Because not everyone has the same inclinations and interests, the Buddha taught a wide variety of methods to suit different people. With this in mind, His Holiness the Dalai Lama has said that it’s wonderful that so many different religions exist in the world. Just as one food will not appeal to everybody, it’s true that one religion or set of beliefs will not satisfy everyone’s needs. The fact that a variety of different religions is available is very beneficial, and something to be welcomed and rejoiced at.
There is now a growing dialogue, based on mutual respect, between Buddhist masters and leaders of other religions. The Dalai Lama met Pope John Paul II frequently, and in 1986, the Pope invited leaders of all the world religions to a large assembly in Assisi, Italy. 150 representatives were there, and the Dalai Lama, who was seated next to the Pope, was given the honor of making the first speech. At the conference, spiritual leaders discussed topics common to all religions, like ethics, love and compassion. People were very encouraged by the cooperation, harmony and mutual respect that the various religious leaders felt for each other.
Of course, each religion is different. Looking at metaphysics and theology, there is absolutely no way to get around these differences, but that doesn’t mean we need to argue. An attitude of “my beliefs are better than yours” is of no help. It’s far more beneficial to look at what all the religions have in common: that is, they all seek to improve the situation of humanity and make life better for everyone by teaching people to follow ethical behavior and a path of love, compassion and forgiveness. They all teach people not to become totally entangled in the material side of life, but at least to try and find some balance between seeking material and spiritual progress.
It would be incredibly helpful if all religions could work together to improve the situation of the world. Material progress is important, but it’s becoming clearer and clearer that spiritual progress is also necessary. When we only emphasize the material aspects of life, then making a powerful bomb capable of killing everyone becomes a desirable goal. If, on the other hand, we think in a humanistic or spiritual way, we’re aware of the problems that arise from the further buildup of weapons of mass destruction. Yet, if we only develop spiritually and totally ignore the material side, everyone will go hungry. That’s not good either! So, balance is key.
Learning from One Another
One aspect of the interaction between the world religions is that they share with each other some of their specialties. For instance, many Christian contemplatives have shown interest in learning methods for concentration and meditation from Buddhism, and numerous Catholic priests, abbots, monks and nuns have visited Dharamsala, India, to learn these skills and take them back to their own traditions. Several Buddhists have taught in Catholic seminaries, and I myself have occasionally been invited to teach them how to meditate, how to develop concentration and how to develop love. Christianity teaches us to love everybody, but it doesn’t provide detailed explanations of how to actually do it, while Buddhism is rich in methods for developing love. The Christian religion at its highest level is open to learning these methods from Buddhism. That doesn’t mean they’re all going to becoming Buddhists – no one is trying to convert anyone else here. It just means they can learn the methods as tools to be adapted within their own religion, helping them to be better Christians.
Likewise, many Buddhists are interested in learning about social service from Christianity. The majority of Christian traditions emphasize that their monks and nuns be involved in teaching, hospital work, caring for the elderly, orphans and so on. Although some Buddhist countries have already developed these social services, not all of them have, due to various social and geographical reasons. Buddhists can learn a lot about social service from Christians, and His Holiness is very open to this. It’s excellent that each side can learn from the other and their own special experiences. In this way, there can be an open forum among the world religions, based on mutual respect.
So far, interaction between religions has occurred at the highest level of religious leaders – where people seem to be more open and have less prejudices. At the lower levels, people become more insecure and develop a football team mentality – where competition and fighting is the norm. Holding this kind of attitude is very sad, whether it occurs among religions or among the various Buddhist traditions. Buddha taught many varied methods, all of which work harmoniously to help a wide spectrum of people. Therefore, it’s important to respect all traditions, both within Buddhism and among the world religions.