With today's rapid pace of technological advancement, the world is getting more and more connected. Using the Internet, we can easily search what's happening out there and who's doing what. We are widely exposed to diversity. This is not limited to the cyber world. Especially living in a big city like New York, whether we like it or not, we encounter people from various cultural, social and religious backgrounds on a daily basis; in our work place, at a store, at a meeting, or on the street. Throughout human history, and today we see how mistrust and misunderstanding, especially among people of different faiths can destroy individual, society and country. So there is an urgent need for people of faith to work together to overcome mistrust and misunderstanding and build a peaceful co-existence. Therefore interfaith harmony is not an option but a necessity in a world of diversity.
The Buddhist approach to religious diversity is very clear: there are different paths to Truth. As such, other faiths are not wrong; they are simply different. But, as human beings, we tend to regard what is different as wrong.
Sotaesan, the founding master of Won Buddhism, has a unique story that shows why Won Buddhism takes an active role in interfaith dialogue and cooperation. After years of searching for truth, Sotaesan reached enlightenment in 1916. When I read his life story for the first time, I was a little skeptical about his enlightenment, because I am reluctant to believe those who claim to be enlightened. But the following story was convincing enough to catch my attention. After his enlightenment, Sotaesan got some of the basic scriptures of Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity, and some other teachings from eastern religions. After reading them he said: "ancient sages had known what I have come to know", which means that his awakened mind allowed him to see what other enlightened masters had already experienced. It made perfect sense to me that Sotaesan confirmed his awakening by understanding other spiritual teachings. Though they used different words to express their awakening according to different times and places, the ultimate reality they experienced was one. From this point of view, Sotaesan guided his students to be respectful and open minded to other religious traditions.
People often ask me if they need to be a Buddhist to practice meditation and Buddha dharma. I tell them, "No, it's not necessary.' Actually, I'm not a big fan of using labels. Once we put a name on something, it is easily stereotyped and we start to draw a line between what is and what is not; between what is right and what is not right. We create a box and start to think that we have to be one way or the other.
I call myself a Buddhist for the sake of convenience. Indeed, I am a Buddhist, more specifically a Won Buddhist. But when I really reflect on this, I see labeling myself is not always helpful. It can become another egocentric idea that i cling to. I need to remind myself I don't practice dharma to become a Buddhist, but that maybe it's the other way around; I practice dharma not to become a Buddhist. More precisely speaking, a true Buddhist is not a Buddhist, meaning that we don't cling to the idea of being a 'Buddhist'. A true Buddhist has no fixed name as a Buddhist realizing that everything is conditioned, changing and momentary. We practice dharma to remove all the labels that we hold on to: the idea of who I am, what I can do, or how the world is supposed to be. When we really let go of such labels, we can live life to the fullest.
Dogen, a Japanese Zen master wrote:
To study the Buddha way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away. No trace of realization remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly.
From the Buddhist point of view, interfaith harmony can be realized by understanding who we really are, and how everything is interconnected with one another. With this understanding, we can see what's beyond our different names and forms. Once we see this interconnectedness, then mutual understanding and respect will naturally arise, just as a shadow follows us.
Below is Pope Francis' video on inter-religious dialogue;
World Interfaith Harmony Week came about as a result of a UN resolution proposed in 2010. This UN resolution urges all the member states to support the message of interfaith harmony and goodwill in the world's churches, mosques, synagogues, temples and other places of worship during the first week of February every year. Since 2011, the first week of February has been observed and celebrated as the World Interfaith Harmony Week.