Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Learning from Other Faiths: Article by the Dalai Lama

His Holiness the Dalai Lama (number 14), Tenzin Gyatso, has an op-ed article in the NYTimes. It isn't every day that you see an article in the Times by a world religious leader. He writes on religious intolerance and the need to learn from other faiths while remaining faithful to one's own:
Though intolerance may be as old as religion itself, we still see vigorous signs of its virulence. In Europe, there are intense debates about newcomers wearing veils or wanting to erect minarets and episodes of violence against Muslim immigrants. Radical atheists issue blanket condemnations of those who hold to religious beliefs. In the Middle East, the flames of war are fanned by hatred of those who adhere to a different faith.

Such tensions are likely to increase as the world becomes more interconnected and cultures, peoples and religions become ever more entwined. The pressure this creates tests more than our tolerance — it demands that we promote peaceful coexistence and understanding across boundaries.

Granted, every religion has a sense of exclusivity as part of its core identity. Even so, I believe there is genuine potential for mutual understanding. While preserving faith toward one’s own tradition, one can respect, admire and appreciate other traditions.

Interestingly (at least for me), he says he learned this truth from the Trappist monk and Columbian Thomas Merton:
An early eye-opener for me was my meeting with the Trappist monk Thomas Merton in India shortly before his untimely death in 1968. Merton told me he could be perfectly faithful to Christianity, yet learn in depth from other religions like Buddhism. The same is true for me as an ardent Buddhist learning from the world’s other great religions.

A main point in my discussion with Merton was how central compassion was to the message of both Christianity and Buddhism. In my readings of the New Testament, I find myself inspired by Jesus’ acts of compassion. His miracle of the loaves and fishes, his healing and his teaching are all motivated by the desire to relieve suffering.

In what follows he traces the thread of compassion across major religions (Judaism, Hinduism, Islam), emphasizing the necessity of personal contact with people of different faiths to learn about how their traditions emphasize compassion and the inspire mutual compassion for one another. When pulling on their resources of compassion, they can work together to reduce the suffering of those around the world:
Let me tell you about the Islam I know. Tibet has had an Islamic community for around 400 years, although my richest contacts with Islam have been in India, which has the world’s second-largest Muslim population. An imam in Ladakh once told me that a true Muslim should love and respect all of Allah’s creatures. And in my understanding, Islam enshrines compassion as a core spiritual principle, reflected in the very name of God, the “Compassionate and Merciful,” that appears at the beginning of virtually each chapter of the Koran.

Finding common ground among faiths can help us bridge needless divides at a time when unified action is more crucial than ever. As a species, we must embrace the oneness of humanity as we face global issues like pandemics, economic crises and ecological disaster. At that scale, our response must be as one.

Harmony among the major faiths has become an essential ingredient of peaceful coexistence in our world. From this perspective, mutual understanding among these traditions is not merely the business of religious believers — it matters for the welfare of humanity as a whole.

It is an interesting article. I may have the opportunity to teach an introduction to the religions of the world next year, and wonder if this might be a good way to start it off as religions increasingly come into contact due to globalization and ongoing migrations.

For a fairly negative reaction to this article, see John Hobbins here. Hobbins characterizes the article as a "strong misreading." I think this characterization is overly strong. Hobbins simply and rightly emphasizes context and faithfulness to a particular faith tradition--something that I did not see the Dalai Lama denying, but, rather, promoting in the article; I read the article as finding intersections among traditions while holding to one's own: the point is finding platforms for dialogue across traditions while remaining true to one's own. Only by engaging on those platforms--whether it is the Dalai Lama's point about compassion or something else--does one see how things are framed differently in different contexts. As Max Müller said about the study of religion, whoever knows one, knows none. I think the point of misreading is different: compassion, although found in various religious traditions and framed differently in different contexts of those traditions, is Tenzin Gyatso's own hobby horse. It is clearly the platform of dialogue set on his own terms. What would the platform if a Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu leader set the terms?


John Hobbins said...

Very nice, Jared. I'm linking to this on my post. I love the quote from MM.

Jared Calaway said...

Now we'll be mutually linked! As always, it has been nice conversing with you.