While our “Readings” segment of this website has never before included a book review, this review article by William Page was so exemplary and interesting to students of Vedanta that we thought it would be of great interest to this website’s readers. William Page retired from teaching English at Thammasat University in Bangkok. He has been associated with the Ramakrishna Vedanta Society in Boston since 1960 and is a member of the Ramakrishna Vedanta Society of Thailand.
Toward a True Kinship of Faiths: How the World’s Religions Can Come Together, by His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama.
In this book the Dalai Lama champions the cause of interreligious understanding and harmony, a theme Vedantists will be familiar with. He begins by pointing out the dangers of religious extremism, and notes that the world is now so globalized that religions can no longer remain isolated, but have to come to terms with one another.
The bulk of the book explores common ground among the major religions, with chapters devoted to Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. The Dalai Lama is a scholar, and judging from my own limited knowledge, his exposition is generally accurate, with only occasional slips. His paragraph on Sri Ramakrishna is worth quoting in full:
“This celebration of religious diversity—alongside of toleration and pluralism—remained prominent in India during the nineteenth century, thanks primarily to the great contributions of the Hindu saints Swami Ramakrishna and Vivekananda. Fully to understand and taste the beauty of other faith traditions, it is said, Ramakrishna even engaged in deeds that may have been quite offensive to the religious sensibilities of his more orthodox fellow Hindus. He composed Christian sadhanas (meditations on God), participated in Friday namaz (worship) in mosques. In his own personal spirituality, Ramakrishna reached a high level of attainment. Ramakrishna and his order represent a remarkable and profound modern example of true ecumenism and deep inter-religious exploration. I find their model consistently inspiring, especially since it proceeds from a wellspring of genuine spiritual experience.” (49-50)
The exposition is enlivened throughout by anecdotes of the author’s personal experiences. The Dalai Lama is a genial and gregarious man who enjoys warm relations with leaders from many faiths. He mentions quite a few of them by name, and calls them “my friend” so often that, coming from anybody else, it would sound like name-dropping.
Particularly noteworthy for Vedantists is his friendship with our own beloved and revered Swami Ranganathanandaji. “In 1986, at Swamiji’s invitation, I visited Vivekananda’s monastic community in Hyderabad, in southern India, where I shared a meal with the monks and engaged in a dialogue with them. It was then that I learned how Vivekananda had modeled his monastic order on the Buddha’s monastic community, the sangha. In fact, the image of the Buddha was an important presence at this monastery.” (50-51)
“Once,” he relates, “Swamiji and I shared a platform in Calcutta, discussing the interface between science and spirituality….Since there has never been a divide between the spiritual and the material in India, as there has been in the West, Swamiji suggested that the relationship between science and spirituality is bound to have a different flavor in the Indian context. Swamiji also spoke of God in the form of a depth dimension of the human personality and said that one could discover God in every human being. According to him, what religions call ‘God’ is not something sitting in the sky far away but is present in each of us. This, Swamiji argued, is a great discovery of India’s ancient culture.
“Swamiji was a most gentle person; deeply spiritual, he was also tremendously articulate in English. Having never quite mastered the language myself—to this day I rely on the help of my translator—I felt much admiration for his facility with English. Being myself a great enthusiast for dialogue between science and spirituality, and a proponent of inter-religious understanding through dialogue, I felt a strong affinity with him. In the aftermath of the demolition of the mosque in Ayodhya and the communal clashes it gave rise to, Swamiji worked tirelessly to diffuse the tension and appealed strongly for saner heads to prevail in both Hindu and Muslim communities in India. This was a great contribution at a difficult time.” (51-52)
In discussing each religion, the Dalai Lama keeps things on a positive note by emphasizing the doctrines and practices he admires most. He explores “the great commonality of spiritual practices between Hinduism and Buddhism” and their “cross-fertilization of ideas.” (52) In all religions, he perceives a unifying theme that transcends all the differences: compassion. Compassion has always been the Dalai Lama’s trademark—after all, Tibetans believe he’s an incarnation of Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion—and he sees it as a common link that can bring all religions together.
He defines three attitudes one may take toward other religions: exclusivism, which says my religion is right and yours is wrong; inclusivism, which says your religion may have some truth to it, but mine has it all; and pluralism, which says all faiths are valid. The Dalai Lama comes down on the side of pluralism. “The challenge before religious believers,” he says, “is to genuinely accept the full worth of faith traditions other than their own.” (ix)
The skeptical reader may ask, “In what sense are all religions valid? How can they all have full worth? They have different doctrines. They can’t all be right.”
The Dalai Lama admits this, but urges us to transcend doctrines and “move beyond them to a higher level of convergence, where they share a common goal of human betterment and a set of key ethical teachings.” (132) He’s not interested in doctrines so much as in their results. Everyone who studies religions notices their remarkable agreement on ethics and spiritual practice. When mystics from different traditions get together, they tend to get along splendidly. All of this echoes the famous Vedic aphorism, “Truth is one; sages call it by various names”; and a less famous line from the Mahabharata that Swami Prabhananda mentioned in a recent article. It translates roughly as “Whatever unites people is religion; whatever divides them is not.”
“All very well,” the skeptic may reply, “but still there’s a problem. Why should I respect your beliefs if I think they’re nonsense?”
The Dalai Lama doesn’t directly answer this question, which, if you think about it, sounds a bit rude. But maybe the beliefs aren’t all that important. Maybe they’re icing on the cake of compassion. We’re bound to disagree on metaphysical beliefs. You don’t need to respect my beliefs if you think they’re nonsense. But if they inspire me to be a better and more compassionate person, at least you ought to respect that.
What if they don’t? In that case, either religion isn’t doing its job or I’m not doing mine. But if my beliefs don’t make me a better person, at least they may be saving me from becoming a worse one. I’m reminded of an anecdote about the late Swami Prabhavanandaji, the beloved and revered founder of the Vedanta Society of Southern California. Somebody once asked him, “Swami, why are some of your women devotees such awful people?” The swami looked glum, but replied, “If they had not come here, they would all be murderesses.”
For skeptics who still grumble about the disparities in belief, the Dalai Lama might have quoted Sri Ramakrishna’s famous analogy of the mother who cooks a fish in different ways to suit her children’s different tastes and different powers of digestion. She makes fish pilau for one, pickled fish for another, fried fish for a third, fish soup for a fourth. Same fish, different preparations. To satisfy their preconceptions, God reveals himself to the Jews and Muslims as one, to the Christians as three in one, to the Hindus as 330 million, to the Buddhists as no god at all. How can this be? Well, God is very big. He’s big enough to accept all concepts about his nature—even the idea that he’s nonexistent—and can reveal himself through all of them. Why should he be limited by our little minds?
The Dalai Lama encourages mutual acceptance not only among the different religions, but also between religionists and secularists. If atheists and agnostics benefit from their beliefs, if their beliefs give their lives meaning and make them more moral and compassionate, the Dalai Lama heartily approves. Always his message is practical; always he values compassion and its results.
Christopher Hitchens has accused the Dalai Lama of dispensing bromides; but if these are bromides, they’re ones the world can use. Given a choice between enmity and amity among religions, most of us will vote for amity every time. There aren’t many saints in our increasingly shallow and secular age; but Tenzin Gyatso, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, must surely rank among them.