Standing Up for the Middle Way: A Buddhist Perspective on Religious Freedom


Standing Up for the Middle Way: A Buddhist Perspective on Religious Freedom

Whoever fights against the Shugden spirit defends religious freedom. I compare this definitely to the Nazis in Germany. Whoever fights them defends human rights, since the freedom of Nazis is not freedom. — The 14th Dalai Lama1

Both sides of the Dorje Shugden controversy lay claim to non-sectarianism in defense of religious freedom. When it comes to gauging someone’s views as sectarian or non-sectarian, however, it cannot simply be an either-or scenario. As Buddhists, we must be careful to avoid such black-or-white thinking. Seeing things from a Buddhist perspective necessarily entails being able to map them out on the model of the two truths of the middle way between extremes—the touchstone of the Buddhist faith. It is also the best tool to use for explaining the Buddhist perspective on religious freedom.

I have come to realize that there is always middle ground,2 even between the polarizing extremes that too often dominate the religious landscape. Sectarianism obviously places an inordinate emphasis on our differences; but if we are to truly celebrate diversity, we must come to appreciate our differences equally as much as our similarities. That is to say, it is not all about our differences (which leads to sectarianism), nor can we simply ignore our differences (which leads to eclecticism). True religious pluralism would respect both people’s similarities and their differences, not just one or the other.

When I looked to see exactly where the Dalai Lama and Geshe Kelsang Gyatso present themselves on this continuum, I was pleasantly surprised to find the latter’s stance more closely befitting the middle way than what typically goes as ‘mainstream’ today. I put together the following table to help us understand Venerable Geshe-la’s sage advice to abandon the two extremes of sectarianism and eclecticism.3

Sectarianism Religious Freedom Eclecticism
Extreme Exclusivism Moderate Exclusivism Moderate exclusivism corrects eclecticism.
Moderate inclusivism corrects sectarianism. Moderate Inclusivism
Extreme Inclusivism

At the same time as cherishing our own tradition we should respect all other traditions and the right of each individual to follow the tradition of their choosing. This approach leads to harmony and tolerance. (Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, Understanding the Mind: an Explanation of the Nature and Functions of the Mindp. 162, © 1993, 1997, 2002)

There are two truths to the middle way because there are two extremes to be corrected; therefore, the middle way always has two complimentary aspects,4 as exemplified in the above quote in regards to religious freedom:5 moderate exclusivism (i.e., cherishing our own tradition) is an expression of the Spiritual Guide’s discriminating wisdom, while moderate inclusivism (i.e., respecting all other traditions) is an expression of the Spiritual Guide’s compassionate skillful means. The differences between traditions are important, not because they should further divide us, but because we do not all need the same thing. Thus, these two aspects of the middle way—wisdom and compassion—may be applied consistently at both the inter-faith and intra-faith levels to guarantee religious freedom for everyone.

The two extremes—sectarianism and eclecticism—are each a lopsided distortion of the twofold middle way, wherein one aspect is left untempered by the other: extreme exclusivism (i.e., exclusivism without inclusivism) is like wisdom without compassion, while extreme inclusivism (i.e., inclusivism without exclusivism) is like compassion without wisdom.6 For example, in the following quote, Geshe-la reminds us of the faults of eclecticism, which arise due to not cherishing one’s own tradition as a complete path unto itself:

Every Teacher and every tradition has a slightly different approach and employs different methods. The practices taught by one Teacher will differ from those taught by another, and if we try to combine them we shall become confused, develop doubts, and lose direction. If we try to create a synthesis of different traditions we shall destroy the special power of each and be left only with a mishmash of our own making that will be a source of confusion and doubt. Having chosen our tradition and our daily practices we should rely upon them single-pointedly, never allowing dissatisfaction to arise. (Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, Understanding the Mind: an Explanation of the Nature and Functions of the Mindpp. 161-162, © 1993, 1997, 2002)

For many people, however, any hint of exclusivity is immediately taken as a sign of intolerance and bigotry,7 so how could we even consider that a moderate degree of exclusivism accords with Buddha’s teachings?8 One obvious example is that Buddhists in general take refuge exclusively9 in the Three Jewels—Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.10 And, like many religions, Buddhism also has its own exclusive claims to truth (e.g., Buddhadharma is the only pathway to liberation and enlightenment).11 Indeed, moderate exclusivism is the birthright of every religious tradition.

While it can be said that moderate inclusivism and extreme inclusivism are both ‘non-sectarian,’ the latter is rather destructive in accomplishing this goal. Therefore, to have genuine religious freedom, we also need to combat reverse sectarianism,12 which is the attitude that extreme inclusivists adopt towards any religious tradition having even moderate exclusivist tendencies, still regarded by them as being sectarian in nature. Often heralded as the middle way, religious eclecticism is fast becoming regarded as the only legitimate form of spiritual practice (often used as the litmus for proving that one is not sectarian),13 threatening the integrity of individual religious traditions (hence the self-conscious ‘boundary maintenance’ of even moderate exclusivism).

[W]e don’t need to mix our traditions. Each tradition has its own uncommon good qualities, and it is important not to lose these. We should concentrate on our own tradition and maintain the good qualities of our tradition, but we should always keep good relations with each other and never argue or criticize each other. What I would like to request is that we should improve our own traditions while maintaining good relations with each other. (Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, An Interview With Geshe Kelsang GyatsoTricycle: the Buddhist Review, No. 27, Spring 1998, p. 76)

To maintain harmony, we do not need to bridge every gap or buy agreement at any price. Truth does not depend on numbers, so getting everyone to agree would not necessarily make something legitimate. The only way to assimilate different traditions into one is to take away the uncommon good qualities, core values, and principles giving each its unique identity and which give their practitioners great meaning. This happens especially if something integral to one tradition is regarded as “incompatible” with others (i.e., not in the common interests). Plagued by political correctness, syncretism’s monomaniacal imperative dictates that there is no room for disagreement.14 In this way, extreme inclusivism reveals itself to be a self-refuting idealism: it prides itself on being accepting of everyone, but in reality it is breeding its own kind of absolutism.15 This is hardly a ‘middle way approach.’