Buddhist attitude to other religions

By Professor K. N. Jayatilleke PhD. (Lond)
Courtesy Vesak Lipi

If we consider possible attitudes of one religion towards another in the light of history, they seem to be classifiable under three main headings. The first is that of dominance based on the belief that one’s religion alone contains the full truth and that other religions are either completely false or contain so few elements of truth that the sooner they are ousted by whatever means at one’s disposal the better it would be for mankind. The next is the attitude of fulfilment which draws its strength from the belief that while other religions contain important elements of truth they find their fullest is the attitude of co-operation which arises out of a conviction that (a) all religions contain aspects of truth and a study of all is necessary to discover the whole truth or (b) that all the higher religions are equally true and that the ostensible differences are due to differences in language rather than in content, and that all these religions are suited to their traditional contexts and (c) that all the higher religions are equally true but some of these religions have a greater attraction for certain types of individuals as against other, the cerebratonics liking a religion with an intellectual appeal, the somatogenics one that stresses action and the viscerotonics, emotion.

Now what would be the attitude of Buddhism to other religions? Perhaps the Sandaka Sutta of the Majjhima Nikaya seems to supply the answer to this question. In it Ananda describes four types of false religions and four types of unsatisfactory religions, and goes on to define the character of the religion of the Buddha.

Four False Religions
Of the four false religions the first is said to be that of materialism which holds that man is composed entirely of material elements which disintegrate at death and as a result denies survival of any sort. It is worth noting that seven such materialist schools are mentioned in the Buddhist texts. One of these schools held that consciousness was a by-product of certain chemicals being mixed in their due proportions. Though materialism as a philosophy of life is thus condemned it is necessary to add that neither the world of matter on the mental life of individuals as well as of society is denied. It is significant that the Buddha held poverty or “the inequitable distribution of goods in society” as the root cause of social evil and argued that the economic factor was as powerful a determinant of social evolution as the ideological factor.

The second of the false religions is any religion which denies moral values. Thus all religious cults, which recommend a moral ethic or immoral practices would be condemned outright.

The third of the false religion is any religion which denies causation and teaches that “people are miraculously saved” (ahetu appaccaya satta vissujjanthi). The Buddhist teaching is that all events in the phenomenal world are subject to causal laws and that no miracles which go against the operation of such causal laws are possible. It is said that there are physical laws. The law that morally good acts results in pleasant consequences and morally evil acts in unpleasant consequences for the individual is an instance of moral law. Though causation is thus upheld, it is important to observe that it is distinguished on the one hand from complete Indeterminism (sadjicca samuppanna) or Accidentalism and on the other from Strict Determinism (niyati-vada) or Fatalism. In an indeterminists universe there would be no correlation between events and as such no causes or effects.

The fourth type of false religion is any religion which denies freewill. Freewill is conceived of as the capacity of the individual (atta-kara) or the factor of human effort (purisa-kara), which can within limits control or direct the operative forces of the past and present in order to make the future different from what it would otherwise have been. As such freewill is considered to be compatible with the Buddhist conception of events. All from of determinism whether of natural determinism (sabhava-vada) which holds that the present and the future is the mere working out of the past or of Theistic determinism (issara-nimmana-vada) which holds that everything that takes place is predetermined by the will or fiat of God, are specifically mentioned and condemned as false.