Committment to our tradition, acceptance of others

Committment to our tradition, acceptance of others March 8, 2009

I am reading the excellent article, “Acceptance of the Other as a Similarly Valid Path and awareness of One’s Self-Culpability: A Deepening Realization of My Religious Identity through Dialogue” by Kenneth K. Tanaka of Musashino University. (Buddhist-Christian Studies, 2005)

In it he talks about encountering a Christian scholar at the typically very liberal INTERNATIONAL BUDDHIST-CHRISTIAN THEOLOGICAL ENCOUNTER who, after some thought, admitted that her faith meant that she believed that he (Kenneth) could not be saved as a Buddhist.

He relates this to his own beliefs as a Jodo-Shinshu (Japanese Pure Land) practitioner and struggles with his wish that all traditions admit the possible salvific value of others. Through this, though, he sees that even Buddhism, in so many ways places other teachings below it, effectively saying that only through x,y,z (Buddhist) realizations can one become awakened. And yet, in the end, he thinks about the meaning and supposed experience of an awakened being, “we would find that they point to the complete overcoming of discriminative thoughts and the fostering of unconditional compassion.”

My wonder is if we might profitably think of exclusivism (the belief that your tradition is right, and all others wrong, or at least inferior) as a stage in one’s spiritual path.

Tanaka himself admits that some of his inclusivism toward other religions might just be a sign of his luke-warm status as a practitioner. I recall listening to one teacher, Geshe Michael Roach, relating a period in his spiritual development when he loved to see Buddhists win in debates or discussions with other traditions, or to point out the foolishness of people in this or that other tradition. Geshe Michael said that it took him a long time to get past this, to see that all traditions have something possitive to offer people and that through any of them the possibility of awakening is held.

I, too, have moved from exclusivism as an atheist to quasi-exclusivism as a Buddhist to a much more open and inclusive thinker toward religious traditions. How did this happen? Partly I think my exclusivism came from looking at how stupid and harmful people of various religions have been over the years. Most of my angst was aimed at Catholicism, the religion of my upbringing, but it easily extended out to Christianity as a whole and other theisms. I’m sure that if I had looked at the time I would have found plenty of faults in Buddhism and Buddhists as well, but angst toward theisms can pretty easily consume all of a young man’s free time.

Buddhism, when I finally did start to study it, didn’t look much better. “Life is suffering, blah, blah, blah…” was my initial, know-it-all, impression. It wasn’t until I engaged in meditation in a course at the University that my views began to soften. Slowly but surely I began to get into it. First the philosophy (of course), then other things, bit by bit, being careful to separate out the superstition and foolishness (so I thought) as I went.

Ultimately what the process has done though is forced me to look more at myself. I saw that I’m obviously not perfect either (I awoke to this several years ago but still forget from time to time!), and that my expectations of religion were greatly inflated. Toning those down a bit I became more accepting of the world, and of myself. Tanaka, too, notes, “I have personally been quite surprised by my insistence on looking inward when addressing social issues. And after some reflection I have come to the conclusion that this is very much a manifestation of my Buddhist DNA… which highly values introspection.”

The process has led me to look less at views and words and more toward actions and what actually works. Meditation, for me, works. It brings calm, openness, joy, and peace.

I teach meditation to others. Many say it works for them too. Perfect. What else do we need?

So perhaps this has led to its own kind of exclusivism: we all must do what works.

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