Towards genuine inter-faith understanding

by SANTIKARO, Bangkok Post, Sept 24, 2006

An early exponent of Theravadins opening up to other Buddhist traditions, Buddhadasa Bhikku wasn't an activist in the sense of organising inter-religious conferences, but the interest he showed in other religions and his willingness to critique practices he saw as wayward influenced others to do just that

Bangkok, Thailand -- Buddhadasa Bhikkhu was one of the most influential figures in Thai Buddhism during the last century. His progressive and reformist character, as well as his profound but extremely straightforward dharma teachings made a lasting impact on Theravada Buddhism. This year we mark the centenary of his birth and this is the second in a series of "Turning Wheel" articles written in his honour.

One of the lasting influences that Ajahn Buddhadasa has had is the friendliness he displayed towards and the interest he showed in other religions, and his efforts at inter-religious cooperation and understanding. Towards the end of his life, a well-known US Catholic author, who had come to Bangkok for a conference, was brought to Suan Mokkh by one of Thailand's Catholic bishops. For many decades, Christians visiting Thailand who wanted to meet a prominent Buddhist and had time to travel outside Bangkok were taken to see Ajahn Buddhadasa at Suan Mokkh. This is because, for a period spanning at least three decades, he was the leading Buddhist voice in the Kingdom speaking out for mutual understanding and cooperation among religions.

So John Bosco Manat Chuabsamai, bishop of Ratchaburi (1986-2003), brought this American to visit. What struck me, the resident foreign monk at Suan Mokkh at that time, was how proud the bishop was. He referred to Ajahn Buddhadasa, who of course was following a different religion, as "ours". I thought this was unique, and heartening, given how often in our world religion is used to create sectarian conflict. Here was a Catholic bishop who was so proud of our Buddhist monk, who he clearly took to be the most significant religious figure in the country. Nor was he the only bishop who was a fan of Ajahn Buddhadasa's, which tells us something about the open-mindedness and non-ideological character of Thai culture.

In the 1970s, Ajahn Buddhadasa was the first Buddhist speaker to take part in the annual lecture series at Thailand's main Protestant university. He gave three talks which were published under the title Christianity and Buddhism. Later, he gave a series of talks at Suan Mokkh, published as The Essence of Christianity as Far as Buddhists Should Know. He emphasized that Buddhists have much to learn from Christian teachings about the practice of metta (loving kindness) - that it's not just about sitting on a cushion, wishing other beings well. He recognised that Christians have a much more developed social-service component than has been the case in the more chaotic and disorganised Buddhist traditions of Asia.

Even as a young monk he made friends with followers of other religions.

In the early 1930s, while based at a temple in Bangkok, he was good friends with a Vedanta swami. They frequently talked about their respective religions, and what they shared in common. Unfortunately the swami died in a plane crash in Burma not long after that.

One of Ajahn Buddhadasa's leading students was Haji Prayoon, a Muslim from Bangkok. Prayoon wrote books about religious cooperation and openly spoke of Ajahn Buddhadasa as his teacher. After reading some articles by the Ajahn he became a regular visitor at Suan Mokkh. Towards the end of the Ajahn's life there were Muslims, Christians, Sikhs and Hindus who considered him to be their teacher. This was quite a unique situation for Thailand and, perhaps, for most of the world.

Ajahn Buddhadasa was also an early exponent and example of Theravadins opening up to other Buddhist traditions. The Dalai Lama made two visits to Thailand before it became politically impossible for him to do so. Ajahn Buddhadasa met him in Bangkok in 1964. A few years later, the Dalai Lama visited Suan Mokkh for a couple of days. They mainly discussed anapanasati (mindfulness with breathing). Tibetan Buddhists obviously have many practices, but the Dalai Lama felt that they needed to do more work on cultivating samadhi (mental concentration) and was interested in anapanasati for that purpose. At that time the two men talked about Tibetan monks coming to live at Suan Mokkh and Ajahn Buddhadasa began to draw up plans to build a Tibetan gompa in one corner of his monastery. Unfortunately, due to international politics, this never came about.

Ajahn Buddhadasa translated major parts of the Lankavatara Sutra, an important Mahayana text. Later he translated two classic Zen texts - the Platform Sutra of Hui Neng and the Zen Teachings of Huang Po. Thus, the first widely known translations of Zen texts in Thailand were carried out by him.

Religion or 'sasana'

In inter-religious dialogue, it is important to be mindful of our terminology. English terms inevitably carry Christian connotations that may not jibe well with other traditions. The Pali word sasana is commonly used to translate the English word "religion". In Thailand they've become synonyms simply because "religion" must somehow be translated, though in root meaning the two words are not actually equivalent. Concerning sasana, Ajahn Buddhadasa wrote:

"Sasana is not merely teaching [its basic meaning], but refers to activity that brings about survival [or salvation]. On the other hand, 'religion' comes from roots meaning both 'to observe' and 'to bind'. Combining these two meanings results in the action in line with the divine teaching that bears the fruit of unifying humanity with heaven, or God. Thus, religion is about action. In Buddhism, the Buddha called this dharma and brahmacariya, not sasana, because he stressed action. We act for the sake of the same salvation. Sasana is action that leads to salvation. It's based on the instincts of fear and wanting to survive. The basic activity or struggle is the same, only differing in the level on which it operates. All people are the same people. All religions are the same single religion for this reason."

Later he came to speak about universal sasana or universal religion. From his reading of the Koran, the Bible, the Upanishads, Confucianism, Taoism, etc., and meeting with followers of different religions, he came to believe that, at heart, all religions performed the same basic function.

"Sasana is the foundation of life. Sasana comes from the instinct of fear and struggle for survival. When mind advances beyond the physical and mental, this struggle occurs on a higher or more refined level and becomes the various religions and leads to the salvation of life in higher and more wonderful and complete ways."

Other times he focused increasingly on what he liked to call the heart of all religions: Unselfishness. He would point out, for example, that Christian teachings and practices were for the sake of unselfishness. If you really take on the belief that God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, and take on the commandment to love thy neighbour as thyself, it will be impossible to be selfish. He would speak of how all the discipline and effort of Islam is to restrain and overcome selfishness. He would stress that the Buddhist path of unselfishness leads to the realisation of selflessness, to seeing that all phenomena are "not self" and that there is nothing worth clinging to as "me" or "mine". In these different traditions, he saw the common element of overcoming selfishness.

He expressed his hopes regarding religion in terms of three vows or resolutions. One phrasing of them is: To do everything in my power:

  • To help others to realise the heart of their own religion.
  • To work for mutual good understanding among the religions.
  • To cooperate in dragging the world out from under the power of materialism.

Helping everyone to understand the core of their own tradition is necessary for inter-religious exchange and cooperation. One must really know one's own tradition first in order to explain it in a meaningful, competent and profound way to others. Only when we can talk from our own deep experiences of our traditions will there be a basis for understanding the religions of others. Of course, now we have a new problem, which is that many people don't have a tradition at all and are piecing together a hodge-podge of whatever the market offers.

Ajahn Buddhadasa felt that all religions have a common enemy - materialism. Political materialism, hedonistic materialism and spiritual materialism all perpetuate selfishness. They provide justifications for selfishness. Nationalism in many of its forms is also a justification for self-centredness. Modern individualism is a justification for self-centredness. Religion alone, when it understands itself and is true to its primary mission, is the human cultural development best suited to free us from selfishness.

Ajahn Buddhadasa wasn't an activist in the sense of organising inter-religious conferences; however, people influenced by him did just that. In Thailand, one prominent lay Buddhist strongly influenced by Ajahn Buddhadasa is Sulak Sivaraksa, who founded many NGOs. One of them is called the Thai Inter-Religious Commission on Development. This was one of various groups that worked to promote inter-religious understanding within Thailand. Sulak and some of his students were also involved in the Asian Cultural Forum on Development, which had a strong, inter-religious cooperation component. At Suan Mokkh, Christian groups would come for retreats. The Catholic meditation teacher, Father Laurence Freeman, and I led a retreat that brought together Christians and Buddhists, both Asians and Westerners, for seven days.

Ajahn Buddhadasa was not uncritical of the various religions. Just as he conducted an ongoing critique of Buddhism, at times he would critique other religions, as well. He could be critical of what was sometimes called "Hindus swallowing up Buddhism". In Suan Mokkh's Spiritual Theatre there is a picture of a Brahmin priest swallowing a Buddhist monk. On the other hand, he pointed out that the main reason for Buddhism being swallowed up was the inability of Buddhists, and especially Buddhist teachers and leaders, to be clear about what Buddhism is. Buddhism in India became overly involved in ritualism, priestly hierarchies and tantra, none of which are true to the Buddha's original teaching. Because Buddhism wasn't able to stick to the Buddha's original teaching, it became, in many ways, indistinguishable from Hinduism, which made it easy to swallow.

He was critical of attempts by Christians to buy converts. One of his journals noted of Christianity: "If you buy our stupid ones, we'll get your smart ones." If a religion stoops so low as to use either force or bribes to gain converts, it will lose those intelligent people who see through such manipulation and lose faith in the religion.

He was critical of Buddhism and other traditions when he felt they were behaving superficially, such as giving too much importance to rituals or individual teachers. Even the founder, the Buddha himself, should never be put above the Dharma.

Ajahn Buddhadasa listed seven attitudes based on a misunderstanding of what sasana or religion is truly about:

  • The misunderstanding that religion is not necessary in the modern world; that we've somehow advanced beyond the need for religion.
  • The understanding of non-religious phenomena as religious or spiritual, such as psychic powers and emotional exuberance.
  • The misunderstanding of true religion as not being religious. For example, to claim that freedom from greed, hatred and delusion is not the basis of liberation (as many modern Buddhists do in trying to justify having their cake and eating it, too).
  • The misunderstanding of religion as getting something; for example, financial security, material security, merit and answers to our prayers.
  • The understanding of religion as the enemy of social development.
  • The understanding of religion as something that can be used for advantage in competition; e.g., in countries where religious majorities use religion to compete for power and resources.
  • The most important misunderstanding is the tendency to see different religions as opposed to our own.

He felt that as long as we remained victims of these attitudes, especially the last, religion would never be powerful enough to do its job - to bring us salvation and peace. The subsequent fighting, competing and arguing render world peace impossible.

Teachers such as Ajahn Buddhadasa, with their valiant friendliness towards others and untiring efforts to understand the great variety of religious effort in the world, are true peacemakers, to be studied and emulated. May we take him as our inspiration and aspire to such levels of cooperation and understanding for the benefit of all.

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