“Latter-day Saints and Eastern Religions: A Few Thoughts on Bridge Building,” New Era, Oct. 1975, 6
Asian religions seem to be “in” in the western world right now. Go into almost any bookstore and you’ll find bright-colored paperbacks explaining the many sects of Buddhism, Hinduism, and other eastern religions. Missionaries of Asian faiths are teaching in every large city in North America. Famous gurus attract huge followings, and nearly 1,000 professors spend all or part of their time teaching these subjects in colleges and universities all over America.
Is it proper for young Latter-day Saints to learn something of these religions? Yes! President Kimball has said, “The sharing of the gospel often requires us to cross language and cultural barriers. …” (Ensign, Oct. 1974, p. 5.) There are few cultural barriers larger than men’s religious beliefs, and on the other side of that “barrier” are 300 million Buddhists, almost 500 million Hindus, and over 475 million Moslems. There are also millions of Taoists, Confucianists, Shintoists, Jains, Sikhs, and others.
President Kimball emphasized the urgency of our missionary task when he said, “My brethren, I wonder if we are doing all we can. Are we complacent in our approach to teaching all the world? We have been proselyting now 144 years. Are we prepared to lengthen our stride? To enlarge our vision?” (Ensign, Oct. 1974, p. 5.)
If we expect to achieve missionary success in Asian lands, we must have a more complete understanding of the peoples’ ways of thinking and believing. Many missionaries returning from Asian countries report that they could have been much more effective if they had understood the beliefs of the people. They could have avoided many uncomfortable situations and embarrassing incidents if they had known what their Asian contacts held sacred.
For those who wish to share the gospel with the people of Asia, time devoted to the study of Asian religions and languages will be a blessing to themselves and to those they teach. We must build communication bridges across the barriers that separate us. One foundation of communication is the conviction that even people who believe differently than we do are our fellowmen, sons and daughters of the same Heavenly Father. The Lord loves and respects all of his children, and we must develop this same feeling toward our brothers and sisters everywhere.
The Church is true and provides for all of our spiritual needs, but non-Christian faiths teach many truths too. We should seek out these areas of shared truth, because they too are bridges to communication. B. H. Roberts said, “While the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is established for the instruction of men; and is one of God’s instrumentalities for making known the truth yet he is not limited to that institution for such purposes, neither in time nor place. God raises up wise men and prophets here and there among all the children of men, of their own tongue and nationality, speaking to them through means that they can comprehend; not always giving a fullness … of the gospel of Jesus Christ; but always giving that measure of truth that the people are prepared to receive.” (See Brigham H. Roberts, Defense of the Faith and the Saints [Deseret News Press, 1907], 1:512–13.)
The major Asian religions contain many truths and partial truths. Hinduism offers a multitude of examples. By 600 B.C. many Indian Hindu priests and philosophers believed in a doctrine labeled Karma-Samsara. Karma means action or acts, and refers to the accumulation of results a person reaps from his every act and thought, be it good or bad. There is a strong similarity between this and the “law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated.” (D&C 130:20.) The difference is that Hindus believe that the law of karma is absolutely unalterable. Their belief in Samsara, the wheel of rebirth or reincarnation, states that every person will be reborn into a status (which could be human, animal, or inanimate) that is the inevitable result of his actions. Thus, Hindus believe that people who are born into a high caste deserve to be where they are, and so with all creatures. We Latter-day Saints also believe we are born where we should be, but that a just and loving Father in heaven has decided where we can best perform in this mortal sphere of activity. We believe we reap the rewards of our actions, but we also believe in the atonement of Jesus. Were it not for this merciful provision, we would be left with nearly the same doctrine as the Hindus. That is, we would be left to eternally pay the price of our sins.
Hindus do not believe it is right to interfere with anyone else’s karma. This could be likened to our LDS doctrine of free agency. The Savior, however, taught us to be very much involved in the actions of others through doing good deeds and teaching the gospel. This is the doctrine of loving your neighbor as yourself. But note how close the two concepts could be if it were not for this doctrine of love. If we as Latter-day Saints understand these things, we cannot only teach the gospel more effectively to Hindus when the way is opened but also better appreciate the doctrines of atonement and free agency.
Some of the Asian religions place great emphasis on Yoga (meditation; literally, union with God). Followers of Zen Buddhism and Transcendental Meditation (to name only two of many such movements) claim with good scientific evidence that their methods bring peace to many tense and troubled souls. This should be no surprise to Latter-day Saints, because our own leaders have taught us the importance of meditation. In 1967 President David O. McKay said in the priesthood session of general conference: “Meditation is the language of the soul. … It is a private devotion or spiritual exercise … it is a form of prayer and one of the most secret, most sacred doors through which we pass into the presence of the Lord. Jesus set the example for us.”
Many Asian religions place considerable emphasis on the intuitive approach to truth—the immediate, sudden, and complete grasping of truth in one piece. They teach that such truth is not found outside oneself, but within.
As Latter-day Saints we too believe in spiritual insights that surpass our mere powers of reason. We realize, however, that these moments of enlightenment are given to us by God through the power of the Holy Ghost and that we must study some things out for ourselves and then seek a spiritual confirmation.
All the major Asian faiths teach abstinence from drugs. Some sects claim super diets, health secrets, and formulas for added longevity. The gospel also teaches us to follow a wise, God-revealed health law. Physical care and conditioning have been taught since the early days of the Church.
The fact that many Asian religions have prophets, gurus, or spiritual masters seems to be a major reason for their popularity in western countries. It is obvious that people want to be lead by a strong leader. As the only people on earth led by a living prophet of God, we can offer much to all men, both of the East and the West.
It is obvious, then, that Asian religions teach many truths, although they lack the full understanding that the gospel gives. By gaining an understanding of their point of view, we can understand better how to share the full truth with them.
In some ways the question of whether or not to study non-Christian religions is as basic as the question of education itself. Why study literature or art? Education helps us appreciate what the great people of the world have thought and done; it prepares us to live meaningfully in the world.
In our modern scriptures we are admonished to seek wisdom “out of the best books.” (D&C 88:118.) Certainly the moral and ethical concepts taught by Asian scriptures such as the Bhagavad-Gita, the Tao Te Ching, and the Analects of Confucius are worthy of study as part of the world’s best and most influential books. The study of such writings will help us to be truly educated people and better missionaries. We are also instructed to learn “of things both in heaven and in earth, and under the earth; things which have been, things which are, things which must shortly come to pass; things which are at home, things which are abroad; the wars and the perplexities of nations, and the judgments which are to come upon the land; and a knowledge also of countries and of kingdoms.” (D&C 88:79.)
The Lord’s reference to the “wars and perplexities of nations” is especially important today. World religions have had and still have an immense impact upon history and international affairs. The problems of Israel versus the Arab states are in some degree problems of Jews and Moslems. The long-standing disagreement between India and Pakistan concerning Kashmir is, in part, a Hindu-Moslem struggle. The more recent war in Bangladesh also has religious implications. Without the study of Asian religions we have a limited knowledge of what Asian people (two-thirds of the world’s population) are and why they came to be as they are.
We must approach the Asian religions with an attitude of objective respect. It is not necessary to believe what another man believes or condone what another man condones before we can develop respect for him as an honest son of the same Heavenly Father. But it is nearly always necessary to know something about the beliefs of a man before we can understand why he behaves the way he does. Understanding builds respect; respect builds friendship; and friendship builds communication. The Lord has commanded us to testify and warn the people. No one on earth should be more interested in developing lines of communication than we are. In this work there are still chasms to bridge, and we must be the builders of bridges.