It is sometimes said that not a drop of blood has ever been shed in the name of Buddhism. This overenthusiastic endorsement is not strictly true although it is true that when compared with other religions, Buddhism has always been remarkably tolerant. How other religions fared when it became the state religion is well illustrated by the reign of King Asoka. While a devout Buddhist himself, Asoka wrote this advice to his subjects: “The king honours both the ascetics and lay followers of all religions and he gives them gifts. But the King does not value gifts and honours as much as he values this – that there should be growth in the essentials of all religions. This can be done in different ways but all of them have as their root, restraint in speech, that is not praising one’s own religion or condemning the religion of others without good cause. And if there is cause for criticism it should be done in a mild way. But it is better to honour other religions for this reason – by doing so one’s own religion benefits and so do the other religions.. therefore contact between religions is good. One should listen to and respect the doctrine’s professed by others. The king desires that all should be well-learned in the good doctrine’s of other religions”. Despite being written in 256BC these words have a remarkably modern ring to them.
Religious intolerance has its roots in exclusivity – believing that only one religion can offer salvation and that the only alternative to salvation is hell. The exclusivist can only see other religions as evil i.e. leading to hell, and thus intolerable. While the Buddha clearly taught that Nirvana can be realised only by practising the Noble Eightfold Path, he did not believe that the only alternative to this goal was hell. One can take rebirth in any of the six realms of existence. Just as importantly, where one is reborn is conditioned by one’s behaviour not by which god one has faith in. Any good person can have a good rebirth no matter what their beliefs and consequently the Buddhist is able to acknowledge and appreciate the good in other religions. Other beliefs that make Buddhism tolerant are the ideas of impermanence and rebirth. The first means that even if a person does go to hell it won’t be forever and the second means that if one does not spiritually progress in this life one will always have the opportunity to do so in the next. The combination of all these ideas means that Buddhism judges other religions by how they advise their adherents to act rather than by what they tell them to believe. As most higher religions promote values like honesty, kindness, generosity, courage and integrity, Buddhism sees them not as dangerous competitors but as allies in man’s quest for liberation.
K.N. Jayatillake, The Buddhist Attitude to Other Religions. Kandy, 1991.