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The unrealized promise of dialogue with Buddhism


One of the longest sustained forms of dialogue between Buddhists and Christians is the International Buddhist-Christian Theological Encounter. Founded in 1984 by John Cobb, a Methodist theologian teaching at the Claremont School of Theology, and Maseo Abe, a Japanese Buddhist scholar, the dialogue worked for more than 10 years on discussing parallel theological or doctrinal themes. The pattern was to choose themes that seem parallel in the two religious traditions and to discuss their similarities and differences in depth over a three-day meeting.

The group worked its way through a series of themes, including Ultimate Reality: God or Nirvana; Material Existence: Creation or Maya; the Path of Transformation: Conversion or Enlightenment; the Founding Figure: Jesus or Buddha; and the Religious Community: Church or Sangha. In each meeting, four primary papers were written on these topics, two from Christians and two from Buddhists, and eight responses, with one Christian and one Buddhist responding to each paper. Writers and respondents came from different traditions or “lineages” in order to represent the variety within each faith.

About 50 scholars have participated in the dialogue over the years, but any one meeting usually draws 25 to 30, all sitting around the table and participating. The ground rule is that all those invited are not simply scholars of the faith they represent, but committed practitioners. They have included Asian Buddhists from countries such as Korea, Japan and Thailand, and Western Buddhists such as Rita Gross of the University of Wisconsin and Judith Simmer-Brown of the Naropa Institute in Colorado. The Christians are mainly theologians from the United States and Europe, including Catholics, Protestants and Eastern Orthodox. These have included David Tracy of the University of Chicago and Hans Küng of Tübingen University in Germany.

Buddhism once struck me as a contemplative religion detached from the world. But that view has changed as Buddhism’s complexity has been disclosed for me.

The purpose of the dialogue is not to convert anyone but to open oneself to the other tradition in a way that deepens one’s understanding of one’s own faith.

Several Buddhist themes have become significant for me, such as the non-substantial view of the self and the call to show compassion to all sentient beings. I’ve come to see the difference between Buddhism and Christianity as similar to the difference between the wave theory and the particle theory of light. Both explain the world but in ways that cannot be reduced to the same thing.

Three years ago the Buddhist-Christian Theological Encounter was renewed with a new focus on social issues. Part of this second stage of the dialogue came from the movement for “engaged Buddhism,” led by the Thai Buddhist activist Sulak Sivaraska. At the international meeting of the Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies in Chicago in August 1997, the parallels of engaged Buddhism and Christian liberation theology were explored. The current dialogue is taking up a series of issues such as ecology, war and peace, poverty and the global economy, and exploring each topic from the viewpoints of the two religions.

In the Buddhist tradition the normative teaching is complete pacifism, seeking to purge inner violence in order to overcome interpersonal and social violence. The Christian tradition has been divided between the mainline Protestant and Catholic endorsement of the “just war” tradition and the pacifist view endorsed particularly by peace churches such as the Quakers, but claimed also by Christians of other traditions such as Jesuit Fr. Daniel Berrigan.

Underlying the different views of war are differing theological anthropologies. The major Western Christian traditions, rooted in the Augustinian doctrine of original sin, see humans as trapped by sinful violence, unable to extricate themselves by their own powers. Buddhists view the human as having a deep center of calmness and peace that can be attained by meditation, overcoming the violence that swirls around the illusory self.

These different views of the self also seem to shape the style of the dialogue. The Western Christian theologians often seem too aggressive, engaged in harsh critiques of the sinfulness of their own traditions. In discussing war and peace the two Christian papers, one from myself and the other from David Lockhead of the Vancouver School of Theology, focused on a critique of Christianity as having deep tendencies to sanctify violence. The Buddhist papers, particularly the responses from Western Buddhists, acknowledged that Buddhism has often failed in practice to promote pacifism in society and even at times has had a Buddhist version of “holy war.”

Yet I sensed a certain puzzlement on the Buddhist side of the dialogue. Angry critique from Westerns seemed to overwhelm any real advocacy of peace. Unfortunately, the Christian side lacked an advocate of the Christian peace tradition. The Buddhists expected us to move on to a serious quest for peace. The Christians seemed mired in violence. Even as they denounced Christian tendencies to violence, they held out no hope of overcoming it. Perhaps this tells us something about the problem of our Christian tradition, but where is the hope?

This may be the still-unrealized promise of the Buddhist-Christian theological encounter for Christians to commit themselves wholeheartedly to peace.

Rosemary Radford Ruether is professor of theology at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Evanston, Ill.

National Catholic Reporter, June 4, 1999