Looking Beyond Buddhism
I was drawn to Rita M. Gross’s provocative view that a “new golden age” of Buddhism could be facilitated if Buddhists of various sects opened their minds to studying each other’s teachings (“Buddhist to Buddhist,” Spring 2012). I found myself entirely agreeing, but I also found myself hoping that Gross would drop the other shoe; namely, I couldn’t see why her recommendations for ecumenical inquiry should stop with Buddhism. Perhaps the “golden age” could come even more quickly, and for everyone, if we also looked outside of Buddhism and between the religions.
Like Gross, I am a longtime professor of world religions. When I surveyed her reasons for recommending comparative analysis, I found that they applied equally well if we take the project beyond the dharma. She tells us that when we look outside of our lineage we benefit because we come to understand, via contrast, the uniqueness of our own perspective. Furthermore, she adds that as we clarify our worldview by comparing it to others, we also gain clearer understanding of the contents of other worldviews—and realize that there are other worldviews (our own perspective being just one among many). She’s right in this, but the same is true if we also look beyond Buddhism.
The contrast between Buddhism and other religions is sometimes greater than it is between the sects, so I see a heightened opportunity to grasp one’s own tradition via contrast, as well as a heightened opportunity to practice open-mindedness and compassion. Furthermore—and here I give what I see as an added benefit of dropping the other shoe—what about those wonderful chances for reflection arising from the discovery that there are beliefs in other religions closer to those of our own Buddhist practice than the beliefs of Buddhists from other traditions? For instance, Shin Buddhism, with its strong emphasis on faith and surrender over self-help and meditation (not to mention its emphasis on experiencing a paradise beyond this world), is in many respects closer to Lutheran Christianity than it is to Theravada Buddhism. And Vajrayana Buddhism, with its specific rituals, its visualization practices, and its tantric view of reality, has more in common with Tantric Hinduism than it does with Zen. Dealing with these realities also gives value to Gross’s project, so after—or in addition to—exploring between the sects, I recommend, for the sake of world peace, looking beyond them.
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