September 15, 2011

Diversity and Debate: Can Buddhists Be More Skillful?

For today's Daily Dharma, we chose the following quote from Rita Gross's piece, Buddhism and Religious Diversity, from our current issue,

Right speech is a vast, important topic in Buddhist training, and nowhere is it more important than in delicate conversations across religious lines. In our current context, arguments or debates about religion are counterproductive and only produce more sorrow and anguish. As Buddhists, we want to avoid participating in or contributing to the contentious atmosphere that permeates much public discourse about religious diversity.

This got me thinking, what about all the debates and arguments that take place just within the world(s) of Buddhism? Buddhism is quite diverse and it is no secret that different traditions see things in different ways and that there are some long standing disagreements. It occurred to me that one could read Rita's article and simply substitute the "religion" with "Buddhism" and would end up with the equally insightful article, "Buddhism and Buddhist Diversity."

In my experience, I have not seen quite as many heated inter-Buddhist arguments in the world as I have online. Perhaps this is just due to the fact that people are less inclined to speak harshly to one another when face-to-face, or maybe it's simply because we can interact more quickly with greater numbers of people online. This made me think that someone should write a "How to skillfully debate other Buddhists online" piece. I'm not much of a debater so don't have a lot to offer beyond this little tidbit of common wisdom:

1. Use "I statements" as opposed to "you statements." Using the word "You" places blame while "I" denotes a feeling. Regarding Buddhist dialogue, using qualifiers such as "in my tradition" or "in my experience" may be particularly applicable.

And that's as far as I got—Anybody have anything they want to add?

Here is an excerpt from the piece, Blinded by Views, by Andrew Olendzki that I think relates and is quite useful:

The problem, as usual, is not with the content but with the process. So the solution is to be found not in what we believe, but in how we hold those beliefs. The solution to differing views is not some objective standard by means of which those with wrong views can simply learn what is true and change to right views. Such a reference point does not in fact exist in our postmodern world of diversity and the local construction of meaning. Rather, the key to harmony is learning to differ in opinions without engaging the fatal move of saying, “Only this is true; everything else is wrong.”

In the Canki Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 95), the Buddha outlines some of the ways we gain knowledge: accepting it on faith, going along with what people generally approve, receiving a tradition that has been handed down through generations, working it out through reasoned argument, or accepting a view after careful reflection. He then goes on to say about each of these that regardless of what one believes, it may turn out to be “factual, true, and unmistaken,” or it may turn out to be “empty, hollow, and false.” Since one can seldom ever really be sure which is the case, truth is best served by recognizing a viewpoint as only a viewpoint, and refraining from taking that extra step of regarding it as true to the exclusion of all other views. In other words, all views—even correct views—are best held gently, rather than grasped firmly.

The point of the story is not just that most things have multiple different perspectives, but the absurdity of being attached to only one viewpoint and the harm that can ensue when one does so. So by all means let’s disagree on things, and even, if need be, let’s do so vociferously. But let’s also try not to take it all personally. That’s when the fists start flying.


Image: "Screaming  Buddha" via lekanucha (FLickr)


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Dominic Gomez's picture

On the other hand, after fracturing into numerous schools and sects over the course of nearly 3,000 years and across at least three major spheres of cultural influence, the Law may finally be returning to its original raison d'être as first postulated by Shakyamuni Buddha.