It is a common and idealistically beautiful notion, that all the religions of the world essentially preach the same teachings for the betterment of the world. In fact, this is part of the spirit that makes harmonious inter-religious dialogue possible – when we choose to focus on the similarities of compassion and wisdom. If we are to harp on the differences to one another instead, there would be religious conflict.
But are all religions exactly the same upon closer look? Realistically, of course not - this is why there are different religions in the first place, even though there might be certain teachings which overlap in between. If we truly wish to deeply understand various religions, we need to not only look at the similarities, which many prefer to stop at, but to look at the differences too. It should not be surprising that the deeper one looks, the more obvious it might be that there are differences aplenty. Many Buddhists too have previously speculated on the sameness of all religions, till they studied more about Buddhism, realising how it even explains how various religious stems of thought evolved differently.
Is it okay for one to be a “hybrid Buddhist”? For instance, to be a “Whatever-Buddhist” (fill in your non-Buddhist faith in place of “Whatever”)? While many Buddhists are not exactly sure of others’ reactions to that, what would the Buddha think of such an idea? Well, though the Buddha clearly wished to benefit everyone with his teachings, he never demanded anyone to follow his teachings fully without question. In fact, he taught that “When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities (as taught) are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted and carried out, lead to welfare and to happiness’ - then you should enter and remain in them.” (From the Kalama Sutta: please study it for more details as to how to wisely embrace a teaching.) Though the quote might seem like common sense, it also means the Buddha allows us to be as Buddhist or non-Buddhist as we wish, as we personally find sensible or are comfortable with - though there is no guarantee that every individual understands what is truly ”sensible”.
Out of his great compassion, the Buddha would surely prefer us to benefit through partial practice of his teachings than to embrace none of them at all. Free-thinkers, those of other faiths and those who are not totally Buddhist are thus always welcomed to learn more about Buddhism in a non-exclusivist and “no obligation” way. What is worth pondering about the quote above is what truly constitutes “blameless”, “when adopted and carried out, lead to welfare and happiness.” As Buddhists, that leading towards enlightenment in one way or another, directly or indirectly, should be seen as the ultimate benchmark, with enlightenment being true “welfare and happiness”. The Kalama spirit of “Come and see (and ask); don’t just believe” is also renowned in Buddhism - a probable reason why Buddhism is currently the fastest growing religion in the largely dogmatically-saturated but spiritually-dissatisfied West.
The Buddha also taught unequivocally that to become fully spiritually liberated like Himself requires the full practice and realisation of the Noble Eightfold Path (Right view, resolve, speech, action, livelihood, effort, concentration) which he taught – “But in whatsoever Dhamma (teachings) and Discipline (moral guidelines) there is found the Noble Eightfold Path, there is found a true ascetic (spiritual practitioner) of the first, second, third, and fourth degrees of saintliness (levels of spiritual attainment culminating in self-liberation here). Now in this Dhamma and Discipline, Subhadda (the Buddha’s last convert), is found the Noble Eightfold Path; and in it alone are also found true ascetics of the first, second, third, and fourth degrees of saintliness. Devoid of true ascetics are the systems of other teachers.” (From the Mahaparinibbana Sutta) In this sense, to the extent that one practises the Noble Eightfold Path is the extent to which one is truly Buddhist at heart.
The Three Universal Characteristics (Anicca, Dukkha and Anatta) are also unique teachings found complete in Buddhism alone. These are often described as the “Three Seals of the Law (of Dharma)”, used to authenticate the Buddha’s teachings, to differentiate them from non-Buddhist teachings. Another major difference of Buddhism from many other religions is that the Buddha clearly proclaimed himself not to be a god or godsend, having transcended the limitations of all beings, godly or not, though spiritual perfection, being addressed as the “Teacher of men and gods” instead. The Buddha also did not advocate the belief in an almighty good God, and even explained how the concept of a creator God arose. That aside, He did teach of the existence of countless Buddhas and Bodhisattvas with infinite compassion, ever ready to guide all beings to attain True Happiness.
If one studies different religions on the surface level, one might be too quick to conclude that all religions simply teach us to avoid evil and to do good. The Buddha’s teachings are often summarised in this verse, “To abstain from all evil, the practice of good, and the thorough purification of one’s mind - this is the teaching of the Buddhas.” (From the Dhammapada) Particular to Buddhism, not only does it has exceptionally unmatched high and detailed moral standards of universal compassion to all beings great and small, it also systematically advocates a path for the purification of the mind through meditational practices, whereby the end result is realisation of the truth of non-self, the attainment of enlightenment (also defined as the emancipation, Nirvana or True Happiness), after which one is better able to help all beings attain the same liberation. These teachings are unique to Buddhism alone.
Even if one might be able to happily reconcile one’s faith with the Buddhist faith, there are still indeed “irreconcilable differences” which make Buddhism, as well as other religions distinct from one another. While it might be perceived that different religions are different paths to the same goal, the goals of each religion are usually essentially different, and only somewhat similar. May we remember that to be truly open-minded does not merely entail looking beyond differences, only thinking that different religions have similarities in ideology - it also includes realising they have concrete differences too. This is important as having or promoting over-simplified or warped and thus inaccurate personal conjectures of the essences of various religions is not only unfair to oneself spiritually, it is also unfair to those of their respective religions.
While we might think outsiders of other religions can see the overall picture better than the insiders, one should also consider becoming more of an insider to see the picture from within, by having more through study and practice of a religion to discover its essence. Otherwise, one will have an incomplete vision of the whole picture. Just as those of a religion should respect and never disparage those of other religions, to “force” the assumed oneness of all religions upon anyone is to disparage all religions themselves, as this corrupts their original teachings, which have painstakingly evolved to be self-contained paths to their respective spiritual goals. Of course, whether the paths work or not, and whether the goals are true or not is another issue altogether, subject to debate. However, since religions exist to benefit humankind, may all religions co-exist harmoniously in the light of true understanding!