Inter-Religious Disharmony – The Path to Peace

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.

Overview – Why Practice Aikido?

After training about 20 years, my teacher told me that part of the practice of Aikido is to figure out why you are doing it.  Why did he wait so long to tell me, I wondered…

There are two factors that all beings have in common: a wish to live and a wish to be happy.  There are no exceptions.  Even those who wish to be miserable do so perversely because they think it will make them happy.  Even those who wish to die are ignoring their deeper longings.  They really wish to live and be happy, but many times just become discouraged  and think they can never be happy alive, so they then think they prefer to die.  Ultimately all wish to live and be happy.

Aikido is an activity that functions in two ways.  The physical function is to teach people how to survive a violent attack without harming the attacker unnecessarily.  The activity itself promotes life both of the attacker and attacked, one of the two factors that all beings desire.  The second function is that by learning to perform the activity efficiently, one can develop a profound sense of peace and happiness.  This happiness represents the second factor that all beings desire.

So far, this process looks fairly easy.  We wish to live and we wish to be happy.  By studying how to survive in the most efficient possible manner, we live and become profoundly happy.  The problem emerges not in the why, but in the question of how.  We have become habituated to failure and unhappiness since birth. Bruce Cockburn said it rather well…”the blues have the world by the balls…”  Do you question this fact?  Name one thing you have ever done because you genuinely wanted to be miserable?  But are you profoundly happy every moment of your life and in every circumstance?  Is there ever a worry or concern for the future?  If people were genuinely happy all the time, who needs a hobby?  Why search out a job you like or a marital partner you prefer?  If we were genuinely happy in all circumstances, we would not need to search out happiness in anything we do, but if you look closely we are always searching, in every single moment.  This is our habit.  In the same way that we fail to find a complete sense of happiness, we are programmed for self defeat in every endeavor, which becomes painfully evident to us when we train.

The problem is that we are looking in the wrong place for a solution.  There was once a story of a man who saw his neighbor searching under a street lamp for something.  He went up and asked him what he lost, to which the man replied that he lost the keys to his house.  “Did you lose them here?” The man replied, “No, I lost them in my bedroom.”  “Then why are you looking for them here?”  The man answered, “Because there is more light here.”  We look for happiness outside ourselves, but the only place we can find it is within.  We should continue our search, but we need to do it more intelligently…find a more permanent solution.

Since we don’t need to spend much time explaining why people want to live and be happy, the focus of this blog will be the question of how we get from ineffective and unhappy in our activities to effective and happy.  We will discuss the philosophy of Aikido and explain how the training methods and specific aspects of the study of technique enable one to achieve the dual goals of life and happiness.  Feel free to comment, question and challenge as we go along the way…

The Martial Art of Peace