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Friday 28 October 2016

Interfaith Network UK, National Meeting - Cohesive Communities: Diversity and Commonality

Cohesive Communities
Diversity and Commonality

Presented by Nor’dzin Pamo – Chair of the Buddhist Council of Wales at the Interfaith Network UK National Meeting on the 19th October 2016, in Peterborough.

I have been Chair of the Buddhist Council of Wales since 2011, and as such am invited to attend a variety of interfaith events.
As a religion, Buddhism is both a little awkward to accommodate in interfaith interaction, and also offers an unusual opportunity to encourage the spirit of interfaith openness and tolerance. In Buddhism there is no holy book to which all Buddhists will refer; there are no teachings that refer to a creator god, or an all-powerful, beneficent god; and even the word ‘faith’—which seems to be commonly preferred to the word religion is slightly problematic in Buddhism because faith is not demanded. The emphasis is on practice. Shakyamuni—the historic Buddha—asked his followers to practice and find out for themselves, rather than simply because of their devotion to him.
So . . . no book, no god, and no faith – and yet Buddhism is most certainly a religion. I have to regard ‘faith’ and ‘religion’ as synonyms, else it make no sense for me to be present at interfaith events.

There can be a tendency at Interfaith events to wish to find commonalities as a reason for different faiths coming together. I regular attend events where someone—of any faith—will say; ‘Well, we all believe in the same god, don’t we’. This is meant as a friendly, open and inclusive assertion, but it is actually rather disrespectful – and indicates a lack of knowledge of at least one of the religions represented in their audience. I usually keep my head down. It would be rude to challenge them. It would be appreciated if presenters would avoid generalisations, or claims of knowing anything about the beliefs of the people they are addressing. No person of religion can ever fully know or understand the faith and practice of another religion.

Another time I was told that ‘We are all sinners.’ When I replied, ‘I'm not!’, the gentleman repeated his statement with more emphasis. I again replied, ‘I’m not!’ He looked rather exasperated at this point, and I was finding myself rather too strongly reminded of a Monty Python sketch—which seemed potentially disrespectful—so I explained: Buddhism states that we are all beginninlessly enlightened. It does not include any teaching that correlates with the concept of ‘original sin.

There are commonalities that can be found, but these are not generally in the religion itself – they are more about the limitations and expectations a person of religion places upon themselves, such as:
  • living within parameters of your faith
  • being willing to allow something to be bigger than you are; to allow the needs or precepts of your religion to take precedence in your life
  • the wish to change, to be greater than you are, and/or to achieve a state of grace, enlightenment, or whatever is the aspiration of that religion
  • believing in the potential of your religion to bring out the best in human beings
  • to care about others; to regard compassion and kindness as an important aspect of being a human being
Involvement in Interfaith should not demand compromise of the representatives of religion or faith. Friendly Interfaith interaction should not require such a compromise, or any sense of a dilution of the tenets of the religions represented. Interfaith must applaud and support each religion’s right to be different – to be practised in different ways, and to hold widely different beliefs and views.

Yet seeking commonality seems to be pervasive. Seeking and finding what is the same in the world religions, however, is not a guaranteed road to harmony – there is a danger that choosing this route will lead to too much that cannot be said for fear of upsetting the balance. There is the danger of feeling the need to carefully steer a rather narrow path. I feel that the broader path of openness, respect, and appreciation of difference is preferable, though not always easy. I recognise that I do sometimes avoid being clear that Buddhism is an atheistic, or non-theistic religion, because I know that for people I care about, who believe in a creator god, this is not easy to hear or understand.
Knowing that our faiths or religions are different—possibly radically different—yet finding that we are people of kind heart; discovering that interfaith colleagues also cultivate patience and openness; recognising interfaith friends can like one another and enjoy each others company – this is the opportunity offered by Interfaith interaction.
Friendly and respectful interaction, and intermixing of people of different religions—or of no religion—can ripple out into the community. When there is no fear of difference, then there is nothing to hate. Interfaith harmony and respect can help to create a society that is tolerant. Respect for difference, appreciation of difference, the enjoyment of difference – this is the value of interfaith interaction. Let us celebrate that our freedom to be different is the key to a healthy society.

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