Are all religions the same?

by R. Dissa, London, UK, The Buddhist Channel, Dec 18, 2005

I am addressing Visakha Kawasaki’s (All religions are not the same,
Nov 27
) discomfort about the Dalai Lama urging Christians and Muslims
not to convert but to stick to their own path. Visakha disagrees
with the Dalai Lama because as far as she is concerned, alternatives
to Buddhism do not necessarily teach good conduct of body, speech and
mind to the same high standard as she perceives Buddhism to teach

I am using this opportunity to show that actually the Dalai Lama is
being very clever and by saying what he is saying, and truly meaning
it, that it will draw the right sorts of people towards the wisdom of
the Buddha compared to if the Dalai Lama encouraged people to become
Buddhists rather like the Catholic Pope will usually seem to do for
people to become Catholic Christians. If the Dalai Lama tells people
who are not Buddhist to be Buddhist though he may persuade a few,
many will be displeased and will start seeing Buddhism as a threat
rather like some of us see evangelical types as a threat.

Firstly, let us remember the Aesop’s fable of the wind and the sun.
Both decided to see who could get a coat off a man. The wind blew as
hard has he could but the man merely wrapped himself more in his
coat. Then the Sun tried his strategy. He came out and smiled and
smiled and the man was eventually so hot he took his coat off.

In the autumn of 312 Emperor Constantine became a Christian. Before
him, Christians carried on alongside Pagans and Jews in the ancient
world. After him, when Christians came to power, they effectively
banned other religions. In fact many people fled Europe to England
and further East or South to avoid being persecuted. Amongst these
were Jews who settled in Arabia. Monotheism became strong in Europe
and the great civilisations of Ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt (for
all their faults as well) were turned upside down. The famous library
of Alexandria was burned down by an irate Coptic mob and so much
knowledge accumulated over thousands of years was lost. Philosophers
were persecuted and shortly after the 5th century CE Europe entered
the “Dark Ages” and started off the crusades a bit later. Prophet
Muhammad owed as much to Christianity as to the Jews in establishing
monotheism in the Middle East. Once again the “one true God” needed
to have all “pagans” eradicated. Temples and ancient shrines were
swept away and the religion spread eastwards largely by the sword.
Taxila, the great Buddhist university in Pakistan was destroyed by
the 12th century. In 1520s when the Spanish encountered an alien set
of civilisations in South America did they leave them alone? No. They
pillaged as much gold and silver as they could and destroyed the
Aztecs and later the Incas. Of course they abolished human sacrifice
as practiced by the Aztecs but they also made sure that these people
knew about the one true god. I will spare the reader the various
bloody incidents that mocked and savaged what was effectively an
alternative human civilisation which deserved to be improved and not
destroyed. Tenochtitlan, the ancient city of Mexico was so beautiful
and yet was effectively razed to the ground as Cortez himself

Much of Europe today is a reformed beast. The rise of Science was a
response to religious dogma. One could almost argue that dogma
stimulated the rise of rationality. Rationality and tolerance are
qualities that were common to most ancient “Pagan” religions
including Buddhism.

All religions are the same in the sense that they are all human
constructs passed on culturally from generation to generation. It is
natural for various cultures to be proud and to look down on
alternative cultures. People justify certain acts by claiming that
that is what their god wants and as god is more important, his needs
need to be implemented. We often realise that when they say “this is
God’s will” they mean their own will. As human beings we have to
respect differences and aspire to common ideals of compassion and
understanding or wisdom. Something we humans take pride in. In
Buddhism we do not extend our compassion just to our own group or
even just other humans, but to animals and any gods/aliens/ghosts
and “Amanussa” or non humans out there. I hope that we also have
compassion for other cultures, alternative visions of how things
should be, even if they are supposedly mediated by a supreme being
(that we may not take seriously). Because the important thin g is not
that we are Buddhist, but that we have peace, understanding and
happiness. Being Buddhist is not about being anything but ideally
actively using and developing the toolkit that the Buddha offered to
improve our happiness and the happiness of others (for starters there
are the 37 tools of the factors of enlightenment). If we meet a happy
Christian, it would be quite wrong to pretend that we do not share
tools in common. Our tool may be sharper but only if it has been
developed to a high level (say the tool of concentration) – and many
of us deal with blunt instruments. So if another human being has a
higher degree of concentration than me, then whatever their religion
I have an opportunity to improve my concentration. If we as Buddhists
meet an alien culture like the Spanish did, we should remember
history and unlike the Spanish of the 17th century we should actually
think about how our actions will affect that alien culture. We would
not wish to harm the best aspect s of their culture though we would
wish them to reduce any harm that we perceive them to inflict on
their fellow creatures. So the Dalai Lama is not interested in making
other people Buddhist but helping us to live more comfortably with
alternatives and thus protect ourselves – because wherever we are, we
would like to practice our thing in peace without fear of our lives
and with the opportunity to learn from any kind of good/truth/wisdom
in others (How many of us have learned good qualities of behaviour by
looking at our pets?).

When Upali asked if he could become a Buddhist three times the Buddha
said “Upali stick to your own thing”. Upali said “this makes me want
to join you even more.” In the sutta of the “Lion’s roar to the
Udhambarikans” (Digha Nikaya) the Buddha says “Nigrodha, I am not
trying to change how you live or tell you not to respect what you
have been respecting so far .” he gives a very long list with words
to the effect of “I do not teach Dhamma because .”. It is not because
he wants them to become Buddhist but because there are things that
manifest in harm and suffering and things that manifest in peace and
understanding – and because the Buddha has seen the problem deeply,
he is simply providing advice on matters that will lead to an
increase in understanding and reduce suffering overall. (It is one of
the best suttas the Buddha gave as usual)

Looking at history, I now see that despite the best/worst efforts of
fundamentalist religious people who constantly try and convert
others, actually we are now back in an age of the triumph of
Paganism. People don’t go to Egypt to look at old Coptic churches but
the vast temples to the ancient gods. In Turkey we see the vast
temple complex of Ephesus and admire it as one of the ancient Seven
Wonders eventually starved out of existence by a more fundamentalist
creed. In the West religion is not really too important and there is
more emphasis on fairness and redistribution (though this may be more
true in theory than in praxis). Above all, in the civilised world
today, plurality of views is the norm as was in the ancient Pagan
world when how the state functioned was more important than what
particular god you believed in – though various gods also represented
instruments of the state.

The Dalai Lama is simply being like the Sun in helping to take
peoples coats off. How people behave and their general attitude is
sometimes more important that what they actually believe in.
Practicing Buddhism represents the hardest challenge and those who
truly practice it, understand magic.
* Visit “The Buddhist Channel” *
The Channel where all Buddhists can call as their own


One Response to Are all religions the same?

  1. Ed Stamm says:

    On the one hand, people often change religions because they feel the religion they grew up with was not living up to its ideals, or had been co-opted or become corrupt. My wife is a Christian who was raised as a Buddhist in Japan. I’m a Buddhist who was raised as a Christian in the U.S. I think we both changed religions for this reason! On the other hand, if you stay with your original religion, you know the “ins and outs” better and maybe you are more likely to make spiritual progress than if you start over from zero. But, on the third hand 🙂 the more religions you study, the deeper your wisdom becomes, because every religion has a different “angle”.

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