Living and Working in a Multireligious Society

I’ve been asked to speak about living and working in harmony in a religiously diverse society, and there are many different aspects that this topic covers. As our distinguished host mentioned, one is what His Holiness the Dalai Lama always emphasizes, which is human values and secular ethics. That despite what differences we might have in beliefs among all of us who live in a particular society, ethics does not need to rely solely on a specific set of religious beliefs, but there’s a certain set of ethics based on basic human values which is accepted in common by all religions and by non-believers as well. These values are based on the recognition that we are all equal: Everybody wants to be happy; nobody wants to be unhappy. In that respect, we are all the same. We all have feelings. Everybody wants to be liked and accepted. Nobody wants to be rejected or persecuted. Everybody wants to be respected and wants to have the consideration of others. The basis, then, for this general approach to secular ethics is one which, as His Holiness the Dalai Lama always emphasizes, is based on compassion, which is defined as the wish for others to be free of suffering and problems and their causes.

Now, what are these sources of problems and unhappiness? There are many of them. We live in a time in which, of course, there are economic problems, problems of various types of conflict around the world. And we are all interconnected, so what happens in one part of the world affects everyone; it’s no longer the case that we can live in an isolated manner.

And so when we look at various religious beliefs, it’s very important, of course, that the differences in these belief systems don’t contribute to even more problems. And so the question, of course, is: How can we avoid disputes, conflicts, misunderstandings that might arise because of different belief systems? It is really not satisfactory to say, “Well, all religions are the same. All non-religions as well, secular beliefs – that’s all the same. We all believe in the basic work of trying to make this world a better place.” That’s not sufficient. Even though it might be true that we all share the same value and aspiration and goal, still there are differences; and it’s not fair to the various religions to say that there are no differences.

But what causes disharmony very often is based on our ignorance of each other’s beliefs. That’s compounded and made worse by, often, our lack of any deep knowledge about our own tradition. So rather than based on any knowledge and understanding, our attitudes about our own background and the background of others can easily degenerate into what can be called a “football team” mentality. Football mentality means, “This is my football team and this is the best, and we have to win, and we have to compete and beat every other football team.” It’s the belief that my religious system is the best simply because it’s mine and my family’s tradition.

Once, His Holiness the Dalai Lama was asked, “What is the best religion?” And His Holiness replied, “The best religion is the religion that helps you to become a kinder person.” And so, obviously, for each person, one religion or another might be the most helpful for making them a kinder person. This, I think, is a very, very helpful way of approaching religious diversity. We need to recognize and acknowledge that each religion is trying to help to offer its believers to become kinder and better persons. In order to recognize and acknowledge that, we need to have knowledge; we need to have education about our own religion, about others’ religions. This can be done in a very scientific type of manner in education systems without trying to convert anybody and without any type of judgmental attitude, just general knowledge; that’s very, very helpful and important.

Very often, there are various meetings that are held between different religious leaders. His Holiness the Dalai Lama likes to participate in such interfaith meetings very much. He finds them very helpful. I am reminded of several meetings that I myself personally took part in. One was an advance meeting with Patriarch Bartholomew, the Orthodox Christian Patriarch in Istanbul. I met him very soon after he took this office, and he was about to leave for Japan, at which he was going to, for the first time, meet a Buddhist leader. And he said to me that he was very grateful to some of the writings of His Holiness the Dalai Lama about Buddhism because, previously, he didn’t really know very much about Buddhism and these books helped him very, very much to be able to meet and dialogue in a meaningful way with the Buddhist leaders in Japan. So we find this type of open attitude that acknowledges that the basis for understanding and cooperation among religions is education, knowledge. We find this among leaders of various religions.

I have been particularly involved with the Buddhist-Muslim dialogue. I was originally drawn to this area in the middle of the 1990s because of the situation in Tibet in which a lot of Chinese Muslims were settling in Tibet, particularly the northeastern area.

Traditionally, there were Muslims living in central Tibet. They were mostly Muslim traders coming from Ladakh and Kashmir. This was at the time of the Fifth Dalai Lama, in the seventeenth century. He established various laws which gave the Muslims all the rights that they wanted in terms of building a mosque, having their own cemeteries, and being exempt from the various Buddhist rituals or procedures or things that happened during certain holidays of the year. So traditionally, in Tibet, there wasn’t a clash between these two religions. But in more recent times, there’s been a lot of economic competition with the influx of Chinese immigrants, and among them – into Tibet – a lot of Muslims have been moving in.

So, thinking on a larger scale of Central Asia and the history of the interaction of the Buddhist and Muslim and Christian societies, I felt that it was very important to start to have a dialogue and more understanding among these groups, particularly the Buddhist and Muslim. This would help for the development of the whole region. One of the things that I set out to do was to write a more objective history of the interaction of the two cultures, and this gave me the perfect opportunity to travel to Islamic countries in the Middle East and to consult with scholars there. Because I was seeking knowledge, then there was tremendous openness among the Muslim scholars to help dispel the misunderstanding that has abounded about the interaction of these two cultures. Many accounts just portray the interaction as: “The Muslim invaders came into India and so on, and just destroyed everything Buddhist.” And although there was certainly some destruction, that is not a fair representation of what actually happened and what the long history is. But as long as Buddhists would regard Muslims as the ones who destroyed the monasteries in India, or the Muslims think of the Christians as the ones who led the Crusades against them, as long as that is the main memory of the interaction, that just perpetuates more problems between the two, more conflicts.

So I travelled around in places like Egypt and Jordan, Turkey, etc., and met with professors and theological leaders of Islam. Actually, I was paid a very high compliment by the rector of the Theological University in Cairo, Al-Azhar University. He said that I was a real fighter for truth, the real meaning of mujahedin. So I was trying to bring truth to what really had happened. I found that not only the professors and religious leaders that I met, but the students as well, were extremely interested. 300 students came to a voluntary lecture at Cairo University that I gave about basic Buddhism.

Once, His Holiness the Dalai Lama asked me to do something for him. Every now and then he would give me what I would call a mission impossible. He said, “I want you to find me and bring me a black African Muslim Sufi leader.” What does one reply to a request like that, except “thank you very much”? His Holiness has this amazing ability to know the karmic connections that people have, and whenever he’s asked me to do these seemingly impossible things for him, it has been extremely easy to do – everything just automatically falls in place. Soon afterwards, I travelled to Europe – I used to do a lot of lecturing around the world – and I met a German man with whom I got to speaking, and he was actually a diplomat in Africa, and so I told him about the Dalai Lama’s request, and he said, “Oh. I just happen to know a good friend of mine who is the Sufi religious leader of the country of Guinea.” Guinea’s in West Africa, and I forgot to mention His Holiness also specified that the leader be from West Africa. This leader was in Europe, and he was going to India for some ayurvedic medical treatment. And it just happened that he would be in Delhi exactly when I was scheduled to be back in Delhi, and it just happened that he had a few extra days before he had to leave India, and he would be very willing to meet me and to have me accompany him up to Dharamsala to meet the Dalai Lama. So absolutely no effort was required to arrange this.

So I met this Sufi leader. He was magnificent looking. Very big, like an African tribal chief, and very, very dignified. We went up to Dharamsala, and I accompanied him on his meeting with the Dalai Lama. He was dressed in these very elegant white robes. And when the two of them met it was such an emotional, warm meeting between the two, like two old friends meeting each other, and the Sufi leader actually started to weep. And the Dalai Lama jumped up and went over to his anteroom – the room right outside, where he meets visitors – and personally brought back a tissue for the Sufi leader to wipe his tears, which is something that I had never seen the Dalai Lama do before. He always had an assistant or attendant to do things, to get things for him; he wouldn’t get up and get them himself. And they had a very warm discussion about the basis for compassion in Buddhism and in Sufism. After that, over several years, they had further meetings.

So the Dalai Lama himself has been greatly interested in this dialogue, not only with the Muslims, but with leaders of other religions around the world. And he has encouraged me to have large parts of my website translated into the Islamic languages, to make available more knowledge to the Islamic world about Buddhism, about Tibet, about his own writings and speeches about religious harmony and secular ethics. So another impossible mission. But amazingly we have been able to put, already, large portions of the website into Arabic and Urdu. Urdu is the language of Pakistan and the Muslims of North India. And in the last weeks, again without looking for it, without seeking them, a team has appeared that is interested in translating our website into Indonesian. Indonesia has the largest Muslim population in the world.

So as I say, the basis for religious harmony is education, knowledge about each other’s beliefs. Then one sees that there’s nothing to be afraid of. And while acknowledging the differences that we have, emphasizing what we share in harmony.

Now the question becomes: How do we actually live and work in such a multi-religious society as you have here in Kalmykia? And in particular, since this is an engineering college, I was thinking about what considerations might be relevant for you as students of this faculty. In other words, when you’re building something, designing something, what considerations can we take in order to accommodate these different religious beliefs and practices? And on a larger scale, how do we structure a society, a government, local government, etc., if we have some ability to help to structure it?

The first thought that came to me was that there are certain religions that ask their believers to pray at certain times of the day – like a Muslim, five times a day. So if you are supervising a building site in which some of the workers might be Muslim, or if you’re building a public building, a school or whatever, in which they would have Muslim students or faculty, it can be very helpful for creating a harmonious atmosphere if there is a prayer room, if it is perfectly okay for those who would like to pray during the day to be able to follow their beliefs and customs. Similarly, if there are customs of other religions that one could accommodate, in terms of designing a building, this is wonderful to do. In other words, take into consideration what are the distinguishing characteristics of a belief system that would make people feel welcome and comfortable.

You see, there’s always an issue involved with loyalty. Loyalty is a very important concept in terms of the emotional well-being of people. We want very much to be loyal to our family, loyal to our ethnic background and religion. And then there’s loyalty to the state, to the country. And what often causes difficulty is when people are not allowed to show loyalty to all of these in a harmonious way, where they are forced to be disloyal, let’s say, to their religious background in order to be loyal to the customs of the society at large.

I’m thinking of examples of religious dress. In Muslim societies, the women cover their heads, and sometimes their whole face, with a veil, and there’s been a lot of controversy about that being banned in France, recently. Sikhs – that’s a religion in India – never cut their hair; the men never cut their hair, and they always wear a turban. Well, some places say that they’re not allowed to do that in the workplace; so in the army, if they join the army. Or Buddhist monks being discouraged from wearing their robes if they’re working in an office or a school. And some places even wearing a cross, if you are a Christian, is seen as a little bit too aggressive about your religion.

And again, I think that it’s very important to allow people, in a sense, to still be loyal to their tradition if it doesn’t cause a major problem in the society. What’s the harm if you wear a turban and you don’t cut your hair if you are in a school or in the army or whatever? Is there any problem? Well, not really. You can still do your job quite well. What’s the problem if, as a Buddhist, you say a prayer and make an offering before you eat? What’s the problem? If you are wearing a veil that covers your face completely – well, that might be a problem driving a car, for example; your vision is limited. So okay, you could say, “Well, you can’t wear a veil over your entire face if you’re going to be driving a car.” But in other circumstances what’s the harm? Or if you’re a woman, what is the harm in insisting that if you go to a hospital that you be treated by a woman doctor, women nurses? There are many people, even who are non-religious, who would prefer that as a woman.

So I think that in designing a building, for example, you might take into consideration things like men’s section, women’s section, if you’re in a society in which there’s a considerable number of people that would really appreciate that as part of their customs. And if you are working with a society, to see what steps we can take that will allow people, as I say, to be loyal to their tradition in situations in which it doesn’t cause a problem within the functioning of society.

In short, as the Dalai Lama always says, His Holiness, that it’s wonderful that there are many different religions – and not only religions, but secular beliefs as well – in the world because, like the example of food, if there were only one food available to eat for everybody, that would be pretty boring and it wouldn’t suit everybody. So similarly with belief systems: what suits one person might not suit another person at all. There are many, many belief systems that can help us to be a kinder person, a more considerate person, more loving, which can teach us methods for living in harmony with others. And as His Holiness says, the best religion is that one which works for you in helping you to be a kinder person. So it’s like: “Just because I like chocolate ice cream, doesn’t mean that you have to like chocolate ice cream.”

Original Audio from the Seminar