BUDDHIST TOLERANCE
Posted on February 5th, 2020

Dr. Daya Hewapathirane

As a global religion, Buddhism today has expanded worldwide.  What is significant to note is that this expansion has always been characterized by a spirit of tolerance, harmonization and assimilation. In the process, Buddhism has absorbed pre-existing beliefs to a point where a clear distinction is often difficult today. 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.  The harmonious adaptation of Shinto divinities into Buddhist pantheon – honji-suijaku”, is seen in Japan. 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.

Greco Buddhism of ancient times reveals vividly the harmony and assimilation Buddhism and ancient Greek spirituality. It was as far back as in the 3rd century BCE, that Emperor Asoka, the greatest of Buddhist leaders, highlighted lucidly in one of his famous edicts, the significance of the spirit of tolerance, acceptance, harmonization and assimilation in Buddhism, when he cited – 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.”

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, there is a good amount of interaction, understanding, cooperation and cordiality among the Buddhist schools”. 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.” 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.

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, and Kashmir in 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 and Wahhabi Muslim fundamentalism, have become problems 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.

FUNDAMENTALISM AND INTOLERANCE

In contemporary times we witness the growing fundamentalism of Wahhabi Islam, aggressively proclaiming its beliefs, zealously proselytizing, and even taking up arms against its opponents. 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.

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.

THOUGHTS OF JUSTICE CHRISTMAS HUMPHREYS

To quote Justice Christmas Humphreys (1901-1983), the eminent British Judge and Founder of the Buddhist Society, London:  The way of Buddhism is Middle Way between all extremes. This is no weak compromise, but a sweet reasonableness which avoids fanaticism and laziness with equal care, and marches onward without that haste which brings its own reaction, but without ceasing. The Buddha called it the Noble Eightfold Path to Nirvana, and it may be regarded as the noblest course of spiritual training yet presented, in such a simple form, to man. Buddhism is neither pessimistic nor ‘escapist’. It is a system of thought, a religion, a spiritual science and a way of life which is reasonable, practical and all-embracing. For 2,500 years it has satisfied the spiritual needs of nearly one third of mankind. It appeals to those in search of truth because it has no dogmas, satisfies the reason and the heart alike, insists on self-reliance coupled with tolerance for other points of view, embraces science, religion, philosophy, psychology, mysticism, ethics and art, and points to man alone as the creator of his present life and sole designer of his destiny”.

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 for giving shelter and employment to Muslims? Or endured similar treatment from the Dutch for giving shelter to Roman Catholics? Who but the Buddhists tolerated the rank injustice of foreign rulers in the island 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 Lankans in general including the Buddhist majority, have been subjected to various forms of influences from Western and Middle Eastern non-Buddhist countries. With the globalization process they have been exposed excessively to western and other norms and lifestyles. However, it is a well evident fact that these experiences and exposures have not affected negatively the deep-seated spirit of tolerance and accommodation in the hearts and minds of the average Sinhala person in Sri Lanka. This can be attributed to the influence of Buddhism which is the dominant faith in our country. Strong Buddhist values of tolerance and compassion have been ingrained in the Sinhala people irrespective of their religions, 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 community  of Sri Lanka from very early times.

Dr. Daya Hewapathirane

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