Throughout history, human societies have formed around languages, cultures, and traditions. It’s also good to remember that religion has often played an important role in creating community as well. The ineffable truth pointed out by religions may go beyond time and culture, which are finite, but a religion can also be a rich cultural resource developed by a certain group of people in a specific time with its own idiosyncratic philosophies, arts, and ceremonies. This is why people who worship the same deity or god can feel that there is a sacred bond them. They feel that they can communicate with each other on mundane and extramundane levels alike. This is also why people often form friendships with and marry others in same religion: they feel they can trust each other and share the same value system.
Such human habits are still very much alive in many parts of the world, except in Western countries and in some Asian regions. The United States is the most religious country among all developed nations, but recently the number of “nons” has been growing exponentially. If you live in the coastal towns of California, the haven of liberals, you’ll find that you regularly run into “seculars” everywhere. Most probably, you will form friendships with all kinds of people there. They don’t care what you worship or what you don’t worship. They might care more about your politics than your religious beliefs. It would be very normal to run into a family whose father is Christian, whose mother is secular, and whose children are practicing yoga or Buddhism. Yet they can enjoy Christmas together without conflict or mistrust.
In the East, people still tend to be more tribal. They usually join a community or make friends within the same religion or the same race. This can bring social stability and harmony, which can be the foundation for the well-being of many people. That being said, eventually we should aim to achieve multiculturalism and a pluralistic society in which everyone is respected and treated equally, and in which people relate to other human fellows with the understanding that we are the same. Places such as the San Francisco Bay Area give me hope that such a vision can be actualized. If you go there, you’ll find people from many different religious and racial backgrounds working together and eating together. It can be refreshing to see. This might not sound that special to those who live in the West. The West’s liberal multiculturalism is truly inspiring if you compare it to other places in the world, where people are hating and destroying each other over religious and racial differences.
Personally, I grew up with Buddhism, which is neither a theistic nor ethnocentric religion. It is based on the teaching of the Buddha, which many regard as a science of the mind. Right now, I’m visiting Thailand to teach the Dharma to a group of Thai people. This is a country that has been infused by Theravada Buddhism for as long as anybody can remember. Yet even as a Tibetan and a Tibetan Buddhist, who doesn’t speak one word of Thai, I feel at home in this country. I don’t feel that I have to read a whole book on the “dos and don’ts” in order to follow the cultural rules. Seeing monks and temples brings me a feeling of comfort and familiarity. I can go to any temple here to offer bows to a statue of the Buddha and to chant a prayer that wouldn’t appear improper to other people. It gives me the same feelings as being in a temple in Tibet or Korea. I feel that we’re all followers of the same spiritual teacher, Shakyamuni Buddha.
Buddhism is not a dogmatic tradition. It has always been evolving to meet the spiritual needs of a given people. This is why the forms and expressions of Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism can be very different. It’s like many branches emerging from a giant Bodhi tree. All these Buddhist traditions share the same source, which lies in the sublime teaching of the Buddha. For example, they all teach the Four Noble Truths and don’t have fundamental philosophical disagreements, even while having their own tenets. For this very reason, many great Dharma teachers became bridges between Buddhist traditions, weaving together the wisdom of different Dharma lineages. This is happening more in the West, where people are more open minded and less dogmatic. There are also more interactions between different Buddhists taking place more frequently than ever as the world continues to grow smaller.
It’s important for us to remember that these Buddhist traditions belong to the same spiritual family, regardless of their differences, and to respect and honor each other’s traditions. This is not always true in some individuals, who believe that their version of Buddhism is the only “true” Dharma. However, Tibetan Buddhists tend to regard all Buddhist traditions as the true Dharma, and have no resistance to visiting a Thai temple to receive a sermon or make offerings to Thai monks.
We should view all Buddhists of different traditions as our Dharma fellows who are walking in the footsteps of the Buddha. Let’s have no problem feeling that we are kindred spirits who speak the same sacred language and who practice the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama. This attitude will cultivate more closeness and affinity among the world’s estimated more than 500 million Buddhists, which will in turn have a positive impact on peace in the world. World peace is much more than the mere absence of war; it also means that we all respect everyone, regardless of religion and race. Because of this, those of us who long for peace should try to feel such a closeness and affinity with the entire human race. If we can all hold this perspective in our hearts, many of the woes of the world would go away, since they’re manmade, and more people would work for common good to benefit everyone.