Ideally speaking, religious pluralism would be a sense of intereligious harmony based on mutual understanding of other faiths. The problem with pluralism, however, is that it assumes we’re all on different spiritual paths. As long that is the basic assumption, there can never be harmony. As long as we see our path as different from theirs, we are saying that our path is right. And saying that our path is right makes theirs wrong. Because we process information dualistically, for ours to be right, theirs must be wrong.
If we can’t be right without them being wrong, religions pluralism is an oxymoron, like tolerance (which is really intolerance its nice-guy cloths).
I’m not suggesting that we hire Richard the Lion-Hearted to capture Jerusalem, again, or that we invade Constantinople. But it does seem to me that pluralism is the mildest form of distaste we can have for other religions–in order of intensity next would be tolerance; then intolerance; then amping up to the next level: hostility, and demonizing, and finally, yes, time to get King Richard back. Damn the infidels.
Pluralism is such a pc term right now that we miss the point when we use it. We miss the point because pluralism misses the point. We are already in harmony, because we are really the same.
The point, then, is not to see other religions as separate and different from ours, but rather to notice and understand that there is only one path and we are all on it together. When we realize this, the aversion is gone. And that’s the point. Not to have an aversion for beliefs that appear different from ours.
Here’s how I understand that there is only one path and that we are all walking it together.
My practice, both on and off the cushion, tells me that everything I do, and in fact everything that everyone does, is simply an attempt to end or prevent my suffering. Why do I scratch an itch? To end my suffering. Why do I always look down when I am walking on stairs? To prevent my suffering (I fear if I don’t look down that I will fall.). Why do I always clasp by hands together with the left fingers over the right. To prevent my suffering (reversing my clasp would make me uncomfortable). Taking this to its extreme: Why do people abuse children? To end their suffering. Perverse as it is, child abuse is an attempt to relieve the abuser’s suffering. And genocides, as horrific as they are, are an attempt to end the perpetrator’s suffering. Our choices aren’t always wise, but they are always for the same reason.
Since everything I do is to prevent or end my suffering, and everything everyone else does is to prevent or end their suffering as well, then compassion is my factory setting, my default position. Which explains that fundamentally, at our core, we are all compassionate beings.
I believe all religions answer four questions in an attempt to end our suffering: Where did I come from? How did I get here? What should I do while I am here? And, where am I going next? What differentiates one religion from another is simply which of these questions it emphasizes? Christianity, for example, arising from a Messianic tradition, largely addresses the Where-am-I-going-next question. Buddhism, on the other had, is almost exclusively concerned with the What-should-I-do-while-I’m-here question.
So what separates one religion from another is not differences, but simply emphasis. What differences do appear are in the languages and cultures and customs and costumes, which are purely cosmetic.
Why any one person is attracted to one religion and not another is simply the result of their karma. Our individual histories lead us to seek the benefit of one practice now, perhaps another later. So in fact, having a variety of different practices available to choose from makes it easier for us to walk the path together.
So we are all on the same path, the path to end our suffering. And we all share the same original nature, compassion. When I teach in a church or a mosque, I don't’ see it as different and needing to be reconciled, I see it as just another expression of our path.
I watched my Teacher, Master Ji Ru, enter the sanctuary in a Protestant church. He stopped at the doorway, gently stepped in and bowed to the altar. Just as he does every time he enters the meditation hall in our Monastery. And that’s the point. Not pluralism.