The Place of Religion in the Modern World

By Dalai Lama in Beliefs on February 5th, 2009 / One Comment

Your Holiness, how important is religion in the modern world? Do we really need it?

HH: Religious influence is mainly at the individual level. Irrespective of one’s faith or philosophy, transformation takes place within. In a way, that should give us hope. Materially, many have lost hope. However, at a deeper level, faith will sustain hope.

Hope is a contributing factor for religion today. Once hope is lost, one becomes mad, commits acts of violence, participates in destructive behavior, or ultimately commits suicide.

Society is made up of individuals. Because of individuals who have lost hope and behave negatively, there is more and more madness in society today. If their numbers increase, all of society will suffer. If we utilize and understand religious traditions properly, individuals benefit, and so can society as a whole.

Unfortunately, religions today place too much emphasis on ceremony and rituals. This is sometimes old-fashioned and often limiting. What is necessary now is to find the essence of what is important in our daily lives and to connect relevant religious messages, advice, or inspiration with this.

I feel an important factor in religion is to be “God-fearing.” Even though the individual believes he or she has individual power and faculties, a faith in God ensures there is some discipline. Many countries today face a moral crisis, and crimes are increasing. The disciplinary powers of society have conventional methods to control crime, but the individuals involved in wrongdoing are becoming more evasive and sophisticated in their methods. So without self-discipline, some acknowledgment of the spirit within one’s self, and a sense of individual responsibility, it will be very difficult to exercise control. Therefore, various religious traditions have an important, effective role.

What would you say is the essential message of religion?

HH: I believe all major religions teach us to be more compassionate. All religions carry the message of love, compassion, and forgiveness. And forgiveness reflects tolerance and an understanding of the value of another’s rights and views. This is the foundation for harmony.

Perhaps, at a deeper level, our views are transformed because of religious traditions. Religion teaches us some obvious things, but there are some deeper meanings, deeper forces, and deeper influences that it imparts. These widen our view of life. For instance, if an individual has to face pain or suffering, a religious experience or understanding will give deeper meaning to the incident and help reduce the mental burden, anxiety, and pain that are endured.

For example, Buddhists believe in the karmic law, the law of causality, so they know that whatever is happening in their lives is because of some past action, or karma. Ultimately, they know they must take responsibility for those actions. This helps to reduce mental frustration and anxiety.

Even if all religions have the same goal, there tend to be different ideas and areas of emphasis. As someone engaged purposefully in interfaith dialogue, how would you articulate the common ground or the basis for harmony between various religions?

HH: Although all world religions carry the message of love and compassion, it would not be correct to say that all of them have the same objective or beliefs; there are substantial differences. For example, some religions believe in a Creator, and others do not—that represents a fundamental difference.

There exist fundamental differences between the philosophical approaches of the world’s religions. Why did all these diverse philosophies develop? I believe there is a good purpose for these multiple views. Within humanity, there are many different dispositions; and one philosophy, one belief, simply cannot satisfy all. Therefore, the great ancient masters had to demonstrate different philosophies and traditions.

For example, some like spicy food; others do not. Spirituality is food for the mind, and different religions are very necessary for different mental dispositions. For some, the philosophy that the person is nothing and the Creator is most important is suitable. If everything is in the hands of the Creator, one should do nothing against the wishes of the Creator.

If people act accordingly, it gives them a kind of mental satisfaction and moral stability. There are others who approach philosophy with logic. They have a sort of independence or some such power. If it is explained to them that everything is not in the hands of an Almighty Creator but is in their own hands, that really makes a difference.

Irrespective of the different philosophies, the most important point is to have a tamed and disciplined mind and a warm heart. It is unfortunate that today there is so much conflict, division, and bloodshed in the name of religion.

When I was in Tibet, there was no contact with other religious traditions. At that time, my thinking was different. Today, as a result of the many opportunities I have had to meet people from different religious traditions, I am completely convinced that they all have the same potential to produce good human beings. My eyes were opened after speaking with such great people as the late Thomas Merton, Mother Teresa, and so many more. We exchanged deep spiritual experiences, and I realized it is important to come together and work closely with each other.

As a Nobel laureate whose contribution toward secularism is especially lauded, what is your message on religious pluralism?

HH: In India, there are many different traditions of thought and philosophy, including the traditions of other cultures. India is like a supermarket of many religious traditions, and I think that is one of the beautiful things about this country. And because of that reality, religious ahimsa [the doctrine of refraining from harming any living being] has become a part of the Indian tradition. In this, India has set an example for the world. People can live side by side as brothers and sisters despite following many different religious faiths.

This is how the world is becoming smaller and so interdependent. In the past, nations and continents remained more or less isolated. The concept of one truth, one religion, was very relevant then. But today the situation is different. Pluralism in religious faith is necessary and relevant in today’s world.

It is important for me as a Buddhist to believe that Buddhism is the true religion or one truth. It is just as important for a Christian to believe that Christianity is the true religion for him as it is for others. But how do we overcome the contradiction that there is relevance for different truths and traditions?

In reality, there is no contradiction. For the individual, the concept of one truth, one religion, is very important. However, in terms of society and the masses, the concept of several truths, several traditions, is relevant. I’m Buddhist, and I believe that Buddhism is the best. That does not mean that any one of my brothers—whether Hindu, Christian, Muslim, or Jewish—is following a religion of lesser validity. We are all involved in a religion that is appropriate for us.

Today we have the opportunity for closer contact with different traditions, which helps us develop the idea of pluralism and appreciate the values and sanctity of other customs. I learn many valuable things from other traditions. Similarly, some of my friends are also eager to learn from the Buddhist tradition. This is a healthy way to enrich one’s own tradition and develop genuine mutual respect and admiration. I think that’s a sound basis for religious harmony.

What is the Buddhist view of converting an individual from one faith to another? Today, in the West especially, there are many people of different faiths who have shown an interest in Buddhism. What advice would you give them?

HH: Conversion is one-sided when it is without alternatives and is coerced. This is wrong. Voluntary conversion is when an individual makes a choice according to his mental disposition. This seems more suitable to me. Sometimes disaster and confusion follow a change of religion, so it is safer and healthier, perhaps, for people to involve themselves in their own cultural traditions.

My advice to people who wish to convert: First, if one has to follow some faith, it is better to follow one’s own traditional values or religion. Some Westerners who change their religion suddenly, without proper or careful thought, experience confusion. In case you find the Buddhist way or approach more effective and logical, think carefully. Time spent thinking and examining is worthwhile. Finally, if you really feel it is more suitable to your mental disposition, it is okay. An individual has the right to embrace a new religion.

And to digress a bit, when one changes one’s personal religion, there is a tendency to be critical of the original religion in order to justify one’s decision. That’s very bad. It must be avoided. Buddhism may be more suitable for many, yet that does not mean that millions of other people have no values. Those millions do benefit from their religions.

Some practitioners of Buddhism have expectations that are too high, possibly because some of our teachers say that you can achieve Buddhahood within three years. Such a teaching is simply propaganda—you cannot achieve the highest spiritual realization in such a short period, except in exceptional cases. Too many expectations, in the beginning, are wrong. I myself think about the limitless eons that have given me inner strength. One hundred years of a life period is nothing.

Some practitioners cling to one practice without understanding the whole Buddhist system. The transformation of our mind cannot be achieved through just one effort or one practice. Our mind is both very weak and very strong, and it is very sophisticated. When your emphasis is more on learning, you may develop pride. If your emphasis is less on pride, sometimes you lose self-confidence. When you develop more self-confidence, pride also follows.

The mind is very sophisticated, so the antidote to it should also be sophisticated. Think about impermanence; think about eons; think about Buddha’s nature, about the ultimate reality of emptiness; and also think about the mental potential. Think in various ways, and adopt different methods for different situations. That’s the way to shape or change our mind. It takes time. For that reason it is very important to know the basic structure of the Buddhist practice. That’s my advice or suggestion.

How does one discern which practice is best? For example, Buddhist practices depend much on logic, reasoning, and the mind. However, when there are “extraordinary” experiences, one might face a contradiction of sorts and want to dismiss them as “illogical.”

HH: I think, in the beginning, you should simply think of different reasons or different methods that you feel are most effective. That is the only way to judge. Later, at a higher stage, I think that through dreams or sometimes through different kinds of unusual experiences, you can investigate different ways.

To give an explanation from tantra: We can infer certain experiences through the gross levels of our mind and others through the subtle mind. During sleep, in the dream state, our consciousness has reached a subtler level than during the waking state.

This provides us with the opportunity to get a glimpse of certain experiences that are not possible during the waking state when the mind is active at grosser levels. Because of that, one can actually engage in certain investigations during the dream state. Therefore, one can also say that certain things exist that one can only understand through unusual experiences or experiences in dreams.

As I said earlier, all major religions have a single aim—to make good human beings. In this respect, they are the same. Beyond that, there are differences within the different spiritual traditions. One group—for example, Christians—believe that human beings ultimately reach Heaven. However, Buddhism, Jainism, and some ancient Indian traditions accept nirvana, moksha. Within Buddhism, there are different definitions and interpretations of moksha.

The main point is that among the systems that agree on the existence of nirvana and moksha, there are differences. Even among Buddhists, there are differences in the presentation of what is meant by nirvana. Buddhists explain nirvana as the true cessation of all delusions, a mind free of delusions. However, if we were asked whether other systems existed in which such a state could be achieved, the answer would have to be no. In the same way, if we Buddhists were asked if a Buddhist practice existed by which we could achieve going to Heaven—as Christians do—the answer would again have to be no.

A complete system of methods has to be practiced in order to achieve the state of nirvana as explained in Buddhism. There are many people who are not interested in practicing that type of path. There are many people to whom faith appeals more than reason.

Would it be correct to say that to those to whom logical reasoning and investigation appeal, Buddhism is the ideal complete path?

HH: I would agree. However, your question implies that Buddhist teaching presents the path in an exclusively logical way, but if we analyze this, it may not be immediately obvious.

There are different levels of direct experience and perception of both ultimate and relative truth that can be achieved through intense meditative and yogic practices. During the early stages, we can understand such experiences only by using logic and reasoning. We cannot experience them directly. There are only a few people who have had these deep, nuanced, and direct insights of the different levels of truth, for example.

Three types of phenomena exist: some are obvious, some slightly hidden, and others are completely hidden. For example, when we ask how this book came into existence, the usual explanation is that it was produced by causes and conditions. When we ask why it came into existence through such causes and how all these conditions and causes aggregate it, and then, if we delve further, we will come to the point where we will have to say that it was possible due to the karma of the person who has contact with this book. If we investigate even further in order to explain the book’s existence, we might have to go as far as the big bang theory—the beginning of the universe.

The continuity of matter, even simple matter, goes like this, back to the previous stage, then to a stage before that stage, right to the beginning of the whole cosmos. The next question is: what is the reason for the creation of such things? Either God or some different instance is the answer. If the answer were the Creator God, it might solve one problem but create others, create more questions.

There is no beginning; this is endless because of sentient beings, because of the continuity of consciousness. That is the Buddhist explanation. This may not answer all the questions, but it answers some. This theory gives some satisfactory answers, which can be established through reasoning.

For example, certain facts cannot be proved, and we have to rely on the statements of a third person. We know that we are a certain number of years old, but we do not know this through our own experience, nor can we prove it through reasoning. We have to believe our mothers. We have faith in our mothers because there is no reason why they should lie. When we finally find that a person is completely reliable, we accept his or her statements. What is meant by reasoning or faith is to understand the consequences of certain actions that have accumulated over a certain period of time.

If we are to rely on the direct perceptions of a Buddha, we have to be convinced that the Buddha is free of ignorance and obscuration. We realize that there is no reason for him to tell lies and that the statements are not inconsistent and have no contradictions. When these conditions are fulfilled, we believe him and have faith in him.

This excerpt was taken from the new book, All You Ever Wanted to Know from His Holiness the Dalai Lama on Happiness, Life, Living, and Much More, Conversations with Rajiv MehrotraIt is published by Hay House (February 2009) and available at all bookstore or online at

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One Response to “The Place of Religion in the Modern World”

  1. D.Bheemeswar Says:

    This one of the best article that I have seen on this sight. There are so many religions on this earth, In Hinduism itself there are so many customs and practices, each one distinct from another, but overall everybody agrees that it is Ultimately the GOD and his/her variations.
    All these customs and practices makes one ethically and morally binding together. Then only the Humanlyness comes into play important role in building the future of all.

    Presently there is no order or any righteousness or virtuousness in the world. This is because of the degradation of ethical and moral values in the society.

    Other way the root cause is trying to impose some thing that has entirely different historical background. For example Moosa in Islam is called as Moses, Gabriel is called as Gibraile, Isa in Islam is called as Jesus, Ibrahim is called as Abraham. The same Gibraile is called as Garuda in Hinduism. Under the name of Isopakyanam or Isaupanishad, which are much better version than what is there in bible.

    This changes we attribute to time as time goes on some these things are changed to some other form to confuse coming generations. Some of these changes have been done purposefully to side track for the advantage of few.

    This has been forcefully put or imposed on others, this imposition is the root cause of all the troubles that world is facing now.

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