Speech by Venerable Dr. Yifa
At the 9th Juliet Hollister Awards
18th of October, 2006
UN Headquarters, NY
I would like to thank the Temple of Understanding for inviting me to be among the honorees of this year’s Juliet Hollister Awards. It is truly an honor to be here tonight and to share in the Temple of Understanding’s recognition of peace and interfaith education.
On my way to attend tonight’s event I recalled a conversation from ten years ago with a young man named Ming. He came to me with this question. He said, “My parents are devout Buddhists. Does this mean that I must become Buddhist?”
I told him, “No.”
My advice to him was that he should take time to explore all religious and philosophical viewpoints. Only then could he know for certain which of these to put his faith in.
I wanted him to realize that a person can hold values from several traditions. As a Buddhist nun, I have great faith in my practice of Buddhism. However, I also draw wisdom from Confucian and Taoist beliefs. The introduction of Buddhism into China did not eliminate what was already good in Chinese culture. Instead, it added to it. It gave expression to a particular path of truth that had not yet been explored in China.
Having faith in one particular tradition while still being able to draw strength and understanding from other wisdom teachings, allows for a multi-valued approach to faith. I think this kind of approach is important today. What is good for humanity is good, regardless of whether it comes from the East or the West.
As we struggle to come to terms with both the historic and current entanglements that involve religion and violent conflict, it becomes essential to advance an open dialogue across cultures that highlight our shared desire to be free from suffering. It is particularly important that we teach our younger generation those aspects of our faith that foster peace and compassion. Without such training, our young people run the risk of being lured into extremist teachings that promote intolerance and war.
When young people come to my summer retreat programs, we offer them an opportunity to actively cultivate inner- peace and compassion. We emphasize traditional methods of strengthening the body, mind and spirit- not only for the benefit of ourselves, but also to help serve others as well. There is no negative discussion about other faiths and traditions. Our students bring with them ideas from all different backgrounds and faiths and are encouraged to openly question and explore the value of our Buddhist teaching. In this way students integrate what they learn not on the basis of our authority, but rather on the basis of their own reasoned judgment and experience.
The student’s participation in a Buddhist monastic lifestyle de-mystifies the Buddhist faith so that they can make informed judgments about Buddhism. Our hope is that in their daily lives they will be able to draw upon our tradition’s emphasis on peace, non-violence, and compassion.
We all would agree that religion is of great value when it is compassionate and uplifting. The offer of peace and comfort to a suffering humanity is one of the primary goals of religion. Yet, there are ever-increasing critical viewpoints suggesting that religion, in some instances, leads to an increase of suffering, rather than its relief. Current events certainly add evidence to such statements. In these cases we might point to intolerant and extremist views for this corrupting influence.
Because of such corrupting influences, it is very important for religious education to remain open to critical examination. When religious education becomes closed, tightly controlled, and secretive there is a possibility that it can become negative and cult-like. When religious teachings remain open, the option for critical dialogue and reform exists. Without reform a religion’s positive values and behaviors can become aberrant, and even dangerous.
There is a well known Buddhist analogy that states that the teachings of the Buddha are like a finger pointing to the moon. In this analogy, we are reminded not to dwell on the finger, but rather to look where it is pointing. The Buddha’s intention was not to create a religion, but rather to provide a solution to suffering. The teachings are meant only as a means to an end. The teaching itself is not the goal. If we adhere to teachings without critical examination, we can miss the goal. If any teachings are exposed in Buddhism that may in any way lead to suffering, than such teachings would violate the original intention and should be discarded.
In order to avoid serious deviations in scriptural interpretation, all traditions should demand a strong intra-faith dialogue that openly allows for self-criticism. As a Buddhist, I am free to speak out against any irregular practice or misbehavior among Buddhists that may threaten the integrity of my tradition. Yet, if I were to speak out against other faiths, I might be criticized and create resentment between our two faiths. This is why it is best that criticism should come from within.
The ability to benefit from inter-faith education relies on the existence of a safe and open inquiry within each tradition. Without a respect for critical investigation into one’s own beliefs the opportunity for inter-faith learning breaks down. Therefore, a healthy and open intra-faith dialogue must be in place to insure that each tradition can stand confidently alongside other traditions in open fellowship. We can make great progress toward the relief of suffering and create a more peaceful world only when we are able to safeguard every human being’s right to participate in a safe and open inquiry into truth.
I want to thank the Temple of Understanding once again for honoring me this evening with the Juliet Hollister Award, and thank you all for attending.