A Bit More On Religions
Q: I find comfort and truth in what I've learned about Buddhism, but there are so many schools and views! Where does all this competition come from, especially between Buddhists and non-Buddhists? I work with a Bible college student, a devout Pentecostal Christian who really has a problem with my faith. How does one deal with all these people who see fit to challenge my happiness in faith with their derision, which is just a reflection of their own insecurity? And why am I so insecure as to whether or not I'm a good Buddhist, even though I try to make it shine in every smile, every time I give up my seat, every time I give a homeless man a dollar or a pack of sunflower seeds? People think if you're not a strict practicing monk, you're not a good Buddhist. And they never see this problem with themselves. It all troubles me very much, even though I know it's my own share of the same problem. What is the right way of thought and behavior in this regard?
A: It's not so surprising that humans, being who they are, make all sorts of distinctions, even when it comes to the teachings and practices associated with the Buddha-Dharma. The fact that there are so many approaches to this ultimate Truth is a distinct advantage for us; there are enough paths to this Truth to accommodate those of any capacity, inclination or situation. The unfortunate part, as you point out, is that so many people are so attached to their particular path that they do not see the overall picture and thus create disagreements, arguments and so on.
But I think we must remember that people choose a particular path because they need that path to get beyond the delusions that are causing them suffering in their own lives. Those delusions do not disappear simply because one begins to follow a particular path, and so there still exists the potential for disagreements to occur and competitiveness to rear its ugly head. Religions are like hospitals: they're there for people who are not well to get well. Some recover quickly, others recover slowly, but all are recovering nevertheless. What Buddhist texts and teachers are pointing to is the ideal; the reality is that we have not fully realized the ideal, and so we are subject to things like misinterpretation, argumentativeness and competitiveness.
The competition and insecurity you see comes from our basic ignorance of Truth, an ignorance which, as the Buddha pointed out, comes from craving based on the deluded sense of the discrete self. This being the case, our task is to remember that we are surrounded by suffering beings whose suffering manifests itself in unpleasant behavior toward us and others. We also need to remember that such behavior directed toward us is the result of our own accumulated karma, and that we can actually be glad because it also represents the end of that particular karmic cycle.
There will always be those whose views do not agree with ours concerning the spiritual path we have chosen to follow. But we must remember that the very path we chose calls upon us to utilize compassion, wisdom and skillful means to deal with such folks. I know that some Pentecostal Christians can be particularly difficult to deal with at times, but this can also be an opportunity for us to practice great forbearance, patience and compassion.
My view of religions is that they are all looking at the same ultimate reality, but express it in differing ways. I believe that many of the followers of some of the more "fundamentalist" faiths actually need that straightforward approach because they may not be ready to undertake a path like Buddhism which requires that we work hard to save ourselves instead of having some external agent do it for us.
It is good that you recognize that those who challenge and deride your faith are doing so because of their insecurities. This recognition constitutes wisdom, which should be followed up by a compassionate attitude toward them. If you can see that these people have insecurities (which are, at rock bottom, manifestations of fearfulness), then you should extend boundless compassion to them. Use their unkind words and actions as golden opportunities for you to extend compassion to suffering sentient beings. Don't take what they say personally because ultimately, what person exists to take their criticisms personally anyway?
I don't think there's anything wrong with making distinctions as long as we don't become attached to them, because attachment to distinctions is what creates the ego-mind. But we should also remember, as is stated in the Heart Sutra, that emptiness is also form. If we didn't have the capacity to make distinctions, we might mistake Clorox for Corn Flakes, and then where would we be? The trick is not to remain stuck on distinctions, to recognize that, as the old saying goes, that Samsara IS Nirvana.
Why do you have insecurities? Because you're human. But at least you're a human who has the ability to recognize that you have insecurities and to do something about them. There's no need to hold yourself up to any standard; just follow the Buddha-Dharma as best you can, learn from your mistakes, and keep going. Keep giving up your seat, keep helping the homeless, keep helping yourself as well as others. Don't become what I call the "hole in the doughnut." Remember that you are a sentient being too, and that the same kind of compassion and loving-kindness that you give to others must also be extended to yourself.
We've taken on a very tough job: helping all sentient beings to attain liberation. We signed on for this, and we must realize that the job takes us through myriads of suffering beings, some very nasty territory, what Johnny Cash once described as, "The mud and the blood and the beer." Nobody said our path would be simple, but that's where all the suffering is so we must do our best. As long as we are aware that there is suffering, then we know where we need to go in order to fix it.
Good Buddhist, bad Buddhist, layperson or monk, what's the difference? The key question is, what are you doing with your life? The strictly practicing monk who's just going through the motions is doing far less good than the layperson who is deeply concerned.