Ngakma Nor’dzin, Chair of the Buddhist Council of Wales, was invited to present at one of the workshops of the Interfaith Network UK National Meeting. The theme of the Meeting was ‘Faith and Cohesive Communities’. She was in a workshop entitled ‘Diversity and Commonality’ with Fazal Rahim of the Oldham Inter Faith Forum. The National Meeting took place in Peterborough, on the 19th October.
Below are the notes to her presentation.
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 the 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
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 other’s 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.’