Book Review by Paula Herrmann, member of the Greenheart Transforms book club
Every Tuesday, the Transformative book club meets to discuss social transformation through various literature each member has chosen to read. Below is the book review and report given by Paula:
Toward a True Kinship of Faiths
How the World’s Religions Can Come Together by His Holiness the Dalai Lama
In the past, religious conflict has fueled strife among people the world over. Although the consequences have been significant and tragic, these conflicts did not threaten the very survival of humankind. With the advent of globalization, the increase in terrorism, and the creation of weapons of mass destruction, this is no longer the case. In this book, the Dalai Lama addresses this concern. He wishes to show an alternative path toward peaceful coexistence. He shows how globalization can bring people together to foster a deeper understanding and appreciation by way of their rich spiritual traditions and their shared human experience.
He focuses on the shared fundamental value of compassion as the guiding principle in leading a good life. He explores how this idea of compassion is practiced and expressed in the major religious traditions of our time. He writes about how differences can be genuinely appreciated without being a source of conflict. He proposes that harmony is not dependent upon accepting that all religions are the same or that they lead to the same place. He shows that sincere believers do not have to compromise their commitment to their own faiths in order to be pluralistic in relation to other traditions. The Dalai Lama demonstrates a hopeful and workable solution to this pressing issue.
In the beginning of the book, His Holiness writes about leaving his comfort zone. Growing up in Tibet and being immersed in classical Buddhist thought and practice, as an adolescent he believed that Buddhism was the best religion and everything else must be so-so. Looking back, he is embarrassed by his naivete. But this view was only sustainable in his isolation from any other real outside contact.
The pivotal moment came for him when he first visited India in 1956 for the parinirvana, the 2,500th anniversary of the Buddha’s death. There he came in contact with people from all walks of life and different religious backgrounds. The president of India, Dr. Rajendra Presad, engaged the Dalai Lama in several deep conversations. A noted legal scholar, he was also a deeply spiritual man who took seriously India’s role as the birthplace of some of the world’s great religions. The Dalai Lama was impressed by his humility, deep humanity, and life of selfless service.
One meeting that struck him was a visit by a Jain master and his assistant. They had a lengthy conversation on the similarities between Buddhism and Jainism, often viewed by historians to be twin religions. This was the Dalai Lama’s first experience of an actual Jain practitioner articulating his own tradition, and to the Dalai Lama’s surprise, it had little resemblance to the characterizations of Jain views in the scholastic texts and refutations of his youth.
He went on pilgrimage to the Buddhist holy sites, such as Lumbini, the Buddha’s birthplace; Sarnath, where he preached his first sermon on the Four Noble Truths; and Bodh Gaya, where he attained enlightenment. Standing under the Bodhi Tree, the Dalai Lama was moved to tears, filled with religious fervor and “bewildered with the knowledge and impact of the divine power which is in us all.” It was also on this pilgrimage that he visited the famous Elephanta Caves just off the coast of Mumbai. This significant sacred site for the Hindu tradition contains a temple complex of caves with beautiful rock carvings of important Hindu deities. The central image is a twenty-foot-high carving of Shiva in his three aspects of creator, destroyer, and preserver.
He was also introduced to the Theosophical Society in Chenai. This exposure to people and a movement that attempted to bring together the wisdom of the world’s spiritual traditions as well as science left a powerful impression upon him. “I felt among the members a sense of tremendous openness to the world’s great religions and a genuine embracing of pluralism.” He returned to Tibet a changed man who could no longer live in the comfort of an exclusive standpoint. Being forced into exile in 1959 afforded him the freedom to explore and deepen his understanding of other faith traditions.
The Indian subcontinent became the Dalai Lama’s home in exile. It is the birthplace of several spiritual traditions—Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism. Islam flowered there, Zoroastrianism, the religion of ancient Persia found a second home there, and Judaism and Christianity have flourished there. It has a long history of peoples of many faiths living, working, studying, and eating together. Over several millennium there has been a near absence of inter-religious wars. Indian cities typically have colorful Hindu temples, austere Jain temples, the towers of mosques, and churches. He felt at home with India’s tolerant and welcoming nature. Being immersed in this exposure to other traditions fostered his journey into inter-religious understanding.
The Hebrew word for compassion is derived from the word for “womb.” Compassion, therefore is like a mother’s love for all her children.
This emphasis on compassion is where the world’s religions can come together. The ethics of restraint is the avoidance of doing harm. The way they are justified or grounded in the different faiths may differ. Theistic traditions might view the teaching of compassion as divine law. Non theistic faiths might ground it in the law of causality or the in the goodness of our fundamental nature. But they all agree that it is vital to living a good and ethical life.
The Dalai Lama examines the difference between two forms of religious conflict. One revolves around wealth and power and political, economic, ethnic or institutional inequities. Those who are not sincere cloak these conflicts in religion. The second type results from differences in religious faiths among sincere adherents, often the result of lack of contact with followers of another faith and ignorance of the others’ genuine value. Key to preventing this is a broadening of one’s knowledge and understanding. He outlines a program to promote inter-religious harmony including four key elements: (1) dialogue between religious scholars on the academic level regarding the convergences and divergences of their respective faith traditions and the purpose of these different approaches; (2) sharing of deep religious experiences between genuine practitioners; (3) high-profile meetings of the religious leaders to speak and pray from one platform; and (4) joint pilgrimages to the world’s holy places.
He believes it is impossible for all the 6 billion inhabitants of the planet to follow the same religion. One set of spiritual teachings would not fit the vast diversity of mental dispositions, spiritual inclinations, and different kinds of conditioning of human society. The long history of religions has developed in different geographies and adapted to specific cultural sensibilities. It is not necessary or desirable to have one religion, and given the many benefits of the various religions to their adherents, these faith traditions are not just going to go away.
He suggests making the distinction between faith and respect as two distinct psychological attitudes. “Faith is associated with such psychological states as cognitively oriented ‘belief,’ as well as more effectively oriented ‘trust’ and ‘confidence.’ In contrast, respect is associated with appreciation and reverence, deriving particularly from the recognition of the validity and importance of the object for which one has respect.” So the devout person can reserve faith for his or her own religion while cultivating respect and reverence for another’s religion.
As far as secularists are concerned, he admonishes parties on both sides of the religious and secular divide to stop blaming each other for all the world’s woes. Once religious adherents embrace plurality among each other, they must not reject the common humanity of secularists, recognizing that many of them too work from a place of compassion toward shared visions of peace, social justice, and sustainable living on our shared planet. Likewise, the secular must respect the intelligence and sensibilities of religious peoples. All must come together in the service of the well-being of humanity as a whole.
The call for peaceful coexistence is more urgent than ever, for the alternative may be catastrophic. We need to remember that we are all the same. “We all share basic needs for food, shelter, safety and love. We all aspire to happiness and we all shun suffering. Each of us has hopes, worries, fears, and dreams. Each of us wants the best for our family and loved ones. We all experience pain when we suffer loss and joy when we achieve what we seek. On this fundamental level, religion, ethnicity, culture, and language make no difference. Today’s great challenge of peaceful coexistence demands that we remain in touch with this basic part of our nature.”