Book Review
Toward a True Kinship of Faiths: How the World's Religions Can Come Together, by H.H. Dalai Lama, Doubleday Religion/Random House, NY, 2010; 208 pages, ISBN 978-0385525053, hardcover, $25.00.

Religion can be a very divisive force, associated with intolerance, persecution, conflict, exclusivity and fanaticism. The Dalai Lama argues here that this does not need to be the case and that the religions can instead lead the way toward peace, tolerance, and greater understanding.  The first section of the book examines several of the world's religions – Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism – by recounting his contacts and experiences with each faith and its exponents.  In this way it provides examples of how people can gradually become familiar with other faiths and get to genuinely appreciate aspects of them, while still being firmly committed to their own spiritual path.  For those not familiar with these faiths, it provides an introduction to some of their basic ideas and approaches.

In the second section, the Dalai Lama gives his views on how religions can work together for the good of all.  He points out that compassionate ethics is a shared aspect of all faiths, despite great metaphysical and cultural differences.  Indeed, he sees it as a basic human quality that underlies all ethical teachings, religious or secular, and these ethics provide common ground.  Moreover, because religions can motivate people to make great personal changes and sacrifices, as they reach a deeper emotional level than other institutions generally do, religions have a opportunity to bring about more peaceful, compassionate, earth-friendly behavior on a large scale if they work together for the good of mankind.  He also includes the secular population, noting that all human beings need to work together for human good, and that religious and secular people need to learn to respect each other. 

The author outlines his own approach to interfaith understanding, which rests on the recognition and celebration of differences.  This raises the issue of truth in religion: "Can a single-pointed commitment to one's own faith coexist with acceptance of other religions as legitimate?  Is religious pluralism impossible from the perspective of a devout person who is strongly and deeply committed to his or her own faith tradition?" (p. 146)  As leader of one branch of Buddhism, he has no interest in the withering away or merging of current religions.  "A successful approach cannot hide the differences by promoting some vague vision of all religions actually being one, nor can it be a syncretistic attempt to merge their various strengths into a universal faith.. . . If inter-religious harmony is based upon a healthy recognition of the differences between faith traditions, this then allows us to transcend some of those differences and move beyond them to a higher level of convergence, where they have a common goal of human betterment and a set of key ethical teachings." (p. 132)   He agrees that "some version of exclusivism – the principle of 'one truth, one religion'  – lies at the heart of most of the world's great religions.  Furthermore a single-pointed commitment to one's own faith tradition demands the recognition that one's chosen faith represents the highest religious teaching.  For example, for me Buddhism is the best, but this does not mean that Buddhism is the best for all." (p. 158)  Rejecting exclusivity and inclusivism, he opts for the type of pluralism that does not accept an ultimate unity of all religions as streams flowing into the same sea or paths up the same mountain.  Recognition of such ultimate oneness of religions "demands a precondition that remains impossible for the majority of adherents of the world's great religions....True understanding of the 'other' must proceed from a genuine recognition of and respect for the other's reality. It must proceed from a state of mind where the urge to reduce the other into one's own framework is no longer the dominant mode of thinking." (p. 148) 

His starting point for respect of other religions is the recognition of their benefits to millions of adherents by providing those people with ethical guidance, inspiration, meaning and solace. "Their profound benefit to others is really the ultimate reason each of us, believers and nonbelievers alike, must accord deep respect to the world's great faith traditions."  This is a problematic point because many nonbelievers feel that the harm religions do to believers outweighs any benefits, and religious adherents may feel the same about religions other than their own. "Given the need for upholding the perspective of 'many truths, many religions' in the context of wider society, while the dictates of one's own faith demand embracing the 'one truth, one religion' perspective, I believe that a creative approach is called for here – if one wishes to uphold both of these perspectives with integrity." (p. 160) This approach not only recognizes the benefits of other religions, but that the doctrinal teachings, though unbridgeably different, inform each religion's ethical way of life.  "The doctrines themselves cannot be reconciled, but the way they make it possible to ground strikingly parallel and praiseworthy ethical system is a wonderful fact." (p. 161)

In the end, the Dalai Lama asks people to "return to our basic human quality of empathy and good heart":  "On that level, all differences break down.  Whether one is rich or poor, educated or illiterate, religious or nonbelieving, man or woman, black, white, or brown, we are all the same.  Physically, emotionally, and mentally, we are all equal.  We all share basic needs for food, shelter, safety, and love.  We all aspire to happiness and we all shun suffering.  Each of us has hopes, worries, fears, and dreams.  Each of us wants the best for our family and loved ones.  We all experience pain when we suffer loss and joy when we achieve what we seek.  On this fundamental level, religion, ethnicity, culture, and language make no difference.  Today's great challenge of peaceful coexistence demands that we remain in touch with this basic part of our nature." (p. 180)  This book is a thought-provoking contribution to discovering paths to peace and well-being for all. Sally Dougherty

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