Regular readers may recall that I do a lot of sutta reading, and a lot of that gets done at work when I’m on my breaks. I’ve had more than one occasion arise where fellow employees have asked what I’m reading, and very often I get the proverbial shoulder shrug when I reply that I’m reading the Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, or some other such 800+ page text. These people mean no harm, and generally walk away looking more confused than they did before they asked.
Occasionally, however, someone comes up to ask that question and the conversation doesn’t end there. It starts with the “whatcha reading?” question and moves on fairly quickly to a discussion about their own belief on God, creation, and invariably faith in Jesus.
I think most everyone I know can see that I have had a sort of spiritual upheaval in the last 15 or so months, but they act very surprised when they realize I’m not reading a Bible. This leads me to think that I’m either doing something absolutely right, or at least something that is perceived as right (until idealism gets in the way).
I try to not let it bug me, really. Friendly talk on spirituality can provide an interesting occasion to share different ideas, provided that both sides of a conversation are open to discussion. Mind you, this doesn’t mean that either side has to be particularly open to changing their view, but that they can discuss differences in views without becoming irritated due to attachment to the perceived superiority of their views. I suppose the difference is whether one is able to critically examine their views rather than adhere to them blindly.
I have been surprised how often people I have met are interested in learning about Buddhism, or other spiritual ideas in general (I have one friend that has asked me about Scientology — which I know absolutely nothing about), but have initially acted as if they were afraid to ask. This is probably more a conditioning of our society as a whole than it is something about talking with me specifically. Maybe they are afraid of losing their job if they come off like they are evangelizing at work or something like that, or maybe they genuinely don’t want to upset people and have had bad experiences in the past.
All I can really say is that I welcome friendly conversation even on spirituality. When two people can talk about something while neither expects to necessarily change the other’s mind, information can flow freely and nobody has to feel an obligation to have all of the “right answers.”
And quite frankly, I’ve learned that having all of the right answers means very little in any conversation where one side is simply trying to convert another. A person desiring to take ideas from one religion and create comparisons and equivalences between that religion and his own for the purpose of argument will find nothing but strife in so doing.
I’ve posted it before, but it is worthy of retelling, verse 847 of the Sutta Nipata:
For him who is free from marks there are no ties, to him who is delivered by understanding there are no follies; but those who grasped after marks and views, they wander about in the world annoying people.
This is an idea I practice continually.
In conversation with me, no such talk need go much further than it’s start. I didn’t decide to follow the teachings of the Buddha so that I could start having debates about the finer points of doctrine between Buddhism and other religions (or even different schools of Buddhism, for that matter). The teachings I have adopted show us a way to transcend such needs, and I won’t be drawn hopelessly back into them, and while oftentimes there are similarities and parallels to be seen, there can also be situations where there comparisons can be like describing the differences between an apple and a Volkswagen.
There is a fundamental difference between sharing your views or beliefs and trying to convert others. Oddly, you have better odds of convincing people to your way of thinking if you don’t try to convert, and both sides learn more about each other that way too.
Remember to respect and appreciate others, even if you don’t agree with (or understand) them. In this way, may you always be at peace. Be well, my friends.