Spirit of tolerance, harmonisation and assimilation in Buddhism

by Daya Hewapathirane, Lanka Daily News, Sept 6, 2007

Colombo, Sri Lanka -- As a global religion, Buddhism have expanded to every part of Asia - even to the West - and is a faith that is always characterized by a spirit of tolerance, harmonization and assimilation. Buddhism in general absorbed pre-existing beliefs to a point where clear distinction is now often difficult.

This is clearly evident in China, Japan, India, Korea, Thailand and Myanmar among others. The harmonious assimilation of Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism is well evident in the Chinese form of Buddhism. In Japan we see that the harmonious adaptation of Shinto divinities into Buddhist pantheon - “honji-suijaku”.

“All sects deserve reverence for one reason or another. By thus acting, a man exalts his own sect and at the same time does service to the sects of other people.” This edict of the earliest and greatest of Buddhist leaders of Asia, Emperor Asoka expresses lucidly the spirit of tolerance, acceptance, harmonization and assimilation that is characteristic of Buddhism.

{GAD)How Buddhism harmoniously integrated with pre-existing Shamanistic beliefs is well evident in Korea. Similarly in Myanmar and Thailand, Buddhism assimilated well with pre- existing “nat” worship and animistic beliefs, respectively.

Wherever Buddhism was introduced, it did not encounter any form of violent confrontation because its approach had always been one of tolerance, acceptance, harmonization and assimilation with pre-existing beliefs and spiritual norms.

There may be various “schools” among Buddhists of the world. But unlike most other religious denominations, among the Buddhist “schools” there is a good amount of interaction, understanding, cooperation and cordiality.

There are many Buddhist practices, meditation and mindfulness training in particular which are common to all Buddhist traditions, which enable Buddhists to link up and cooperate more closely, in their pursuit of their common goal.

This has been the practice even in ancient times.

The reports of famous Chinese pilgrims to India from the fourth to the ninth centuries CE testify that in spite of the fact that at that time, Buddhists were divided into some 18 different schools, “bhikkhus belonging to different schools could be found living together in the same monastery, practicing and conducting communal business in peace and harmony.”

Persecution and destruction

Buddhists experienced untold persecution from non-Buddhists during the history of Buddhism. Persecution may refer to unwarranted arrest, imprisonment, beating, torture, or execution.

It also may refer to the confiscation or destruction of property, or the incitement of hatred toward Buddhists. Christians, Muslims and Communists were largely responsible for such persecution and destruction. In the late 12 century, Muslim invaders slaughtered thousands of Buddhist monks in places such as Bihar, India.

The Buddhist University of Nalanda with its great library was left in ruins. Countless ancient Buddhist monuments were defaced or destroyed, virtually erasing the Buddhist faith from India.

Atrocities committed by Catholics and Christians in Sri Lanka especially during the 16th to 20th century period were no different. The Evangelical Christian unethical prosetytization menace has become an increasingly serious problem for Sri Lankan Buddhists in recent decades.

The religious fanaticism and brutality and the unethical and confrontational approaches adopted by some conventional religions in the past and today, to serve their selfish ends, provide a stark contrast to the approach in Buddhism which is reflective of the Buddha’s supreme message of harmony and moderation, of an inspiring “middle way” in all human situations in an impermanent world.

Interest in Buddhism in the West

Buddhism started to enjoy a strong interest from the general population in the West during the 20th century, following the perceived failure of social utopias including the conventional religions of the West.

After the Second World War, the focus of progress tended to shift to personal self-realization, on the material as well as spiritual plane. In this context, Buddhism has been displaying a strong power of attraction, due to its tolerance, its lack of theistic authority and determinism, and its focus on understanding reality through self inquiry.

According to the latest census it is now the fastest growing religion in several countries in the Western world.

Fundamentalism and intolerance

In contemporary times we witness a disastrous hardening of two of the world’s major religions - Islam and Christianity, into rigid fundamentalism, in which each aggressively proclaims its beliefs, zealously proselytizes, and even takes up arms against its rivals.

A fundamentalist and intolerant stance, taken by any religion, is offensive to followers of other faiths and to those of no faith at all. Overzealous attempts at conversion disturb peaceful coexistence.

Intolerance is essential only to monotheism. An only God is by nature a jealous God who will not allow another to live. When a religion sees its scripture as revealed and divinely inspired, it finds a basis for exclusivity and intolerance.

Justification for intolerance is provided by the very nature of a Supreme Being who is described as a jealous and angry being, who punishes those who defy Him with eternal damnation.

There are stories in the Bible which describe God as committing genocide on unbelievers with violence toward men, women, children, and even the unborn. The Koran says: “Slay unbelievers wherever you find them, and drive them out of the places they drove you from . . . Fight them until idolatry is no more and God’s religion is supreme.”

Patience and non-aggression

Buddhism does not accept an omnipotent God, a Creator, nor any revealed scripture. Because faith in God or a savior is not an issue for Buddhists, there is no reason to judge others, to condemn them for their beliefs, or to feel compelled to convert them.

The Buddha Dhamma is described as ehipassiko, inviting one to come and see for himself. There is no concept of coercion or proselytization in Buddhism.

Buddha taught the importance of patience, tolerance, and non-aggression, providing a splendid ideal of tolerance for Buddhists to follow.

There is not a single occasion in the Buddhist scriptures of the Buddha being less than compassionate, not only to those who accepted his teachings but also to the followers of all faiths, not only to the good but also to the wicked, not only to humans but also to animals and to all living beings.

In striking contrast to the spread of other world religions, which are replete with unethical and forcible conversions and sectarian strife, the history of Buddhism is remarkable for the complete absence of bloodshed in the name of the teacher.

Buddhist tolerance in Sri Lanka
The history of Buddhists of Sri Lanka during the four hundred years of foreign Christian rule prior to the country’s political independence is nothing but a long and poignant chronicle of Buddhist tolerance in the face of oppression and injustice.

The undertaking to maintain the Buddhist religion given in 1815 by the British (Christians) was grossly betrayed. In 1884 all the Government schools, which were the only schools to which the Buddhists could send their children for higher education were handed over to the Christian Missionaries.

Up till 1886 Buddhists paid by far the largest amount for the maintenance of the Ecclesiastical Department.

Who but the Buddhists tolerated harassment by the Roman Catholic Portuguese to give shelter and employment to Muslims? Or endured similar treatment from the Dutch to give shelter to Roman Catholics?

Who but the Buddhists tolerated the rank injustice of the foreign rulers who used the revenue from one of the most sacred places of Buddhist worship, the Dalada Maligawa, to pay for the construction of St. Paul’s Cathedral?

Or the injustice of destroying a Buddhist Vihara in Kotte to erect in its stead a Christian School? Who but the Buddhists tolerated the extortion from them of four hundred pounds a year for the building of Christian Churches?

In more recent years, Sri Lankan Buddhists have been subjected to various forms of influences emanating from Western non- Buddhist countries and owing to their involvement in Muslim Middle Eastern countries.

With the globalization process our Buddhists in particular have been exposed excessively to western and other norms and lifestyles.

However, there is no evidence to show that these experiences and exposures have affected negatively the deep-seated spirit of tolerance and accommodation in the hearts and minds of the average Buddhist of Sri Lanka.

Experiences with non-Buddhists in other countries, reveal to us, that this spirit of tolerance is not as strong among most of them in comparison to what we observe among non- Buddhists in our country.

This may be attributed to the influence of Buddhism which is the dominant faith in our country.

Also, it may be because strong Buddhist values of tolerance and compassion have been ingrained in our people, owing to the fact that they or their forefathers were followers of Buddhism at a certain time in their past before they were converted to other faiths.

History of our country reveals vividly that this spirit of tolerance and accommodation of others irrespective of their religious or other differences has been a common distinguishing characteristic of the Sinhala Buddhists of this country from very early times.