The Newsletter of the Northwest Branch of the Theosophical Society
March 2012 – Vol. 15 Issue 1
On Religious Founders Day the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, to honor the founders of all religions, sponsored a Tolerance and Mutual Respect Conference on February 15 at the University of Washington. Dr. Alyssa Gabbay, Rabbi Oren Hayon, Rev. Carl Livingston, Rev. Marian Stewart, and Naseem Mahdi shared thoughts on whether persecution had a place in the Abrahamic faiths. The evening ended with a delicious complimentary dinner.
Dr. Gabbay, professor of Near Eastern Languages and Civilization at the university, discussed the history toleration as a response to times of violence and upheaval. She referred to Indian Buddhist King Asoka (d. 232 BCE), who dedicated his reign to tolerance and kindness after being appalled by the 100,000 casualties in his campaign of conquest; and to Rumi and Saadi, 13th-century poets whose open attitudes arose in the aftermath of the brutal Mongol Mideast conquest. Today is such a time, and she gave the example of the work of Dr. Judea Pearl, whose son Daniel was executed by Pakistani terrorists in 2002. Beginning in 2003 Dr. Pearl invited Muslim scholar Akbar S. Ahmed to join him in interfaith dialogues around the country focusing on the differences between the two faiths. He holds that one should tackle first the hard historical issues that divide people, not just the easy points.
Rev. Livingston stressed that it’s easy to be for justice and tolerance when you are weak. The true test is whether you keep those values when you are the stronger party. He acknowledged that Christianity became a persecuting religion once it was strong enough, and that this challenge remains for all who have power. He stressed the need for religious and racial justice, particularly in the US and the Mideast.
Mr. Mahdi, National Vice-President of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, argued that Islam was a religion of tolerance, respect and love for all the world’s faiths, quoting extensively from the Qur’an. He said salvation was not solely for Muslims. To illustrate God’s mercy, he told the story of a profligate, irreligious woman who passed a dog dying of thirst and saved it by stopping to give it a drink. The Prophet was told that merely because of that one act of compassion she was saved.
The Ahmedayya Muslim Community was founded in India in 1889 by Hadhrat Mizra Ghulam Ahmed, who declared that he was the Messiah promised by all religions, which would finally unite under Islam. A revivalist reform movement within Islam, it promotes peace, interfaith understanding, and universal brotherhood, regarding all the great religious teachers, such as Muhammad, Moses, Jesus, Krishna, Buddha, Confucius and Zoroaster, as equally sent by God with messages of reform and communion with the Divine. Members engage in charity and work for social justice around the world.
On February 12 several Branch members joined about 100 others of many faiths and none for Camp Brotherhood’s 13th Annual Community Interfaith Celebration. Along with inspiring musical performances, Jewish, Christian, Buddhist and Muslim speakers addressed how their faiths both encourage and discourage interfaith dialogue. Pastor Donald Mackenzie answered most directly, noting that Jesus’ core message of unconditional love encourages interfaith connection by making religious walls porous, while the triumphal and exclusive claim that it is the only way cuts Christianity off from sharing with other faiths.
Rabbi Ted Falcon wondered, when we engage with someone who holds very different views, if we saywith a real desire to listen and understand, “Tell me, how do you see things? How does it look from where you stand?” Or are we mainly eager to be heard and to correct their "wrong" ideas? He hoped people would realize that they belong to a particular faith because it’s the one that fits them best and that they’re most comfortable with, not because it’s the only true one or the best. We can see the beauty in all spiritual paths and in each person’s spiritual journey because the beauty of our own path awakens us to the love and compassion that all paths share. He ended, “The one who loves the most, wins.”
Ghada Ellithy from the Muslim Association of Puget Sound noted that the Qur’an speaks of the unity of humankind, of all faiths and of Islam, emphasizing respect and protection for all, Muslim and non-Muslim. She pointed to the many serious global challenges such as environmental degradation and the great hardships and poverty facing the mass of humanity worldwide, as problems that can be solved effectively only by all people coming together.
Genjo Marinello Osho, Zen abbot and Lineage Holder, likened the Abrahamic religions to trees on one bank of a river and the Eastern traditions to trees on the opposite bank: all the trees draw on the same water for nourishment and reach for the same light. He spoke of the need to transcend our ego to come closer to a universal perspective and of the importance not only of listening to others but taking time to listen within yourself, cultivating silence and living in the moment to allow yourself to be present to the Presence.
Attendees enjoyed this opportunity for people from all around Puget Sound to come together and become better acquainted by sharing aspects of their spiritual journeys.
In his recent book, Beyond Religion, the Dalai Lama argues that in today’s global society, where people of many different religions and none live and work together, it is vital to have a common ethics. Such a moral system cannot rest on the doctrines or assumptions of any particular religion or tradition if it is to be truly universal: “I firmly believe that ethics can…emerge simply as a natural and rational response to our very humanity and our common human condition.” (p 13) Throughout he draws on secular, scientific and humanistic rationales in suggesting one way of forming a universal moral basis for action and living.
What is his motive? “Although humans can manage without religion, they cannot manage without inner values . . . . As I see it, spirituality has two dimensions. The first dimension, that of basic spiritual well-being – by which I mean inner mental and emotional strength and balance – does not depend on religion but comes from our innate human nature as beings with a natural disposition toward compassion, kindness, and caring for others. The second dimension is what may be considered religion-based spirituality, which is acquired from our upbringing and culture and is tied to particular beliefs and practices. The difference between the two is something like the difference between water and tea. Ethics and inner values without religious content are like water, something we need every day for health and survival. Ethics and inner values based in a religious context are more like tea. The tea we drink is mostly composed of water, but it also contains some other ingredients… and this makes it more nutritious and sustaining and something we want every day.… While we can live without tea, we can’t live without water. Likewise we are born free of religion, but we are not born free of the need for compassion.” (pp. 16-17)
The Dalai Lama recognizes that many religious people feel that ethics necessarily depends on religious ideas such as God, karma/reincarnation and after-death consequences. He does not feel this is necessary and bases his ethical system on two fundamental principles. The first is our shared humanity, which includes the fact that all people seek happiness and try to avoid suffering, a trait we share with many other sentient beings. The second is the understanding of interdependence as a central aspect of reality. “From these two principles, we can learn to appreciate the inextricable connection between our own well-being and that of others, and we can develop a genuine concern for others’ welfare. Together, I believe, they constitute an adequate basis for establishing ethical awareness and the cultivation of inner values. It is through such values that we gain a sense of connection with others, and it is by moving beyond narrow self-interest that we find meaning, purpose, and satisfaction in life.” (p. 19)
Answering those who feel that justice ought instead to be the basis of ethics, the Dalai Lame says: “The important point about the principle of compassion, as a basis for the exercise of justice, is that it is directed not toward actions, but toward the actor. Compassion demands that we condemn wrong actions and oppose them with all means necessary, while at the same time forgiving and maintaining an attitude of kindness toward the perpetrators of those actions.… It is right to do this because, again, all human beings are capable of change.” (p. 63) In emphasizing compassion, he holds that it is not a religious practice but a quality rooted in our very humanity – in fact, even “many animals can appreciate it and certainly mammals have a capacity for it.” (p. 45) As an example, he notes that many people engaged in humanitarian work are not motivated by religious beliefs but simply by concern to help their fellow humans. One challenge is that we usually confine our compassion to a narrow group, so that an us-vs-them dynamic tends to arise. We can deliberately break down this type of exclusivity by reaching out to others: “Using our intelligence and our conviction of its necessity and value, we gradually learn to expand and extend our concern, first to our close family, then to all those with whom we come into contact, including especially our enemies, then to our entire human family, and even to all beings.” (p. 55)
Though many might call his proposal unrealistic, he maintains that it is in fact practical and doable. The last third of the book gives various practical techniques for increasing ethical stamina, such as ways to better handle anger, greed, envy, and lack of self-control and self-discipline.
With this book the Dalai Lama is encouraging a conversation about how to build an ethical framework together based on our humanity that all people today, whatever their religious or secular beliefs, can recognize as valid and useful. Let's take part in this discussion, both in our own minds and by exchanging ideas.