Submission from the Buddhist Society
The Buddhist Society, a registered charity founded
in 1924, is a layman's organisation under the patronage of HH
the Dalai Lama with close links to all the major traditions and
various schools of Buddhism. It is one of the oldest Buddhist
organisations in the West, and is chartered to educate and make
known the core principles of Buddhism without partiality. Its
membership and classes, reflect this diversity, with all three
major traditions, found across Asia, having schools within the
society. There is complete tolerance in this diversity.
The society does not normally get involved in
political issues, as it follows the axiom that such secular matters
are quite rightly outside the province of religious bodies. However
the Buddhist perspective on these matters is to respond when asked
to, particularly as the matter is presented as having a religious
dimension, and it is happily contributed in the hope that its
will be helpful in ultimately lessening the suffering amongst
individuals in the world, a core part of Buddhist practise. There
is no prescriptive or official Buddhist view and the writer of
this has been invited to present a typical personal Buddhist response
to this sort of issue, which is possibly likely to be shared by
many long-term practitioners of the Buddhist path.
The writer is not acquainted with the scope
of all the issues involved and the general remit of the select
committee, and the following is offered merely as a brief, initial
response to proposed legislation, covering "religious"
The gentle psychology of the Buddhist viewpoint
is presented, in the hope that areas of this approach may be useful
in achieving a suitable cross section of viewpoint. Buddhism operates
as an orthopraxis rather than as an orthodoxy in its dynamic,
and therefore avoids dogmatic viewpoints.
A BUDDHIST PERSPECTIVE: DEFINITIONS OF "RELIGION"
1. There is a strong view amongst many around
the world that a completely new paradigm is needed to reflect
the religious nature of mankind, in a world where religion (or
supposed "religious" activity) has often been the cause
of suffering and not the solution. Recent International symposiums
of world leaders, such as the successive Gorbachev State of the
World Forums held in the 1990s in the US, have sought to try to
visualise new paradigms and models for mankind for the global
future. These included a strong religious component, attempting
to think in fresh new ways about religious activity and its problems
when collectivised and institutionalised.
2. Narrow and divisive definitions currently
used as a yardstick, increasing divisiveness.
2.1 At present all categorisation, relies
on definitions of religion originating and formulated from the
world-views of the orthodoxies of the three Semitic religions
which have a common and shared perspective and ancestry in the
2.2 This shared tradition and origin, in
its predominant competitive orthodox practise, has each of the
traditions (and sects and divisions within them) claiming a superior
revelation, with some elements of the faithful tending to discount
all other ways of religious practise or non-practise as scaled
from simply wrong, to dangerous, to demonical. Words like heresy,
blasphemy, conversion (to the elect), apostasy (with intendent
shame and punishment), missionising (to groups of a different
religious persuasion) and the withdrawal of rights to scared ritual
(to those not rearing their children within the faith) perhaps
indicate this cast of mind. Further problems exist in all religions
in relation to Women's and minority rights, which are often local,
archaic customs given the force of religious law, and which are
now clearly very often a breach of human rights.
2.3 It is however recognised that there are
probably many practitioners of these religions, who have a gentler,
less exclusive view, of their tradition and tolerantly see other
religious traditions as equally valid and simply just other spiritual
techniques of achieving exactly the same stereological goals.
3. Buddhist and non-Semitic perspective
3.1 The perspective of Buddhism, and probably
most non-Semitic religions, is that all sentient beings experience
religious feeling whether they call themselves atheists, agnostics
or theists. This is a unitary and unifying state of mind, a bringing
of shared elements constantly into awareness, that is characterised
by and reflects a sense that everything in the universe is interdependent,
responsive and linked in relationship with every other part. Everyone
experiences love, compassion, tolerance, peacefulness and selflessness
in different degrees, and suffering is lessened by bringing into
awareness these peak religious states, developing their depth
of intensity and presence at all times by cultivation and practise.
The instinctive love a mother has for a child demonstrates this
innate altruism as an ever-present constant.
3.2 Concomitant with this vision, there is
also a strong sense that the universe is constantly and creatively
unfolding in new ways and that this world of pain and suffering
(samsara) is also a realm of great joy when experienced in a mindset
and heart-set of compassion to all phenomena, good and bad alike.
3.3 Buddhists have no interest in conversion
(to what?) and those that are inclined to this tradition use the
spiritual techniques as they choose to, in small or great measure.
They equally have free choice to be participants in other traditions
as well. Buddhists in Japan will often think of themselves simultaneously
as Shintoists and Confucianists as well as Buddhists: similarly
in China, Buddhist, Confucianist and Taoist; in Tibet, Buddhist
and Bonpo; in India, Buddhist and Hindu. Primarily we see our
function and duty is (to be available) to make people happy (and
not "Buddhist")happier Christians, Muslims, Frenchmen
or Manchester United supporters, whatever group you need to belong
to. Unassailable group boundaries, with such exclusions as the
taboo, unclean, heathen or pagan (the "other"), is foreign
to Buddhist thought.
3.4 Possibly this dynamic could be a useful
contribution to faltering ecumenism around the world, and the
law could reflect this commonality in the thrust of its dynamic,
as reflecting a modern way suited globally to most of us. Educated
society globally now has a much broader and deeper understanding
of (previously perceived) seemingly very contrary traditions.
These can now be seen to really encompass exactly the same religious
yearnings of the heart, and this paradigm could take the place
of more archaic, separatist group formulations.
3.5 Furthermore a central part of Buddhist
practise is to avoid attachment in an impermanent world where
all phenomena are transient. Attachment to that which is impermanent
causes pain and suffering. The notion of belonging to a religion,
a fixed belief system or collective body (even being a "Buddhist")
can also be an attachment, arousing powerfully destructive energies
and passions when the totem is threatened (this has nothing to
do with deep, personal reverence for symbolic techniques and foci
of religious cultivation, which is an important part of cultivation).
However these metaphorical devices, rituals and icons are transient
devices or skilful means in Buddhist terminology, and can only
be a subject of injury and insult to those who are attached to
them, and are technically dispensed with once they have fulfilled
3.6 In the converse, any one or body proclaiming
superiority of belief, religious intolerance and hatred, or inspiring
violence by whipping up religious partisan emotion on matters
of separateness of identity, is not speaking from a true religious
perspective, and should not be accorded the dignity of this being
in any way a recognisable and acceptable religious perspective.
4. Dangers of "religious" energies
4.1 All religious practise in all religious
traditions work with and unleash powerful emotional energies,
particularly in the collective, which need to be carefully channelled
to good purposes by deeply responsible, gentle teachers or leaders.
4.2 Much "religious behaviour"
in the modern world is questionably religious at all, within this
definition, and is certainly dysfunctional. (Most of the violent
conflicts around the world have a "religious" basis).
4.3 One wonders whether these identity groupings
should be accorded any sort of legal protection, merely because
they issue from within a "religious" collective, particularly
as the position is often not democratic or relies on the self-interests
of a community will.
4.4 Here participation of the individual
relies on the acquiescence of the individual view to a collective
view, enshrined by dogma or community or ethnic tradition, in
which non-compliance can lead to exclusion by the larger body.
There seems to be a human rights issue in our modern sense, and
the law does little to protect the right of dissenting individuals
to remain within a religious community group without having views
imposed on them. Should such a body be afforded protection from
the secular community at large from reasonable criticism?
4.5 Most so called religious issues, are
really about community and ethnic conflict and should be recognised
as such. Secular formulations on religious parameters urgently
need to take this into consideration.
5. From a Buddhist perspective, religion
is fundamentally an individual activity, a completely personal
path that an individual follows, without prescription or penalty.
The collective operates ideally only in the realm of compassion,
to enshrine that freedom of quest, and provides support and means,
teaching, habitation, rituals and techniques to allow this personal
freedom to be exercised, explored and developed responsibly. There
is an old Indian metaphoric axiom that enshrines personal religious
choice, (and the complete equality and acceptability of all techniques
and traditions or "religions", which exist to meet different
peoples needs): "There are many paths leading to the same
ancient city of the heart."
Care should be taken on how, and even whether,
a formal religious incitement law should be formulated, particularly
if it reinforces separation and further entrenches the negative
aspects of religious groupings and institutions, who should really
be subject to the same critical criteria of performance of any
powerful groupings in a humanistic democratic society. If laws
are to be formulated in this difficult area, they should start
off from the presumption that they are there to protect the individual
and his freedom and dignity within society, and not afford additional
protection to powerful religious groups (fronting community and
ethnic self interests) from fair and reasonable criticism from
within a modern democratic society and its prevailing mores and
Perhaps individual distress and community conflict
caused by incitement of a "religious" nature can fall
rather within extensions of existing laws, and should be viewed
by the law as individual, ethnic or community issues, rather than
Blasphemy laws of course are redundant and outside
the concerns of the state in this day and age, as seems the prevailing
view in society at large.
7 August 2002