We commemorate Lord Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and parinirvana in this month of Vesak, amidst one of the worst calamities Sri Lanka has encountered – a carnage caused by misguided fanatics as a result of extremist beliefs. How far are Buddhist teachings applicable and could help prevent the occurrence of such destruction?
In a multi-religious society, what really was Lord Buddha’s solution for peaceful co-existence and harmonious living with those of other faiths? Where does intolerance of those with beliefs in other faiths than that of ours take us? Lord Buddha’s solution for peace and harmony in a land of religious diversity was tolerance, a cornerstone of His teachings which was acceptance that other people hold different views from us, and willingness to allow others to be different in their views and actions.
K.N. Jayatilleke, in his study “The Buddhist attitude to other religions,” wrote that the Buddhist is able to acknowledge and appreciate the good in other religions. As most noble religions promote values like honesty, kindness, generosity, courage and integrity, Buddhism sees them not as dangerous competitors but as allies in man’s quest for liberation.
Once, the Buddha was taking the road from Rajagaha to Nalanda with some five hundred disciples. Following behind was Suppiya with his disciple Brahmadattha, with Suppiya making disparaging remarks about the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha. This was conveyed to the Buddha by His disciples when they stopped to rest. Lord Buddha said: “Bhikkhus, if outsiders should speak against us, the Dhamma or the Sangha, you on that account should not bear malice, suffer heart-burn or nurse ill-will.
If you on that account should be angry or hurt, that would stand in the way of your self-conquest. If you feel angry, would you then be able to judge how far their speech is well said or otherwise? On the other hand, if outsiders speak in praise of me, the Dhamma or the Sangha, you should not be filled with pleasure. Were you to be so, that would once again stand in the way of your self-conquest. But, you should acknowledge what is right as the important fact is the truth.”
In Dhamma, tolerance is absolute avoidance of using power, violence or coercion to force others to think and believe as we do. This, Dhamma describes as loving kindness or “Metta” towards even those who hold views which are repugnant to us. Using force, violence and coercion to make others change is intolerance.
Therefore, if we practise intolerance towards those whose views we find despicable, we descend to their level and give victory to them. Lord Buddha said: “Hatred is not ceased by hatred. Hatred ceases by love. This is the eternal law.”
At the time of Lord Buddha, there were many who were in quest of spiritual liberation. And there had emerged religions that had broken away from the ancient Vedic religion. But Lord Buddha had no conflict with them whatsoever. Instead, he absorbed some aspects of these faiths which were not harmful but what He agreed with.
Quoting Lord Buddha, Venerable Dr. K. Sri Dhammananda said: “If we adopt aggressive and violent methods to solve problems, we cannot find the real solution to overcome them. We can suppress trouble temporarily and win battles as long as the enemy remains weak. But when they get the opportunity, the enemy will not be quiet.”
Lord Buddha said: “People tremble in the face of punishment. Everyone is frightened of death. When you place yourself in the victim’s position, it is easy to refrain from killing or hurting others. All living beings detest pain.”
How did other religions fare when Buddhism was made the State religion in the Asoka Empire? Edicts of Asoka well illustrate his treatment of other religions. He wrote “The king honours both the ascetics and lay followers of all religions and he gives them gifts. But the king does not value gifts and honours as much as he values this – the growth in the essentials of all religions. This can be done in varied ways. But all of them have as their root, restraint in speech, that is not praising one’s own religion or condemning the religion of others without good cause. If there were cause for criticism, it should be done in a mild way. But it is better to honour other religions. By doing so, one’s own religion benefits and so do other religions. Therefore, there should be contact between religions. One should listen and respect the doctrines professed by others. The king desires for all to be well learned in the good doctrines of other religions.” Despite having being written in c256BCE, these have remarkably a modern ring in them.