Inter-religious disagreements, arguments, and conflicts have become a serious issue in the modern world. In fact, this is not a new issue; it existed even in the Buddha’s time. We have evidence to prove that even the ancient society came across inter-religious issues. When we look into this question without going to any extreme, the real origin can be found in inter-religious conflicts.
Especially, there are inter-religious conflicts and disagreements between Christians and Buddhists, Christians and Muslims, Buddhists and Muslims in the present world. Sometimes, thousands of innocent people are being killed in the name of the religion. Unfortunately, even Buddhists have become aggressive and offensive against other religions. Lack of the knowledge of the real Buddhist teaching could be the cause of this irrational situation.
Buddhism firmly says that conflict never ceases by conflicting and then what could be the Buddhist response to resolve current inter-religious conflicts? The main objective of this study is to search for an exact intellectual and rational answer in Buddhist teaching to present inter-religious conflicts. Sufficient references related to inter-religious conflict resolution are available in the Buddhist canon. Most of the teachings of the canon direct the follower to explain the argumentative teaching in a logical manner which helps to opposite person to find the answer by himself in a rational and logical manner.
What could be the Buddhist response to resolve inter-religious issues? Does Buddhist teaching inspire its followers to make conflicts against other religions? Can Buddhist methods of resolving conflicts be applied to resolve modern inter-religious conflicts? What are Buddhist perspectives about converting people to religions? These are questions, which answers to be found.
Even the Buddha faced to such conflictive and offensive situations. The way how the Buddha and his great disciples responded to hostilities and confrontations with other religions are exemplary for application to resolve current confrontations as well.
1. Background for inter-religious conflicts against Buddhism
Buddhism arose as a new religious movement, in the context diversity of religious sects; it is evident from our familiarity with Indian literature including Buddhist. Jainism, in their texts too, references are made to the diversity of views that can be considered religious vies at that time. We find mention in the Brahmajāla Sutta of 62 philosophical views or religious approaches to life. There was a religious uprising in the context in which Buddhism came into being. So 5th century BCE witnessed competing religions, even hostility has been expressed against each other, such as verbal debates and public confrontations.
We can find in Pāli Canon references to which Buddha responded to this situation. There were Brahmins teachers who were sometimes very offensive; they show their offence for contradicting their theories of life. Some Brahmins take to debates with Buddha on these issues; they try to prevent other people from coming under influence of the Buddha. They considered the Buddha someone who destructs the social order established by Brahmins. At early career of Buddha, they accused him of making women widows.
In such situation, how did Buddha respond? There were also conspiracies recorded in the Buddhist literature regarding how other religious movement attaches to the Buddha and his monastic order. We see that the situation during the Buddha’s time, the Religious pluralism was not very different from the situations in the present days. There is no doubt, there as largely similar religious hostility, arm conflicts in the world based on religious identity. What Buddhism has to contribute regarding religious conflict, identity would be very relevant to the current situation.
2. Why different religions with different practices?
People are different to each other and they have different characteristics, knowledge, attitudes, emotions, hopes, faith etc… this diversity among the people is common to past, present, and to the future. Sometimes, everyone needs guidelines to take decisions in the life especially, for their philosophical questions. According to the capacity of the knowledge, each one follows and trusts in different faiths in order to find answers to their questions. The usage of the religion comes into practice to help to find answers to their questions. Since the variety of the people, the view what they believe in also becomes various. They believe what they assume as right, and follow it’s directions to find answers to their questions.
Thus, the question is one, but there is no specific one answer to the question, in other words, there are different answers to the same question. However the person’s knowledge decides what is to be believed and what is not to be believed, and this becomes different from person to the other. Therefore, they believe and follow according to their experience and faith one of the answers provided by the religions and they become faithful in what they have been given the directions to find answers to their questions.
Thus, there is a reasonable basis to exist various religions in human society. On the other hand, there is no any method to take all humans into one faithful religion and that is not practical as long as people are different to each other. Therefore different faiths exist in human society and these different faiths give different principles and conditions to follow while another religion proposes different principles. In fact this diversity creates arguments, conflicts to confirm one’s religious belief is the correct by defeating the ideas of others as long as the grasp their view dogmatically.
3. What the purpose of a religion should be?
It’s true that, every teachings of each religion is not 100% equal to other religions. Therefore, each religion has its own teaching, traditions, rights, customs, and practices. Most of conflicts in the present world have been arising on account of this variety of religious practices. Lack of religious tolerance, not respecting to other religions, being extremists in one’s own religion, are leading to make conflicts and inter-religious issues in the name of the religion. Finally, small conflict becomes a great issue in the society.
Eg:- What will happen to the person after death? This is a common question for everyone but there is not a specific answer to this question, and different religions have given different answers as follows.
- Christianity says; “if you believe in god, you will go to him and live there forever. If you do not believe him you will suffer in hell forever”.
- Islam says; “Angels will come to you and question you, according to your answer you will go to paradise or to hell”
- Annihilationist idea says; “Everything will end with the death; there will nothing be left after the death”.
- Buddhism says; “One will reborn somewhere according to his actions”.
- Brahmanic idea says; “If you make sacrifice you will go to Brahman and live with him forever”.
Following a religion does not mean a revolution or an invasion which tortures lives but it is a blessing which saves lives. Religion should never teach the follower to kill or torture others but to become killed or tortured for others happiness. Religion is for ceasing wars, not for making wars. Religion is the mirror which shows the meaning of the life and that meaning never can achieve by making conflicts or violent revolutions in the name of the religion. On the other hand, religious teaching should direct its followers to develop wisdom, compassion, humanity, sacrifice, and rationality, not ignorance and stupidity. At the same time, it directs the follower to be happy by caring and making others happy by sacrificing oneself, not destroying others happiness. Religion should never lead to an ethical degradation.
4. Religious teaching should be universal, it never leads to invasions
The major reason for religious issues is a misunderstanding of the religious teaching by its followers. Almost all followers who make conflicts against other religions have forgotten their original religious practices and instead of that, they have taken a polluted and ignorance path which can be called a religious revolution. On the other hand, religion leads the follower to have spiritual achievements rather than material possessions.
There is a big difference between religious leader and invader. Religious leaders never lead their community to kill or torcher anyone in the name of the religion. If a person called religious leader leads his followers towards violent revolution which hurts others, the most suitable term to introduce such a person should be “invader” rather than giving him the name “religious leader”.
The main characteristic of an invader is being partial and taking evil extremes to take care of his native or relative community. But a religious leader leads his community to develop a meaningful life which brings blessings, happiness, and well-being to all the beings including their enemies.
You can see and feel the beauty of the moon but you cannot take it into your home. If you are going to fight with others for the moon, how ignorant you are. No one can change the moon and its beauty. Therefore, just feel the beauty of the moon and give a space to see the beauty of the moon to others too.
In the same manner, religion is like the moon, it is to see the reality, and the meaning of the life, but it is not for clinging and fighting with others. If the teaching in the religion is true, no one can change that truth. Try to see the noble and extraordinary beauty in the religion by giving up rods and weapons, and give a space to others to see what the glory in the religion you believe in.
A real religion shows the universal low or nature, then how can followers say that religion owned to them? This is the point that followers have mistaken. Religion is the path to see the reality. You are just a walker, not the owner of the path. If you take religion as your own, you will conflict and fight for it with others.
The Buddha says;
“Kullūpamaŋ vo bhikkave dhammaŋ desissāmi, nittaranatthāya na gahanatthāya”
Monks, I will deliver the doctrine comparing to a raft, which is for crossing not for carrying.
5. Buddhist viewpoint about causes of inter-religious conflicts
Buddhism teaches that anything is not independent; everything has related conditions to manifest it into being. As long as the causes are identified, the problem cannot be solved. Therefore, necessarily the causes must be found with an intention to resolve the problem. The most common problem in inter-religious dialogue is disagreement on perspectives of Truth. But disagreement is not the real problem if there is mutual agreement to disagree. The true problems arise from insisting to others that one’s disparaging view of their religion is correct, and the imposing upon them that one’s own religion is the only true one worth following.
There is nothing wrong though, with the sincere personal belief that one’s faith is the best. That would be “making peace” with oneself. However, when one insists others to agree likewise, that would be “making war” with others. In point of fact, Buddhist teaching mentions causes of arising conflicts. Buddhism does not guide to cling even its teaching.
On the other hand, presently inter-religious harmony has gone away for lack of inter-religious tolerance. This is another point of making conflicts. Anyhow, the Buddhist way of responding is different. It doesn’t prescribe any harmful reaction even against those who do wrong to the Buddhist follower. On the other hand, the Buddha and his disciples have gone to other religious monasteries and have had for friendly discussions about their teachings. Ganakamoggallāna sutta and Gopakamoggallāna sutta evident that.
6. Dogmatical clinging; the main cause for Inter-religious conflicts
I believe what I think as the right to the best of my knowledge while another one believes another view as the correct according to his knowledge. This is another point where conflicts and arguments arise. Because, one tries to prove one’s view is right, others are false. This can be known as dogmatical clinging (diţţhi upādāna).
“Idhaŋ eva saccaŋ moghaŋ añña”- this alone is true and everything else is false
The main reason for inter-religious disagreements is dogmatical grasping to ones’ own view without a rational approach or investigation. In order to break this grasping, Buddhist teaching suggests methods in Vinayaka, Brahmajāla, Cūlahatthipadopama, Kālāma sutta etc… Buddha points that dogmatic grasping of any views is not conducive to the religious goal he was prescribing.
7. Any view should not be followed with blind faith
Vīmaṁsakena, bhikkhave, bhikkhunā parassa ceto,pariyāyaṁ ajānantena tathāgate samannesanā kātabbā “sammā,sambuddho vā no vā” iti viññāṇāya ti.
The Tathagata, bhikshus, should be examined by a monk, an investigator, who does not know how to read another’s mind so that he knows whether the Blessed One is fully self-awakened or not.
The Buddha advised the Kalama people to be rational whenever they justify the rightness or wrongness of something. In fact, the sutta directs the follower to take a rational conclusion.
Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing (anussava); nor upon tradition (paramparā); nor upon rumor (itikirā); nor upon what is in a scripture (piṭakasampadāna); nor upon surmise (takkahetu); nor upon an axiom (nayahetu); nor upon specious reasoning (ākāraparivitakka); nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over (diṭṭhinijjhānakkhantiyā); nor upon another's seeming ability (bhabbarūpatāya); nor upon the consideration, 'The monk is our teacher (samaṇo no garū).
The wise sage does not grasp anything and claims to be absolute truth. The Buddha just leaves that to the investigator to further investigate and find out what the reality is. This is the approach which in explain in very important sutta called Minor Sutta on the Elephant Footprints (Cūlahatthipadopama sutta). Here it says that person who goes into forest inhabited by elephants looking for the footprints of elephants should not come to a conclusion immediately that there is huge elephant living in the forest, just by saying the footprint. One should follow that, investigate it further.
Buddha shows how ridiculous it is that only one and oneself is right, and looking down upon others is a fool. If by clinging to one point of view, one becomes wise, then everyone must be wise….everyone must be a fool. This can apply to any field in which people adapt very fanatic approach regarding the theory they embrace. So it is for this reason that Buddhism in its history, it is difficult to find instances in which Buddhist society trying to impose belief system by force. It is always through intellectual conversion. Buddha set an example, even when people ready to accept his teaching, he always request them to think more deeply, without rushing to a conclusion.
Upali was a well-educated follower of Jain Mahaveer. He came to the Buddha to argue, but after the Buddha’s clear explanation, Upali wanted to be a follower of the Buddha. Then the Buddha replied;
Anuviccakāraṃ kho gahapati karohi. Anuviccakāro tumhādisānaṃ ñātamanussānaṃ sādhu hotīti.
'Householder, think again, before you act, famous people like you, should think carefully before you act.
It is clear that the Buddha did not have any intention to increase the number of his followers. He did not want people to join his movement, merely for the sake of increasing the numbers that were not considered important.
Siyā kho pana te nigrodha, evamassa: antevāsikamyatā no samano gotamo evamāhā' ti. Na kho panetaŋ nigrodha, evaŋ daññhabbaŋ, yo eva te ācariyo so eva te ācariyo hotu.
"But, now you may think Nigrodha; This Gotama speaks these words that he may steal away my disciples – but this is not true. Let him who is your teacher remain so.
Buddhism cannot be instrumental in causing inter-religious conflict. Buddha himself says that he does not have any intention to increase the number of his followers but make the path clear to the person to understand the reality. Thus, Buddhism illustrates the real path of a religion which focuses on the wellbeing of all the beings.
8. Buddhist Principles for the Promotion of Inter-Religious Tolerance
Buddha appeals to human goodness. He never imposed any ideology on the people. He consistently refrains doctrinal practice on others. We can see the Buddha as an exemplar of the ethics of inter-religious harmony. There are so many instances in the Buddhist literature that show Buddha’s attitude towards other religious believes, also his attitude regarding those who express hostile reactions to his own movement. Hostility was not uncommon during Buddha’s time.
The first such Sutta has shown its approach that is very important regarding Buddhist attitude towards religious difference. In the Brahmajāla Sutta, where these different Views among the 62 are mentioned, Buddha points that dogmatic grasping of any views is not conducive to the religious goal he was prescribing. In the sutta, he was not committed to founding one more sectarian dogma. The emphasis in the sutta is on the transformation of the persons, the development of the inner nature of the person, a kind of very evident change in the experience of the concern, not just the theory.
The Buddha was challenged maybe by the religious group represented as Paribbājaka (wandering ascetics). They sometimes confronted sometimes with the Buddha. In such situation, Buddha emphasized not just winning the argument, so he was not even willing to engage in such situation. For example, in Pasura Sutta, Pasura came to challenge the Buddha. Buddha refused to participate, saying that I don’t cling to a view, and I don’t like to engage with a person who is defiled with conceit, anger, and hatred. He says, with the person whose mind is free from defilements and those who are not cannot move together. In fact, Buddha does not want to be such a fool.
Te vādakāmā parisaṃ vigayha - bālaṃ dahantī mithu aññamaññaṃ
Vadanti te aññasitā kathojjaṃ - pasaṃsakāmā kusalā vadānā
Looking for an argument, they gather at meetings, considering each other fools, clinging to knowledge. Wanting praise, they speak in the debate, desiring praise, they claim to be skilled.
The ten philosophical issues (abhyākata) at the time were very much hotly debated during Buddha’s time. Sometimes people came to challenge to argue these issues, and Buddha refuses to participate in any conversation regarding these issues.
Brahmajala sutta of DN gives guidance how to react to others blaming and praising with a clear mind, without going to any extreme. Suppiya, a wonder recluse, on a certain occasion when the Buddha was travelling with a large community of disciples from Rajagaha to Nalanda, Suppya was also following Buddha and his disciples. The wondering ascetics Suppiya was accusing and amusing the teaching throughout Buddha’s journey. At the end, Buddha learned about this situation, and he said if Bhikhus, others speak in displace of me, or displace of Dhamma, or the Sanga, you should give away to resentment or displeasure or any disharmony in your heart, for if you get upset in these situations, you will only create. When you are getting angry or upset, you wouldn’t be able to judge if the speech is correct or wrong. When other people speak in displace of me, dhamma, and sanga, you should understand what is false, for the such and such reason, point out this is false and this is true. Then if it is the case that those criticisms were reasonable criticisms, the Bhikkhus should change their own behaviour accordingly.
One common way to promote inter-religious harmony is by admitting every religion is true. This is some modern scholars’ idea. But, Buddhism does not maintain that view. Buddha clearly maintains that teachers of other religions talk about certain values. He agreed with them, the morality, or ethics. But in other situations, he disagreed. So agreement or disagreement is not the problem. The Buddha openly points out the false of other.
In other sutta, the Buddhist term for religious community was Samanas and Brahmas. There were people who have studies diverse religious theories at that time, so they are referred to as “those who have studied the theories of other religions”. What the Buddha found to be disturbing and demolishing values of other religions. It is the attitude of anger, the study of other religions mainly is for demolishing their theories. When The Buddha has discussions, he had agreements with the arguer and in these agreements, the Buddha points that the attitude when you enter the dialogue matters. The idea is not just winning the point but understands things reliably.
Buddha disapproves strong grasping of the views as true without having an open mind, this alone is true and everything else is false. That attitude is not considered as very healthy. It’s an attitude actually draws people to conflict. One can’t avoid conflict if he has that attitude. The wise person possesses the attitude which shows concerns with truth only as far as truth is conforming inexperience, that is what is true cannot be true for the only particular person. Such truth Buddha calls “Individual Truth” (pacceka sacca), it is very subjective. Others in their experience cannot find that being true.
This distinction is made; of course, the position can be objected by saying what Buddha an experience is not experienced by common people. But the difference we can see is that Buddha does not demand absolute faith in him, if you can’t experience, don’t accept. So he sometimes even encourages kind of sceptical approach if one does not necessary information to see that certain propositions are confirmed in experience. He just leaves that to the investigator to further investigate and find out. This is the approach which in explains in very important sutta called Minor Sutta on the Elephant Footprints, we mentioned earlier.
When the three kinds of craving are abandoned: craving for destruction, craving for sensual desire, and craving for wrong views. A person who has eradicated these cravings are freed from the three rules that bound a person to suffer: greed, hatred and delusion. This is a testable proposition, it can be observed. “By using your eyes, you can observe how I behave physically, by using your ears, you can observe what I speak, and you can always judge whether my speech is derived from confused mind”. In that sense, it is something that can be confirmed in experience. It’s very much psychological, like psychological testing. Buddhism, of course, is not confined to observable behaviours only, like the Behavior psychology, it also recognizes introspection and cognitive quality within inner mental states.
Buddhism cannot be instrumental in causing inter-religious conflict. This is really expressed in the Smiles of Snake Sutta (Alagaddupama Sutta). Even if others behave in an offensive manner, Buddhist follower is advised not to be offensive to offenders.
Tasmātiha bhikkhave tumhe cepi pare akkoseyyuṃ paribhāseyyuṃ roseyyuṃ viheseyyuṃ, ghaṭṭeyyuṃ. Tatra tumhehipi na āghāto na appaccayo na cetaso anabhiraddhi karaṇīyā
Therefore, monks, if others insult, abuse, taunt, bother, & harass you as well; you should feel no hatred, no resentment, and no dissatisfaction with heart because of that.
In Madhupindika Sutta, someone comes to ask him, what theory do you adopt? He may have expected some abstract metaphysical theories as most of times teacher of his time contested with theory against one another. But the Buddha says: his teaching is not presenting in abstract theory about the world, but a practical teaching, which enables the people to live in the world without conflict. “My teaching enables people to stay in this world without coming into conflict with anyone”.
Asoka, the great Buddhist emperor (circa 304 B.C.) had this to say:
“Growth in essentials can be done in different 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. And if there is cause for criticism, it should be done in a mild way. But it is better to honour other religions for this [or that worthy] reason. By so doing, one’s own religion benefits, and so do other religions, while doing otherwise harms one’s own religion and the religions of others.”
The only method Buddhism encourages to resolve conflict is education because Buddhism trusts in human’s capacity of performing good deeds. So it is voluntary to follow this method to appeal to people’s understanding, requesting people to look and see.
Education doesn’t mean just learning related to the cultivation of some professional expertise, a kind of training giving one skill. That’s kind of learning associated with the intellectual knowledge. But outside the professional spheres, there is a wider ethical sense attached to each profession. For example, being a good doctor means beyond medical knowledge but common characteristics of a good person. Ethical issues are important. It’s a different pattern of reasoning solving the medical issues. The good or harm, that can follow as consequences of human actions. And this is in this respect that Buddhism thinks education is very important, understanding right and wrong, what ought or not to be done. Where the ethical concern is lacking, medicine can go wrong, all scientific or technological advancement can be self-defeating.
There are very rare instances where Buddhist society has used religion to come into conflict with another religious group, or the idea of forcible conversion, that is not the characteristics of the Buddhist tradition. During the time of Dutch rule, they persecuted the Christians in Sri Lanka in the 17th century. It was the Buddhist King who protected the Christians under persecution.
Even in the contemporary world, Buddhism becomes known in foreign countries not through military or economic power, but the appealing to one’s logic and reasoning of one’s own well-being.
Buddha disapproves strong grasping of the views as true without having open mind an this alone is true and everything else is false. That attitude is not considered as very healthy. It’s an attitude actually draws people to conflict. You can’t avoid conflict if you have that attitude. The wise person possesses the attitude which shows concerns with truth only as far as truth is conforming in experience, that is what is true cannot be true for only particular person.
Diversity of inter-religious theories and practices become another cause for arising inter-religious conflicts. In past as well as present there are no equal religious theories and practices in two religions at once. Every religion comes up with different concepts and practices. For example; Buddhist theories and practices are not totally equal to Christian or Islam or Hindu theories and practices. In that case, there are possibilities in arising conflicts for theories and practices.
Converting people into religions by supplying goods and things in order to increase the number of followers is a kind of foolish activity, and it is just like accumulating craving fools.
There is a diversity of religious beliefs in our world simply because there is a corresponding diversity of mindsets. Even two random adherents of the same faith are unlikely to have totally identical views. We need to respect this worldly reality – before arguing on any spiritual reality. If not, there would be no harmony but only conflict. Surely, a religion that is pro-conflict is not one we need. What if it is a central tenet of a religion that it cannot agree to disagree with others? Thankfully, there is no such religion in practice today, or there would be inter-religious chaos. With all orthodox religions advocating peace, this implies that those who cannot agree to disagree might not really be religious at heart.
Visenikatvā pana ye caranti - diṭṭhīhi diṭṭhiṃ avirujjhamānā
Tesu tvaṃ kiṃ labhetho pasūra - yesīdha natthī paramuggahītaṃ
Amongst those who have abandoned confrontation, who do not pit one view against another,
Amongst those who have not grasped any view as 'The Highest', who would you gain as an opponent, Pasura?
Davids, R.T.W. (2002). Digha-nikaya, vol. I,II,III. Oxford: Pali Text Society
Nanamoli Bhikkhu, Bodhi Bhikkhu. (2001) Majjhima-nikaya. PTS, Oxford: Wisdom Publication, USA
Woodward F.L, Hare E.M. (2006,2008,2011) Anguttara-nikaya, Vol. I,II,III,IV,V. Oxford: Pali Text Society
Bodhi Bhikkhu. (2000) Sanyutta-nikaya, Vol. I,II. PTS, Oxford: Wisdom Publication, USA
Norman K.R. (2006) Khuddaka-nikaya, Sutta-nipata, Oxford: Pali Text Society
Digha-nikaya Vol. I,II,III. (1956) Colombo: BJTS
Majjhima-nikaya Vol. I,II,III. (1956) Colombo: BJTS
Sutta-nipata, Khuddaka-nikaya (1956) Colombo: BJTS
Premasiri P.D. (1972) The Philosophy of Atthakavagga. BPS, Kandy.
Guruge Layanal, (2007) Conflict Resolution and Buddha Dhamma.
Ray Parchelo. (2008) A Mind To Fight: Conflict Resolution And Buddhist Practices
Loy, David R.; (2003). The Great Awakening: A Buddhist Social Theory; Wisdom Publications.
Loy, David R; (2008). Money, Sex, War, Karma: Notes for a Buddhist Revolution; Wisdom Publications.
Salzberg , Sharon; (2002). Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness; Shambhala
Tilakaratne, A. (2006) Buddhism and Inter-religious Harmony. International Buddhist Conference, Kandy, Sri Lanka.
Berzin, Alexander and Chodron, Thubten. (1988) Glimpse of Reality. Singapore: Amitabha Buddhist Centre.
Ven. Sumiththa T.
Sri Lankan Buddhist Cultural Centre - Hong Kong
3F, 27 Sheung Heung Road, To Kwa Wan,
Kowloon, Hong Kong