Issue 43, July 2004
The spiritual dimension to promote peace and communal harmony
Theravada Buddhist–Christian consultation, Hong Kong 2-6 July, 2004
Our time and world has gradually realised that belief in progress as irreversible, in rationality as the only guiding principle for understanding the world and a blind faith in science as providing the only real knowledge to deal with problems does not lead to the end of injustice, inequality or conflict and clashes. Instead, it seems like our world more than ever before is characterised by a breakdown of human relations. We should certainly not inflate the ills of the world, blinding ourselves from seeing and appreciating goodness and beauty in the world, in human beings and in their interdependence and the many attempts to pursue truth and seek that which is good. However, there is no question that in many ways our time is at loss how to address fundamental and global threats to our world. Today, with much agony caused by violent conflict, war and bloodshed, the world badly needs peace and harmony. But how do we go about it? It is not enough to talk about it. It is not enough to make statements about it. You cannot buy peace and harmony and you can also not give it away as a commodity. The world is clamouring for peace, peace among nations and peace of mind. There are many in various walks of society, not only clergy, but politicians, philosophers, scientists, poets and quite ordinary people, who would like to find ways to address effectively the many ills of our societies in a way that would really make a difference. A way towards peace and harmony is to work towards overcoming the great injustices in the world, the glaring injustices of poverty for the many and abundance for the few, to work towards demilitarisation, where we rely on war and domination as means of conducting human relationships and resorting to violence as a means to achieve one’s goals. While this should be our focus, it is nevertheless true that in spite of many efforts, peace is not tangible, harmony is deceptive and divisions remain. It seems to me that we need images that will remind us that we belong together, that our lives are intertwined, that we are one human family inhabiting our one and only home, the planet earth. Such a vision of the world requires another perspective, a spiritual dimension.
We are thus called to seek alternative ways of confronting aggression and injustice, recognising our common humanity and shared responsibility for each other and our planet. A spiritual dimension must be linked to our yearning for peace and communal harmony. A spiritual dimension leads us into another involvement in issues of our societies and the world. Achieving genuine peace requires a new level of participation in public affairs. This is a great challenge for religious and spiritual leaders. Let us accept this challenge.
Our contribution as religious and spiritual leaders will thus not be the same as the one provided by political leaders. Our language is not the same. A genuine contribution from religious and spiritual leaders should come from that source, which constitutes our religious and spiritual traditions, the integrated and integrative dimension of that which we stand for, whether we are Buddhists or Christians. The inner core of that which propels us in our ministry and our life, the realisation of interconnectedness, something not so easily defined and yet so powerful in our life, that which we can hardly grasp, needs to inform the language we speak and the actions we engage in. The world, people in our religious traditions as well as people outside of any particular tradition, look to us to be interpreters of life’s spiritual dimension, that realm, which is difficult to define, that which is between “the things of the spirit” and material things, that which gives meaning to life, the experience of that which is boundless and yet calls to some kind of obedience or integrated discipleship.
The spiritual dimension as a way to peace and harmony requires the essence of that which we carry from one generation to the other, our faith or our commitment, our tradition, our teachings of values and charity, a disciplined and pure mind of love and compassion, good will and tolerance, our discipline or discipleship. Although spirituality is difficult to define, it is needed to protect our struggle for social justice from disillusionment, to nourish and undergird our commitment to healing of a broken and divided world.
But let no one be mistaken. Let us keenly remember that also spirituality can be a dangerous diversion from the demands for justice and from concrete engagement with reality. It certainly can be a form of illusion, a sort of running away from reality. Spirituality can be marketed as a product in competition with other products. It can be a resort to strengthen only the private life and inner life of the individual and individualism has throughout history been a temptation for us all, leading astray from seeing the other. Spirituality cannot exist apart from a social context.
There are many, who through encounters with people of other faiths have realised that we are closer to each other than what we have been lead to believe. There is no question that there are major differences between the narrative and self-understanding of Theravada Buddhists and Christians. These differences are to be cherished and not harmonised in a simplistic way. We will benefit from these differences and appreciate that the other may have something in his or her tradition that we may not be able to share but which could spur us to remaining together in dialogue, listening to each other’s experience of that which matters most in our life. It is in listening to each other’s unique experiences that we will be able to discover that which brings us together. There is in spite of all the differences an inner core common to all religions: the mystery of life, that life matters, that human beings matter, whether we are appearances of the moment or created in the image of God. The spiritual dimension in striving for peace and communal harmony is a sign of unity between Buddhists and Christians. This is a reconciling dimension in relations between Buddhists and Christians. Spirituality links simple believers and erudite men and women and is a common denominator that religious leaders ought to emphasise and religious adherents ought to practice.
If this common bond is our point of departure, it should follow that all persons be free to profess and follow their faith or tradition. In doing so, however, they must be careful not to neglect the practice of the essence of their religion, not to disturb others by their own religious practices, and not to condemn or belittle other faiths or spiritual traditions. It seems to me that the Buddhist tradition has much to teach us as Christians and as followers of other religious traditions or of no tradition at all. I often think back to the times of Ashoka. Some 2300 years ago Ashoka’s empire extended from present-day Afghanistan to Bangladesh. He had edicts inscribed on stone, proclaimed that all faiths should be respected; and as a result, followers of all spiritual traditions felt secure under his sway. The words in which he exhorted his subjects are still relevant today and should be a commitment of us all, whether we are Buddhists or Christians:
One should not honour only one's own religion and condemn other religions. Instead, one should honour other religions for various reasons. By so doing, one helps one's own religion to grow and renders service to the religions of others. In acting otherwise, one digs the grave of one's own religion and harms other religions as well. Someone who honours his own religion and condemns other religions may do so out of devotion to his religion, thinking, 'I will glorify my religion'; but his actions injure his own religion more gravely. Concord is good. Let all listen and be willing to listen to the doctrines professed by others. (Rock Edict 12)
One could stay with these words as one way of inviting a spiritual dimension towards peace and communal harmony. Let me however in a couple of words list some points that I deduct from Ashoka’s edict for our time and for our relations with each other.
1. People of various religious traditions are not objects for our means, but are subjects.
2. We belong together and our differences are not obstacles but possibilities to grow. The other holds a part of truth that I have not and which helps me to grow as a human being.
3. We are people of various religions and spiritual traditions. We need to come closer to each other in mutual respect and understanding. Something unites us. We share in many ways a vision of justice and peace, human dignity and fellowship in the midst of our diversity.
4. We live frightfully close to a situation, where people have lost their vision, where hope is no more, where poverty, unending wars and conflicts have obscured life itself. We need a vision to sustain us. “Where there is no vision, people will perish" (Proverbs 29,18).
5. We need to discover new ways in which we can work together towards implementation of our visions and hopes for the world. We are called to a new pattern of working together and living out our faiths. While being true to our own faith traditions, we can affirm solidarity with one another, so that we can become bearers of hope for our time. In our interdependent world, people of one religious tradition alone will not be able to find solutions to the ills of our time. We must therefore no longer do separately that which we as people of many faiths can do together.
It is in the light of these convictions that I would like to assure you that the WCC is eager to learn from the spirituality and resources for peace building of other faiths and traditions and is committed to work with communities of other faiths in the pursuit of peace and communal harmony.Next article: Theravada Buddhist-Christian consultation:
Towards a culture of religious diversity and communal harmony Report of the participants
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