Global Conference on Religion

Hammarskjold Library Auditorium, United Nations, New York, May 21, 2003

Opening Remarks by Master Sheng Yen

Organized by the World Council of Religious Leaders, the Global Ethics Resource Center, Touro College Law School, and Fordham University Law School, the global conference was convened at the request of Kofi Annan, Secretary-General of the United Nations (UN).

The conference proposed discussing the issue from the perspectives of both religion and international law. Chan Master Sheng Yen was a member of the panel of guest speakers, made up of representatives from Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism and Islam, as well as experts on international law. The audience was made up of UN staff members, diplomats, representatives of various religions, law experts and students.

We believe that all religions of the world advocate that human beings should live together in harmony. We should accept that all religions in the world believe that the God they worship is the most righteous, the most loving, and possesses the greatest capacity to give humanity blessings of well-being and happiness.

We must ask, however, why throughout its history the world has been rife with contradiction and conflict, violence and terror, and why this has happened among social groups with the strongest religious fervor? Even among believers of the same religion in the same ethnic group, because of differences in times, environments, individual understanding, and emotional experiences, differences arose, and people then insisted that the God that accorded with their own knowledge, views, experiences and beliefs was the only true God, the most peace-loving and the most real, and also the most perfect ultimate truth. This is how opposition, ideological rivalry, and violent confrontations come about. This is probably the main reason behind the intolerance between different forms of fundamentalism, which in turn brings about bloody conflict.

This is neither the problem of God nor of religion. Rather, this is due to human beings' ignorance, their lack of wisdom, and their inability to open up their minds and attempt to understand themselves and others. If a person believed that God is omniscient, omnipotent, full of love and authority, he or she would also believe that God would provide the most appropriate teachings and aids suitable to the needs of the numerous different ethnic groups of different times and civilizations. These various manifestations would be the result of God's all-encompassing love for all His people. With such an understanding, one would see that the Gods worshipped by all religions and sects are all the Supreme, monistic God, manifesting in different forms as the result of His universal love for humanity. If God can manifests in many different forms, then followers of all the religions are none other than children of God. Aren't they, therefore, all brothers and sisters? Is there still any need for opposition and conflict?

If this is not understood, however, suspicion, denial, opposition and struggle between religions and sects will inevitably result in endless conflict that will destroy people’s sense of security. To guarantee the group's safety and protect its capacity for survival, to preach God's love and extend God's righteousness and power, people see no choice but to use violence as a means of suppressing those they deem to be evil enemies. The evil enemies are to be terrorized, destroyed, and thoroughly annihilated from the face of the earth so that no lurking dangers for one's ethnic group and religious sect might remain. In reality, one can never completely annihilate all those who disagree with one's thinking and religious beliefs. Enemies are all initially generated from within ourselves; and after one group is exterminated, another group will appear. The view that all the groups one disagrees with are evil demons brings about an endless cycle of retaliation. How terrible this is!

I believe, therefore, that religious violence and terrorism have their origin in human insecurity. When people experience phenomena that they do not yet know or understand,, they react out of suspicion and fear. From fear they resort to violent means, striking preemptively to embolden themselves and instill terror in their enemies.

How can we solve this as yet unresolved millennia-old problem? I suggest the following two general approaches:

  1. The most swiftly effective means is to pass a resolution under international law in the United Nations stipulating that in order to protect human beings' freedom of pluralistic religious belief and security of human lives, any individual, ethnic group, or country who uses religious groups to incite violence and terrorism should be tried by an international criminal court and subjected to sanctions by all of humanity. However, this is not my area of expertise; hence this should be discussed by the legal experts in this conference.
  2. The most thoroughly effective means is:
    1. Call upon all people of love and wisdom to employ all means and approaches to, unhesitatingly extend friendship towards every ethnic group, region, and individual prone to terrorism. Let them know they are not alone or helpless, and let them feel the warmth of caring, respect and acceptance. Once they feel secure, they will no longer have to engage in violent terrorist action as a result of their fear.
    2. Call upon all people of love and wisdom to employ all means and approaches to interact with, understand, and empathize with every ethnic group, region, and individual prone to terrorism. Whenever appropriate, they can be helped to correctly understand their own religious beliefs and learn that to receive God's love they need to emulate God’s all-encompassing love for the world. With such an understanding, no one need regard terrorists as evil demons. On the other hand, if everyone treats those with whom they disagree like evil demons, terrorist attacks will never end. Only when we give the world our love can we resolve all forms of enmity. This is the most reliable action for individual and global security.
    3. Call upon all people of love and wisdom to continuously employ all means and approaches to introduce, where appropriate, a knowledge of pluralistic ethnicities, cultures, and religions to every ethnic group, region, and individual prone to terrorism. This is to help them understand that the inevitable trend of civilization and common necessity of modern human society is the allowance for the mutual existence and prosperity of a plurality of cultures. Only when we tolerate differences among various ethnic groups within a pluralistic global society can we exchange virtues and strengths and learn from each other. On the other hand, if people choose only to reject those who are different from themselves, and seek to intimidate and conquer them through violent and terrorizing methods, eventually they themselves will end up targets of terror and conquest.
    4. Call upon all people of love and wisdom to continuously employ all means and approaches to encourage, where appropriate, teachers of all religions and their various sects and all intellectual and influential religious people to reexamine their sacred writings. If they discover points that contradict the inclusiveness of a pluralistic global culture, those texts should be reinterpreted. Human society has long transitioned from the dominance of a monolithic culture into that of cultural plurality and mutual interaction. Those who pay no heed will either be isolated from or come into conflict with the common global community as a result of their conservatism and insistence.
    5. Call upon all people of love and wisdom to continuously employ all means and approaches to make use of every appropriate opportunity to advise all religious and spiritual leaders that, while they should pay attention to politics, they should not harbor political ambition. Furthermore, they should warn their followers to resist being provoked, manipulated, or controlled by politicians and become the tools of such individuals. They should advise their country's political leaders that they can remain devoted to their religious beliefs and true to their religious experiences resulting from their spiritual cultivation; however, they should not exploit religious followers, arouse religious fanaticism, incite religious reprisals, nor declare "holy war" against people who do not agree with them, nor use terrorist tactics for political gains. In other words, ambitious religious and political leaders should be helped to understand that in today’s global world, religion and politics must function separately. Otherwise, while God and religion in and of themselves do not present a problem, it is unavoidable that people with harmful ambitions will exploit both the name of God and their followers to incite ethnic conflict and violence. Where the more powerful side resorts to war, the weaker side resorts to terrorism. The result is to bring endless calamity upon the world.

The statements I have made here are my recommendations for today's topic of discussion and not a representation of Buddhist beliefs. Buddhism does not deny the Gods worshipped by other religions. But Buddhism is concerned with how to use compassion in interactions with others and how to use wisdom in one’s affairs. A compassionate person does not see any loathsome enemies. A wise person does not react with suspicion, fear, or retaliation. Buddhists should not harbor attitudes that go against these principles, whether scriptural justification for them exists or not.

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