After the massacre in Orlando on June 12, 2016, and in light of many heated statements about Islam in the US media, it is clear that inter-religious (Christian-Muslim) dialogue is very much needed, long overdue, and would not be popular with those on either side who have already made up their minds that “The USA is at war to wipe out Islam” or “Islam is determined to impose Sharia Law on the world”. For the rest of us it might not be too late to actually sit down and talk to one another. That is my agenda for this essay.
My only experience, however, is Buddhist-Christian inter-religious discourse. The following are some guidelines I have discerned about how to go about the first phase, how Christians can most productively get into a creative, positive frame of mind about Buddhism.
Nevertheless, I believe the word Buddhism in the following statements of principle can be replaced with the words Christianity, Islam, Judaism, or Hinduism.
Until one has been profoundly impacted by the magnificence of the Buddhist system of thought one should withhold judgment and criticism of it.
Until then, one’s questions should be in search of the profound and awesome dimensions of Buddhism.
I would argue against the arrogance of Christians or any other religionists who reject Buddhism before accessing its profundity and being impressed by it. There is a time to engage in a critical assessment of a religion, and there are expressions of people in the name of their religion from time to time which need immediate refutation (preferably by others of the same faith). But a whole-scale rejection of any religion as profound as those which have attracted millions of adherents and held them for centuries, despite the particular flaws in some of its aspects, is indefensible.
One should be very cautious about undermining something so valuable to so many other people.
Even if one has a system (or religion) of greater value it will be counter-productive to propose the new one by attacking the old one.
Indeed, the stability of an entire people is at risk when something undermines its organizing principles, perspectives for discerning value, and objects of reverence. Sometimes this is undertaken deliberately, as when colonial powers did it (the Spanish were most egregious in this). Marxists, Stalinists and Maoists in particular, did this to devastating effect. It seems to be happening in Teleban controlled parts of the world. Other occurrences are more coincidental and incremental, as in the secularization of America, in which it seems that most of Christianity is a co-conspirator.
There is a positive and a negative side to this. Obviously a symbol system (e.g. a national religion) can be a source of unity where diverse groups and ethnicities live together; but it may not be necessary if there are other sources of unity. The system also gives individuals the keys to evaluate their integration into their society and culture. But when the culture changes and moves away from the values and principles that are enshrined and essential to the religious system, then the society gets under stress and/or the religion becomes irrelevant.
· Particular examples of a religion’s faith and practice do not express the whole, but they are valid and therefore help define the dimensions of that religion, while at the same time they are anomalies which express the reality of only a part.
Buddhism cannot really be viewed as a single unity, or even as three streams. To see Buddhism as a whole one must look at its national forms and sometimes separate paths within a nation. Christianity is not just one thing either. There are Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant divisions. And within Protestantism, for example, there are many further divisions. And in any one of them there are individuals and groups writing books, developing traditions, building edifices and organizations, and diversifying.
· Underlying the particular expressions of the religion is a body of essential belief shared by all the particular cultural extrusions; the body of essential doctrine usually traces to the teaching and authority of the founder; whereas the religion recognizes an event which precipitated the codifying of its creed and mantras (and sometimes the accumulation of its canon of scripture), while also adopting forms from formative junctures as symbol referents and standards of form.
As two trees springing from the same root are one tree with two trunks, so the doctrinal system of beliefs and the forms of worship and architecture are one faith. Buddhism quotes the Buddha, Christianity holds the sayings of Jesus to be of great importance, and Islam holds the received writings of Mohammed to be sacred scripture. But Christianity needed to combine its diverging teaching into creeds when it became the religion of the Holy Roman Empire and Buddhism seemed to do the same at the time Asoke adopted Buddhism as the Imperial religion of India. The “formative junctures” for Christianity may be the Gothic era, the Protestant Reformation, and certain other times when a massive revision, a “meta-transformation”, took place out of which grew new styles of architecture, organization and practice. Thai Buddhism’s formative junctures were Asoke’s empire (when Buddhism arrived in the region) and the Khmer empire, followed by the reforms of HM King Rama IV.
· Beneath these expressions is a sacred core of unassailable and largely inexpressible foundational principles.
These form the distinctive character of the religion. They are what Zen, Tibetan and Thai Buddhism have in common when all the cultural occlusions and accumulations have been stripped away. This “sacred core” is what unifies Ethiopian Orthodox, Swiss pietists, Dutch Calvinists, Nigerian Pentecostals and Trappist Roman Catholic monks.
· At the base of it all is a bedrock of assumptions about the nature of life and death, human value and destiny, among many other assumptions; these are accessible in a religion only by extraction (of metaphors and archetypical references), by inference, and by deduction.
I take it as more reasonable to conclude that this bedrock of assumptions about the nature of life and so forth is one that the Buddha and Christ had in common, rather than to conclude that Christianity and Buddhism are entirely separate worlds with nothing in common. If this is so, then mutual respect has a solid basis.
Conclusion: There can be no dialogue until participants are impressed with the validity and value of everyone’s view of what is sacred. A religious belief system would not have lasted for centuries and attracted millions of devoted adherents if it was not extremely important to those who live under its umbrella.
Finally, I want to celebrate the ministry and example of Phramaha Boonchuay Doojai from whose website I borrowed the pictures that illustrate this essay. His tireless efforts in behalf of inter-religious dialogue and mutual understanding are inspiring. Sathu, Amen.
My first thought was, “How great!” but my second thought was, “Eek!” when our niece and nephew presented Pramote and me with an oil painting of ourselves for my birthday last month. “Ah, how nice that the kids are growing mature enough to have the foresight and to spend the money on a project like this,” I thought. That thought was followed by, “Where shall we put it so nobody sees it?” Now I’m thinking, “It rather misrepresents reality.”
I’ve been ruminating on this. A couple of days after the birthday dinner, one of the other nieces or nephews posted a picture on Facebook that stunned me by what it showed about how we “click” on reality these days, that is how we capture it, and how we turn it off and on in our minds. In the picture (accompanying this essay) Pramote and I are holding the painting given to us by Wave and Pran. In photo-talk, we are first generation, the living, breathing originals. The oil painting is third generation because it was rendered from a photograph. The photo that was the model for the painter is second generation as are the pictures of us being taken that night. And then, in the view screens of the cell-phone cameras, there are the pictures of the picture made from a picture of the originals.
There are a lot of chances in all that for reality to get out of focus. Reality is a fleeting thing, anyway. Most post-modernist philosophy is about that and post-modern political arguments are about our being manipulated into herds by the fact that reality is fluid.
Using the pictures of Pramote and me as examples, there are 5 ways reality is captured and beheld.
REALITY REFLECTED is how we see it. It is a mirror image or a selfie, still squirming in and out of focus before it is “clicked” and photo-shopped. But our minds can mess with it. “You look happy,” people say when they see the birthday picture, but I was feeling a lot of other things more than simple happiness.
REALITY PRESERVED is after the click when the shutter is snapped, when the prints come back from a Kodak shop or show up on Facebook. Pictures like that are shadows of reality reflected off the wall of the cave, to borrow Plato’s allegory. But when we look at the images years later the mist in the mind grows thinner. The image is light and shadow, but it stimulates a degree of 4-dimensional recall, selective as it may be.
REALITY SIMULATED is virtual reality, reality represented by something symbolic. This type of reality is an ephemeral moment of feeling one hopes to communicate by taking a picture of one’s food or “sharing” an inspirational aphorism. It could also be a snapshot of a candid, transitory moment. It is immediate and ambiguously evocative. Images on social Internet media become a language substitute we supplement with substitutionary glyphs: emoticons like J, abbreviations like LOL and non-verbal explicatives like “sigh”.
REALITY INTERPRETED is the rationale for art. Oil painted portraits are supposed to convey more reality than a mere snap-shot does; they are supposed to help viewers discern invisible reality (aspects of personality or character, perhaps). High quality photographic portraits do that, too, often relying on costume, pose, or facial expressions to capture reality. Portrait painters painstakingly try to entice profound reality to emerge from beneath the caresses of their brush strokes, whereas portrait photographers snap-snap-snap scores of “images” in order to select THE one to interpret layers of elusive reality about the subject.
We ought to be at least mildly disappointed with pictures of ourselves. Portrait pictures inevitably misrepresent. Nuances are missing or seem to be there when they shouldn’t be. Usually it is the circumstances that are fragmented. A life-story is running but the portrait only hints at its most extraneous and trivial bits. There’s a drama going on that no one else can completely comprehend. “Click” – an instant of it is captured, but it is two-dimensional and flat. Still, it has a reality of its own. It is a stand-alone object in a sea of images. To anyone else, the picture is solitary. Observers see what occurs to them, what “clicks”. Their looking is relational and one-directional (no one is looking back), and usually that relationship is as brief as short-term memory.
Yet, when we download a file of pictures, we are not usually disappointed. Even when we look at pictures of ourselves, we do not ponder on what is amiss. That is because there is a fifth way of processing second-hand reality, even about ourselves.
REALITY PERCEIVED has been operated on by the observer. It is treated from a secondary perspective. “Does it look like me? Will others recognize me? Does it convey an agreeable similarity to what I see in the mirror?” By these standards most pictures are satisfactory if they tend to shield our flaws and flatter us. Or they tell a bit of our story and hurl us into a conversation about our life and times. They are doubly satisfying if they elicit a wave of positive reaction from our virtual friends. As time passes and what we see in the mirror evolves, these pictures serve the purpose of “reality preserved”, and grow even more satisfying; it is pleasant to have proof that we once looked better than we now do. But “reality perceived” serves overlapping and self-contradictory purposes in which we are readjusted to fit our expectations.
Since this is how we treat representations of what we presumably know best, it is no wonder “reality” in general has fallen on hard times. Truth, facts, implications, conclusions and data are all subject to manipulation, alteration, derogation, and antipathy, because the line is gone between reality and desire. More precisely, we have just about lost the ability to distinguish between internal realities and external ones.
The Thailand Overseas Missionary Society (TOMS) was a vision of the Rev. Pisanu Arkkapin and members of the Student Christian Movement at the Thailand Theological Seminary (TTS) in the 1960s. Methodist missionaries and church leaders in Malaysia encouraged the Thai young people to develop a program to provide Christian leadership for a larger parish of 5 Iban Christian longhouses in Sarawak (North Borneo), Malaysia. TOMS work was officially commissioned in a worship service presided over by Ajan Muak Chailangkarn, Moderator of the Church of Christ in Thailand (CCT). The first missionary was TTS student Boonrat Boayen. He arrived in Rumah Mabau in mid-1964 for a 3-year term.
Next to the rumah (longhouse) was a school, church and a one-room parsonage the TOMS missionaries called “The Palace”. The mission center was on the Majao River upstream from Sibu, upriver from Kapit. In those days the area was still jungle and the longhouse villages depended on a mix of agriculture as well as hunting and foraging.
After being in the Majao larger parish for 2 years, Boonrat was joined by TOMS missionary #2, Prayong Muangta. The idea was that the incumbent missionary would teach the successor for a year, the new missionary would work alone for a year, and a third missionary would arrive. As it happens, TOMS sent only 3 missionaries. The last was Somporn Pongudom, May 1968-May 1971.
Dr. Boonratna (the current preferred spelling of his name) visited the Majao mission area a few years ago and reports that today Iban culture has been vastly changed by the loss of the jungle, heavy mining, and commercialization brought about by the intrusion of dominant Malay culture and Malaysian government exploitation. The longhouses are gone as well as the wildlife. A new economic base sustains those who remain in villages along the Majao, but many have migrated to big cities where there is work. Christian leadership is now provided by graduates of Methodist seminaries in Sibu, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.
TOMS was one of several CCT mission endeavors that were founded, flourished and faded. But it would be wrong to say TOMS failed. It was designed to fill a gap before Iban graduates were ready to assume pastoral leadership. The churches of the Majao parish are grateful for the Thai boys who lived among them 50 years ago. The 3 missionaries thrived and matured on this mission. Each of the missionaries helped and benefitted from the experience as student pastor among the Iban. Boonrat went on to a long career as dean of the seminary (TTS) from which he had graduated and as a Vice President of Payap University; he was then Moderator and General Secretary of the CCT for more terms than any other CCT leader. Prayong became a director of World Vision in Thailand, and other similar Christian philanthropies. Somporn taught in Kuala Lumpur and at Payap University before succumbing to cancer in mid-career.
The photo accompanying this article was taken when I visited TOMS missionaries Boonrat Boayen (left) and Prayong Muangta (right) in April 1967. In the background is the parish church on the grounds of Mabau longhouse. We had communion with rice wine at a delayed Easter service that morning. Other sketches were made on that visit.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.