Gotama Buddha and Religious Pluralism

Buddhism currently enjoys the reputation of being one of the leading voices in a chorus that sings the praises of religious tolerance and perhaps even of pluralism. It is open to question, however, whether this reputation is deserved. The purpose of the present article is to examine whether the teachings of classical Buddhism have a contribution to make to the jubilation over religious pluralism that has become fashionable in some quarters in recent years. It is hoped that this examination might shed some light both on some of the implications of religious pluralism and on the spirit of the teachings of classical Buddhism. A task preliminary to dealing with this question is to clarify what is meant by religious pluralism. For the purpose of this discussion, let us take “pluralism” to signify not the mere acknowledgment that there is variety but the celebration of this variety. Whereas tolerance might be described as the attitude of being resigned to the fact that a variety exists, pluralism will be taken to mean the attitude that variety is healthy and therefore something to be desired. And religious pluralism, of course, will be taken as the attitude that it is salubrious to have a variety of religions. Such an attitude might be founded, for example, on an analogy with biology. The health of each living organism, it could be argued, is enhanced by the general health of the organism’s wider environment, and the health of this wider environment is in turn enhanced by the rich variety of species of organisms living therein. The value of variety, if one follows this biological analogy, is not merely aesthetic, not merely a pleasant respite from the monotony of too much uniformity; rather, variety is what makes life of any kind possible. Similarly, it could be argued by a devoted religious pluralist, the variety of religious beliefs and practices and experiences and modes of expression is vital to human survival and self-understanding. And just as the health of an individual organism, such as a cow, might actually be enhanced by the presence of other apparently annoying organisms, such as gadflies and mosquitoes, the health and perhaps even the very survival of any one religious tradition might actually be enhanced by the presence of other apparently antagonistic traditions, or by the presence of heresies within the same tradition..
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