Our dojo is a pluralistic organization in the midst of a pluralistic society. By pluralistic, I don’t just mean open to rich and poor alike, but people of all different religious beliefs, or none at all. On the surface, it may appear that there are conflicts between the various religions based upon their doctrines and policies in trying to convert others to their way of thinking. So the question arises, how can we be pluralistic and all get along at the same time? Look at the Mideast for an example not to follow. What does Aikido teach us here?
To answer, we should start with the stated reason the founder spread Aikido worldwide – to give humanity a practice that could foster world peace. So this is straightforward: we are supposed to peacefully co-exist with others, even if they do not agree with our belief system. We need to harmonize with them. Aikido is an international practice, and even in our small dojo, we have had experience dealing with roughly 10 different religions. It is absolutely critical that we learn to accomplish this task or we cannot fulfill the founder’s mission?
Let’s start out with the big picture. There are roughly 6 billion people on the planet, all with different cultural backgrounds, dispositions, interests, etc. Imagine getting everyone to believe exactly the same thing? Let’s be realistic here; it’s not happening. If we try to force the issue, the environment would be unhealthy and we would wind up pushing more people away from what we want them to believe. Instead, we need to develop a system where we accept people with different beliefs. Now, some people will have no beliefs, some a mild hint of an idea but without religious practice, and still others will be devout practitioners of all different sorts of faiths. It’s actually helpful for ourselves if we know where we are. For example, we may believe we are religious, but if we don’t practice on a daily basis (practice includes doing the difficult work as well as the easy stuff), perhaps we should consider ourselves something less. That said, we need to include everyone here. So we can first devise a system to organize the different practices: (1) theistic religions, (2) non-theistic religions and (3) a secular or non-religious approach.
The theistic and non-theistic approaches both have very similar attributes despite their vastly differing beliefs. We can start with the golden rule, “do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” This idea represents restraining oneself from harming others. Next, they all agree that love and compassion are critical and should be actively used in helping others find happiness. Finally, they all ascribe to some form of selflessness. So starting with the outward behaviors first, we can see that the function of religion is to benefit the people in society because everyone winds up helping everyone else. In this type of environment, clearly the people doing the helping wind up much happier. So we can define the purpose of religion to make the individual happy through the practice of helping others skillfully, so the effect is very constructive for society as a whole as well. How many people whose beliefs could be described as secular would disavow these ideals as negative or unworthy? Common sense supports their value. So whether religious or not, the target is the same: to become happy ourselves through benefiting society as a whole. Well, that is convenient for our purposes, as Aikido also teaches this as the purpose of our practice.
So if ultimately everyone is trying to help each other become happy, how does it get so fouled up? I think we forget the underlying motivation more often than not as we trudge through our daily activities. Let’s take a sample case: I will tell a funny story that happened to me many years ago. I happened to be on a date with a very strange woman. Suddenly she blurted out that she was a witch. I did not know why, so I just sat there and waited. She asked me what I thought of witchcraft. I simply explained that I did not use labels. I thought about it and asked why she practiced witchcraft, to which she replied that she wanted to learn how to manipulate the material world with her mind. I simply said, “wrong answer,” as I recognized that as a deviant motivation. She was not looking to help others, but accumulate power for herself. I started to relay the story that afternoon to a female friend and she stopped me quickly; “Oh my God what did you say to her…I am a witch.” Well, that was an even bigger shock. Two witches in one day. So I then told her exactly what happened, and she said, “Oh, that’s good…very good.” Then she explained that in witchcraft, you basically spend all your time praying for world peace. She agreed the other woman was a deviant practitioner. In our culture, we grew up with the historical hatred of witches that probably stems from the Salem witch trials. If you look closely at what happened during those trials, I suspect you will find a group of people named the Puritans murdered a fair number of innocent people merely because they thought they had different beliefs than their own. If the Puritans were alive today, we might not look as kindly upon them as the witches, which does seem somehow at odds with the reference to the word pure in their name.
So let’s take a look at the pitfalls if I interact with the bad witch (no reference to the Wizard of Oz intended). The first issue is one of my own prejudices. I was brought up with the idea that witches are evil, but I never questioned why. The prejudice simply came through the many generations of American society, but the reason seems to have been lost. If I react out of prejudice without consideration of her actual beliefs, she will be hurt and upset. This apparently occurred to her often in the past and became a sensitive issue for her. By indiscriminately pushing her buttons I would not expect to gain her trust and she would not look favorably upon my advice. If my advice is to shift her to helping others from accumulating power for herself, her likely response would be to try to accumulate more power for herself. I therefore need to be very careful and look at what she believes and actually does in the context of finding happiness for herself rather than my own preconceived notions.
So if I step over this hurdle and begin a process of encouraging her to help others rather than accumulate power, we will run into some pitfalls from her end. I would need to help her understand that she is either practicing a religion or not. If she finds she is not really practicing her religion, she might be surprised. In either case, her objective is to become happy, but let’s take the case that she is practicing a religion on a daily basis. I explain that the purpose of religion is to make her happy. Most would not be upset by this idea. Then, we go through some arguments that making others happy is the best way for her to find happiness. In this way, religion is good for society as well. Obviously this fact is common sense, but her religious texts and teachers should be telling her this as well. If not, challenging her to become happier is not normally looked upon poorly. I can tell her to investigate her religious texts and talk to her teachers. If she is not able to find greater happiness or help others reasonably well, she should reinterpret the doctrines she follows so that happiness and the benefit of society are targeted. If her teachers cannot produce this sort of result, why does she need them? Her scriptures, however, should possess this information. As a genuine practitioner, she should be in the business of improving her understanding of her scriptures on a moment by moment basis, so my request should not be difficult.
If she accepts the challenge, we are done with the problem. However, some people get locked into positions and forget the ultimate objectives of happiness and improvements in society. When this occurs, I simply do my best to skillfully lead her in that direction. If the efforts fail, I do not suffer myself because my intention was good. She will suffer to the extent her intent is selfish. I then just deal with whatever situation arises as needed, and with a clear conscience. On the other side of the coin, if I approach her based upon prejudice or hatred, being fundamentally selfish myself, I will suffer. So the bottom line is that if we keep the interests of others in front of us and act on their behalf, we will be happy, and to the extent the other person feels our intent, they are more likely to listen to us. When we go in the direction of selfishness, we undermine our happiness and increase the likeliness of failure in our efforts. The same is true regardless of which side of the discussion I take. We need to remember the ultimate objective of our practice – to find happiness through helping others and society – whether we are religious or not. We should be distracted with hatred or disputes about dogma. This approach is the fundamental idea of Aikido, as well as all of the religions and also complies quite well with common sense. By following this prescription, we find peace, harmony and happiness.
The same sort of approach can be taken with the proselytizing practices of the various religions, but we will save that for another discussion.