On Sunday, I was privileged to share the stage with His Holiness the Dalai Lama at St. John the Divine Cathedral in New York City for a conversation on interfaith cooperation. It was the end of a long tour of major public teachings and high powered private meetings for His Holiness, but he arrived exhilarated to talk about one of the topics that is central to his work in the world.
1) Interfaith cooperation is a major public issue that needs to be advanced by a mass movement;
2) Positive interactions between people from different faiths and an appreciative knowledge of the world’s religions are key to building this movement.
The Dalai Lama sees a day when the evening news is no longer dominated by stories of religious conflict. Impossible? I don’t think so. I just think we have our work cut out for us. Consider standing at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., in 1965 – could anyone have dreamed that America would elect a black president 50 years later? Imagine staring out at the smoldering cities of Europe after World War II – could anyone have dreamed of a European Union 50 years later? We’ve witnessed remarkable changes in the past half-century. Building a bridge from the shore of religious conflict, bigotry and ignorance to the shore of interfaith cooperation is no less important, and requires no less investment and no less work, than any other major change.
Bridges are built by leaders who believe that we can get to a new and better place, and have the vision, knowledge-base and skill-set required to help us get from here to there. The leaders who build interfaith bridges need a history of positive interactions with people of diverse faiths, and an appreciative knowledge of other traditions.
At St. John the Divine, His Holiness spoke about his friendship with the great Trappist monk Thomas Merton, his visits with Muslim leaders in India, his long-running dialogue with Rabbis. There is a beautiful chapter in the Dalai Lama’s new book in which he lifts up prayers, scripture passages and stories from different faiths on compassion. In the New York Times, the Dalai Lama wrote about how Gandhi’s life was an embodiment of compassion. The message is clear – live out the view of compassion in your own faith or secular tradition, learn to admire views of compassion in other traditions, come together across faiths on the common ground of compassion. As he writes, “(Compassion is) a strong unifying thread among all the major faiths. And these days we need to highlight what unifies us.”
What if that chapter on compassion was required reading for every high school senior? After all, we require every seventeen year old to dissect a frog to graduate. Shouldn’t we proactively advance an appreciative knowledge of the traditions that animate and sustain the lives of the vast majority of humankind, especially in an era when extremists are dominating the dialogue about religion? What if our houses of worship encouraged the kind of interfaith exchange and friendship that characterized the Dalai Lama’s personal development? What if it was simply status quo for college campuses to have interfaith councils and for cities to host large interfaith youth celebrations? This is what it looks like for interfaith cooperation to become a social norm.
And as the Dalai Lama emphasized, the stakes could not be higher: “Harmony among the major faiths has become an essential ingredient of peaceful coexistence in our world. From this perspective, mutual understanding among these traditions is not merely the business of religious believers – it matters for the welfare of humanity as a whole.”