It is a common and idealistically beautiful notion, that all the religions of the world essentially preach the same teachings for the betterment of the world. In fact, this is part of the spirit that makes harmonious inter-religious dialogue possible – when we choose to focus on the similarities of compassion and wisdom. If we are to harp on the differences to one another instead, there would be religious conflict.
But are all religions exactly the same upon closer look? Realistically, of course not - this is why there are different religions in the first place, even though there might be certain teachings which overlap in between. If we truly wish to deeply understand various religions, we need to not only look at the similarities, which many prefer to stop at, but to look at the differences too. It should not be surprising that the deeper one looks, the more obvious it might be that there are differences aplenty. Many Buddhists too have previously speculated on the sameness of all religions, till they studied more about Buddhism, realising how it even explains how various religious stems of thought evolved differently.
Is it okay for one to be a “hybrid Buddhist”? For instance, to be a “Whatever-Buddhist” (fill in your non-Buddhist faith in place of “Whatever”)? While many Buddhists are not exactly sure of others’ reactions to that, what would the Buddha think of such an idea? Well, though the Buddha clearly wished to benefit everyone with his teachings, he never demanded anyone to follow his teachings fully without question. In fact, he taught that “When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities (as taught) are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted and carried out, lead to welfare and to happiness’ - then you should enter and remain in them.” (From the Kalama Sutta: please study it for more details as to how to wisely embrace a teaching.) Though the quote might seem like common sense, it also means the Buddha allows us to be as Buddhist or non-Buddhist as we wish, as we personally find sensible or are comfortable with - though there is no guarantee that every individual understands what is truly ”sensible”.
Out of his great compassion, the Buddha would surely prefer us to benefit through partial practice of his teachings than to embrace none of them at all. Free-thinkers, those of other faiths and those who are not totally Buddhist are thus always welcomed to learn more about Buddhism in a non-exclusivist and “no obligation” way. What is worth pondering about the quote above is what truly constitutes “blameless”, “when adopted and carried out, lead to welfare and happiness.” As Buddhists, that leading towards enlightenment in one way or another, directly or indirectly, should be seen as the ultimate benchmark, with enlightenment being true “welfare and happiness”. The Kalama spirit of “Come and see (and ask); don’t just believe” is also renowned in Buddhism - a probable reason why Buddhism is currently the fastest growing religion in the largely dogmatically-saturated but spiritually-dissatisfied West.
The Buddha also taught unequivocally that to become fully spiritually liberated like Himself requires the full practice and realisation of the Noble Eightfold Path (Right view, resolve, speech, action, livelihood, effort, concentration) which he taught – “But in whatsoever Dhamma (teachings) and Discipline (moral guidelines) there is found the Noble Eightfold Path, there is found a true ascetic (spiritual practitioner) of the first, second, third, and fourth degrees of saintliness (levels of spiritual attainment culminating in self-liberation here). Now in this Dhamma and Discipline, Subhadda (the Buddha’s last convert), is found the Noble Eightfold Path; and in it alone are also found true ascetics of the first, second, third, and fourth degrees of saintliness. Devoid of true ascetics are the systems of other teachers.” (From the Mahaparinibbana Sutta) In this sense, to the extent that one practises the Noble Eightfold Path is the extent to which one is truly Buddhist at heart.
The Three Universal Characteristics (Anicca, Dukkha and Anatta) are also unique teachings found complete in Buddhism alone. These are often described as the “Three Seals of the Law (of Dharma)”, used to authenticate the Buddha’s teachings, to differentiate them from non-Buddhist teachings. Another major difference of Buddhism from many other religions is that the Buddha clearly proclaimed himself not to be a god or godsend, having transcended the limitations of all beings, godly or not, though spiritual perfection, being addressed as the “Teacher of men and gods” instead. The Buddha also did not advocate the belief in an almighty good God, and even explained how the concept of a creator God arose. That aside, He did teach of the existence of countless Buddhas and Bodhisattvas with infinite compassion, ever ready to guide all beings to attain True Happiness.
If one studies different religions on the surface level, one might be too quick to conclude that all religions simply teach us to avoid evil and to do good. The Buddha’s teachings are often summarised in this verse, “To abstain from all evil, the practice of good, and the thorough purification of one’s mind - this is the teaching of the Buddhas.” (From the Dhammapada) Particular to Buddhism, not only does it has exceptionally unmatched high and detailed moral standards of universal compassion to all beings great and small, it also systematically advocates a path for the purification of the mind through meditational practices, whereby the end result is realisation of the truth of non-self, the attainment of enlightenment (also defined as the emancipation, Nirvana or True Happiness), after which one is better able to help all beings attain the same liberation. These teachings are unique to Buddhism alone.
Even if one might be able to happily reconcile one’s faith with the Buddhist faith, there are still indeed “irreconcilable differences” which make Buddhism, as well as other religions distinct from one another. While it might be perceived that different religions are different paths to the same goal, the goals of each religion are usually essentially different, and only somewhat similar. May we remember that to be truly open-minded does not merely entail looking beyond differences, only thinking that different religions have similarities in ideology - it also includes realising they have concrete differences too. This is important as having or promoting over-simplified or warped and thus inaccurate personal conjectures of the essences of various religions is not only unfair to oneself spiritually, it is also unfair to those of their respective religions.
While we might think outsiders of other religions can see the overall picture better than the insiders, one should also consider becoming more of an insider to see the picture from within, by having more through study and practice of a religion to discover its essence. Otherwise, one will have an incomplete vision of the whole picture. Just as those of a religion should respect and never disparage those of other religions, to “force” the assumed oneness of all religions upon anyone is to disparage all religions themselves, as this corrupts their original teachings, which have painstakingly evolved to be self-contained paths to their respective spiritual goals. Of course, whether the paths work or not, and whether the goals are true or not is another issue altogether, subject to debate. However, since religions exist to benefit humankind, may all religions co-exist harmoniously in the light of true understanding!
The view that all paths lead to One God is a Hindu understanding and it is true of every non-Buddhist contemplative traditions that lead to direct experiential insight of a transcendental reality. However it is not in accord with Buddhism, because through realization of emptiness and interdependent origination, we deconstruct even the construct of an ultimate God. All religions lead to God, except in Buddhism, where we first realize God and then throw God away.
A widely held view of ultimate nature is often referred to as pantheism. This view comprehends ultimate nature as some kind of primal substance out of which all things emerge. The most common metaphor for this view is waves and water. The phenomena that we perceive are the wvaes, but their true nature is water, which all phenomena share. From this perspective, the appearances of this world are considered to exist as modifications of this primal substance. The transcendent substance unites all existing things, constitutes what all existing things have in common, and is in a profound sense more real than appearances because appearances seem to exist in a way that things have differentiating natures whereas in reality, from the perspective of pantheism, the ultimate nature of things is this primal substance. The two great elucidations of this view are the Upanishads of Indian philosophy and Spinoza in the west.
Interdependent Transformation, in contrast, is a non-substantial view of ultimate nature. The metaphor for Interdependent Transformation most widely used within the Buddhist tradition is Indra’s Net. In this metaphor the places where the threads of the net cross are occupied by jewels. The facets of the jewels reflect all the other jewels in the net. Now, drop the threads. Now drop the jewels: or rather the jewels are nothing more than the endless reflections and refractions off of all the other jewels.
The common nature, from the point of view of Interdependent Transformation, that nature which all things share, is their dependency, their reliance upon conditions for their existence, not their substance. The dependent nature of all existing things manifests as a quality of those things, but does not imply an underlying substance or essential nature. Just as a green chair and a green table share the color green without implying that they have a common substance, so the qualities that emerge from Interdependent Transformation, such as dependence, interdependence, process, contingency, etc., mark all existing things, but do not imply a substantial presence or essential nature. This, in part, is what Buddhism means when it says that things are “empty”; they are empty of substance, empty of essence, but they are full of the causal matrix which is their true nature.
Another understanding of ultimate nature is referred to as “emanationism”. The great elucidator of this view in the west was Plotinus and through his considerable influence all subsequent neo-platonism and much of early Christian theology. There are also modern manifestations of this kind of view, particularly among Theosophists and related groups. The basic view here is that there is a constantly present source from which all things emerge. Spirituality is comprehended as a task of ascending higher and higher, closer and closer, to this ultimate source of all things.
A model for the emanationist view of existence is a series of concentric rings. In the center is the source (God, The One, The Light, The Nameless). The closer one is to this source the more spiritual and ethereal one becomes. In a monotheistic context, for example, angels are closer to the source than humans, and therefore angels are more spiritual than humans. Humans do have the opportunity, however, to ascend to the divine through contemplation and prayer.
The teaching of Interdependent Transformation differs from emanationism because there is no specific source from which the ultimate nature, as illuminated in this view, of all things arises. As Prashastrasena, an ancient Indian commentator, put it, Nirvana is unlocated, or has no location. A model often used for Interdependent Transformation is referred to as “Indra’s Net” which depicts a network, a fabric, of interconnectedness. The point here is that nirvana, or ultimate reality, has no locus/location, either in time or in space. Rather, Interdependent Transformation exists spread out over all of existence.
One way of comprehending this is to think of Interdependent Transformation as a quality, or group of qualities, which qualify all existing things. Therefore, as a transcendental quality, Interdependent Transformation is present in all existing things, but does not negate any existing thing. As present in all existing things, it is present everywhere equally, but simultaneously has no particular location from which this ultimate nature springs.
From the perspective of Interdependent Transformation the metaphor of ascent into a spiritual domain is inappropriate. Instead, spirituality is comprehended as awakening to, or understanding, or realizing, the primal interconnectedness of all things. This interconnectedness, these qualities of interdependence, of dependence, of transformation, of creativity, manifest equally everywhere, or, as I like to say, everywhere in particular.
This is the big one, the view that concerns most westerners. There is a long and venerable history of discussion between the monotheistic tradition and Buddhism. This dialogue between the two traditions often centers on whether or not at core these two traditions have a common understanding. The need for this dialogue appears because at a certain obvious level Buddhism simply does not have a supreme being, what the monotheistic tradition generally means by God.
I distinguish two components of ultimacy that are unique to the monotheistic tradition. Given that the monotheistic tradition believes in the existence of only one God, the monotheistic tradition conceives of God as the ultimate; furthermore God in this tradition is the creator of all existence and also bears moral responsibility for the activities which occur in this existence.
Both of these components are absent from the Buddhist tradition. The Buddhist tradition lacks a being who has created existence. Instead, from the perspective of Interdependent Transformation, Buddhism conceives of existence as always existing, without beginning and without end. Furthermore, from the perspective of Interdependent Transformation, there is no specific locus of creation, no specific being is responsible for bringing existence into existence. Rather, creativity is an aspect of all existing things and therefore the source of existence is the things of existence, spread out over all of existence, throughout all space, throughout all time.
John Reynolds, among western scholars I am familiar with, has written with clarity on this issue:
As for the existence of God, of the Creator of heaven and earth, this is the concept central to religion as we know it in the West. Was the Buddha an atheist or an agnostic in relation to the existence of a Supreme Being or God? ...
In the Suutras there is found a Buddhist account of Genesis. [This account appears in several sources both in the Mahayana and the Theravada Canons.] In reply to questions from His disciples, the Buddha explained that the humanity found on this planet earth once inhabited another planetary system. Ages ago when the sun of that world went nova and the planet was destroyed in the ensuing solar eruptions, the bulk of its inhabitants, as the result of their arduously practicing the Dharma for ten thousand years, were reborn on one of the higher planes of the Form World or Ruupedhaatu, a plane of existence known as Aabhaasvara or “clear light.” Here they enjoyed inconceivable bliss and felicity for countless aeons. Then, when their great store of past karma came onto maturity, our own solar system and planet earth began to evolve and some among their numbers were reborn on the lower planes of the Ruupadhaatu in the vicinity of the nascent earth.
This plane of existence where they found themselves reborn is known as Brahmaaloka. The first of these beings to reawaken and be reborn, upon seeing the solar system evolving below him, exclaimed in his delight, “I am the Creator!” In this way, he came to believe that he was the actual creator of the universe which he saw about him, for he did not remember from whence he came and was born without any parents. But in actuality the manifestation of this universe was due to the collective karma of all in that company and his own individual manifestation, which was a case of apparitional birth, was due to his own great stock of meritorious karma coming into maturation at that time because the requisite secondary conditions were present.
( Self-Liberation Through Seeing With Naked Awareness, translated by John Myrdhin Reynolds, Snow Lion, Ithaca, NY, 2000, pages 97-99.)
The principle here, derived from the core insight of Interdependent Transformation, is that all things appear from a causal base. This understanding is extended to the existence of entire universes or world systems. The Dalai Lama makes this same point in his commentary on Shantideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, the Ninth Chapter on Wisdom. Verse 124 speaks directly to this discussion:
124. ... [I]f Creation were dependent upon conditions, the complete collection of those causal circumstances would be the cause, and not Ishvara [Note: Ishvara was a common name for God in ancient India, similar to Yahweh.] If the complete conditions were assembled, Ishvara would be powerless not to create; and if they were absent, there would be no creation.
The Dalai Lama’s Comment:
If creation and destruction are dependent upon a collection of causal conditions, the totality of those conditions would be the cause, and not a God who is independent of and uninfluenced by events. If the causal conditions were assembled, Ishvara would be powerless not to create the resultant phenomena; and if they were not assembled, those phenomena would not be produced.
( Transcendent Wisdom, the Dalai Lama, translated by B. Alan Wallace, Snow Lion, Ithaca, New York, 1998, page 93.)
Both of the above quoted passages are rooted in the understanding of existence as a causal matrix, the view of Intedependent Transformation. It is somewhat astonishing to think of God as deluded, as Reynolds suggests. God thinks he has created this world system because, due to his karma, he was the first conscious being in this world system. Unaware of his past karma which created the conditions for his rebirth in this world system, and not observing any other conscious beings in this world system, God then concludes that he is the creator of this world system. Unaware that there are other world systems, incalculably numerous, God/Ishvara concludes that he is the creator of all of existence.
It takes some time to take in all the implications of such a world view. It is breathtaking in scope and rich in implications. One of the implications is that being reborn as God is not, from a Buddhist perspective, a fortunate rebirth. It is not a rebirth that will lead to liberation, to nirvana, and the cessation of all sorrow because such a rebirth re-enforces the idea that there is something that exists independently, and it is this very idea/belief/feeling that is the source of sorrow.
It might seem that this is the end of the story; Buddhism doesn’t believe in a creator Deity that bears moral responsibility for existence while the monotheistic tradition has this view at its core. The two traditions, therefore, diverge.
However, God has many names and many meanings and Interdependent Transformation has many facets. Though the view of Interdependent Transformation does lead to a view of existence that in some respects differs from that of the monotheistic tradition, we should not stop at this conclusion. I have previously mentioned in the discussion on the basic implications of Intedependent Transformation that this core view of the Buddha means that all things exist dependently. Because the monotheistic tradition regards God as the creator of all existing things and of existence itself, the monotheistic tradition views all things as existing dependently, as in a totally dependent state. From this perspective, the perspective of dependence, the Buddhist and Monotheistic tradition share a common insight into the transcendent nature of all existing things.
Or take the view that God is love. It is out of God’s love that existence emerges. Existence is an expression of the generosity and benign nature of God. In the Buddhist tradition it is the realization that all things exist interdependently that gives rise to the blossoming of the compassionate heart. Love and Compassion are always present, but they are covered over by ignorance, self-concern, and distraction. I think that these two insights are very close for they both proclaim that in some sense love and compassion are the true nature of existence, that love and compassion blossom when we comprehend the transcendental.
What I am suggesting is that even if I put aside the idea of a Creator Being, even if I put aside the idea of a Being who bears moral responsibility for existence, there are still significant, broad areas for dialogue between the two traditions because there is more to the idea of God than the idea of a Creator. From a Buddhist perspective, the most important aspects might lie outside of the Creator view.
How do we access this broader understanding that lies at the core of the monotheistic tradition? I would suggest using those traditions centered on positive theology. Positive theology is that theology which explores the Divine Names and Attributes of God. For example, Dionysius the Areopagite wrote a theological work called The Divine Names. I think it would be an excellent place to start making such a comparison. For example, Dionysius writes:
... Since it is the underpinning of goodness, and by merely being there is the cause of everything, to praise this divinely beneficent Providence you must turn to all of creation. It is there at the center of everything and everything has it for a destiny. It is therefore ‘before all things and in it all things hold together.’ Because it is there the world has come to be and exists. All things long for it. The intelligent and rational long for it by the way of knowledge ...
Realizing all this, the theologians praise it by every name ... they give it many names, such as “I am being,” “life,” “God,” the “truth.” These same wise writers, when praising the Cause of everything that is, use names drawn from all the things caused: good, beautiful, wise, beloved, God of gods, Lord of Lord, Holy of Holies, eternal, existent, Cause of the ages. They call him source of life, wisdom, mind, word, knower, possessor beforehand of all the treasures of knowledge, power, powerful, and king of Kings, ancient of days, the unaging and unchanging, salvation, righteousness and sanctification, redemption, greatest of all and yet the one in the still breeze. They say he is in our minds, in our soul, and in our bodies, in heaven and on earth, that while remaining ever within himself he is also in and around and above the world, that he is above heaven and above all being, that he is sun, star, and fire, water, wind, and dew, cloud, archetypal stone, and rock, that he is all, that he is no thing.
( Pseudo-Dionysius, The Complete Works, translated by Colm Luibheid, “The Divine Names”, Paulist Press, Mahway, New Jersey, 1987, pages 54-56.)
Now, turn to the Buddhist tradition and uncover the names that the Buddha in the Discourses uses for nirvana. He uses such terms as the “cessation of suffering”, “the non-clinging”, “peace”, “serenity”, “the lovely”, “the unconditioned”, “love”, “the unborn”, “the deathless”, etc.. Just as the core view of the monotheistic tradition is multi-faceted, so also the ultimate goal and core notion of the Buddhist tradition has many facets and many names. Once I move away from a fixation on the idea of God as a creator of existence, I am actually able to find a lot of similarity between these core views, many overlaps. It is useful to compare these two because how they arrive at these core understandings, such as dependence, differs, but often the core understandings themselves are amazingly similar. Thus, both traditions are mutually enriched by broadening their understanding.
This is not the place to go into a systematic treatment of these two core views. It would require a book in and of itself. I believe what would be required is to compare and contrast the facets of ultimacy that each tradition has lived with down through the centuries. In addition to comparing and contrasting, I would also suggest comprehending how each tradition arrives at this understanding.
I believe the result of such a project would produce a mosaic of overlapping and divergent understandings. From the perspective of a particular facet X, the two traditions have a shared view. From the perspective of facet Y, the two traditions diverge. From the persective of how they arrive at the same view X, there will also appear similarities and contrasts. When engaging in this project it is also important to keep in mind that monotheism is not a uniform tradition; it is actually more accurate to say “monotheisms”, and the same applies to Buddhism. The personalism of Christianity, for example, is something not shared by Judaism or Islam. Similarly, the view of the ontological status of suffering is quite different in different Buddhist traditions. Though this complicates the task, I do not consider it an insurmountable obstacle as long as one maintains a broad focus.
This may seem like a lot of work, but I believe the results of such a project would be an ability to speak clearly to each other, from the views that each tradition holds, and come to a genuine and deep mutual understanding and appreciation. A good way to start such a project would be to compare two specific core texts, such as The Divine Names with something like the Udana in the Buddhist tradition. This may seem to narrow the focus from the broad focus I just suggested. However, the virtue of taking two specific works and comparing them is that it grounds the investigation in a specific work and tradition so that it reduces mere speculation.
The dialogue between monotheism and Buddhism has been going on for a long time. I believe such an exchange can prove fruitful for both traditions. I would hope that such an exchange of views could be expanded to include other traditions as well, such as the western philosophical tradition, the secular humanist tradition, and the many spiritual traditions in the world today. With a good heart, mutual respect, and the capacity to perceive all people as equal, such an endeavor will help all concerned.