The most precise answer to the question, "what difference does religious plurality make?" is this: it all depends on the person and on the particular religious tradition! An exclusive religious tradition which provides a strict set of guidelines for salvation and denies plurality may be found threatening. Conversely, an inclusive tradition accepts diversity and may even welcome it. A major strength of Buddhism is its insistence upon distinguishing between the world-as-it-is and our judgements about the world. Plurality, Buddhist say, is neither good nor bad. It just is. Good and bad are mental constructs, ego - and culture-based sunglasses we use to protect ourselves from the bright light of a diverse and brilliant world. All of us, Buddhists say, tend to confuse our perception and our judgement of things with the things themselves. The result is resistance and conflict.
One of the most popular art figures in Chinese Buddhism is a multi-armed and a multi-eyed Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva. In this figure, each arm of the Bodhisattva is holding a different object. Each object represents means and methods used by the Bodhisattva to help the sentient being who needs help. According to Buddhism, a Bodhisattva is one who vows to enlighten other beings by seeing the different predisposition in each of them and exercises his/her wisdom to develop different means of approach. This is called "expedience" (upaya), one of the most important skills Buddhists need to develop. Buddhism sees the different nature and various needs of each individual just as, in school, a good teacher needs to know each student's personality and what approach works best for each. With compassion, a Bodhisattva accepts the fact of various human cultures and practice, understanding they exist because of the needs of different individuals.
A woman told me that she does not want to be a woman again in her next life. I asked her what was wrong with being a woman. She answered that women are always discriminated against. Then I asked her to think if this world were all men without women, would things be going better? She was startled for a while and said no. I asked her to think "if there is only one colour people on the earth, would this world be better?". She said that was impossible. I suggested she consider the variety in religions in the same way.
A brilliant young man studying in Princeton University asked me whether, if his parents were Buddhists, does he need to be a Buddhist too? I told him that he needed to allow himself to explore all religions and find a religion or a belief which suited him.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama of Tibet tells his audiences that they should welcome and respect all religious traditions. "After all," he says, "no one would go to a restaurant that serves only one dish. It would be boring to eat the same thing day after day."
According to Buddhism the cause of conflict is the judgmental mind. We create the discrimination against people in different categories. We decide x is bad and y is good, so we are obliged to fight on the side of y to try to destroy x. As a result of this misperception, we spend enormous amounts of energy fighting arbitrary distinctions. We confuse the map for the territory and the menu for the meal.
The Chinese Buddhist Master Hsing Yun teaches: "The deepest significance of equality lies in the truth that there is no difference between the one and the many." From the Buddhist perspective, the one is many and the many are one. According to the Buddhists, things are the same in principle and different in form. All sentient beings have the Buddha nature. The seed of good and evil is present in all of us, awaiting the conditions, which cause one or the other to emerge. He says it this way:
"All things in the world have differences in form, appearance, energy and function. If you look deeply into their fundamental natures, however, you will see that they all are truly equal because we understand the process of cause and effect which produces forms and appearances. Then you will understand that all of us are an inexorably part of this huge process.Venerable Yifa is a Buddhist nun from Taiwan
Don't think there is anything anywhere that has no connection to you. Everything does. A blade of grass, a tree, an animal, and every drop of water in the ocean are connected to you and all of them are truly a bounty and a blessing in our lives."