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.
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Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.