Wesak is considered as the most important day of the year for all who follow the Buddha Dhamma, because it is accepted as the day of birth, enlightenment and passing away of the Buddha. Since the Universal Truth explained by the Buddha, and the path He showed us to escape from our suffering, has been converted to a religion, it was most appropriate for the Buddhist and Pali University to have organized an International Conference for Religious Tolerance and Harmony, which was held on April 22 and 23, 2015.
The keynote address was by Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy, the President Emeritus of Interfaith Alliance, the leading non-partisan advocacy organization aimed at protecting religious freedom. It was very interesting to listen to the views of a Senior Pastor of Northminister Baptist Church from the other end of the world, which made us realize that whatever the geographical location, whatever the faith and belief, whatever the cultural background, that we as human beings share the same thoughts, same feelings and same needs and desires. He reminded us of the importance of "walking together" towards a peaceful, happier and a better world. "Walking together means journeying alongside each other with respect for each other, becoming comfortable with each other after getting to know each other, and learning from each other. Walking together involves commitment to staying on a shared journey even when it is difficult, moving faithfully toward a shared goal, knowing that the journey itself is as important as the arrival and that there will be no arrival without a shared journey."
Dr. Gaddy had a message for the people who quote scriptures out of context, their own or of other religions. "No one text of scripture can represent the truth to be found in an entire book of texts. Taking specific scriptural texts out of their historical and literary context and reading them in isolation from the over-arching truth found in the whole of the scriptures allows prejudiced and mean-spirited people to turn the scriptures of our religions into weapons with which we attack each other rather than sources of truth that beget love that brings us together."
When we have forgotten, or refuse to accept, the teachings of our own religious leaders, sometimes, we need an outside force to push us back into rational thinking, to accept reality. It happened in 1881, with the publication of 'The Buddhist Catechism' by Col. Henry Steel Olcott from Orange, New Jersey.
Among the others who presented their views were senior members of clergy of different faiths, young academics, not only from Sri Lanka, but also from India, Maldives, Myanmar, Korea, Netherlands and USA. There was a Catholic priest who was a Buddhist scholar, who had studied Buddhist philosophy for his doctorate, a lady who was born a Muslim but had adopted Buddhism, and a Buddhist monk who expressed his views in Tamil. There were also trilingual muslim delegates, who could bridge the language gap in our country.
It was a great achievement by the Vice Chancellor of the university, Ven. Prof. Gallelle Sumanasiri thero to have been able to organize this conference, and having being able to get the total support and the cooperation of the entire university, of the academic and non-academic staff and the students and the student union. This is the only university in our country with a department of religious studies for the study of all religions, together with other languages, not only Pali, but Tamil, Hindi, Chinese and English.
If we are to live in harmony with people of other faiths, it is necessary to learn about these faiths, their beliefs and practices, for it is only then that we could clear any misunderstandings, prejudices and fears that have been pushed down our throats by extremists factions. Democracy could divide people, politics could divide people, but God and religions should never be used to divide people.
Ven. Prof. Sumanasiri thero mentioned that Buddha was not born a Buddhist, Christ was not born a Christian, Mohammad was not born a Muslim, and that they all preached to non-Buddhist, non-Christians and non-Muslims. All religious leaders preached love, kindness and compassion. None of them preached hatred, none of them intended their teachings to create conflict among mankind.
The Five Precepts are simple practices that can be followed in everyday life by anybody anywhere. The Panchashila can be discussed, adapted and practiced even by those who have no adherence to either Buddhism or even by those who profess atheism. India adapted the Panchasheel Treaty in 1954, as the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence.
At a gathering of writers recently, the meeting began with the reciting of the Five Precepts. There were protests by open minded writers who were Buddhists, that it was wrong to make only a Buddhist religious observance, when there were writers of Hindu, Muslim and Christian faiths also present. This is a mindset we have to get out of, that any function in this country should begin with Pansil. As much as we have to tolerate other religions, we also should not expect the other faiths to tolerate such actions by the majority. Buddha Dhamma, and even Buddhism existed for over 2400 years without a flag, and a need for a flag was created because we wanted to imitate and ape the west, just as we created a national anthem just because the British sang God Save the King and the Indians began to sing Jana Gana Mana.
The Islamic views on religious tolerance and acceptance of the right for others to believe and practice other religions was presented by several Islamic scholars, at the conference and it was very heartening to be assured by them of their offer to work together towards peace and harmony in this country.
One of the papers presented was about Spirituality as a healing process, that it is an inseparable bond with every religion. In the field of counseling and psychotherapy spirituality has been recognized as a successful treatment process. Practicing meditation of loving kindness helps to counteract hatred and its related defilements, which leads to compassion. A question was raised how the counsellor could advise Mettabhavana to members of the armed forces. There was a response, that if everyone was guided by love, by loving kindness and could empathize with everyone, there would not be a need for an armed force in the country.
There was a research study to identify the potentials to build up the inter-religious integrity through religious interpretation on social responsibility, with special reference to the main four religions of Sri Lanka: Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and Islam.
Another delegate quoted from Prof. K. N. Jayatilleke, "Not a drop of blood has been shed throughout the ages in the propagation and dissemination of Buddhism in the many lands to which it spread; religious wars either between the schools of Buddhism or against other religions have been unheard of."
At the final session, it was also brought to the attention of the delegates, that in addition to all the papers presented and the formal discussions, there were more informal discussions and sharing of views among the delegates, outside the conference hall, which too were of much significance, because the close interaction, understanding and the respect shown to the views of others were all a major contribution for all of us to "walk together".
During the lunch break, the delegates could serve themselves, and enjoy all the different dishes laid out, or select one dish only, or not accept any of them. They had the freedom of choice, and no one forced them to partake of the meal, and no one looked down on the others for consuming a different food than what they preferred. Once Ven. Prof. Sumanasiri said that was the kind of freedom we need even with our religious faiths.
There was a reference to a religion as a rope which tethered man to a post, like a cow tied to a tree, limiting his movements and preventing him from mingling with others. A comment was received that if the rope is removed the cow could run onto the rail track. Religions could be ropes, even Buddhism, but Buddha Dhamma has never been a rope, because the Dhamma allowed man to roam freely in search of the truth and his salvation, to be Ehipassika, to seek and see the truth by himself.
It is for this reason that the Buddhist University was an ideal center for a conference on Religious Tolerance and Harmony. As the majority religious faith in this country, the followers of Buddha Dhamma, just as they have a right to safeguard their faith, they also have their duties, responsibilities and obligations towards the others who live in this country. Those of other faiths too have their rights and the freedom to practice what they believe, but they also have their obligations, and responsibilities towards the others.
Thus on the day we celebrate Wesak in our country, and all over the world, let us listen to the words of the Buddha, on Loving Kindness towards all life on earth. Let us look at our fellow human beings, as our own family, without trying to look at them as outsiders, without labelling them by their race, or their faith, or their caste.