The Language of Pluralism

Tools of Awakening: Language of Pluralism

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

The Engaged Dharma philosophy of pluralism, that arises from the Order of Pragmatic Buddhists tradition and the Harvard Pluralism Project, acknowledges that there are different ways to live lives directed toward the promotion of human flourishing (happiness, health and harmony) and the alleviation of suffering. We acknowledge that there is more than one path to any goal. There is no one “true” approach to living, only ones that work well, or ones that don’t. It is important that we are aware that there are “acceptable” and “unacceptable” paths and develop the wisdom to know the difference. Whether it is a scientific approach, a philosophical approach, a religious approach, or an ideological approach; those that are focused on positive personal and social development have value and we must be willing to set aside differences in favor of combining skills and resources to relieve suffering.

Viewing the world through a pluralistic lens takes practice and commitment. We verify through experiential verification (our own experience proves the validity of a practice or idea) and social consensus (practices and ideas found to work on a societal level) what is useful and productive practices (pragmatism) without attacking another’s belief system (pluralism), and by being aware that blind adherence to dogma can limit positive transformations (philosophy). Professor Diana Eck of the Harvard Pluralism Project clearly describes four aspects of thinking and acting pluralistically.

First, pluralism is not diversity alone, but energetic engagement with diversity.

In this moment we are each practicing pluralism. The Buddha Center’s teachers, staff, members and attendees are from various schools and in this virtual space we energetically encounter each other and build relationships. Around you are people behind those avatars, each person with a different approach to life, yet we sit together as a sangha. Take that same ideal to where you live and there are likely opportunities to become involved in inter-spiritual organizations, charitable organizations, community groups or Buddhist councils.

Second, pluralism is not just tolerance, but the active seeking of understanding across lines of difference.

Pluralism must not begin with tolerance; a more appropriate attitude would be acceptance. Tolerance implies allowing something while maintaining a sense of dislike or hatred. It is a shorter step to actively seeking understanding from acceptance than it is from tolerance. In our Buddhist practice we begin with developing an honest understanding of ourselves and the path we choose. The danger lies in stopping there; in not learning about the path that others follow whatever it may be. Acceptance is not agreement and in the situation where another path may lead to negative consequences it is our responsibility to speak up.

Third, pluralism is not relativism, but the encounter of commitments. The new paradigm of pluralism does not require us to leave our identities and our commitments behind, for pluralism is the encounter of commitments.

Relativism, the philosophical concept that “I do what is right for me”, does not work in a global community. Certainly we are all unique expressions of the Universe and may have committed ourselves to a path or tradition, but that shouldn’t require us to focus on differences. Pluralism is looking deeply at how those differences can be harnessed to work toward the alleviation of human suffering.

Fourth, pluralism is based on dialogue. The language of pluralism is that of dialogue and encounter, give and take, criticism and self-criticism. Dialogue means both speaking and listening, and that process reveals both common understandings and real differences. Dialogue does not mean everyone at the “table” will agree with one another. Pluralism involves the commitment to being at the table — with one’s commitments.

Making the Connection

Wade was enjoying the birthday party for his friend, Orville. There were lots of people Wade knew and some strangers. Orville introduced him to Gary. They chatted about the weather and what was currently smoking on the grill, then Gary pulled a pamphlet from his pocket and extended it to Wade.

Here. You need to read this.” Wade looked at the jingoistic cover with soaring eagle, red/white/blue background, silhouette of marching soldiers and middle eastern figures brandishing rifles to know what the pamphlet was. In large white letters, ‘The Truth About Islam’.

Wade took the pamphlet and flipped it open to the middle. He smiled at Gary. “Thank you but no,” and handed it back

This will tell you the truth about the Muslim religion and how violent it is. Ever since I became a born-again Christian I’ve been discovering what they are really all about.” He tried to go on but Wade interrupted.

Hand-picking the most violent passages from the Koran and the most peaceful passages from the Bible to use as any kind of truth doesn’t work for me.” Wade continued to smile. “Reading about the religion of Islam and the people who practice it has given me a more appropriate truth. My own experience with Muslims has been overwhelming positive, though I, and they recognize that there are violent extremist in most faiths. ”

As a Christian you must . . .”

Gary, I’ve been a practicing Buddhist for many years.”

Ohhhh . . .” The tension in Gary was obvious by his stance and body language. This encounter had taken a direction he wasn’t prepared for.

Wade said, “You mentioned earlier about cooking salmon. Oven or grill?”

Gary’s attention switched on. “I prefer the oven.”

And the conversation continued for a time. They shook hands. Wade took what could have evolved into a conflict and created a connection. Future encounters at Orville’s would begin with that connection.Wade made the effort to change an encounter that could have evolved into a him versus Gary situation to one that allowed an ‘and’ rather than an ‘or’.

Evolutionists vs. Creationists, Black vs. White, Coke vs. Pepsi, Democrat vs. Republican, Harry vs. Valdemort, and list could go on. Versus is a word I’ve taken out of my speaking vocabulary because it isn’t pluralistic. It is a divisive and combative word that can be replaced by “and” without obscuring there are differences between the groups and yet, it also infers the similarities. Part of the psychological practice of Buddhism is changing how you think and doing so, how you act. In the practice of pluralism there is no ‘versus’ . . . there is ‘and’.

You will have encounters with people whose worldview is dramatically different from you own. First reaction is to emphasize the differences. To be pluralistic you must practice a first reaction of uncovering and emphasizing the similarities. Skin color doesn’t play as big a role in this as you might think. It is easier to get past skin color because no matter the hue we’re all human beings, we all suffer. The divisions grow stronger when what one believes becomes part of the conversation. You shouldn’t fear, or avoid these situations. When differences arise it is a natural process of give-and-take in communication, and must be viewed as an opportunity. Not an opportunity for you to change their worldview. That is not pluralistic. It is an opportunity for you to hear their worldview and them to hear yours. Then for you to uncover a subject that you can connect on. Try not to leave a conversation at a point of contention and disagreement.

There is an aphorism, “You never get a second chance to leave a first impression.” There is much truth to that. It is equally true that, “Your last impression is a lasting impression.”


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