One of my good friends sent me a video clip recently that was titled "Your Religion Is Not Important." Even though most of my ministry is within Honolulu’s interfaith community, I found the statement troubling.
Most people of faith are taught that their religion is true, often to the exclusion of any other religions. Actually, the importance one attaches to one’s religion can be a source of strife, as we witness in many of the conflicts that are being fought even today in the name of religion. It can also be a source of spiritual nourishment.
The film clip is a brief dialogue between Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff and the Dalai Lama that occurred at a round-table discussion about religion and freedom. Boff, who was ordained a Franciscan but resigned from the priesthood in 1992, is an outspoken proponent of liberation theology, which calls for churches to engage themselves in the political and economic struggles of the poor and disenfranchised.
With what Boff describes as "malicious intent," he asks the Dalai Lama in this video, "What is the best religion?" Boff anticipated that the Dalai Lama’s response would be Tibetan Buddhism or one of the other Eastern religions that are far older than Christianity. To his surprise, the Dalai Lama’s response was, "The best religion is one that gets you closest to God. It is the one that makes you a better person."
Few, if any, of us would find it hard to accept such a wise answer. Seeking to rescue himself from his embarrassment, Boff asked him, "What is it that makes me better?" The Dalai Lama’s response was even more enlightening:
"Whatever makes you more compassionate, more sensible, more detached, more loving, more humanitarian, more responsive, more ethical. The religion that will do that for you is the best religion.
"I am not interested, my friend, about your religion or if you are religious or not. What really is important to me is your behavior in front of your peers, family, work, community and in front of the world. Remember, the universe is the echo of our actions and our thoughts. The law of action and reaction is not exclusively for physics. It is also of human relations. If I act with goodness, I will receive goodness. If I act with evil, I will get evil."
The Dalai Lama continued, "Take care of your thoughts because they become words; words because they become actions; actions because they become habits. Habits will form your character; character will form your destiny; and your destiny will be your life. There is no religion higher than the truth."
In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus speaks about the "Golden Rule." Jesus says, "In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you." It is a message also given by the founders of all of the world’s great religions, including the Buddha, Muhammad and Moses.
It is how we act, whether we are persons of integrity and authenticity, how we think about others and ourselves, that is more important than our religion and religious beliefs. To the extent it assists us successfully in leading a good life, we can say our religion is "the best."
Most Rev. Stephen Randolph Sykes is bishop of the Inclusive Orthodox Church in Hawaii. He is on the boards of directors of the Interfaith Alliance Hawaii and All Believers Network.