How Our Differences Can Make Us Stronger

We live in a multicultural society, with all different kinds of people. People are starting to recognize multiple gender identities, not just male and female, but non-binary, gender-queer and so on. People don’t necessarily belong to just one racial or cultural group either, they may belong to different backgrounds.

Sometimes people ask me how we can see these differences as strengths rather than be afraid of others’ perceived differences. They ask me what the Buddha’s teachings say about equal space for women and men in society, or about gender bias.

What Buddha taught was very much ahead of his time. You could definitely say he was a thought leader. Many of the ideas he had were too radical for the predominant culture worldview of the time. Can you imagine 2,600 years ago, someone talking about equality of gender, talking about equality in relation to caste systems? It’s amazing. Buddha was really ahead of his time.

If you look at the Buddha’s teaching, it’s very inclusive. It gives us valuable guidance about how we can live in this world together and about recognizing how we are dependent on each other. The dharma teachings help us recognize how we can actually support each other’s goodness and wellbeing, instead of only seeing the ways we obstruct and bring harm to each other.

Interdependence is our reality, you know. You don’t have to look too deeply into things before it becomes very clear that we cannot survive without each other. We’re truly dependent on each other.

Not only that, but also Buddha’s teachings say there are all kinds of sentient beings. We are not just restricted to being male, female –– one, two, three or four types, and so on. Buddha taught that the variety of beings in the universe is actually infinite!

Our usual mental state is dualistic. Feminine, masculine, that’s all we tend to see. Positive, negative. But there are more dimensions to our existence than that. That’s why Buddha said that the universe is infinite. And these days we’re beginning to recognize that it really is infinite.

Scientists, astrophysicists are finding this out now, that there’s a great deal more to understand than what we have discovered previously. So now it’s easier for us to see that if we want to understand each other better, if we want to be more effective in working together, we’re going to have to go outside our usual dualistic thinking.

How can we have empathy for people who disagree with our views and beliefs?

We need to find ways to let go of our general attitude of “us against them” in situations where we disagree with others’ political views, religious beliefs, and cultural backgrounds.

It’s important to see that, if we want to accomplish a big vision, if we really want to help make things better in this world, we need an environment where everyone comes together and works together. How can we do that? This is the first thing we need to consider.

And then we need to recognize that sometimes we have the tendency to exaggerate. When there’s suffering, we exaggerate the suffering. When there’s happiness, we exaggerate that happiness. Sometimes we even exaggerate our achievements. So we need to do our best to remain aware of this tendency, especially our tendency to exaggerate negatively.

Scientific research has shown that it’s our tendency to get stuck in negative thoughts. We need to try to see whether things are really as negative as we think they are, or not.

But other people are so irritating!

It’s very important for us is to see that everyone has the great potential to make a difference in this world. Every one of us has wisdom and compassion that we can contribute, to make a better community and a better world for all of us to live in, so that everyone can enjoy our love and compassion for each other, so that everyone can have a part in working together to bring genuine awakening into each other’s hearts. This is a very real possibility, not just a nice idea.

We’re already helping each other actually, even as irritating as it may seem to be sometimes. We’re irritating each other, it’s true. But when we work with that irritation, when we work with the emotions and thoughts that come up and really try to listen to each other with openness and curiosity, we’re also helping each other transform our negative habits. By doing this work, we’re helping each other bring out our very best qualities from within.

This is the whole journey of working with our minds and developing our heart of compassion. As we begin to bring our best qualities out into the world –– especially when we face our challenges and disagreements –– then it’s easy to see the benefit that can come out of any irritation we may go through as we work diligently to understand each other. When you keep at it, then little by little you see the power, you see the effect of our journey to the awakened heart.

Beyond Duality and Differences: An Exercise

To better understand ourselves and each other, we can ask ourselves a few questions. You may want to write or sketch out your answers.

1. What are some ways I can readily see that I am dependent on others?

2. What are some ways I can let go of dualistic thinking (right/wrong, feminine/masculine)?

3. What is a situation or feeling I tend to exaggerate? When I look closely, how is it, really?

4. Am I willing to listen to others’ views with openness and curiosity?

What did you notice while answers these questions? It can be interesting to go back later and reread your answers to see if they have changed. Doing this every week for a few weeks (or months) can help you see the effect of simply looking at how your attitudes can shift over time.


Some of the teachings presented in this article were originally given by Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche in New York, New York in 2010 and in Montreal, Canada in 2016.