The Place of the Sacred in a Pluralistic World

World Economic Forum
New York, February 1, 2002

Opening Remarks

The definition of the “sacred” varies according to time, place, and individual. This is something of which we must be aware in a modern, pluralistic, and globalized society.

Most religions derive their understanding of the “sacred” from their faith in and interpretation of the holy scriptures and teachings they rely on, and some derive it from the revelation of religious experience. On the surface these understandings seem to come directly from objective “divine revelations,” but in reality their formation was influenced by a variety of factors relating to people, time, place, historical background and cultural differences. Thus these understandings are not purely objective.

I believe the highest Truth revered by each religion is necessarily completely perfect and absolutely sacred. However, once human factors come in and interpretations and outside agendas are imposed on this Truth, it becomes subjective and individual differences arise.

Thus, although Buddhists take the theory of causes and conditions as most sacred, we do not deny the values of monotheism—not that we identify with and accept them, but that we can understand and respect them. We can accept that every wholesome religion has room for continued development and the right to proclaim itself the world’s best religion. Likewise, I myself would say that Buddhism is the best religion.

For this reason, to manifest the tolerance expected in a pluralistic society, the definition of the “sacred” must be reinterpreted. We must be aware that although the highest Truth is one, due to differences in cultural backgrounds, the holy scriptures and teachings, which were personally experienced by the prophets of different peoples and passed down orally and in written form, nevertheless have different perspectives and different possible interpretations. In order to save humanity from the danger of conflict and even destruction, we must not only preserve the values of our own group but also respect those of others’. While we can have our own self-centered values, we must also be tolerant of the values held by others.

The catalytic exchanges of a pluralistic society can provide the opportunity to learn from one another and grow; they can keep our cultures perennially vibrant. The days of mono-cultural societies have long gone and will not return again, and fortunately so, otherwise the destiny of humanity would be a very tragic one! Therefore, I want to make this appeal now to all humanity: in a pluralistic world, the one “sacred” principle which all humanity should come to understand is “seeking common ground while preserving differences.”

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