentient beings, each individual and group with a long history of inclinations and propensities, people find dif- ferent ways of approach more suited to their own spiritual incli- nations and thus more effective for their spiritual development. This alone is adequate ground to develop a sense of appreciation of all faith traditions. From the liberal democratic point of view too, so long as one subscribes to the ideal that each citizen of a nation must be respected in his or her own right, one is also bound by this principle to respect the faith traditions that these individuals perceive to be the basis of their understanding of who they are as persons. given the need for upholding the perspective of “many truths, many religions” in the context of wider society, while the dictates of one’s own faith demand embracing the “one truth, one religion” perspective, i believe that a creative approach is called for here—if one wishes to uphold both of these perspectives with integrity. one might, for instance, make a distinction between faith and respect as two distinct psychological attitudes in relation to the