It is a fact that we live in a religiously diverse world. Religious diversity can and often does result in grave misunderstanding, hostility, and, as we know all too well, conflict, with unacceptable costs to human life and well-being. For this reason, among others, it is incumbent on responsible people to know how to think clearly and compassionately about religious diversity. For Buddhists, it is important in thinking about such issues to use Buddhist tools and views, lest our attitudes and actions simply reflect the biases and reactions we have absorbed from the surrounding culture.

Perhaps the single most discomfiting thing about religious diversity is that, at the level of concepts, religious people simply do not agree, or even come close to agreeing, about how to think about the nature of reality. Yet it generally goes without saying that one’s views about reality are crucially important. This is something about which Buddhism has much to say.

It is difficult to interpret from the Pali suttas what advice the Buddha might give us for dealing with the situation today. According to tradition, the Buddha had tried many of the religious options of his day and found them wanting. The Pali canon is full of stories of other religious teachers debating with the Buddha, losing the debate, and converting. The canon also recounts the Buddha sending his disciples out to teach and spread his message far and wide. Are we to conclude from this that today the Buddha would advise us to regard our version of Buddhism as clearly superior to anything else? Given that the Buddha was adamant in teaching his students not to cling to views, it seems unlikely that he would encourage us to cultivate a view, belief, or ideology that our own religion and lineage are clearly superior to anyone else’s. Given the deleterious effects of such views in promoting the three poisons of aversion, lust, and ignorance, it seems even less likely that the Buddha would today advocate single-mindedly clinging to or promoting the view that one’s own religion or lineage is best.

The clearest text in the Pali suttas regarding these issues is the famous Kalama Sutta, in which townspeople ask the Buddha how they should respond to visiting religious teachers, each of whom proclaims his own doctrine to be the best and all others to be false. The Buddha replies that people should take nothing on authority but should test everything in their own experience to see whether it produces negative or positive results. He says, “When you know for yourselves, ‘These qualities are unskillful; these qualities are blameworthy; these qualities are criticized by the wise; these qualities, when adopted and carried out, lead to harm and to suffering’—then you should abandon them.”

The Buddha, then, is represented as being more than willing, when challenged by other teachers, to engage them in debate and to accept those he has defeated as converts to his teachings. But he is not shown to proclaim that his teachings and practices are superior to all others or necessary for everyone to adopt. What he does say about his own teachings and practices is that they can lead one to Unbinding, to the Deathless. Beyond that, it is up to each student to “know for themselves,” one way or the other. Leaving it up to others to “know for themselves” whether or not certain teachings and practices lead to beneficial or harmful results, rather than proclaiming the superiority and universal relevance of one’s own teachings, is a model that is eminently relevant today.

The Buddha encouraged his qualified disciples to disseminate his teachings, and that effort was successful. As a result, Buddhists have had varied experiences in living with and learning from people of other faiths. In ancient India, strident religious debate, sometimes with the consequence that the losing side was required to convert to the winning side, was quite popular, and Buddhists participated in these debates with mixed results. Although Indian traditions debated with each other, they also adopted teachings and practices from each other. Buddhism changed a great deal in its long history in India, and some of these changes certainly appear to be due to Hindu influences. When I did my first fire puja, practicing in a Tibetan Vajrayana lineage, I was both shocked and amused to discover that the first ritual summoned Agnideva, an ancient pre-Buddhist Vedic fire deity, to the fire around which we would meditate all day. Because I love fire, Agnideva was my favorite Vedic deity when I studied that material in graduate school, and I had once written a paper on him. I was quite surprised to meet him again, so many years later, in this Buddhist context. This ritual would definitely not have been performed by the historical Buddha and his students. I use this small example to illustrate concretely the larger point: that Buddhism and Hinduism cross-influenced each other.

Beyond India, especially in East Asia, the situation was quite different. There, Buddhists also often participated in other religions. Only religious specialists clearly identified with just one religion. In Japan, many people would be hard-pressed to declare whether they were Shinto or Buddhist, or to know which sect of Buddhism their family patronized. This is not because religion and ritual were irrelevant to people, but because a very different view of religious belonging, quite unfamiliar to Westerners, prevailed. Called “multiple religious belonging,” it is becoming more common in the West, especially among those for whom two or more religions—Buddhism and Christianity, for example—are compelling. Clearly, when this view of religious belonging prevails, the question of which religion (or lineage) is best and truest recedes in importance.

From the experience of many millions of Asian Buddhists over many centuries, we in the West might glean some important clues about how Buddhists might think about religious diversity in contemporary situations. First, even if one disagrees with and debates with one’s religious neighbors, one still might learn something valuable from them, even something worth adopting. Second, the question of religious labels and loyalty is far less important than developing a viable spiritual life, even if that means drawing water from more than one well.

Things That Pop In My Head, 2009. Artwork Courtesy of the artist and Rossi & Rossi Gallery, London

In premodern, nonmonotheistic contexts, people probably experienced religious diversity in ways that are different from experience in the modern West. For most people, a singular religious affiliation was not as important, and religious identity was more fluid and easygoing. Ethnic and cultural identities, however, were quite strong, and religious identity as a secondary phenomenon, as part of one’s ethnic or cultural identity, would then follow suit. But it is important to recognize that it was the ethnic and cultural loyalties that were, and sometimes still are, primary. We have seen, even relatively recently, that ethnic groups can change religious identity quickly, en masse, without weakening their ethnic or cultural identities, such as happened when large populations that were formerly Buddhist became Muslim, Hindu, or, for that matter, Communist.

Today, especially in North America and Western Europe, the situation is different. Strong individual religious identities have largely replaced ethnically or culturally based religious identities. People are likely to be definite about whether they are atheists or believers, Christians or Jews, Vajrayana or Zen Buddhists. The pride and vigor with which a specific religious identity (including atheist) is commonly advocated can, I think, be attributed largely to the contemporary predominance of a monotheistic way of thinking about religions, which sees them not only as making exclusive truth claims for themselves but also insisting on exclusive, intense loyalty to just one. Monotheists usually regard verbal creeds as truly accurate accounts of ultimate reality and encourage an ideological certainty about the validity and infallibility of their verbal teachings.

Most convert Buddhists in the West were socialized in such a religious environment and continue to live in its midst. This is why I wrote earlier that, rather than simply absorbing the biases and reactions of the surrounding culture, it is important for Buddhists to draw on our tradition in coming to terms with religious diversity. Intellectually aggressive and fixed attitudes about other religions is one example of this sort of culturally familiar position, as would be an unwillingness to ask hard questions about the causes and consequences of one’s own beliefs. I have, for example, heard students of Vajrayana Buddhism ask whether followers of other Buddhist lineages go to “vajra hell,” a particularly long-lasting, terrible hell in their tradition’s complicated cosmology; similarly, for many Buddhists, discussions of issues of karma and rebirth often elicit anxious questions about what happens to non-Buddhists. What is really being asked for in such questions is assurance, either assurance that it is truly important to belong to the only correct lineage or assurance that it doesn’t matter how you live your religious life, as it will all come out OK in the end. Those questions and their hidden assumptions arise from culturally ingrained evaluations of religious diversity rather than from authentically Buddhist understandings.

Buddhism has cogent suggestions for promoting better communication and understanding in the present contentious, even dangerous situation regarding religious diversity. Making that claim, I speak both as someone who emerged from a religious upbringing in which the exclusive truth of that particular religion was emphasized to the nth degree and as someone who has considerable experience speaking as a Buddhist in interfaith meetings. I know very thoroughly the negative consequences of strident, inflexible, exclusive truth claims, and I also have knowledge gained from working as a Buddhist in interreligious settings. In addition, I have taught in a variety of Buddhist environments, and from this I’ve gained experience in trying to defuse intra-Buddhist sectarianism. I add this last comment because Buddhists, at least in the West, often regard other Buddhists with the same suspicion and hostility that prevail between religions, and I see no reason that intra-Buddhist sectarianism should be regarded as any more appropriate than interreligious rivalry.

In all forms of Buddhism, one finds teachings on skillful means, which can help us understand why not everyone holds the same views or does the same practices. Buddhist tradition also contains a very refined understanding of the counterproductive nature of aggression, and along with this, one finds fine-tuned practices regarding what is useful speech in highly charged environments. A third thing one finds in Buddhist tradition is a unique perspective on the role of words and concepts in relation to religious truth. Because one relies on them less and less as one progresses into greater spiritual maturity, Buddhists should be less uncomfortable with not having answers to unanswerable questions. The ultimate truth of other peoples’ religions may well be one of those unanswerable questions to which we really don’t need an answer. All we need are some methods to ascertain how well those religions work for their adherents. In coming to terms with religious diversity, Buddhists of all schools can find guidance in the values, teachings, and practices embedded in these aspects of their own tradition.

Skillful means (upaya) is a foundational concept in Buddhism and has been used to validate Buddhism’s tremendous internal diversity as well as to explain why even the Buddha taught different things at different times. It is said that out of compassion and wisdom, Buddhist teachers present the dharma in a manner appropriate for their students.

When Buddhists ask whether students of other lineages go to “vajra hell” or what happens to believers in other religions, they are asking either for assurance that it is important to belong to the only correct lineage or for assurance that it doesn’t matter how you live your religious life.

There is no single religious teaching that works for everyone. In matters of religion, the idea that “one size fits all” does not hold up, because people are too different. What inspires one person leaves another cold. Some people find theism cogent and comforting while to others it appears to be sheer nonsense. Some people are born to be monastics while others would be miserable trying to live that lifestyle. And so it goes, throughout the gamut of options regarding religious beliefs and practices. Despite this, it is all too common for religious people to praise their own doctrines and practices while berating those of others. Monotheists, who all believe in divine revelation, condemn each other’s revealed texts. Buddhists argue vociferously about whether Mahayanists or Theravadins more accurately represent the teachings of the Buddha, and each school of Buddhism tends to regard others as seriously mistaken or deficient.

Actually, the concept of skillful means has been used in two ways within Buddhism. On the one hand, it has been used to explain why there are different teachings within Buddhism; on the other hand, it has been used to rank them. This second method is well represented in T’ien T’ai/Tendai and Vajrayana Buddhism. While some claim that these ranking systems are simply practical pedagogical methods, similar to educational “grades” from kindergarten through graduate school, they are often used in less innocent ways. The teachings presented first are called “lower teachings,” meaning that they are inferior, inadequate in the long run, while the teachings presented later are said to be “higher,” ultimately necessary because they are “truer.” The most notorious example of this is Mahayana rhetoric about so-called Hinayana—the small, or inferior, vehicle—which is often confused with early Buddhism or contemporary Theravada Buddhism. Many Mahayanists claim they mean nothing negative by this language and are only referring to necessary, but preliminary, stages of the path. Used internally only, within a single lineage, such terminology may be helpful, even necessary, but when used to compare one’s own lineage or religion to another, such usage is always problematic. Not surprisingly, one’s own lineage or religion always gets ranked as the highest and “truest.”

The other Buddhist usage of skillful means offers more fruitful ways of coping with religious diversity, because it does not rank or evaluate different religious options and recognizes that there can never be a single set of religious beliefs and practices appropriate for all people. Within Vajrayana Buddhism, which refers to its specifically Vajrayana aspects as the “path of skillful means,” it is universally recognized that the many yidams (meditation deities) are not essentially different but appear as different forms to meet the needs of different practitioners. No one would claim, for example, that Vajrayogini is the only true meditation deity upon whom everyone should meditate. It is but a small step to use the same logic to understand why there are different forms of Buddhism or different major religions in the world. Understanding skillful means in this way relieves one of the burden of ranking, whether positively or negatively, one’s own lineage or religion in relation to another.

Whenever this solution to the problem of religious diversity is presented, someone asks, “Then do you mean there are no standards? Is complete relativism the answer?” Fortunately, the Buddha has already given, in the Kalama Sutta, a cogent answer in which relativism is found wanting. He directed seekers to examine whether any specific religious belief or practice led to beneficial or harmful results. The effect a belief or practice has on those who hold the belief or do the practice is crucial, while the belief or practice itself should be largely irrelevant to outsiders who do not value it. If religious practitioners become more intolerant and strident, less kind and compassionate, and do not take good care of people, animals, and the earth, then their beliefs and practices are not to be recommended.

This standard gives us no way to evaluate whole lineages or religions. Any widespread and long-lasting lineage or religion will sometimes fail, and individuals espousing that religion will use it to justify violence and intolerance. Despite their religion’s reputation for peacefulness, even Buddhists have practiced religiously motivated violence—and have done so more than once. However, this guideline does tell us what kind of practitioners become dangerous—those who are too single-mindedly and unreflectively convinced of the unique truth and righteousness of their own lineage or religion. The wrong kind of “strong faith” is very dangerous.

A hallmark of a genuine Buddhist practitioner is a truly peaceful mind. Advocating peace is not enough. One must have a mind that remains unflustered and nonaggressive even in extreme circumstances, including when one is provoked. This means that the conventional response to stupidity, intolerance, and irritation—anger or aggression—is no longer available because it has been thoroughly tamed. This state of mind, in which one simply can’t fathom how people could hold such strange, counterproductive, unworkable opinions or beliefs but does not become angry oneself or irritated with others, is difficult to attain, but this is what being an accomplished Buddhist practitioner is all about. This trained, restrained mind is especially important in our Western context, because many people, even many religious practitioners, regard anger and ideological aggression as necessary, useful tools to promote social change. We may well be interacting with such people in our interreligious discussions.

Bringing a tamed mind to interreligious or interlineage discourse will have a major effect on one’s speech. Right speech is a vast, important topic in Buddhist training, and nowhere is it more important than in delicate conversations across religious lines. In our current context, arguments or debates about religion are counterproductive and only produce more sorrow and anguish. As Buddhists, we want to avoid participating in or contributing to the contentious atmosphere that permeates much public discourse about religious diversity.

A hallmark of a genuine Buddhist practitioner is a truly peaceful mind. Advocating peace is not enough. One must have a mind that remains unflustered and nonaggressive even in extreme circumstances, even when provoked.

My first teacher, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, used to tell his students not to argue with their non-Buddhist relatives but to demonstrate the merit of their practice though their changed and tamed demeanor. Following a guideline to avoid being drawn into useless arguments may limit how much we discuss religion with friends and relatives. Though I am a professional discusser of religion, I follow this guideline in my personal life, never saying much about Buddhism or religion unless asked and then being careful about how much I say.

I’ve found that the most important guideline regarding speech is never to indulge in public discussion of an issue about which one’s emotions still roil to the surface. It is entirely possible that one has worked through emotionalism and stridency regarding most issues but still has a corner in which one is still highly reactive. Mindful that unskillful speech is damaging to discourse on difficult topics, it is wise to keep silent in such circumstances. For many years I observed this guideline about one particular topic, until finally I could feel that my body no longer registered angry, clouded energy whenever those with whom I disagreed brought it up. Then and only then did I begin to speak publically and publish my thoughts about that issue.

If it is important to know when to refrain from speaking, it is equally important to know under what circumstances it may be helpful to enter into discussions about religious diversity. For me, there is a simple guideline. While arguments are to be avoided, discussions are to be pursued and valued. The great proponent of interreligious discussion, John Cobb (a Christian), advocated that one should enter dialogue or discussion only if one’s own mind is flexible and one is willing to change one’s mind; one should never enter such discussions primarily seeking to convert others to one’s own position. This guideline is simple, direct, and says everything that needs to be said.

Working within such guidelines, conversations across religious lines or between lineages are, I found, satisfying and educational. The impact of such conversations can be significant. Much interreligious prejudice and misunderstanding is due simply to misinformation. This is no less true within the Buddhist world than anywhere else. I feel strongly that there needs to be much more learning and interchange between the various lineages.

Oh My Goodness, 2009. Artwork Courtesy of the artist and Rossi & Rossi Gallery, London

For a Buddhist, the wisest answer to questions about whether students of other lineages go to vajra hell or what happens to believers in other religions is “I don’t know.” Superficially, that answer may seem cruel; surely we Buddhists don’t want to participate in the condemnation of religious others that is so prevalent in segments of our society. Wouldn’t that require us to affirm that members of other lineages and religions are not in peril? Depending on the mind-state of the questioner, sometimes one might want to reassure them. Nevertheless, I think the wisest response is to throw the question back at the questioner, asking, “Why is that an issue for you? Why are you asking that question?” Answering such questions either positively or negatively remains in the realm of dualism and furthers ideology concerning a topic about which less, rather than more, ideology is sorely needed. It also fosters the impression that we are saved by what we believe, something that is commonly heard from monotheists but is not a genuinely Buddhist position.

This point is not well understood by non-Buddhists, or even by many Buddhists. Words and concepts, the stuff that beliefs are made of, are very useful. But they are only tools, to be used when needed and then put away, not carried around forever. Two Buddhist analogies are often used to teach the point: the raft parable taught by the Buddha and the Zen parable of the finger pointing at the moon. Rafts are for crossing bodies of water, not for carrying around. While crossing, it is important to have a raft that does not leak. That is the useful, but limited, function of words and concepts. The finger (words) really does point to the moon (enlightenment), but if one looks only at the finger, one misses the moon completely. When teaching the Second Noble Truth (the cause of suffering as clinging), it is crucial to point out that among the things most commonly clung to in ways that impede rather than promote spiritual progress are beliefs and views. One can make an ego out of religious identity, out of one’s concepts and beliefs, as easily as one can make it out of anything else.

We may seem to have strayed from the topic of religious diversity, but we have not. If we need to be careful about not making an ego or an ideology out of our own teachings and views, we certainly do not need ideologies or fixed views and opinions about the beliefs and practices of religious others, whether Buddhist or non-Buddhist. The last thing our world needs is more rigidly held opinions about religious diversity. How could one really have an answer to questions about what happens to students of other lineages or believers in other religions?

Instead of desperately desiring answers to unanswerable questions, we would do better to learn how to be helpful in a religiously diverse world. That would mean not adding to the ideological poison already present in our world with strongly held opinions about religious diversity, even liberal opinions. It would mean developing a flexible, open, curious mind about religious others. It would mean becoming knowledgeable about religious others through study and conversation. It would mean regarding all believers (and nonbelievers) with the same detached compassion, no matter what they believe. It would mean bringing a tamed, nonaggressive, nonideological mind into all discussions of religious diversity. In short, it would mean fostering the same even, unruffled, patient, flexible, curious, nonfixated, and stable mind regarding this issue that we, as Buddhists, are encouraged to develop and cultivate in all circumstances.

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