Before discussing what religion can contribute, it may be helpful to ask what it is that mankind needs. The simple answer is that all human beings, in fact all beings, constantly seek to find happiness and to overcome problems and avoid suffering. No matter what particular problems individual people or groups of people may face, whether they are rich or poor, educated or uneducated, what is equally common to all is the wish for lasting happiness. As human beings we all have a physical body, which at times gives rise to sickness and other problems, and we all have emotions, such as anger, jealousy and greed, while on the positive side we have love, compassion, kindness, tolerance and so forth. These are all part of human nature. Likewise, everyone wants happiness and does not want suffering.
Today, due to progress in science and technology many people throughout the world experience some material improvement in their lives and benefit from facilities and opportunities that their forefathers never even dreamt of. However, if we ask whether this material development has really eliminated human suffering, the answer is no. Basic human distress remains. People continue not to get what they want and find themselves in unpleasant circumstances. Despite greater comfort people experience loneliness, frustration and mental restlessness.
Of the problems which face mankind as a whole, some, like natural disasters, floods and drought for example, we can do nothing about, but other problems are man-made. They include conflicts that arise between human beings over issues of race, ideology, religious faith and so forth. This is very sad, for whatever race a person belongs to he or she is primarily a member of the human family. With regard to ideology and religion, these things are intended to bring benefit to people and not to be a ground for antagonism and violence. It is important to remember that the purpose of different ideologies, religious systems and so forth is to serve human beings and fulfill their needs. In this century alone there have already been two great world wars and many local conflicts, while killing continues to go on all around us all the time. In the meantime we all live under the nuclear threat, largely because of ideological conflicts.
Another category of man-made problems concerns the relations between people and the earth or the environment, problems of ecology and pollution. Whatever difficulties deforestation and pollution of the earth, water and air may present to our generation, they are clearly going to be much worse in the future unless something is done. And something can be done, because these are all problems made by I man and thus can be unmade or at least reduced if we, choose.
There is no question that material development is good for mankind and provides many necessary benefits. But we have reached a point where it would be worthwhile examining whether there are areas of development other than the material one alone as I have already mentioned. There are certain side-effects of material development: there is an increase of mental unease, worry and fear, and this in turn sometimes expresses itself in violence. There is a decline in human feeling. For example, although it is true to say there has always been fighting throughout history; there is a difference between the hand-to-hand fighting between individuals in the past and the remotely controlled warfare of the present. If you were to try to kill someone with a knife it would naturally be difficult because you have to be able to cope with seeing his blood, his anguish and hearing his screams of pain; natural restraint arises. But if you use a rifle with telescopic sights it is so much easier, almost as it is if it did not concern you. The victim is unaware of you, you simply aim, and pull the trigger, look away and it is done. Of course, the situation is even worse with regard to nuclear and other remotely controlled weapons. What is lacking here is a sense of human feeling, a sense of responsibility.
If we look carefully at human beings we will find that besides the physical aspect, there is another very effective factor - consciousness or mind. Wherever there is a human being there is always consciousness. So, in order to reduce man-made problems the human mind is a key factor. Whether they are problems of economics, international relations, science, technology, medicine, ecology or whatever, although these seem to be issues beyond anyone individual’s control, the central point is still human motivation. If the motivation is careless or poorly considered, problems will arise; if the motivation is good then the consequent action will develop in a positive way.
It seems that although the intellect, the ‘brain’ aspect of human beings has been much developed and put to use, we have somehow neglected the ‘heart’ aspect, by which I mean the development of a good heart, love, compassion, kindness and forgiveness. Due to this lack of heart, although we may have much material progress, it does not provide full satisfaction or mental peace. What is needed is mental development along with material development – if these are combined we shall all feel happier and calmer. The key point is developing a basic human feeling, which means genuine sincerity, genuine openness, genuine love and kindness and respect for others as brothers and sisters.
The question of genuine lasting world peace concerns human beings, so this human feeling is also the basis for that. Through inner peace, genuine world peace can be achieved. Here the importance of individual responsibility is quite clear, for an atmosphere of peace must be created within oneself, then it will be created in the family and then in the community.
In order to create inner peace, what is most important is the practice of compassion and love, human understanding and respect for human beings. The most powerful obstacles to this are anger, hatred, fear and suspicion, so while people talk about disarmament in the world at large, some kind of internal disarmament is necessary. The question is whether we can minimize these negative thoughts and increase positive attitudes. We can examine our daily life to see if there is any value in anger and likewise we can think about the negative or positive effects of compassion and love.
For example, since human beings are social animals they have good friends and bad friends. People who are always angry have in most cases very little mental peace, but those who are calm by nature have more peace and more true friends, true friends who remain with them through success and failure. Such friends are not acquired through anger, jealousy or greed, but through honest love, compassion, openness and sincerity. So, it is quite clear that negative thoughts are destroyers of happiness and that positive thoughts are creators of it.
Although anger may sometimes seem like a defender, in fact it destroys our peace and happiness, and even destroys our ability to succeed. Success or failure depends on human wisdom and intelligence which cannot function properly under the influence of anger. When we are under the sway of anger and hatred our power of judgement is impaired. As a result we pursue the wrong aims or apply the wrong method and this leads to failure. Why then does anger arise? – Because deep down there is some kind of fear, so fear is a cause of failure.
The best and the most powerful methods for eliminating anger are tolerance and patience. People sometimes have the impression that tolerance and patience are neutral, lacking feeling, but they are not, they are much deeper and more effective than mere indifference. Some people also feel that tolerance and patience are signs of weakness. On the contrary, anger, hatred and frustration are a sign of weakness. Anger comes from fear and fear comes from weakness or a feeling of inferiority. If you have courage and determination, you will have less fear and consequently you will be less frustrated and angry.
Now, the practice of methods to reduce anger and increase tolerance is adaptable to every religious system, even for those people who have no faith at all, for so long as you are a human being you will always need tolerance and courage. From a Buddhist point of view there are nine objects or situations which give rise to anger: situations in which I have been harmed, I am being harmed, or I will be harmed; similarly, situations in which my dear ones were harmed, are being harmed or will be harmed; and situations in which my enemies were happy, are happy or will be happy. Of these, perhaps the most important is the situation in which I am being harmed.
At such times, a way to counter anger is to investigate the nature of the object which is actually harming us, examining whether it is harming us directly or indirectly. Suppose we are being hit with a stick, what is directly doing us harm? – the stick. The root cause which harms us indirectly is not the person wielding the stick, but the anger which motivates him to hit us, so it is not the person himself with whom we should feel angry.
Another method which can be effective in certain circumstances is, when someone is harming us to remember at the time that we could be experiencing far greater difficulties and worse sufferings. When we recognize that there are much worse things that could happen to us, the difficulties that we are facing are reduced and become easier to cope with. This technique can be applied to all sorts of problems. If you look at a problem close to, it seems very big, but from a distance it appears much smaller, and this can help counter anger. Similarly, when a tragedy takes place, it can help if we analyse whether there is any way of overcoming it, if there really is not, then there is no use in worrying about it.
Anger is our real enemy. Whether it is in our mind, our friend’s mind or our enemy’s mind, anger is the real foe. It never changes; its nature is always harmful. However, a human being does not always have a harmful nature, he may be your worst enemy today, but tomorrow or next year he may become your best friend. So, when a human being is behaving like an enemy and doing us harm, we should not blame the person – one day his motivation may change. The real blame should be put on his anger or negative attitude. Whenever anger arises, whoever it arises in, it is always a trouble-maker.
In order to counter anger we need to increase patience and tolerance. In that sense, in order to practice patience and tolerance, we need an enemy, a person who is an enemy. Otherwise we have no opportunity to practice them. Whether the enemy has a good or a bad motivation, as far as we are concerned the situation will be beneficial, for his harming us provides an opportunity for us to increase patience and test our inner strength. If we think in this way, we can see our enemy as someone to whom we should be grateful, rather than as an object of abuse.
Nevertheless, when it comes to taking action, if someone is behaving unreasonably and harmfully towards other beings and he or she is doing so continually, then ultimately he or she will suffer. If you understand the situation clearly, then respectfully and without scorn you can take necessary counter-action. In such situations we should take action to stop other people behaving unreasonably, because unless we do so things will just get worse. We are not only allowed to take such counter-action, but indeed we should; the difference being that we do so not out of anger but with an altruistic intention.
A further way to counter anger is based on compassion and a deep respect for others. In this a genuine altruistic attitude is very important. Basically, human beings are social animals, without others you simply cannot survive. Therefore, for your own survival, your own happiness and your own success, you need others. By helping other people, being concerned about other people’s suffering and sharing in it, you will ultimately gain some benefit yourself.
This is also applicable on a larger scale, for example, with regard to the world’s economic problems. If you follow one sided policy, although you may gain something temporarily, in the long run you may lose more. If the policy is based on a wider perspective, a more altruistic attitude, it will produce a better result. In the field of economics today, we are all increasingly dependent on each other, not only from country to country, but from continent to continent. The nations who consume the most ought to reflect on where they get the materials which allow such consumption to go on; otherwise one day it will be a cause of big problems. These things are becoming steadily clearer as a result of the energy crisis and the widening gap between the North and the South, the richer and poorer countries. If the situation continues, it will definitely create problems, but if we think about how it can be changed, developing an altruistic attitude is the key point.
Now, developing such attitudes as love and compassion, patience and tolerance, genuine understanding between human beings is not simply a religious matter, but a condition for survival. Sometimes I refer to it as a universal religion. To be a good human being in day to day life, neither philosophy nor rituals are necessary. To be a good human being means: if possible to serve other people, if not, refrain from harming them.
Nevertheless, the various different religions do have responsibilities along these lines. It is not that everybody should become religious minded, but rather that each of the various religions can contribute to mankind. All the great teachers of the past gave their various religious teachings for the benefit of humanity and in some cases, even for the benefit of all sentient beings. Certainly, they did not teach us to disturb people.
The various different religious groups and systems have a special contribution to make, not to material development, but to mental development. The proper way to approach our future is a combination of these two, as human beings our physical and mental energy should be spent half on material development and half on inner development. If we over-emphasize the material side, it is insufficient, because it is based on matter which has no feeling, no experience and no consciousness. Until the world comes to be dominated by robots, we will need religion. Because we are human beings we have feelings and experiences, pains and pleasures and as long as these circumstances persist, things like money alone cannot bring happiness. Whether or not we do experience happiness is largely dependent on our mental attitude and way of thinking.
Each of the various religious systems, whether it be Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism or one of the many kinds of Hinduism, has some special technique, some special method to achieve that goal. When we talk with religious scholars or practitioners, for example when we meet sincere Christian practitioners, even without speaking we can feel they have achieved something. This is a result of their own tradition and is an indication that all the world’s religions are not only aiming at the same object, but have the ability and potential to produce good human beings. From this point of view we can easily develop respect for different religions.
It is a reality that there are many areas in which we human beings tend to fight, while religion is the only factor which acts as a remedy for human destruction. That religion itself can be used as an instrument for creating further divisions and provoking more fighting is very unfortunate. It is another reality that it is impossible for all human beings to become religious minded. There is no question of all human beings becoming Buddhists, or Christians, or anything else. Buddhists will remain Buddhists, Christians will remain Christians, and non-believers will remain non-believers. Whether we like it or not this is a fact, so respect for others people’s views is very important. If people have faith, accept some ideal and feel they have found the most beneficial way of improving themselves, this is good, they are exercising. Their right to follow their own choice. Those who have no faith, who even feel religion is wrong, at least derive some benefit from their anti-religious outlook, which is their right too.
As long as we remain human beings and citizens of this world, we have to live together, so we should not disturb each other, but realize that we are all brothers and sisters. There are very clear grounds for developing closer relations between the various different philosophies, religions and traditions and this is very important at present. I am glad to see positive signs of a movement in this direction, especially of a closer understanding between the Tibetan Buddhist community and Christian monks and nuns. We Tibetans have many things to learn from other traditions.
However, it is important to understand that the future of religion and what it can contribute to mankind is not merely a matter of preserving institutions, but depends very much on individuals’ own practice. If you accept religion you should practice it sincerely, not artificially. Therefore, it is important to grasp the essence, to understand what the aim of your religion is and what its results will be. If you then practice properly, you yourself will present an example of the benefits of religion.
In the field of philosophy there are significant differences between religions. For instance, according to the Jain and Buddhist teachings there is no ‘creator’, there is no God. Ultimately one is like a creator oneself, for according to the Buddhist explanation there is within one’s own consciousness an innermost subtle consciousness, sometimes called clear light, which resembles a creator, but is deep within oneself. Consequently, there is no other force involved such as God. Now, as far as most other religions are concerned, the central belief is in God, so we can see here wide differences in philosophy.
However, instead of dwelling on differences a more important question is what is the purpose of these different systems and philosophies? The answer is that the purpose is the same, to bring the maximum benefit to humankind. There are so many different mental dispositions among human beings, that for certain people certain traditions are more effective and for other people other traditions and practices are more effective. Flowers are very pleasing, one flower is beautiful, but a combination is even more beautiful. If there is more variety, you have the opportunity to choose according to your taste and liking. Similarly, it is good to have many different religious teachings and many different philosophies. Just as we eat food to support our physical bodies, religions and ideologies are food for the mind.
There are differences between us even in the limited physical sphere, for our small human faces contain many distinguishing features. Our minds are not of solid substance, but are vast as space, so naturally there are many different mental dispositions. For these reasons one religion and one philosophy are not sufficient to satisfy all human beings. What we should aim at, with the welfare of mankind in mind, is not to hope to convert everyone to one religion, not to try to evolve a single eclectic religion from all the others. We can appreciate and admire the features we find in common and respect the areas in which we differ. Certainly, there are aspects in which different religions can learn from each other, but they do not have to surrender their identity to do so. Christians, for example, might find Buddhist techniques for developing concentration, focusing the mind on one point, to be useful. There are many ways to do this, such as through meditation, as there are also many techniques, which aim to develop tolerance, compassion, love, kindness and so forth. Similarly, Buddhists may find Christian practices of social action helpful and conducive to their mind-training.
The essential point to remember here, bearing in mind that the aim of the religion is the welfare of human beings, is that whatever we may learn or borrow from each other, the benefits that religion can bring and the contribution they can make to mankind depend upon ourselves and whether we really put them into practice.
From CHÖ YANG Vol.1- No.2 1987
Editor: Pedron Yeshi
Co-editor: Jeremy Russell