Looking back on His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s public talk at Conseco Fieldhouse last Friday, I’m reminded just how difficult it is for us humans to be generous in spirit towards those who might not espouse the same worldview. This is particularly true when it comes to religion.
In a talk that lasted for nearly 90 minutes, His Holiness stressed the importance of religious tolerance, using India’s secular-based constitution as an example. “Secularism means,” His Holiness said, “respect all religions, including nonbelievers.” I suppose I fall into the category of “nonbeliever,” even if that term isn’t entirely accurate. It’s true I don’t follow a particular religion; I don’t “believe” in the Christian notion that if you don’t accept Jesus as your savior you’ll go to hell—in fact, I heartily reject that notion. But do I believe Jesus was a generous soul who had much to teach about compassion and tolerance? You bet I do. And I have books on my nightstand to prove it.
But any religion that promotes its texts as representing the only truth, by pain of death and/or damnation, is a religion I can’t believe in.
His Holiness stresses that Westerners inclined to embrace religion should practice Western religions rather than Eastern ones, Christianity and Judaism being the most obvious. Yet neither of these religions reflects fully my stance as a human being, except where they espouse compassion, nonviolence and tolerance. In both of these religions, contradictions to these notions abound. Buddhism, on the other hand, does not, to my knowledge, suggest that compassion is only important some of the time. And yet I continue to study Christianity; I continue to be drawn to Buddhism. But I can’t claim either one. Does that make me a nonbeliever?
It’s sort of a glass half-empty vs. half-full proposition, the way I see it.
Christians believe the glass is half-empty: you are born sinful, and the acceptance of Jesus as your savior is the only way to fill the spiritual glass. Buddhism, on the other hand, suggests we are born with a half-full glass: we are innately compassionate beings who, faced with the truth of impermanence and the suffering that accompanies it, find in the dharma an opportunity for fullness. As we practice one faith or another, we have the opportunity to calibrate the glass. In my mind, true spiritual fullness can only come about through an understanding that yes, indeed, we are all inherently worthy of love and compassion—whether we come to this understanding through religion or outside of it. As the Dalai Lama put it on Friday, “I believe the basic human nature is gentleness and compassion.” If this weren’t essentially true, we might as well hang up this whole humanity business.
His Holiness, who is also a student of psychology and science, suggests that our early experiences are indicators of our propensity to happiness—or its lack. If we receive affection early in life, not only do we have a greater peace of mind, but it is also “possible to receive others’ affection… [and have] the ability to show affection.”
If this wasn’t our experience, we can’t undo our early wounds; but the Dalai Lama believes there is still hope. Some find it in religion; some find it through the cultivation of trust and love through friendship. Others find both to be beneficial.
As a mother of two young children and a teenager, I’d rather teach my kids their inherent worth rather than suggest they are inherently unworthy, and that only through some outside agency will they be able to find wholeness. Despite the Dalai Lama’s plea that Westerners stick with Western traditions and Easterners stick with Eastern ones, if I do end up in one camp or another, I’m more likely to end up in the Eastern camp.
And if it’s true that inside we are, indeed, the same, at least in our desire to lead a life of happiness and fulfillment, then the external brand of religion is mere clothing anyway. And you can’t take it with you.