How does one celebrate World Religion Day? Especially if, like me, you are not a follower of any organized religion?
Well, I learned that it makes perfect sense for those of the Bahá’í Faith, who invited us to a special event last Sunday at the National Bahá’í Centre in Kingston. The Bahá’í belief is that all religions are one – each appearing at different stages in human history to guide us along the path. If you could sum up its founder Bahá’u’lláh’s vision in a few words, it would be that striving towards unity, with all religions unifying mankind under one God (If only that were so; many see religion as a divisive force in the world today). Yet, when we sat down, listened and talked at the Bahá’í Centre, we saw that the world’s religions are truly not far apart in essence; especially when talking about the environment, this planet, this Universe we share.
The Bahá’í Centre is blue and white – that special powder blue that Jamaican cake decorators like to use (along with that special lemony yellow). After complicated maneuverings in the parking lot, we walked to the door. Gentle acoustic guitar music greeted us. There were curtains at the windows, in brilliant shades of purple, gold and crimson. We were a small but thoughtful gathering, including two young children who were eventually detached from us, so they could make more noise. We met Adib, an amiable Bahá’í IT specialist from Tanzania. We were all there to discuss Environmental Stewardship.
The guitarist stopped playing, and Ms. Hilary Gooden welcomed us and read a prayer. The language of the Bahá’í scriptures is quite beautiful, in a flowery kind of way. It reminds me of the elegant poetry of Rumi (a centuries-old poet who is much en vogue these days) and other Persian poets who wrote in an “exalted style.” And so, from Ms. Gooden, there was this phrase: “All are submerged in the Ocean of Thy Mercy.” Lovely.
Since the representative of the Hindu faith was unable to attend, Ms. Gooden read the Hindu Declaration on Climate Change, presented at the Parliament of World Religions in Melbourne, Australia, in 2009. The theme of that meeting was “Making a World of Difference: Hearing Each Other, Healing the Earth.” What a marvelous document, clear and succinct. Read it here: http://www.hinduismtoday.com/pdf_downloads/hindu-climate-change-declaration.pdf It starts off on the right note: “The Hindu tradition understands that man is not separate from nature…” Thus, we cannot destroy nature (as we are doing) without destroying ourselves.
The Declaration urges Hindus (there are 900 million Hindus worldwide) to work towards an “international consensus” and a “global consciousness” to confront the threat of climate change. An updated Declaration was issued just before the Paris Climate Change Conference and can be read here: http://www.hinduclimatedeclaration2015.org The tone is noticeably more urgent, stressing the need for individual actions (both spiritual and practical) as well as a swift move towards 100 per cent renewable energy and a turn towards vegetarianism (which would make a difference for a number of reasons). The fundamental belief, in Sanskrit, from the Īśopaniṣad, is: “Īśāvāsyam idam sarvam. This entire universe is to be looked upon as the energy of the Lord.”
Aisha Mulendwe is a Buddhist. She is also a member of the Soka Gakkai Society – a branch of Nichiren Buddhism, founded in 1930 by Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, a teacher in Hokkaido, Japan. Like the founders of the Bahá’í faith, the early adherents of Soka Gakkai were persecuted and imprisoned for their beliefs. Soka Gakkai is an activist religion, if you like, determinedly pursuing a quest for peace; its founders were strident opponents of nuclear proliferation during the Cold War, and its current President Daisaku Ikeda writes an annual Peace Proposal every year, on January 26. Ms. Mulendwe says the Buddhist belief is that we are “one with the environment… We are all interdependent, like fish and water.” Our inner selves and our outer environment are inseparable; an “impoverished, desolate environment,” such as the one we are creating for ourselves, “upsets the balance” of our internal self and prevents us from achieving our highest potential. Yes – don’t we feel that? Karma can be changed, Ms. Mulendwe emphasized; with our actions we can make a difference, as individuals. Ahead of COP21 in Paris, Daisaku Ikeda’s 2015 Peace Proposal included the need to build a “sustainable global society.” He concluded: “I wish to emphasize that it is the solidarity of ordinary people that, more than any other force, will propel humankind in our efforts to meet the challenges that face us.” You can find his website at http://daisakuikeda.org
Dr. Sulaiman from the Islamic Council of Jamaica recited a part of the Koran (Qur’an) and translated it for us: “The sun and moon run on their fixed courses…” The Koran tells us that the Universe has been created in balance, he said (without going into all the astronomical discussions). It has been given to us “as a trust.” A beautiful passage in the Koran (SURAH 55: AL RAHMAN – The Most Gracious) describes the sky, the trees, the ocean, the fruits of the earth, and so on – and repeats: “Then which of the favours of your Lord will you deny?” There are several courses of action, Dr. Sulaiman noted: firstly, contemplation and reflection on the Earth; secondly, making use of the Earth sustainably, through agriculture; thirdly, since there is reward in doing good, it makes sense to take care of the earth. Finally, if you plant a tree, that is seen as an act of charity. You are giving back to the earth. The Islamic tradition, he noted, has always been close to nature. Islamic gardens are famous the world over, and seen as places for rest and contemplation. Poor old, battered Baghdad was famous for its gardens once; the Gardens of Babur in Afghanistan have been restored, thankfully. Dr. Sulaiman mentioned the gardens of Andalusia in Spain, with their fountains.
Dr. Phyllis Green discussed the Christian approach. Environmental stewards, she suggested, could be divided into three categories: the doers (volunteers who work hard, such as on our coastal cleanup days), the donors (who provide the means to take care of our environment) and the practitioners (whose daily work is caring for the environment). She read the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30) and interpreted it as a call to action, and to advocacy. Just look at that lazy servant, who did nothing with his one talent! He could have used it – he could have invested, just as we should in the environment. The more we invest, the greater the results. After burying the talent, the servant went off and…did nothing. This, Dr. Green suggested, is like sticking one’s head in the sand – or perhaps, sweeping our environmental problems under the carpet. “If we continue to ignore – if we continue to deny,” she added, “We are contributing to the problem.” Every one of us can do something, whether we are given five, two or only one talent. So – use them!
Mrs. Jenny Henriques (a Roman Catholic herself) spoke in place of her husband Stephen, who heads the United Congregation of Israelites in Jamaica. She spoke of Psalm 24: “The Earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof,” which appears to be a contradiction of “The heavens are the Lord’s heavens, but the earth he has given to mankind” (Psalm 115). Or is it? As Dr. Sulaiman spoke about the Earth “as a trust.” It is given to us as a “loan from God” according to Jewish belief, said Mrs. Henriques. How similar the Muslim and Jewish concepts are! She also mentioned one of the classic tales from the Talmud, that of the Carob Tree, which will take seventy years to bear: “I am planting trees for my children and grandchildren so they will be able to eat the fruit of these trees,” said the man who is planting one.
By the way, something interesting struck me: two references from the Muslim and Jewish faiths were exactly the same, as if they had been quoted from the same scripture – namely, even at the end of the world – plant a tree for the future. “If the Day of Judgment erupts while you are planting a new tree, carry on and plant it,” the Prophet said. And extraordinarily, when I googled these amazingly powerful words, I found that the German Protestant Martin Luther said exactly the same thing, too: “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.” All three religions with exactly the same concept!
I think perhaps the Bahá’í are on to something here: “All the religions are one,” as we sang during the celebration in Kingston last Sunday.
Our Bahá’í hosts had the last word. Mr. Walter Scott reiterated what all the other speakers had said: “Nothing will be achieved if we do nothing.” While the Bahá’í Faith does not get involved in politics, he noted, it does have an Office of the Environment, which sponsors “green” activities and advocates at major environmental conferences around the world . Community action is key, Mr. Scott maintained; the subsequent discussion focused on specific actions such as reducing scandal bags, disposing of solid waste properly, saving water – and for each of us to plant one tree. Mr. Scott ended by quoting Bahá’u’lláh’s words: “The Earth Is But One Country, and Mankind Its Citizens.”
As Aisha Mulendwe suggested: Let’s have “less anger, greed and fear, and more wisdom, generosity and integrity…Man has got us here – man must get us out of it.”
We can all agree on that, religion or no religion.