On Buddhist Tolerance

On Buddhist Tolerance May 25, 2012

This evening I had the great pleasure of attending a lecture on religion and tolerance featuring Lord Parekh (Hull, LSE), with responses from Dr. Amira Bennison (Cambridge, speaking on Islam), Professor John Coffey (Leicester, discussing Christianity), and Professor Peter Harvey (Sunderland, retired, for Buddhism).

Lord Parekh provided his philosophical examination of the issue, defining, as best he could and as philosophers do, the terms of the discussion. Tolerance, he suggested, can be exercised in three different realms:

  1. In relation to atheists or secularists
  2. In relation to other religious traditions, and
  3. In relation to a religion’s own internal diversity.

And, as a philosopher, he had to pin down the meaning of tolerance itself, giving it five crucial conditions:

  1. It must be about an important matter (indifference is not intolerance)
  2. One must form a view on it, either positive or negative
  3. One must have standards or norms regarding this matter (strong relativists, for whom all norms are either personal or relegated to small communities, cannot take part this discussion)
  4. One must have the power to be intolerant, which here means to ban the practice or belief
  5. One must decide not to exercise this power.

So, many of the casual ways we use the term are not at play for Lord Parekh. (skipping over much essential material) Lord Parekh then discussed tolerance in three major religions: Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism.

To give just a highlight or snipit of each:

  • Muslims see themselves in continuity with Judaism and Islam; with God simply needing to reveal himself anew, one final time, to Mohammed. They were at least initially tolerant of both Jews and Christians, seeing both as religions “of the book.”  Other religions, including atheists, polytheists, and so on, have been shown a variety of levels of tolerance (Hinduism, and a times even Buddhism, were accepted as tolerable religions to Muslims who charitably stretched the notion of monotheism to include these two religions). Muslims have been less concerned with Heresy (as, say, Christians) historically, and more concerned with Apostasy (turning ones back on the faith).
  • Hinduism is focused on Dharma, which for them is duty. Duty is a matter of one’s role in society and is essential to one’s religion (as opposed to belief in most Western religions). One can believe whatever one wants; there is/was incredible tolerance at the level of belief. What is not tolerated is behavior outside of one’s societal designation (caste). So, while 4 out of 6 ‘orthodox’ schools of Hinduism were in fact atheistic, caste designations remain rather stagnant. Each person is at a unique level of development, and as such, “Truth” will be different for him or her than it is to you. As such, there is a sort of hierarchical relativism, wherein truths are different for everyone, but there is still “a place” where you belong – be it as a servant or priest, etc.
  • Buddhism is primarily concerned with purity of insight. As such, there are no ‘beliefs’ at all, but rather a system for spiritual exercise. And without orthodoxy, there is tolerance in seeing the meaning and values of other beliefs as well as compassion as a response to those who are disagreed with. Buddhism, he suggested, was one religion that spread without an army.

Before getting to the responses, I’d like to just say a thing or two about this. Islam, of course, has a very bad name in general in the West, so the more dispelling of rumors that can be done, the better. Hinduism, he didn’t mention, also has an unfortunate capacity to re-appropriate anything and everything in India for itself, thus swallowing up religious sites of other religions. This has led to some conflict (I was in India in the fall of 2010 when the judgment was given, news video here; luckily all was calm, even after the Supreme Court’s decision). Buddhism, I could speak ad nausium about. Peter Harvey luckily covered some (most?) of the intolerance committed in its name. Tibet, even with Buddhism, was a very violent country right up to the invasion of the Chinese. Japanese Buddhists were often complicit with that nation’s expansionist wars, including WWII. Sri Lankan Buddhists supported the ethnic majority Sinhalese in their decades-long war against the minority Muslim Tamils. Thais support the ongoing fighting in their southernmost province against an ethnic majority (in the area) Malay Muslim population. Those are just a couple examples that suggest that Buddhists have historically not been the super-nice-guys (and gals) that they are often portrayed to be.

The responses I’ll actually skip, mostly. I’ve discussed some of what Prof. Harvey said. A couple of his main points were that while the Buddha warned of a narrow attachment to views, he also did give specific teachings that he held to be both true and helpful for his listeners. So belief is important, but not nearly as much as action or practice, in Buddhism. Peter suggested, and I will emphasize, that Buddhists have pretty much always debated each other, sometimes pretty fiercely. Theravadins (often) really don’t care for Mahayana monastics who eat “at the inappropriate time” – after noon. Mahayanins likewise often frown upon Theravadin meat-eating. In practice, of course, all of this is complex, but these are some of the stereotypes that arise within the tradition. Most traditions also teach a sort of hierarchy of “views” or understandings of reality, culminating (no surprise) in their own.

And without giving a definitive view (which would be a bit contradictory, wouldn’t it?) on Buddhist notions of tolerance, I thought I would share some videos:

First is a young monk giving a good explanation of tolerance in Theravadin Buddhism:

Here, the Dalai Lama (in Vancouver, Canada) knocks it down to under 3 minutes:

Ajahn Brahm, as usual, gives a wonderful and broad view of tolerance for the contemporary Buddhist. (jump to 26 minutes in for a great joke about religious tolerance):

Zen: from Shinzen Young, “Is Buddhist meditation compatible with other religions?”


And, not to be forgotten, Shin Buddhism also has something to say about interreligous dialogue, via the great Dr. Mark Unno:

And for a great teaching on life in general, Archbishop Tutu speaking at Gonzaga’s 125th University Commencement this year:

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