We live in a world that our grandparents could not have dreamed of—a much more shared and integrated world as a result of modern technological advances that bring much promise and wonderful possibilities. Yet also a world faced with contradictions that are diluting and destroying these very same promises and hopes. Opposing forces pull us in direction of harmony while simultaneously and maliciously driving us apart along violent and intolerant paths.
The benefits of modern society highlight, as never before, our awareness of living and participating in a shared and interconnected world on individual, local, regional, national, and international levels. We can no longer isolate ourselves or ignore the differences between ourselves and the “Other.” Unless we live in a hermetically sealed and homogenous society, we must come face to face with the differences and diversity around us. Unfortunately, what has enabled us to ideally become closer to the Other and should nurture mutual understanding, tolerance, and acceptance, has also emphasized our fear and loathing of the Other, tearing us apart and proliferating violence. This is clearly demonstrated by the unending religious, ethnic, and cultural tensions and violence of today and the religious wars of the past.
We are struggling and stewing in a cauldron of hatred, delusion, and ignorance, either succumbing or desperately striving for a way out of this morass. As the Visuddhimagga reads: “The inner tangle and the outer tangle—this generation is tangled in a tangle. . . . Who succeeds in disentangling this tangle?” One modest step towards “disentangling” is a sincere and open dialogue between parties.
We have been plagued from time immemorial by religious discord, hatred, and violence aimed at vindicating the “truthfulness” of “my” religion and the necessity for everyone to follow the same belief system. No religion is immune from this virus arising from our stubborn clinging to the illusions caused by hatred, delusion, and ignorance.
Interfaith dialogue is not a panacea but an important step in reducing interreligious tensions and violence while allowing each side to accept, understand, and revel in religious diversity. The objective is to rise above superficial mutual understanding and respect in order to develop true empathy with the religious Other. In interreligious encounters, participants of different religious traditions live together, becoming more appreciative of how genuine and rich the spiritual life of the Other is, without the negative stereotypes.
Interfaith dialogue covers a wide spectrum of practices ranging from simple conversations or discussions between individuals of different faiths to a more academic approach through comparative studies. One of the authors of this article had such a transformative experience when he began the fasting experience of Ramadan while visiting Turkey and continued upon returning home.
“Interfaith dialogue is indispensable because without peace among religious communities, peace in the world would not be possible. Through dialogue, understanding, and acceptance of each other’s traditions and values would be nourished; intolerance and hatred would be reduced.” (Ven. Hin Hung, senior advisor at the Centre of Buddhist Studies, The University of Hong Kong, in a speech at the Inter-religious Dialogue conference in Avila, Spain 2017).
Interfaith dialogue is undoubtedly not without difficulties, and if not handled sensitively can be quite problematic; religious belonging is source of identity and interfaith dialogue could be experienced as a threat or seen as a method of conversion or denigration, provoking a defensive response and feelings of anxiety or hostility, unless the dialogue partners feel they are equal partners in the encounter with no hidden agendas. The potential benefits, however, outweigh the pitfalls.
Interreligious encounters, in particular, have extraordinary potential because of the transformational possibilities for the participants, They are rare opportunities to go beyond negative stereotypes to reach empathy and openness, an antidote against attitudes of religious superiority. Through these encounters, we discover the spiritual sensitivity of the other. Affirming and being well anchored in our religious identity does not mean we have to be narcissistic about our beliefs and assume that other religions are only unsuccessful approximations of our system. There is always so much to learn across religious traditions.
Buddhists today, as in the past, have been very active in taking part in interreligious dialogues, although they are less likely to initiate or organize such meetings. Most interreligious dialogue is, historically, initiated by Christians from different denominations or institutions. The role that Buddhists play in these meetings tends to be more passive than active, eager to attend when invited but seemingly reluctant to be the active agent in organizing such activities. This might be due to a lack of a formal “theology of religion” in Buddhist schools and universities, or a nurturing of understanding towards other religions (with the exception of Hinduism). However, research on this is scarce.
This lack of initiative or awareness of other belief systems was certainly not the attitude of the Buddha himself. The Buddha recognized and appreciated religious diversity and religious freedom while remaining critical. While many of us know only one religion, The Buddha was well versed in many schools of thought of his day. He engaged in cordial discussions with non-Buddhists, always courteous and respectful and, more importantly, often initiated the conversation. He reminded people not to leave their teacher or tradition after talking with him. His principle was to discuss topics of common ground and putting aside contentious topics where no agreement could be reached.
Buddhists today seem to have forgotten the Buddha’s approach to non-Buddhists in religious discourse. Why? Perhaps, they have forgotten that Buddhism does not exist in a vacuum, there is much that Buddhism can learn from other religions and vice versa. There must be interaction with other faiths, for everyone’s benefit. The happiness of all sentient beings is paramount and this is why dialogue, acceptance, understanding, and transformation are crucial.
Buddhists must broaden their vision of interreligious dialogue. It is the only option if we are sincerely concerned about violence, and want to work on creating peace and understanding. Buddhist organizations must become more pro-active in promoting interreligious encounters. Buddhist institutes of learning should provide the necessary tools for interreligious competence. An adequate knowledge of other faiths besides Buddhism is essential for interreligious literacy. And Buddhist schools and universities should train scholars and educators on how cultivate the right attitude and disposition towards other religions and facilitating religious encounters. Courses on “theology of religions” and “comparative theology” should be part of their curriculum. Much can be learned from studies of comparative perspectives, not only about the religious Other, but also about ourselves. All this is essential as we prepare for the challenges of interreligious dialogue and as we continue to work on a peaceful consciousness for the future.