In August 2000, S. N. Goenka participated in the Millennium World Peace Summit—a gathering of 1,000 of the world’s religious and spiritual leaders, held at the United Nations in New York. The purpose of the meeting was to promote tolerance, foster peace and encourage interreligious dialogue. With the many different viewpoints represented, Mr. Goenka tried to highlight what they, and all spiritual paths, have in common: the universal dhamma.
Friends, leaders of the spiritual and religious world: this is a wonderful occasion, when we can all unite and serve humanity. Religion is religion only when it unites; when it divides us, it is nothing.
Much has been said here about conversion, both for and against. Far from being opposed to conversion, I am in favor of it—but not conversion from one organized religion to another. No, the conversion must be from misery to happiness. It must be from bondage to liberation. It must be from cruelty to compassion. That is the conversion needed today, and that is what this meeting should seek to bring about.
The ancient land of India gave a message of peace and harmony to the world, to all humanity, but it did more: it gave a method, a technique, for achieving peace and harmony. To me it seems that if we want peace in human society, we cannot ignore individuals. If there is no peace in the mind of the individual, I do not understand how there can be real peace in the world. If I have an agitated mind, always full of anger, hatred, ill will and animosity, how can I give peace to the world? I cannot, because I have no peace myself. Enlightened persons have therefore said, “First find peace within yourself.” One has to examine whether there is really peace within oneself. All the sages, saints and seers of the world have advised, “Know thyself.” That means not merely knowing at the intellectual level, or accepting at the emotional or devotional level, but realizing by experience at the actual level. When you experience the truth about yourself, within yourself, at the experiential level, the problems of life find their solution.
You start understanding the universal law, the law of nature—or, if you prefer, the law of God Almighty. This law is applicable to one and all: When I generate anger, hatred, ill will or animosity, I am the first victim of my anger. I am the first victim of the hatred or animosity that I have generated within. First I harm myself, and only afterwards do I start harming others. This is the law of nature. If I observe within myself, I find that as soon as any negativity arises in the mind, there is a physical reaction: my body becomes hot and starts burning; there are palpitations and tension; I am miserable. And when I generate negativity in myself and become miserable, I do not keep the misery limited to me; instead I throw it onto others. I make the entire atmosphere around me so tense that anyone who comes into contact with me also becomes miserable. Although I talk of peace and happiness, more important than words is what is happening within me. And if my mind is free of negativity, again the law starts working. The moment there is no negativity in the mind, nature—or God Almighty—starts rewarding me: I feel peaceful. This too I can observe within myself.
Whatever one’s religion, or tradition, or country, when one breaks the law of nature and generates negativity in the mind, one is bound to suffer. Nature itself provides the punishment. Those who break nature’s laws start feeling the misery of hellfire within, here and now. The seed they sow now is a seed of hellfire, and what awaits them after death is nothing but hellfire. Similarly by the law of nature, if I keep my mind pure, full of love and compassion, I enjoy the kingdom of heaven within here and now. And the seed that I sow will have as its fruit the kingdom of heaven after death. It makes no difference whether I call myself a Hindu, a Muslim, a Christian or a Jain: a human being is a human
being; the human mind is the human mind.
The conversion that is needed is from impurity of mind to purity of mind. And this conversion changes people in wonderful ways. It is not magic or miracle; this is a pure science of observing the interaction of mind and matter within. One examines how the mind keeps influencing the material body, and how the body influences the mind. Through patient observation, the law of nature becomes so clear: whenever one generates mental negativity, one starts suffering; and whenever one is free from negativity, one enjoys peace and harmony. This technique of self-observation can be practiced by one and all.
Taught in ancient times by the Enlightened One in India, the technique spread around the world. And still today, people from different communities, traditions and religions come and learn this technique, to obtain the same benefit. They may continue to call themselves Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim or Christian. These labels make no difference; a human being is a human being. The difference is that through their practice they become truly spiritual people, full of love and compassion. What they are doing is good for themselves and for all others. When someone generates peace in the mind, the entire atmosphere around that person is permeated with the vibration of peace, and anyone who encounters that person also starts enjoying peace. This mental change is the real conversion that is required. No other conversion has meaning.
Permit me to read you a benevolent message from India to the world. Inscribed in stone 2,300 years ago, these are the words of the Emperor Asoka the Great, an ideal ruler, explaining how to govern. He tells us, “One should not honor only one’s own religion and condemn other faiths.” This is an important message for our time. By condemning others and insisting that one’s own tradition is the best, one creates difficulties for humanity. Asoka continues, “Instead one should honor other religions for various reasons.” Every religion worthy of the name has a wholesome essence of love, compassion and goodwill—every religion. We should give honor to the religion because of this essence. The outer form always differs; there will be so many variations in rites, rituals, ceremonies or beliefs. Let us not quarrel about all that, but instead give importance to the inner essence. As Asoka says, “By so doing one helps one’s own religion to grow and also renders service to the religions of others. In acting otherwise, one digs the grave of one’s own religion and harms other religions as well.”
This is a serious warning for us all. The message says, “Someone who honors his own religion and condemns other religions may do so out of devotion to his religion, thinking ‘I will glorify my religion,’ but his actions injure his own religion more gravely.”
Finally, Asoka presents the message of the Universal Law, the message of dharma: “Let all listen: Concord is good, not quarreling. Let all be willing to listen to the doctrine professed by others.” Instead of disagreeing and condemning, let us give importance to the essence of the teaching of every religion. And then there will be real peace, real harmony.