By David Jones
I’m a Christian guy who writes with a community filled with other traditions, beliefs, and practices. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I’m not here to change their paths, and they’re not out to change mine. It’s a community, sangha, and congregation built on a respect for others.
I think about what that means sometimes. Wouldn’t it be easier to hang around others of my faith system? Easier, maybe, but not preferred. There’s a lot we can learn from others when we dare to venture beyond the safe and comfortable bubble of shared belief.
That’s the message the 14th Dalai Lama highlighted when he spoke to groups of Christian and Buddhist monastics gathered at what came to be known as the Gethsemani Encounter. While there were many talks given at that event and compiled into a book, the Dalai Lama’s talks were edited into a smaller book entitled, Spiritual Advice For Buddhists and Christians.
My Buddhist brothers and sisters probably understand some of the concepts he spoke of better than me (such as the Six Perfections and single-mindedness meditation), but I was cheered to also read his view of concepts I was familiar with from my practice and faith (things like boundless love, forgiveness, compassion, humility and seeking a relationship with God).
He opens with the importance of dialogue between those who practice different traditions as a means of growth and healing.
“I believe it is extremely important that we extend our understanding of each other’s spiritual practices and traditions. This is not necessarily done in order to adopt them ourselves, but to increase our opportunities for mutual respect.”
Throughout the book he spoke from his Buddhist tradition without coming across as wanting his Christian listeners to become Buddhist at all. Instead, he pointed to ways each group could benefit from learning about the other. The goal is to grow in love and compassion towards other people according to your own spiritual path.
It resonates deeply with me. I have friends who walk atheist, Wiccan, Buddhist and other paths. It never occurs to me to try and “convert” them. They walk their path, I walk mine. Rather than focus on belief choices (including disbelief or non-belief) which highlight differences, I’d rather focus on our human commonality.
The Dalai Lama went even further than that. Beyond accepting and respecting that others have their own traditions, he said that folks should focus on embracing their personal spiritual path to reduce suffering such as the rampant anger we see around us today. “The Christian practitioners and the Buddhist practitioners both realize that anger is something negative,” he said. “Christians have a faith in God and through that way they try to work on the problem. Buddhists have another way.” But both use their path to work on the problem.
What I liked the most about this brief book (it’s only100 pages) is how free of dogma it is.
For example, he relates how we can’t say that a particular religion is best, but we can say one is best for us. “The Buddhist way is best for me. But this does not mean that Buddhism is best for everyone.” Even if one tradition is best for him in Buddhism, he wouldn’t dream of insisting other Buddhists should embrace it too. I feel that way about Christianity as well.
He struggles. He succeeds. He fails. He gets angry and distracted and definitely doesn’t have all the answers. This is true of us all, which makes him a wonderful teacher because of his relatability.
In his travels on the Middle Way he looks to all religious traditions for things which he can introduce into his life to benefit his practice. “Sometimes, too, we encounter something in another tradition that helps us better appreciate something in our own.” I found mindfulness and incorporate it on my own path, so I can totally relate.
Sure a lot of horrible things have resulted from the misuse of religion, but a lot of good has come from its proper use as well. While acknowledging how some have abused religion, he says there’s sufficient reason to believe in the benefits of the world’s religious variety. “Religions are like medicine in that the important focus is to cure human suffering.” Which one is better at it? “It is not a question of which religion is superior as such. The question is, which will better cure a particular person?”
That’s exactly how I feel as I write in a community of such diverse beliefs and non-beliefs: I want to help people understand my traditions and path, not so they’ll follow it too but so they’ll see that the negative examples shoved in our faces every day in the media aren’t representative of us all. Besides, constantly focusing on the negatives numbs us to the ability to appreciate the positives.
My last thought on this book is that it’s an invitation to respect the paths and traditions of others, find the common humanity which unites us, and look constantly for things which help us along our own path. I have human needs and fears just like the next person. They just want to find peace and happiness for themselves and their loved ones just like I do.
By seeing others as worthy of escaping suffering and finding love/peace/happiness/fulfillment, I’m moved to compassion toward them even if I disagree with or disapprove of some of their choices. As I help them, I help myself.
I recommend this book to anyone who wants to find unity with others in their life’s spiritual journey.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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