The Spirit Of Tolerance Ingrained In Buddhism

Tolerance means sympathetic understanding

Tolerance means the ability to live with others who hold different views, and perhaps follow different ways of life that arise from such views; without interfering with them or attempting to force one’s own ideas and ways on them. Just as a living organism tolerates and adapts itself to a certain degree of variation in its environment, or to the intrusion of other organisms, so in society man has to learn to tolerate others whose opinions and habits are not the same as his own, and may even be distasteful to him. In essence it is the practice of non interference. To put it simply it is a matter of “live and let live”.

Tolerance can vary from factor to factor such as race, religion, colour and caste as well as smell, food and dress. It has been said that “one man’s meat is another man’s poison”. In Latin, “to tolerate” means “to bear”. In English it means, “to allow or permit negatively by not preventing” or simply tolerance means “the ability to put up with”. Accordingly, religious tolerance amounts to allowing the existence of beliefs, practices or habits differing from one’s own or sympathetic understanding of other’s beliefs. One of the crucial tests of a civilized man is to be able to live in amity with those whose religions, customs and total world view are different from his own. In other words, it’s the degree of one’s ability to “agree to disagree”.

The Buddhist concept of tolerance

The noble concept of Buddhist tolerance began with the Buddha himself. A striking instance is found in the Siha Sutta of the Anguttara Nikaya where General Siha a lay adherent of the Niganthas (Jainas) became a convert to Buddha Dhamma and in his enthusiasm wanted to take refuge in the Triple Gem then and there. But the Buddha cautioned him to consider the new doctrine carefully before committing himself; because its tenets were strange to him. He also advised General Siha not to withdraw his support from the “Naked Ascetics” completely, but to continue providing them with alms. In fact from the time of the Buddha, Buddhism made no charismatic claim to be the sole creed or the way of life for humanity. True Buddhist tolerance as practiced by the Buddha himself would allow others to hold and follow whatever beliefs they choose, so long as they are incapable of realizing any higher truth. So much so that the Buddha had admonished his disciples not to get angry if anyone should speak against the Buddha or his Doctrine. Therefore, it is no exaggeration to state that the hallmark of Buddhism has always been tolerance as seen from beginning to end.

It is noteworthy that, when western thinkers first became acquainted with Buddhism one of the features which impressed them most was its tolerance. As an example of this they would quote the Asokan edicts wherein the Emperor urges that all religious sectarians should be accorded respect in so far as their teachings were worthy of respect and that they should be allowed to hold their views and express them without restraint. Buddhist tolerance is rooted in the fact that there is no compulsion whatsoever to accept its teachings. Buddhism presents the truths of existence and the remedy for suffering, offering them to us for consideration. It then leaves the choice to the individual to either accept what it teaches or reject it. The Buddha advised his followers to respect and honour whatever was worthy of respect in other systems while rejecting that which was harmful and unworthy. In all probability, it was because there was such a thing as wrong belief that he had to place “Right Belief” at the head of the Noble Eightfold Path.

It is widely accepted that Buddhism is an extremely tolerant religion and during the two and a half millennia of its historical existence it has exhibited tolerance unparalleled in any other creed. Buddhist tolerance is a phenomenon securely enshrined in the principle of freedom of thought. The principle of freedom of thought was not only accepted by the Buddha but also actively protected through out the forty five years of his earthly ministry. In the Kalama Sutta which can be described as “Humanity’s Charter of Freedom” he advised the Kalamas whose minds had been confused by the dogmatic assertions and exclusive claims of the sectarian teachers of that period; not to go by hearsay, nor to rely on tradition, nor even on inference, nor to defer out of respect to the opinions of the professionally religious. He urged them to submit all teachings to the test of personal experience and to reject those which were condemned by the wise and which would when followed and put in practice conduce to loss and suffering.

The greatest historical achievement of Buddhism is that the propagation of the Dhamma was never done forcibly and violently as in other religious. It was always done peacefully, serenely and non aggressively. Buddhism was for centuries in possession of almost unlimited political influence, but not once did it invoke the help of state authority in dealing with its enemies. Even in lands where an ardently Buddhist monarch ruled over a devout people, the sole armour of a warrior of the Dhamma was reason and his only weapon persuasion, as he endeavored with “winning words to conquer willing hearts”. In Buddhism there is no persecution mania nor proselytization mania. Tolerance is firmly embedded in Buddhism via peaceful co-existence and democratic methodology. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru has said that; “if any question has to be considered, it has to be done peacefully and democratically in the way taught by the Buddha”. Tolerance emanates from the fact that embracing Buddhism is purely voluntary; there is no compulsion whatever. Venerable Dr. Walpola Rahula Thero has said that; “the teaching of the Buddha is qualified as “Ehi Passiko”, which means inviting you to come and see but not to come and believe”.

Loving kindness and compassion are the antidotes for intolerance

The Buddha’s message of loving kindness and compassion was universal. He taught his followers to show the same tolerance, forbearance and brotherly love to all men without distinction, and an unswerving kindness towards the members of the animal kingdom. The Buddha sowed tolerance in full measure through every word of his teachings and reaped ultra tolerance in multiple measure. Buddhism contains an excellent code of morals which evokes loving kindness and compassion as well as self restraint and discipline capable of invoking tolerance enshrined in the “panchasila” or the five precepts, the “Brahmavihara” or the four sublime states, the “dasa paramita” or the ten transcendal virtues and the “arya ashtangika marga” or the Noble Eightfold Path. The Buddha has said that any person who observes the five precepts becomes a virtuous person or a person of high morality. Practicing morality and good ethical behavior can lead us to a calm and contented sublime state of mind.

Man is a mysterious being with inconceivable potentialities. Latent in him are both saintly characteristics and animal tendencies. Buddhism teaches those who desire to remove the latent vices and cultivate the dormant virtues to practice the Brahmavihara or four sublime states; also referred to as modes of sublime conduct or divine abodes. These virtues would invariably elevate man. They make one divine in this life itself. They can make one tranquil, serene and tolerant. The four sublime states are; Metta or loving kindness, Karuna or compassion, mudita or appreciative joy and Upekkha or equanimity. The most powerful and destructive vice in man is anger. The sweet virtue that subdues this evil force and sublimes man is Metta or loving kindness. The Buddha has admonished that anger can only be conquered by love; as reflected in verse 5 of the Dhammapada as follows.

“Nahi Verena Verani – sammantidha kudachanam;

Averenacha sammanti – esa dhammo sanatanno”.

This means; “hatreds never cease through hatreds in this world. Through love alone they cease. This is an eternal law”. Cruelty is another vice that is responsible for many horrors and atrocities prevalent in the world. Compassion or Karuna is the obvious antidote. Karuna teaches one to be fully compassionate; in other words just to forget and forgive. The Buddha has admonished that hatred can only be appeased by not harboring hatred in verse 4 of the Dhammapada as follows.

“Akkochchi mam avadhi mam – agini mam ahasi me;

Yetam na upanayhanti – veram tesu pasammati”.

This means; “he abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me. In those who do not harbour such thoughts, hatred is appeased”.

Jealousy is another horrible vice that poisons one’s system and leads to unhealthy rivalries and dangerous consequences. The most effective remedy for this evil is the practice of appreciative joy or Mudita. Attachment to the pleasurable and aversion to the non pleasurable are two universal characteristics that disturbs the mental equipoise of man. They can be eliminated by developing equanimity or upekkha. The most destructive forces that emanate in the human mind are anger, hatred and cruelty. The root causes of these evils are ignorance and lack of tolerance.

Buddhism whilst stifling the evil forces of ignorance, lust and hatred advances extreme tolerance which precludes any possibility of violence being used even for the advancement of its own tenets. Century after century in almost all Buddhist countries across Asia the strength which motivated and powered the messenger of the Dharma is not the restless and tumultuous energy of hate but the placid and serene power of loving kindness, compassion, appreciative joy and equanimity coupled with extreme tolerance or intense sympathetic understanding.

(By Desamanya K.H.J. Wijayadasa, former Secretary to the President)

(Courtesy of The Sunday Island)



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