Religious Leaders Must Serve as Bridges to Peace
To construct a peaceful world of happiness for all, we have to begin by creating human beings with righteous hearts.
Even though human beings have long hoped for peace and happiness, repeated wars have only added to their suffering. War is hell created by humanity. Including its two great world wars, the twentieth century wracked the earth with more than 250 conflicts of varying size. In them, some 200 million precious lives and numerous artifacts of cultural heritage were lost, and both the environment and society itself were devastated. The survivors were faced with desolation and poverty and were consumed by hatred and physical suffering. There are people who are suffering the aftereffects even now. Additionally, it is said that the harm caused by the depleted uranium shells deployed in the fighting in the Middle East will continue for hundreds of years. Everyone hoped that we could make the twenty-first century a century of peace, but that hope seems in vain, as evinced by the terrorist attacks in America at the beginning of this century, in retaliation for which the U.S. and coalition forces invaded Afghanistan and Iraq. As a result, many innocent civilians have been killed. That in turn fostered more hatred, and more retaliation, and today terrorism continues to spread. Will the twenty-first century be an era of the ongoing war against terror?
Religion stands in the background of the terrorism of today, and many people interpret what is happening as a "religious war." But if it is really a "religious war," then the cause of the fighting must be found within religious doctrine. However, the cause of the terrorism is mostly retaliation based on hatred arising from conflicts over territory and resources; dissatisfaction over racial discrimination and inequities of wealth; and random bomb attacks, resistance against oppression, and conflicts over power.
Every religion teaches that life is precious and that we should not kill. We are admonished not to covet what belongs to others and to give to those in need. We are taught that we should not speak falsehoods but be honest, that husbands and wives should not commit adultery, that we should not do unto others what we would not have done to us.
Despite this, people speak of a "religious war" because what religionists teach is not put into practice. Also, that the unifying power of religionists is strong, and that it is easy for governments to make use of organized religion, is not the fault of the religions. Indeed, if everyone followed the teachings of their religions faithfully, there would be no war at all.
Japan Vowed Not to Achieve Peace by Military Force
Japan has not taken part in a war in the sixty years since the end of World War II, and thus has not sent armed troops to engage in fighting in other lands. This is because Japan is painfully aware of the atrocities committed, the lasting wretchedness, and the overall stupidity of war. From that experience, Japan vowed in its postwar constitution never to use military force in order to achieve peace. But now that sixty years have passed since the war ended, the number of Japanese who experienced the war firsthand is becoming smaller, and thus I fear that the feeling of danger concerning war is weakening.
Domestically, the increasing frequency of suicide and the murder of innocent children suggests that many people do not place a high value on human life. Of course, suicide and murder also occurred in the past, but today, partly due to wide coverage by the mass media, I feel that the number of incidents that compare with deeds of war in ferocity is on the rise. The random killing of children and other innocent people is itself a form of terrorism. In these times, what is needed is for religionists to properly proselytize their faiths. I believe that debates over differences between monotheism and polytheism should end. Rather, we must all strive to find common ground for achieving peace and solving the world's urgent problems.
I traveled to Iran in the summer of 2004, and I was able to pay a visit to Dr. Moghaddam of the institute that published the collected writings of the Iranian revolutionary leader the Ayatollah Khomeini. Dr. Moghaddam met with us most amicably, and said to us: "I was in residence at an Islamic research institute in Hamburg, Germany, for fourteen years. During that time, I studied Christianity and Buddhism, and I came to realize that they were both teaching the same message, and that there was no great difference between them. Now today, some men of religion have come to visit from a faraway land to hold discussions, and they are most welcome."
I felt just as Dr. Moghaddam did, since I could not see much basic difference between the revelations that Christ and Muhammad had received from God and the truth to which Shakyamuni Buddha had been awakened. I thought that the only real differences were rather like the different views seen from the north, south, east, and west windows of a building. Of course, the landscapes seen from windows in the four directions are all different, but if one goes outdoors, one sees that everything exists under the same sky. Further, the difference among religions is mainly that the shapes of the faces and the color of the hair and the skin of their adherents may be different, and these are differences that should be respected as indications of individuality. If we comprehensively observe the composition of the blood, the body structure, the internal organs, and the activity of the brain of all peoples, we will find very few true differences, and almost everything will be similar. In the same way, surely the feelings of right and wrong, of good and evil, and all the emotions we experience in our daily lives are also alike.
Similarly, because our hearts are moved in similar ways, the impressions we receive and the emotions we feel when experiencing artistic endeavors such as great paintings and music are much the same. The arts have a universal, lasting quality that transcends historical periods, ethnic backgrounds, and national boundaries. The religions of Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam have spread over the world, and all have long histories, giving succor to the hearts of people in many lands. All of these religions seek to comfort the mind, and they all long for world peace. For that reason, the leaders of all religions should set the example of openheartedly having contacts with other religions. But religionists tend to be very strongly attached to their own religions exclusively, and I feel that this serves as a hindrance, an obstacle to discussion and cooperation.
Religionists Should Be "Barrier-Free"
Today's Japan, learning from the advanced nations of Europe and North America, has implemented the "barrier-free" concept in public and private places to make life easier for the physically impaired. Making facilities barrier-free also makes life easier for the physically unimpaired. I believe that it would be good if religionists would incorporate the idea of "barrier-free hearts" in the same spirit. The faith of devoted religionists is as passionate as affairs of the heart. Therefore, mistakes occur if one makes decisions without cool level-headedness. Religionists certainly possess very deep faith, but that can have the drawback of restricting one's viewpoint, leading to exclusivity. That makes many people uncomfortable, which causes them to lose faith in, and intentionally avoid, religion.
In order for the general public to have confidence in a religion, it has to have the qualities of permanence and universality. Thus it follows that it must have a long history and be a religion that is widely accepted around the world. But over the course of that long history, the faith of religionists themselves may have become automatic, their passion may have cooled, and the impression they make on people may have weakened. In comparison, new religions burn with a strong fervor. In fact, sometimes the passion is so fervent that it meets a degree of resistance.
The temple at which I am serving has a history of more than thirteen hundred years and has been designated a World Heritage site. The role of the temple when it was first built was to serve as a kind of university for many monks. During its thirteen-hundred-year history, it has seen the rise and fall of fortunes, and today little remains from the time of its founding except for a few Buddhist sculptures and structures. And although its influence is faint, I am grateful to my predecessors and proud that they have inherited and handed down the Light of the Law. But such pride can sometimes be a barrier.
I was asked by one of the monks, "Don't you have any resistance to working together with people of new or different religions?" I immediately replied, "It is not that I have no resistance at all, but rather that my resistance is not so strong." And then I told him a story about Shakyamuni Buddha.
The caste system has been very powerful in India since ancient times. This was also true during the lifetime of Shakyamuni Buddha, and people from all walks of life wanted to enter the Buddhist monasteries. But those who had entered the religious life from the higher castes looked with disdain on those who came from the lower castes. In response to that, Shakyamuni said there should be no class distinction such as between those nobly born or lowly born according to what kind of family one came from. A person's baseness or nobility should be determined by his or her actions. When the Ganges, the Indus, and all other rivers flow into the ocean, the waters of all are mingled in the same body of water. In a similar way, people of various types become monks, but after entering the path, they are all simply monks. I added that in religions, too, it is not true that the old is always good and the new is always bad; what is important is what the religion does--if the behavior of the religion's leaders is exemplary, then we should study it and occasionally work together with it. But this monk's resistance was quite strong, and his expression told me that he could not accept that.
Temples in the Nara period (710-94) were not devoted to a single sect or branch, and all six sects of Buddhism brought from China were studied together: the Jojitsu, Sanron, Hosso, Kusha, Kegon, and Ritsu sects. Later, during the Heian period (794-1185), the Tendai and Shingon sects were added, and all eight of these sects were studied at all the temples. But in 1872, in response to a government edict, a system of single sects and branches was adopted. In addition, from long ago Shinto had been revered in Japan, and although from Heian times Shinto gods were introduced and worshiped in Buddhist temples in a sort of amalgamated form, the 1872 edict required the separation of Shinto and Buddhism. However, at my temple the history of the syncretization of Shinto with Buddhism continues. This is perhaps because the Japanese are a polytheistic ethnic group, but it is the openhearted acceptance of Nara-period Buddhism that I believe is again needed today in discussions among religions.
At the present time, the means of communication and transportation have vastly improved, so the social distance between the peoples of the world is shrinking. For that reason, exchange between people in such fields as politics, business, and culture have become simplified. Yet, that being said, in fact it is not easy to conduct exchange with people in countries with different political ideologies or those with which we are in disagreement or conflict, no matter how close they may be geographically. Among them, if there is a country with which we need to interact directly on an economic level, it has become easier to do so. But for friendly exchange between religions, much more time and effort is required. As I noted earlier, this is because religionists have a deep faith in their own religion, which causes them to tend to become exclusivistic. That serves as a kind of barrier of the heart and mind. However, I believe that a true faith should call forth the spirit of tolerance, benevolence, and compassion. Before religious leaders preach to others about peace, they should take the initiative and exhibit friendly exchange among themselves. Indeed, it is only if religious leaders respect each other's position, thought, and faith that peace will be possible.
Awakening the Drive for Character
It seems that there are three requirements for explaining the functioning of the human brain.
First, there are the physiological drives that we share with all living things. These include the need for nutrients and rest, as well as the urge to propagate. These are at minimum the three most fundamental drives of all living things. Therefore, animals have no choice but to live by killing other living things for food.
Second, there are social wants to help us live within society with a central focus on the self. We want our position to be accepted. For that reason, we tend to exclude those who oppose what we advocate. This drive is also found among the apes and higher animals, but it is the human mind that invented weapons for the purpose of intensely waging war. However, in human hunting communities there was not much fighting among people, but when agricultural communities developed, people started to fight so as to procure ownership of land.
Third, there is the drive for character development through which we want to demonstrate our worth as human beings, to become better individuals, and to aim to attain the ideal of human achievement. Here, through education and religion, the spirit of tolerance, benevolence, and compassion are awakened. By means of this third drive, it becomes possible for us to sacrifice our lives for others.
Religionists are supposed to be living according to this drive for good character, but in reality the second drive, for social wants, seems to manifest itself more strongly.
In Buddhism we have the expression "All living things possess the buddha-nature." This means that every human being already possesses the buddha-nature and has a built-in spirit of tolerance, benevolence, and compassion. This is the third drive, but worldly desires centered on the self, the second drive, interfere with the expression of the buddha-nature. What is necessary in such a case is to control the self-centered lust for worldly desires and to resurrect the buddha-nature that allows us to live for others. Even the late Ayatollah Khomeini affirmed: "Self-centered lust is the root of various evils." I believe that it is important for everyone to bring forth a beautiful spirit, nurture it, and polish it. It is for this that religious education is so important.
Making an analogy with a tree, religion is the roots; politics, economic resources, and culture are the trunk, branches, and leaves. If the roots become rotten, the tree will die; if the roots are healthy, spreading deep and far into the ground, it will grow into a magnificent tree that stretches its branches wide. One's heart cannot be seen with the eyes, but it shows itself through one's words and deeds. Thus, if religion or the heart is "out of order," then politics, the economy, and culture will also fall into disorder. Whether for better or for worse, all of the world's problems stem from the human heart. Therefore, in order to construct a world of peace and happiness for everyone, we will have to begin by creating human beings with righteous hearts. And we can do this only through the cooperation of religionists and educators. It cannot be done overnight or even in a day, but it is the role of religionists to see that, over time, this is achieved through collective perseverance.
What is needed by people in the world today in order to help solve our common concerns and problems is to discuss things and share our wisdom, and to endeavor to manifest solutions in a concrete fashion. And while we are earnestly discussing our common objectives, we will go beyond religion and open our hearts to one another. Whether the building of lasting peace is possible or not is up to human beings. This is the great mission with which religionists have been entrusted, so let us transcend the barriers of religion and work together to bring about that peace.
Ven. Eiin Yasuda is chief abbot of the temple Yakushiji in Nara and chief priest of the Hosso sect of Japanese Buddhism. At present, he also serves as the managing director of the Japanese Committee of the World Conference of Religions for Peace. He has written several books on Buddhism and lectures widely on issues of religion and peace.
This article was originally published in the July-September 2006 issue of Dharma World.
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