Minister’s Message, February 2011

Buddhist Tolerance

By Rinban Don Castro

Our February newsletter arrives sandwiched between the national holidays of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Presidents Day. It also arrives between the Shinshu holidays of Hoonko (Shinran Shonin’s Memorial) and Nirvana Day (Shakyamuni Buddha’s Memorial). Through these holidays we affirm, both politically and spiritually, the importance and even sanctity of tolerance and freedom (of expression, assembly, speech, etc.).

Our Hongwanji tradition manifests freedom and tolerance in how it treats the issue of heresy. Any Hongwanji-ha minister is free to say whatever he/she wants to say on their own authority. I can say black is white and the Hongwanji will not question my freedom to say it. However, if I say Shinran said black is white, I will be called to defend my assertion. According to my teacher Rev. P.K. Eidmann, “Cause for excommunication is to teach in the name of the Hongwanji, any doctrine which all Hongwanji followers have not traditionally accepted…the Hongwanji’s respect for individual responsibility is so great that hardly once in a generation is there an excommunication.” Even an excommunicated minister, however, may be invited to speak at a temple. The members know they must weigh his statements very carefully, but they do not fear him nor reject his right to speak his mind.

a finger pointing at the moonIn recent years, we have had numerous assassinations and assassination attempts motivated by religious and/or political reasons; as if religion can be reduced to a belief system. In Buddhism, our concepts and beliefs are like a finger pointing to the moon. If you get stuck on the finger, you will never see the moon. In other words, don’t get stuck on Buddhism. The true Dharma is beyond words and ideas. Fundamentalists of all religious traditions don’t understand this.

Years ago a visiting fundamentalist cleric asked me if my sons were Buddhist. I replied that I had raised them Buddhist but their choice of religion was really up to them. He snapped back, “If you believe Buddhism is the true religion, why don’t you make your sons become Buddhist!?” My answer was not well thought out, but what I should have said was, “I didn’t say Buddhism is the true religion, I said it is a true religion. There are also many false and dangerous religions. Any religion that has to force itself on someone else cannot be a true religion. I am a Buddhist because Buddhism speaks to the core of my being and is the clearest, most accurate and most creative religious doctrine I have encountered. However, that being said, I would die to preserve my son’s right not to be a Buddhist! After all, as Rev. Eidmann was fond of saying, “If everyone were Jodo Shinshu, it would be a sure indication that it is a false teaching.”

Today, this tolerant, open and happy approach to life is under attack both domestically and abroad. Let us not take our open society for granted. Increasingly, in many places of the world people put their life in peril just by speaking of tolerance.