Same rule, different Gods: what it means to live in harmony

By Katie Stone 

Reading time: 12 minutes 

Few spiritual leaders are as respected as the 14th Dalai Lama. Widely considered ‘the living Buddha’, this Tibetan monk is the ultimate model of loving-kindness.

But there was a time when the young Tenzin Gyatso believed that his own religion - Buddhism - was the best religion in the world. He explains: “I thought that there simply could not be any other faith tradition that could rival the depth, sophistication, and inspirational power of Buddhism.”

Now aged 85, and having embraced religions from all over the world, the Dalai Lama no longer believes there is any that could be called the ‘best’. Rather, he believes that all religions are connected by a single common thread: compassion.

By Katie Stone 

Reading time: 12 minutes 

Few spiritual leaders are as respected as the 14th Dalai Lama. Widely considered ‘the living Buddha’, this Tibetan monk is the ultimate model of loving-kindness.

But there was a time when the young Tenzin Gyatso believed that his own religion – Buddhism – was the best religion in the world. He explains: “I thought that there simply could not be any other faith tradition that could rival the depth, sophistication, and inspirational power of Buddhism.”

Now aged 85, and having embraced religions from all over the world, the Dalai Lama no longer believes there is any that could be called the ‘best’. Rather, he believes that all religions are connected by a single common thread: compassion.

And he wasn’t the first to say it.

All religions are one

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

This simple plea – known as the Golden Rule – was quoted by Jesus of Nazareth (Matthew 7:12; see also Luke 6:31) during his Sermon on the Mount. It’s described as the second great commandment and a central tenet of Christianity. It’s also a maxim repeated in nearly every religion in the world.

From Buddhism to Islam, Judaism to Zoroastrianism, the common thread connecting every set of beliefs is a variation of those words. It appears in the Mahābhārata, the ancient epic of India, when the sage Brihaspati tells the king Yudhishthira: “One should never do something to others that one would regard as an injury to one’s own self. In brief, this is dharma. Anything else is succumbing to desire.”

A well-known Torah verse in Judaism urges: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your kinsfolk. Love your neighbour as yourself: I am the LORD.” (Leviticus 19:18)

In Islam, Muhammad taught: “As you would have people do to you, do to them; and what you dislike to be done to you, don’t do to them.” (Kitab al-Kafi, vol. 2, p. 146)

The Great Buddha Siddhartha Gautama said: “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.”(Udanavarga 5:18)

In Confusicsm, the disciple Zigong asked his master: “Is there any one word that could guide a person throughout life?” The Master replied: “How about ‘shu’ [reciprocity]: never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.” (Confucius, Analects XV.24)

Many more faiths, both major and minor, carry this sentiment. With this in mind, one could assume that religion – no matter which one someone identifies with – seeks to establish peace and harmony throughout the world.

How is it that the opposite is true?

Religion, conflict, and war

Religion is one of the most powerful motivators of conflict, corruption, and bloodshed. History is rife with horrific acts motivated by religious fervour, and none of these can ever be condoned.

Interestingly, the book Encyclopedia of Wars claims that of the world’s 1763 wars, only 123 have been classified as stemming from a religious cause. If this is accurate, religion would account for fewer than seven percent of all wars and less than two percent of all people killed in warfare. Compare that to the one to three million people who died in the Crusades, and the nearly 35 million soldiers and civilians who were killed in World War 1 alone.

Conflict, indeed, is a cause of war. But not all conflict is caused by religion. After all, 84% of the global population – billions and billions of people – identify with some form of religion. Those who commit acts of violence in the name of God are, essentially, a minority.

It could be argued that all acts of mass murder and war are fought in the name of a higher power or idea. But that isn’t necessarily religion. Those who truly subscribe to their beliefs – whatever form those beliefs may be – are subscribing to the Golden Rule: to love and care for one another as they would wish to be loved and cared for themselves. In every sense, religion should be a motivator for harmony, meaningfulness, and unity.

And, whether we personally are faithful or not, we’re surrounded by it.

How many of us are religious?

In this modern age, it would be easy to assume that religious beliefs could compete with science. On the contrary, research suggests that the world is becoming more religious than ever.

Globally, at least eight out of 10 people identify with a religious group. A comprehensive demographic study including more than 230 countries estimates that there are 580 billion people around the world who identify as religious.

The study also indicates that Christians are by far the largest religious group, with 2.3 billion followers – a whopping 31.2% of the total world population. Muslims make up 1.8 billion (24.1%), Hindus 1.1 billion (15.1%), and Buddhists 500 million, or 6.9%. Behind these groups are more than 400 million people (6%) who identify with various traditional religions: African, Chinese, Native American, and Australian aboriginal.

Around 58 million are followers of the world’s smaller religions, such as the Baha’i faith, Jainism, Sikhism, Shintoism, Taoism, Wicca, and Zoroastrianism.

The fastest-growing religion in the world is Islam. In fact, the Muslim population is forecast to grow by 70% between 2015 and 2060: faster than the growth rate of the world’s population, which is 32%. It’s believed Islam will overtake Christianity by around 2050.

All these billions of people are worshipping different gods, in different places, and in different ways. All are practising the same philosophy: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Must we all agree with one another in order to live in harmony?

Religion vs spirituality: what’s the difference?

“Religion is belief in someone else’s experience. Spirituality is having your own experience. Atheism is no experience, only measurement.” – Deepak Chopra

Spirituality and religion are often referred to as one and the same. But while all religions have a spiritual dimension, it’s also possible to be ‘spiritual’ or live a spiritual life without identifying with a faith.

‘Religion’ is defined as a specific set of organised beliefs and practices shared by a community or group. It’s a trust in a higher power, which in turn can influence how people live and the choices they make.

At the core of any religion is a set of rituals and teachings that call on some element of spirituality and connection, whether through worship, prayer, or any number of other such practices. These practices are generally a formalized part of everyday life, and individuals who are religious identify themselves as belonging to that faith or subscribing to a particular set of beliefs.

Spirituality is much more subjective. It comprises a broader sense of connection to the world, nature, and the universe. There may also be an acknowledgement of a higher power, but it is less rigid than organised religion. Rather, it emphasizes finding a sense of peace and purpose. Spirituality can be practised as a group or alone, and may also involve prayer, along with rituals such as meditation, yoga, and dance.

 

Those who describe themselves as spiritual are generally focused on developing beliefs around the meaning of life and their connection with others.

Ultimately, there are many paths to enlightenment. What someone believes in, matters less than the person who holds that belief.

How to respect others’ faith without doubting their beliefs

As he explains in his book Toward a True Kinship of Faiths: How the World’s Religions Can Come Together, the Dalai Lama’s ideas about Buddhism being the ‘best’ religion changed after he met Father Thomas Merton. Merton was an American Trappist monk, a writer, and theologian devoted to learning about other religious disciplines – including Buddhism. Yet, he remained true to his Christian monastic commitments.

Having just fled Tibet and gone into exile in India, the Dalai Lama realised that he could follow the same principle. He could explore and accept non-Buddhist religious practices and beliefs, and still be a devout Buddhist.

Respect for other religions isn’t just about recognising them and being sensitive to what their beliefs entail. It also means recognising that other believers are just as smart and competent as yourself, and that their beliefs are just as valid as your own.

Whatever someone believes in, it is true and meaningful to them. Too often, people dismiss others’ beliefs as wrong – simply because it is not what they believe themselves. There are some who conclude that the theological claims of certain religions are wrong, or that their own beliefs are superior. Worse still, many of today’s non-believers believe that they are making a stand against ‘false’ beliefs. They argue that religion is immoral, illogical, or downright wrong.

And that’s where the conflict starts.

Indeed, the tenets of some religions are difficult for non-believers to understand. But followers of those religions would think the same of whatever creed you yourself follow – or don’t follow.

What gives anyone the wisdom – or the right – to decide who is right or wrong?

Respecting another belief means allowing it to be a valid contender for the truth until you have reason to think otherwise. Whether in church, in the home, or in civil society, each of us is entitled to be a believer. But we don’t have to agree on everything to live in harmony. We can still live, laugh, and love alongside those who believe in different things.

He aha te mea nui o te ao: What is the most important thing in the world?
He tangata, he tangata, he tangata: It is the people, it is the people, it is the people
– Maori proverb

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