Tolerance and Intolerance, No Difference
For the religions of the West, tolerance is an important spiritual teaching. Buddhism, on the other hand, does not consider tolerance to be an appropriate spiritual practice.
From a Buddhist perspective, tolerance reinforces an erroneous sense of self and other, hardens the ego and increases selfishness, and encourages passivity in the face of the human imperative, which, in the Buddhist view, is to awaken to truth by virtue of one’s own self-power.
The core of Buddhist practice is to cultivate positive mental states and renounce negative mental states for the simple reason that positive mental states manifest in positive actions, which increase happiness; while negative mental states manifest in negative actions, which decrease happiness. Since, in the Buddhist view, tolerance promotes unwholesome states of mind which bear fruit as unwholesome actions, for a Buddhist, tolerance is unsuitable as a spiritual practice.
In fact, in the Buddhist view, tolerance promotes intolerance.
How can that be?
To find out, let’s take a look at two definitions of tolerance, one religious and one secular
The first, from the Catholic encyclopedia, defines tolerance as “Forbearance in the presence of an evil which one is unable or unwilling to prevent….Considered in the abstract, tolerance contains two ideas: the existence of an evil; and the magnanimous determination not to interfere with the evil, but to allow it to run its course.”
The second, from Webster’s dictionary defines tolerance as:
1. sympathy or capacity to endure pain or hardship
2. the capacity of the body to endure or become less responsive to a substance
Here is how Buddhists take exception to these ideas.
1. For a Buddhist, there is no external force, whether it is evil or good. One of Buddhism’s central teachings is non-duality, sometimes expressed in the phrase “gift, giver, receiver, no difference.”
2. In the Buddhist view, nothing is permanent, including no permanent forces, whether they are evil or good.
3. Buddhists emphatically reject “blind faith” as wrong view and as being counterproductive the quest for liberation.
4. Buddhism rejects attitudes which generate unwholesome mental states. When tolerance means putting up with something in a rather grudging or resentful manner, a mental pattern of resentment is formed; or, when tolerance implies weakness, such as an inability to stand up for oneself, weakness becomes a habit. Buddhist practice renounces these and all negative mental states as not conducive to increased well being.
5. Buddhism avoids unwholesome actions by renouncing the states which give rise to them. Since tolerance relies upon mental states such as exclusivity, magnanimity, arrogance, conceit, and possessiveness, states which give rise to an array of unwholesome actions
ranging from minor irritation to armed conflict, in the Buddhist view, tolerance is not a suitable practice. As the Mahanidana Sutta, DN 15, explains in the dark chain of causation: when there is possessiveness, there is the arising of stinginess, and in dependence on stinginess there is the arising of defensiveness, and in dependence on defensiveness various unwholesome things originate, such as conflicts, quarrels, disputes, insults and accusations, the taking up of arms, and all kinds of wrong speech, such as slander, lies and divisive speech.
6. Tolerance, requires non-agreement. Since non-agreement, in the Buddhist view, as we have just seen in the sutra, leads to conflict, non-agreement is not a suitable Buddhist practice.
As a Protestant Minister said to me when I asked about him about tolerance: “Both tolerance and intolerance are the same Cross upon which those who are different get crucified.” Indeed.
Then, what do Buddhists teach in situations where other faiths promote tolerance?
Buddhism has two unique teachings to offer:
1. The practice of reflective acceptance
2. The practice of reconciliation and non-differentiation
Let’s very briefly look at each:
Reflective Acceptance means looking deeply, seeing clearly, and accepting circumstances as they are: Impermanent and fleeting. When we see clearly and accept reality, we can respond appropriately. As we learn in the Canki Sutra (MN 95), reflective acceptance is one of the critical conditions needed for us to arrive at the capital “T” Truth of Buddhism.
Reconciliation and Non-differentiation –– Reconciliation means learning to be peaceful with whatever conditions are in front of us. In our practice, whether on the cushion or off, we have countless opportunities for reconciliation, countless moments in which we may gratefully embrace the world of differences we live in. And the most effective way to embrace differences is with a practice of non-differentiation, the practice which dissolves differences: my ideas, their ideas, no difference.
Recently, I saw this bumper sticker: Truth, not Tolerance. Would you be willing to put it on your car?