If you were able to sit down for a moment and talk with the Pope, before you even got that far you'd have to go through all kinds of pomp and circumstance and rigamarole that you'd never have to go through anywhere else. If you had a problem with any curious thing you discovered there, be it tall hats, obscene wealth, bleeding statues or the exaltation of mere mortals over other mere mortals, it would be you who would be considered oddball and weird, not them. You'd have no chance of making a reasonable, fact based case against any of their extreme Vatican ways or perspectives. Indeed, if you even tried to make such a case you'd be escorted off the property or worse.
But let's say you did go through all the rigamarole and you now have the opportunity to sit with the Pope and ask him a question. Your question is, "What can you tell me about Buddhism? Do you think Buddhism would be right for me?" What do you suppose the Pope would say?
Would he extol to you all the virtues of Buddhism and suggest that you go check it out for yourself, with his blessings? Or wouldn't he in fact respond with various descriptions and opinions of Buddhism that would, no matter how diplomatically, negate the validity of Buddhist beliefs and practices? Would he not insist that if you're at all concerned with your spirituality that there is only one right way to go about it, and that way would just happen to be his way?
There's not much chance that you'd hear anything but bad news about Buddhism and a 100% probability that you'd be told to become Catholic. The best thing for you to do, you'd be told, would be to get down on your knees to this man, and do whatever he and his official representatives tell you to do. Without question, without doubt, and without hesitation. And if you took the plunge and became Catholic but then decided it didn't work for you, it would quickly become a matter of fact that your refusal to submit yourself fully would make you a bad person.
If Catholicism didn't work for you, if it did not feed you spiritually, if being expected to prostrate yourself before some guy in a tall hat rubbed you the wrong way, it could only be because there is something wrong with you. The Catholic doctrine and rituals would be above scrutiny and reproach. At the Vatican, the Catholic leadership exists in an eternal state of perfection, even when thousands of priests worldwide rape little children, the church itself remains unscathed and above all doubt.
No, I'm afraid that if any problems arose between you and the Catholic church, it would be you who is the bad person, not the church, not the Pope, not the deeply entrenched system. Even the plain old ordinary Catholic on the street would be quick to agree with that judgment. In Vatican controlled territory, only one set of rules, laws and perspectives apply. These rules, laws and perspectives are strictly accepted as unshakable truths and all would be considered the very definition of right and good. The Vatican way would be inarguable and immovable. It would be the only way, period.
But does that make it so?
It might very well be the only way at the Vatican, but anywhere else you go it would not be the only way. In fact it wouldn't be a way at all. If you went to any Buddhist country and asked the prevailing Lama the same question you just asked the Pope, you'd obviously get a very different answer.
If you went to Thailand you'd be given a very different description and explanation of Buddhism and Buddhist beliefs, and you'd have a hard time finding anyone anxious to condemn your interest in Buddhism or attempting to dissuade you from joining up.
It's highly improbable that you'd be sat down and sold Catholicism. You'd find no Popes or cardinals or ordained Catholic priests to threaten you with an eternity of burning in hellfire and damnation for not choosing Catholicism. There would be no sign of Buddhist monks skulking around with their heads hung in shame and guilt for not being Catholic. And you'd be introduced to some totally different beliefs than those you heard at the Vatican, including things like reincarnation.
Something you would find in common with the Vatican though is a preexisting dominant culture. It wouldn't be Vatican culture, it would be a different dominant culture. Everything said and done by official Buddhism would be said and done in their own Buddhist style. They too would have their own rituals, pomp and circumstance. They would also have their own laws, rules and perspectives. Their Buddhist culture would be the dominant culture and any attempts on your part to make a case against Buddhism would fall on disinterested ears.
If you sought out the Dalai Lama of Tibet and asked him what he could tell you about Catholicism and whether it was right for you, I sincerely doubt he'd insist it was the one and only way to go. He would be of the belief that his way is the better of the two, the right way for him and possibly for you too. I don't think he'd back his position up with threats or with guns and thugs like they might at the Vatican, and I don't think he'd even be all that judgmental of you for being Catholic in his presence. There does seem to be more in the way of a live and let live acceptance around Buddhist beliefs and ways. But there's little doubt that deep inside where it counts, there exists a solid belief in the goodness and rightness of Buddhist doctrine, and that the common Buddhist on the street would automatically share the general opinions of the Buddhist figureheads.
You're going to get that sort of attitude pretty much anywhere you go with any belief system out there. Dominant belief systems most definitely control life in their respective jurisdictions and they all do so with the firm belief that theirs is the right way, the only way that is truly valid and real. Criticisms and doubts are never well received, and figureheads and common believers alike will have ready answers to doubts and dissenting opinions. The major belief system will carry on unscathed and remain powerful and dominant regardless of whatever serious facts come along that poke holes in the fabric of their beliefs.
This is the thing that makes all religions equal and keeps them at least somewhat humble. It's easy to see that widely differing religious beliefs still have much in common, and that they're dominant based on where they are on the planet. All of them share the undeniable reality that none of them can be "proven" to be right. It is, after all, about faith, not about proof. It is better to have tolerance and mutual respect between different religions than it is to wage endless war over something that's a matter of faith, not fact.
The thing about strongly held beliefs that gives me the willies, is the zealous intolerance to differing opinions and viewpoints, which are a normal part of life on earth. We've got them, they're here and they've always been here. It's not a problem to have different beliefs, it's only a problem being intolerant of them. Bringing up a differing opinion or even opposing facts can sometimes be met with tolerance and without taking offense, but sometimes it can evoke tremendous intolerance and offense and lead to rabid, even violent, hatred.
I can't help but notice that when belief systems are more tolerant of the fact that other people have their own ideas and backgrounds and beliefs, that there is very little chance of friction coming up around differing opinions. But in more demanding, hierarchical belief systems where they insist on absolute unquestioning submission and conformity, the more risk there is that they will back up their positions with oppressive or even violent means. It's almost as if the less they have to stand on, the more insistent they are that no one be allowed to question what they've got going. That would make sense in that insecurity can make people do crazy things, not the least of which is to become unreasonable and lash out with violence.
We've all witnessed the insanity of extreme belief if we've paid attention at all to the last few years of American politics. There is a stubborn demand for all to remain blind to facts, to not see real harm being done in the carrying out of our new doctrines, to automatically reject contradictory facts and truths whenever they come up. It seems that true believers absolutely hate facts and truths that show them up and prove them wrong. They'd rather pretend they're right even when they know they're wrong. Those who buy into whatever dominant beliefs control the various areas of our lives are every bit as resistant to and offended by contrary facts and evidence that bring their bogus fairy tales into question.
But the thing about fairy tales is that they are fairy tales. They aren't subject to the same rules and laws that reality is. By definition fairy tales, beliefs, dominant systems, dogmas, patriotism, scientific beliefs, medical beliefs, educational beliefs, superstitions, enculturated rituals and habits, all of them, are based in popular belief more than they are based in tangible truths. It seems people really like it that way too, they don't want any holes poked in their personal belief systems, no matter how much better it might make their lives in the long run if they gave it some thought. They'd prefer to ignore screaming facts to whatever extent possible for as long as possible and they'll continue to do so unless and until they are given a paradigm change that is officially condoned. In most any belief system, change is fiercely resisted and rejected, even when change is sorely and obviously needed.
After seeing the damage done by expounders of hard core beliefs, it may surprise some people when I say that religions and spiritual beliefs are important and that there is room for them all. The more the merrier I say. Let me explain why. The fact is that organized religions do some very important things for humanity, not the least of which is to establish boundaries for human behavior that are taken seriously. The boundaries they set are given the highest official status, and are not to be crossed without very serious negative PR. No individual person can do that. No one person's boundaries have ever been respected by power. We need organized religion to assert the reality of human rights.
It's sad but it's still true. We're still utterly incapable of being able to respect all others and recognize every individual's rights and sovereignty just because they're a living being. That's just not good enough. Still on this planet, individuals hold no authority. All authority belongs to those in power and no individual can stand against that and demand justice, they just get run over and forgotten about, they wouldn't even be noticed.
We literally need to have the authority of official religious organizations to promote, define, teach about and insist upon moral behavior. People must be given strong teaching from childhood about what defines good and bad, and why good is good and why bad is bad, and all the world's most popular religions try to do that. They all have some kind of basic morality in common. If there were no religions to do that and to keep these beliefs alive and worthy of respect, guess what kind of ideology would quickly step in to replace it? The ideology of no rules. Of no respect. Of the strong over the weak. Of the ends justifying the means. It would not be pretty. Religions, when not corrupted, do really important work on this world.
We've all seen how foaming-at-the-mouth people in power can become. Is there any doubt that the insanity of the bush administration would have checked itself in any way if it didn't have to? Clearly not. They broke every rule of law and decency they ran up against, easily disregarding the fact that laws and rights and concepts of moral decency exist specifically to curb zealots like themselves and to prevent them from causing the inexcusable harm and misery they've caused. That's the trouble with zealots, they're nuts. They're always nuts.
It's an interesting irony that the only thing that can stop zealots from having their way with the world is the zealotry of others. Somehow they can connect to that concept. At the root of all strong belief systems is the assertion that the laws of that system supersede earthly law. Zealots can break any earthly laws on the grounds of their beliefs and still tell themselves they're moral, decent people, but it's not so easy to break the laws coming from religious beliefs. In the end it boils down to opposing beliefs of unearthly origin which cannot be proven one way or the other that keeps the planet from coming apart at the seems. Zealots recognize the immovability of other zealots and this is the only thing that keeps the really bad guys from going for broke.
Raging beliefs inspire men to do horrendous things to people whose crime is simply not believing what they believe, that's their whole criteria. Legitimate organized religions of the present day are literally the only protection we have against truly evil zealots of all kinds, including religious and non religious ones. Without the established major religions there would be nothing that could stop the worst kind of zealots from ripping this world into little pieces, and soaking it in billions of gallons of human blood. Without major organized religions to intervene and condemn that kind of psychopathic aggression, without them being an official voice that even zealots can hear, there would be no other voices that would matter.
I think there's an erroneous tendency to blame religion for the evils that zealots do. Religion is neither bad nor good just sitting in a book. Like anything else, it can be done right or it can be done wrong. It's not any given religion itself that does harm, it's the nut balls that gain a foothold and take it over the top and make it something it's not. They assign themselves roles of righteous defenders of their over the top beliefs and somehow, in their own misguided minds, they think that brutally murdering anyone who doesn't share their zealotry is a good thing. It's very strange when you stop to think about it that what's inside someone's head is considered so incredibly threatening to some people that the only way they can deal with it is to kill those thoughts right out of existence. Maybe there's more to what we keep in our minds than we know.
The truth about zealotry is that it is never about religion. Zealotry is a form of intellectual aggression, demanding others to support a cause or die. It is used to self-excuse inexcusable behavior and is always the self-justifying precursor to perpetrating unjustifiable physical violence. Zealotry is about being seriously mentally disturbed and needing to lash out. It may be about shame that is pointed outward instead of being faced. It may be about having a lust for blood, some people really like killing. It can be about raging insecurities that turn people into control freaks and with plenty of support behind them the sky is the limit. When you do it in God's name there's no reason to check yourself for signs of insanity, you're golden, at least in your own unquiet mind.
Zealotry is rising to the top of public organizations in a way I've never seen before. Apparently we've lost the ability to tell the difference between real values and the obnoxious, self righteous false values of others, when those others claim to be the guardians of all that's good and right and that which we uphold. I think we confuse the man with the doctrine and forget they have nothing to do with each other. We forget that the doctrine is always specifically aimed at the individual, at each of us, to live it if we believe it. It is not a team sport, we don't get points for joining and following, and we don't benefit at all from what we profess to believe in if that's how we perceive things. It's not about winning or prevailing over others, it's about winning and prevailing over ourselves.
Beliefs are personal, they are only personal, and we all are entitled to have our beliefs regardless of what anyone else wants them to be. It is unreasonable and irrational to demand that others see things as we do. It is wrong to demand that others change and it is wrong to kill others for refusing to bow to our will. We must recognize zealotry when we see it in our leaders, and we must see it when we are lured into zealotry ourselves. We need to reject it, no matter how compelling it sounds. We can do without zealotry. The world is not coming to an end by it's own hand. The world comes to an end at the hands of zealots, who in fact do the lion's share of all of the worst kinds of harm in the world.
Doing unconscionable things in the name of good is always a lie; but blaming the world's religions for the actions of zealots is missing the mark. If we are truly moral people we know we have to take each person as they come and judge them according to their own words and actions. We cannot condemn millions of people across the board who could have no conceivable knowledge or affiliation with dangerous certain specific zealots calling for the blood of imaginary enemies.
Obnoxious religious zealotry could actually be part of a larger game that seeks to undermine and destroy the legitimacy of all organized religion. There could be, and I believe there actually is, a long range plan to end all of the interesting, diverse, thousands of years old cultural religious beliefs that give us all the protection of human rights and which, if nothing else, stand for the sanctity of life. Turning the world off to organized religion through heinous displays of religious zealotry could easily lead to the eventual rejection of all organized religion which in my view would leave us all in the hands of the worst kind of zealots the world would ever know.
If that ever happened humanity would forever be the victims of people who use humanity for their own ends with no moral constraints because there would be no more recognition of morality and hence no claims could ever be made against the most inconceivably evil forms of human exploitation and suffering that future technology will make to order for just that purpose.
Praise the Lord. Praise Allah. Praise Buddha. Support the rights that all people have to the spiritual beliefs of their choosing. It could truly be that those rights are the thin line between hope for a better world and the introduction of new belief systems that see only money and power as legitimate and all other life as irrelevant.