CESNUR - Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni diretto da Massimo Introvigne
Orientalist approaches to Buddhism meant a general emphasis on textual sources and historical origins leading to essential precepts, monolithically categorizing Asian traditions as unified under the designation (in this case) of “Buddhism,” for the purpose of self-definition as Western through comparison. Modernization, colonialism and social change were the background. Today, just as with Orientalism's focus on textual origins than local practice, today’s interfaith rhetoric emphasizes morals and charity than doctrine, combining conformity to the demands of a global, pluralist society with the non-negotiable objective of remaining distinct and exclusive by presenting rival faiths as monolithically unified. This paper therefore examines the globalization- and pluralism-driven rhetoric of dialogue and the main trend of emphasizing charity and cooperation as fundamentally “ours” and magnanimously recognized as also resident intuitively and providencially, though incomplete, in “the other” while doctrinal differences are reserved either for in-group examination for enhancement of group identity or for professional and therefore socially non-influential theologians. In that light, questions of Buddhist or Christian social minority status become more complicated and lose their strictly religious categorization.
Orientalism was the phenomenon where certain Western presuppositions of methodology (reliance on texts and on historical origins, assumption of exclusiveness of religious identity) led to an artificial construction of a unified general categorization of “the East” and in this case of “Buddhism,” largely for the purpose of strengthening preconceived notions of own definition (“the West,” “Christianity”) and under a general uneasiness of evaluating the social and political changes that were taking place in the European front.(Droit, 2003). Today the new Orientalist trend sees the view of Buddhism being changed from the old monolithic historical origin of Gautama and the textual methodological approach to that of a religious dialogue and cooperation on specific issues (ethics, charity, environment) under the new unacknowledged, as such, yet constantly mentioned, “threats” of globalization and ethno-religious pluralism and secularism. The result is a shift of rhetoric regarding dialogue and cross-cultural or inter-religious contact. Especially in cases where religious tolerance is advocated, by those who need to be tolerated. (Lutz, 2008, p. 5)
Given the above described realities, therefore, this paper, far from being an exhaustive study, will examine certain representative and indicative cases of rhetorical approaches to strengthening own group distinctiveness and cohesion, on the one hand, while producing pluralist-friendly narratives and speeches on the other. This paper’s argument is that the unlikely combination of group exclusiveness through pluralist rhetoric is attained by (even sincere) shifts of focus between doctrine, on the one hand, and charity, ethics and cooperation on the other, during inter-religious dialogue initiatives.
Buddhism and identity “abroad”
The various views and misconceptions regarding Buddhism are a familiar subject in historical enquiry. Buddhism was, and undoubtedly still may well be in some cases, seen as an a-historical religion in sharp contrast to the Christian tradition of supposed historical grounding. In addition, Buddhism was thought of, at least by some of its Western rivals, as a non-philosophical, and rather undeveloped, child-like system of thought. One telling example could be the following reproduced narrative originally authored in 1901:
[The ethnic religions of the East] feel no need either of definite history or of firmly grasped principles [but are] the outcome of instincts, longings, or repulsions, and... fancies, [they] do not rest... upon definite facts. No effort is made to bring them to a harmonious and self-supportive system. (Gibson, 2005, pp. 99-100)
Buddhism was for a considerable time critically examined for its “nihilistic” essence in an effort by Western thinkers to interpret or deal with their own societies’ contemporary trends (Droit, 2005) In other instances, it was approached from the standpoint of a vast field of religious and philosophical elements which needed categorizing in a rather neat nineteenth century manner (Ivy, 2005; Lopez, 1995; Fields, 1998).
This brings to mind Paul Carus, the editor of the Open Court and Monist periodicals and collaborator with D. T. Suzuki in the promotion of Buddhism in the US, who had noted in 1893 that, until then, “there had been a lack of pictures of Buddhism in occidental taste…Greek in taste…[and] exclusively in the attitude of meditation.” (Verhoeven, 1998) Verhoeven views the American encounter with Buddhism as a very influential one worldwide due to the country’s major role within the general context of globalization, commenting that “Buddhism no doubt will continue to be assimilated through our basic ‘sense-making’ categories, i.e., Christianity, science, and liberal modernism.” (Verhoeven, 1998, p. 222)
Buddhism and Christianity display well-known differences as two distinct religious systems that they undoubtedly are. Different levels of adherents and groups, however, tend to favor one approach to their religion over others, extracting from it different help, intuition and wisdom than others. Monolithic attributions of Western over-rationalization over Asian mysticism as perceived possibly through the studies of colonialism and industrialization tend to ignore Buddhist interests in forming distinct and non-diluting relations with science. At the same time, Christianity’s paradoxical anthropomorphism in its deity, and its doctrines regarding heaven, can cater to similar needs found in certain variations of Buddhist systems such as the beliefs in the Pure Land and the transferring of merit from Amida Buddha to the believer. The paradoxical selfless transferring of merit in order nevertheless to receive blessings (Chandler, 1988, p. 23; Voulgarakis, 2010), however distinct from a theological point of view, is not essentially different from the so-called non-meritorious nature of Christian Grace and the disputes within Christianity that doctrine has historically caused.
Thus, similarities need the tempering of group identity and exclusiveness through, among other things, original presence (whether of doctrinal precepts or, in the case of immigrant minorities, geographical / historical). For example, “attributing the discovery of America to an Asian Buddhist rather than to a European Christian inverts the rhetoric of forebear and newcomer, thereby radically transforming the notions of national heritage and identity.” (Chandler, 1988, 16) If religion functions as the locus of identity, then attitudes of Buddhist immigrants to America have displayed change, according to generation, toward the inherited religion. (Chandler, 1988, 23) The immigrants either bring their own religion from their mother country or adopt it once in the new for the purpose of acquiring a sense of security, identity and belonging in their new environment. Second generation Buddhists tended to regard the vestiges of the old country disadvantageous and confusing, whereas the third generation, fully assimilated and much more secure, construed “being American” as, among other things, preserving parents’ religious and ethnic legacy. (Chandler, 1988, 23) Other examples of Buddhist evolution and assimilation into new cultural contexts are the Korean American Buddhists and their Christian counterparts, and some Japanese American Buddhist organizations’ adaptation during the Second World War, e.g., Buddhism mission to North America changing its name to Buddhist Church of America and adding pews, Christian style hymns and responsive reading. (Chandler, 1988, 23) Undoubtedly, in the Japanese Buddhist case there was the extra element of coercion both internally and externally felt, when one considers the concentration camps for ethnic Japanese American citizens during World War Two). As for the Korean American Buddhist situation, there too, the reader may feel hard pressed to identify which, if one only, part of their identity Korean American adherents of Buddhism and Christianity regarded as more self-defining: the Korean or the American? It seems that the dispute between their extremely idiosyncratic interpretations of Buddhism and Christianity points to their need somehow to adopt as rightfully their own (i.e. Korean, at least in principle and in spirit, if not historically) the technological and organizational dynamism of American modernity.
Defining “Buddhism,” of course, would be a daunting task: An elderly Mongol Kamlyk from New Jersey…who occasionally places offerings ...at her local temple but does not meditate or chant sutras and knows little of...doctrine [would we not consider her Buddhist?](Nattier, 1998, p. 84).
Just as practitioners of what Prebish calls “elite Buddhism,” i.e., socially engaged in transforming American/Western society (in the East the character of social engagement is different; see Voulgarakis, 2010, and Madsen, 2007, on the Buddhist relief organization Tzu Chi), employ Buddhist criteria to critique American society, members of “ethnic Buddhist” groups (Buddhist groups preserving their ethnic and cultural identity) often take advantage of their transitional status to reform certain aspects of their Buddhist heritage, “wishing to discard what they perceive as embarrassing and superstitious elements, often citing the lack of Buddhist legacy in America as a seminal opportunity to pass the teaching in its pristine form [or to focus on] the Buddha’s original message. (Chandler, 1998, p. 24, italics added)
The new cultural environment in which these Buddhist adherents find themselves seems to demand, naturally, a harmoniziation between Buddhist identity and practice, on the one hand, and the American reality, on the other. Elite Buddhists use Buddhist symbols to follow a rather Western (or, at least, also Western) tendency to critique Western culture in accordance with sensitivities of social justice (Buddhism is, strictly speaking, not interested in democracy or social justice or political practice; see Garfield, 2001). Ethnic Buddhists follow a rather familiar trend of focusing on what they regard as pristine, noble and original teachings, universally applied – yet ethnically specific or at least better understood:
Both elite and ethnic Buddhist communities are tapping into the new confluence of multiple cultural systems to reform at least one of the systems: Elite Buddhism employs various Buddhist criteria to critique American culture; ethnic Buddhist communities utilize their new American surroundings to better recognize the specifically ethnic character of their particular brand of Buddhism. (Chandler, 1998, p. 25, italics added)
Pluralism assists local groups in both reforming “Buddhism” and critiquing “the West.”
The Korean American Buddhist case is instructive. For the Buddhist Korean Americans, “to be Buddhist is to be a better American than the Korean American Christians.” (Suh, 2004, 166-7) At the same time, to be an American in the opinion of the same Buddhists means, being duped by Western culture…allowing the erosion of traditional Korean values. Ironically, this…has the unexpected result of Buddhists competing with Christians over what it means psychologically to be American. (Suh, 2004, p.166-7)
The positive and necessary aspects of American life and environment – both of which encouraged their emigration – must somehow coexist with the retaining of their Korean identity. Since this necessity is identified with modernity, organizational management, opportunity, and affluence, these must be equated with their identity as compatible with – indeed, as the true origin of, in terms of principles – being American. For the Christian Koreans in America, their identity is, again, made to coincide with the visible success stemming from networking, and in return it maintains their larger presence in their American context. (Suh, 2004, p. 198) It is valid, therefore, in certain cases, to question the degree of relevance a religious designation may have to the issue of minority status or group identity in terms of belonging to a larger context which lends the group its religious name. While the Buddhist—Christian dynamics in the immigrant groups above are unquestionable as such, they might lose their meaning when interpreted as dynamics and interactions characterized by aspects of the related religions instead of other, more pertinent sub-group issues such as intra-group competitiveness informed by ethnic identity in a foreign context.
Secularism, modernism, and science
One of the ways to proselytize people from other and faiths has been the offer of protection against common “threats”: One example may be the case of Western evangelistic initiatives in China in modern times, where communism and atheism provided the incentive:
Ecumenical thought and interreligious dialogue are only very weakly developed in the Chinese churches. For many, missionary societies the enormous China is one of the last white areas on the missionary map…American and Australian [missionaries] present themselves as a bulwark against communist atheism. (Lai & von Bruck, 2001 p. 94)
Secularism fits the same category. Christians attempt to convince Christians that Buddhism is not as secular as people claim. The response to Buddhism here is not that Buddhism is “wrong” but that it is not as free as Western adherents of any religion think it is and as secularism is thought of being. Secularism is also mentioned in other Christian interfaith initiatives as: “the corrosive influence of belief in the omnipotence of science, Marxism, nihilism…consumer mentality, and the consequent indifference to transcendental values.” (Poulet-Mathis, 1987, p. 31) Some Christian views of Buddhism and of the Western context in which Buddhism seems to be more favored, due to an alleged Western misconception of Buddhism as more secular and less doctrinal in emphasis, appear to be protesting more against secularism than a non-Christian religious doctrine. It is more of an indictment against Western secularism and pluralism-driven impartiality (i.e., the need to approach all religious claims from an outside point of reference for the purpose of, as much as possible, avoiding discrimination) than a response to a rival religious tradition:
It is popular today in the West to minimize the significance of doctrine or truth...Buddhism is often held up as...a religion in which doctrines are merely pragmatic tools…to enlightenment...[There is] a curious anti-intellectualism in much of the academic study of religion. (Netland & Yandell, 2009, p. 111)
omplaints have also been expressed over the predominantly Western misconception of Buddhism and Eastern traditions as more flexible in not outright dismissing the logical fallacy of the excluded middle:
The common Western assumption that Indian, Chinese and Japanese religious and philosophical traditions happily embraced acknowledged contradictions, in religion or elsewhere, is unwarranted. [This] has been supported by a tendency to look [at] Zen as manifesting the ‘essence’ of Buddhism… (Netland & Yandell, 2009, p. 113)
Elsewhere, we read, “Jayatilleke, a devout Buddhist, writes that ‘the Buddhist is an atheist and Buddhism in both its Theravada and Mahayana forms is atheism.’ “(Netland & Yandell, 2009, p. 183) It is interesting that according to Jose Ignacio Cabezon, the British-trained Sri Lankan scholar K.N. Jayatilleke’s work is one of the defining moments of the tradition of Theravada speculation which originated in Victorian times and was characterized of examination of Pali scriptures through the contemporary analytical and philosophical lens of empiricism and positivism. (Cabezon, 2006, p. 35) One of his successors (as well as a successor to the views of the earlier Sri Lankan scholar Anagarika Dharmapala), Gunapala Dharmasiri offered A Buddhist Critique of the Christian Concept of God where he separated cosmology from soteriology as Buddhist concerns exactly by arguing for these two approaches’ inseparable nature in Christianity. In other words, the Christian Creator of everything is both able and bound to save Creation. Cabezon comments that,
I am not interested here in whether Dharmasiri’s claim about the relationship of the doctrines of creation and salvation in Christianity is right [but] the fact that he uses this as a way of distinguishing Buddhism from Christianity…[However,] the polemic between Buddhism and Christianity on this issue is between two religions, not between…a science (Buddhism) and a religion (Christianity). (Cabezon, 2006, pp. 36-7)
It has not gone unnoticed by Christian observers that His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama also responded to questions on the exclusivity of Buddhism in soteriological terms by saying, “[we must] examine what is meant by liberation or salvation. Liberation in which ‘a mind that understands the sphere of reality annihilates all defilements in the sphere of reality’ is a state that only Buddhists can accomplish. ” (Netland & Yandell, 2009, p. 109)
The Dalai Lama’s well-known efforts to promote a science-friendly, yet distinct, Buddhism have on more than one occasion deflected discussion on doctrinal difference to the emphasis on ethics. Leaving therefore doctrine relatively untouched functions as a reminder of the unacceptable to him concept of syncretism and of carrying too far his pro-diversity views and cooperative dialogue with Christianity and for that matter with science: “The Dalai Lama’s pluralism–a response to the theological diversity of our times–is not a relativism [and] does not prevent him from maintaining a classical position” (Cabezon, 2006, p. 41) Bhikkhu Nagase is an example of the same willingness for dialogue, but in a different context, representing a different tradition: Whereas the Dalai Lama showed good will to science, Nagase collaborated more with his Christian colleagues within a Western environment being cautious against secularism and science than conciliatory toward that “scientism.” Nagase, as the caretaker of the London Peace Pagoda, a building belonging to an order of followers of Nipponzan Myohoji within the Nichiren school of Japanese Buddhism, cautioned, at a joint service with a neighboring Anglican church,. against a “materialistic civilization using science as a tool [and] scientists being regarded as the leaders of the times.” (Callaway, 2008, p. 130)
Granted, the relationship between Buddhism and science is a diverse and intricate one. In fact, the many positive aspects thereof may nevertheless be regarded as incidental to the main effect of the celebrated partnership, namely, the encouragement of the mainstreams of both disciplines to regard that partnership as irrelevant and to remain therefore in their respective spheres of interest. (see Voulgarakis, 2010b). The specter of the old Orientalist methodology, however, appears in the approach of using that partnership, whatever its possible shortcomings, as an indicator of group identity or trend which may be attempting to elevate the collaboration between science and an elite movement of mostly Tibetan Buddhism enthusiasts and practitioners to the more encompassing category of “Buddhist” collaboration with science. The mistake of regarding such a movement as “Buddhist” in terms of group identity would lie in the negligence to note the many opponents (within Tibetan Buddhism and among the other denominations) to the idea of Buddhism—Science complementarity. (Lopez, 2010) and of course the many non-Buddhist scientists who show interest in the proposition. And yet, the sense of Buddhist identity exists indeed as evident not only by the activity of the proponents of Buddhism—science complementarity but, to return to the modern version of the Orientalist paradigm, by the generalizations made regarding Buddhism, Christianity, and science. While the main protests by (pro-complementarity) Buddhists against the dismissive stance of mainstream science toward them are many (see Voulgarakis, 2010b), there is one which is most pertinent to the purposes of this paper: the questioning of the impartiality of secularism and of what is presented rather unfairly as “scientism”: “We are to rely [on] the metaphysical principles of materialism…as if our…immediate experience doesn’t count… as if [scientists] have some special access and upon their metaphysical assumptions that everything must boil down to matter…” (Wallace, 2009) A similar complaint is voiced regarding academic partiality and exclusion of Buddhist disciplines: “[In all academic departments] in Europe and America, if Buddhists don’t philosophize following [Western rules], they don’t philosophize at all….Buddhism does not fit our Western categories”. (Wallace, 2003, p. 6, italics added). Quite remarkably, the proponents who appeal to a secular, non-doctrinal Buddhism, one without beliefs (Batchelor, 1997, p. 37; Hayes, 1998, p. 59), would rather keep science separate and uninvolved while, one the other hand, the proponents of the complementarity between the two disciplines (Wallace, 2003; Varela, 1997) would actually seek science’s help, not so much to scientifically validate Buddhism but, exactly due to the impossibility of either one hundred percent validation or invalidation, to make Buddhism appear sophisticated, modern, and equally valid yet distinct from science.
The above trends are by no means confined to the Buddhist world. Examples of Christian apologetics would be too numerous to provide here. Only a few examples, however, may be indicative. Lesslie Newbigin (1909-1998) president of the World Council of Churches, and as a missionary in India for many years saw dialogue as an opportunity to proselytize, albeit without expecting to convert, despite conversion being the actual aim. (Newbigin, 1989, p. 182) Newbigin presented secularism thus:
Individual religions may have value for those who prefer them and are to be respected as such. But claims to truth have to be tested in the public world where the principles of modern science operate. Here, pluralism is not accepted. No question is raised here about the presuppositions upon which these scientific disciplines operate. (Newbigin, 1989, p. 18)
The charge of arrogance [against exclusivists] must be thrown back at those who assume that ‘modern historical consciousness’ has disposed of that faith…There is an appearance of humility in the protestation that the truth is much greater than any one of us…But if this is an arrogant claim to a kind of knowledge…superior to fallible human beings. . .[Thus] what higher truth do you have which enables you to reconcile the diametrically opposite statements of the Bible and the Qur’an about Jesus? Or are you in effect advising that it is better not to believe in anything? (Newbigin, 1989, p. 166, 170)
Needless to say, these approaches are misguided and originate from the strength of group-identiy as the driving force behind the unwillingness of groups to submit their exclusivity claims to a test. It is the accusation against the impartiality not only of the judge but of the very concept of judiciary process. One charateristic example of Christian application of the above approach to the evaluation of Buddhist claims at objectivity reads:
the tolerance of Zen…is the acceptance of the absolute qualitative identity of all things…[Some say], ‘the only thing I cannot tolerate is intolerance!’ [By] ‘intolerance’ he meant the belief that one system of thought is more true than another. He was actually saying that he could only tolerate those who agreed with him. (Callaway, 1976, p. 159)
A second example comes in the form of the following statement:
Simply to assume that [secularism] is correct, and [that] sincere Christians and Buddhists are intolerant for taking their respective views [seriously] is a particular perspective which itself needs justification. (Netland & Yandell, 2009, pp. 169-170)
A rather controversial figure in modern Evangelicalism comes from the Emergent Church Movement and has been greatly influenced by Newbigin. As founding pastor of Cedar Ridge Church, a nondenominational church in the Baltimore-Washington region, McLaren has become well-known among American Christians due to his controversial approaches to doctrine, socio-ethical beliefs, mission, soteriological exclusiveness. The Emergent Church phenomenon is an attempt to buy time for the controversial issues to be either resolved by themselves or to become obsolete. Hence, the suggestions for five-year periods of unwillingness to take an explicit position on such issues while pretending to be in contact with both theologians and scientists so as to appear ever relevant to modernity:
[we need] a five-year moratorium on making pronouncements. In the meantime, we'll practice prayerful Christian dialogue…We'll [be updated on] biblical studies, theology, ethics, psychology, genetics, sociology, and related fields. Then in five years, if we have clarity, we'll speak; if not, we'll set another five years… (McLaren, 2006a)
Such rigorous updating, would be probably untenable, hence more time bought..
“Our own” truth in “the Other's” language and texts.
On the issue of the different views on Creation by Buddhism and Christianity the background of pluralism is impossible to miss. John P. Keenan interprets Buddhist approaches to Creation as unified and unanimous (from the medieval Chinese text “Ch’eng wei-shi lun, a compendium of Yogacara philosophy” to the writings of Pema Chodron) in their rejection of the Christian type of theistic Creation and interprets that rejection as a sort of implacable stance against dialogue and in contrast to the general context of religious pluralism to which he appeals in order to get both Buddhists and some Christians to adopt
a more sincere and exploratory attitude toward the theology of “the other” ...seriously studying the texts of other people’s religions. In a classical culture, wherein one’s own tradition is accepted as normative, such a practice is perhaps understandable, but not in the contemporary culture of religious pluralism. (Keenan, 2006, pp. 72-3, italics added).
Keenan’s rhetoric is very much a pluralist-sounding one: “Even when we deal with revealed truth, it comes always through language and culture, reflected in our thoughts and our biases.” (Keenan, 2006, p. 78, also Samartha, 1978, p. 58) It distances him from implacable positions and attitude through the appropriate terminology while at the same time allows him to regard Buddhism as both monolithically enlightened in its original texts of historical interpretation and conveniently confirming, in its enlightened origins, the rightful direction of Christianity:
Our belief in God affords us no privileged viewpoint on human history and no absolute stance on delineating the future. Conventional understandings are conditioned by limited human insight and judgment. Frozen images of God acting in history and misplaced concrete ideas about apocalyptic futures of battle-won glory ill-serve Christian faith and practice… Such a chastened understanding of history is the help that we Christians can receive from the masters of the Buddhist traditions. (Keenan, 2006, p. 78, italics added). ”
The Christology of the Western Church has, with few exceptions, developed in dialogue with the categories of Greek philosophy. [This] has created problems for our articulation of the doctrine of the Incarnation, and it is now problematical for those Christians who do not share the philosophical tradition of the West.(Keenan, 1993 , Para 1)
Indeed, one remembers that doctrinal instruction and detail has often proven a difficult proposition in the field of mission.(Fairbank, 1974) This is always a potentially polemical issue between missionaries in the field and supporters (especially financial ones) back home (see Hutchison, 1974, and Schlesinger, 1974) Similarly, in examples from Chinese mission,
The Christian message that came out of Judaism does not need a traditionally Hellenistic, Roman, Germanic or Anglo-Saxon garment. It can, and should, be clad – postmodern means postcolonial and postimperialistic! – in Chinese garb. (Kung, p. 257)
A Chinese understanding of Christ [which dispenses with] abstract conceptualizations using Greek and Latin [but an emphasis on] a contemporary interpretation [of Jesus…He is one of these people; he speaks their language.]” (Hirono, 2008, p. 264, italics added)
If the church’s proclamation is to be both scriptural and contemporary, it must be oriented more toward concrete realization in Chinese society than toward dogmatic correctness…There must be a renewal of culture through religion…[a Christian] contribution to ethics and education…Today this only makes sense in the spirit of a dialogue between partners, and in working together with…other religions and ideologies without an exclusive claim to salvation.” (Kung & Ching, 1989, p. 257, italics added)
Kung offers the East Christian help through the latter’s wisdom from all the mistakes which the East can now avoid -- if the East follows the guidance of Christianity and develops “an independent Asian Christian theology.”. (Kung, 1989, p. 258, italics in the original; see also p. 269) The discarding of strict dogmatism and the emphasis on independent indigenous development of theology promotes Christian mission’s humble visage during a post-modern age that requires pluralist orientation and humility. “A contextual Christian theology must attempt to lead the way in a multiracial and multireligious situation” (Kung & Ching, 1998, p. 259) Yet how pluralist really is the notion of “the West” retaining its teaching identity and function, irrespective of the humble (Western) appearance through the display of an independent Asian “garb?” The natural propensity to regard one’s religious affiliation as essentially linked to that tradition’s origins has in many, if not most, instances stood in an awkward relation to the equally compelling need to maintain the tradition’s claims to universality without compromising the local affiliation’s distinctiveness: “The church in Taiwan stands in direct tradition of [the] early Church. It is one, local expression of the gospel, a contribution to the vast pool of personalities, races and cultures that make up the Church universal.” (Swanson, 1986, p. 199). Yet this direct link with the original Church and the expression of the universal Church does fall into problems of discontinuity and dispute on localization.
Taiwanese society has been influenced by globalization and modernization. In the area of church organization this is translated into a trend for young, professional missionaries and pastors as leaders. This conflicts with the traditional Confucian values which are held especially in the province and promote seniority for leadership and especially non-professional, i.e., the tent-making Pauline paradigm whereby the traditionally elder pastor or missionary will have his own means and will be leading the congregation in addition to his daily employment. (Swanson, 1986).
David Homer, an American pastor of an Evangelical church who grew up in Taiwan has had the same experience: He explained that there has not been any local reproduction, any indigenization but there have always been foreign missionaries. In some churches where indigenization has taken place sometimes there occurs a rift between the followers of the Western ways of the Western missionary and the ones of the Taiwanese Pastor once the former leaves temporarily and the latter substitutes. (Homer, 2011).
“The Christian” in dialogue
Christian expectations of Buddhist positions in dialogue seem to converge on certain themes despite occasional denominational differences. Notto R. Thelle tells the story of a Zen master in Kyoto who advised him to “leave behind [his] theology [and to] forget God.” (Thelle, 2001, p. 143) Such advise is indeed a sound one from the standpoint of neutrality and objectivity, assuming one finds application of them in matters of religious commitment rather than in the field of religious studies where any kind of academic enquiry presupposes objectivity or at least analytical rigor (except for self-referential post-modern approaches). It would be a valid question, however, to ask to what degree the objective forgetting of God was reciprocal in the case of the Buddhist master. It appears that Thelle's performance in that regard, whether successful or unsuccessful, mirrored that of the master's one-sided approach:
I pondered this a great deal. Is it possible? Is it right? I concluded that it was a paradoxical act which could be profoundly Christian. Buddhists also have to leave behind their ideas and aspirations about Buddha, awakening, and liberation. They must, so to say, leave Buddhism outside the meditation hall. (Thelle, 2001, p. 143, italics added)
Thelle's positing of such reciprocation from the Buddhist side of the dialogue as what he would like Buddhists to discover in Jesus suggests rather strongly that such detachment is not considered by Thelle to be also profoundly Buddhist. Noted also is his belief that Buddhists need to abandon “their many methods of neutralizing deviant traditions by assimilating them as secondary or tertiary manifestations of truth [an approach which] hardly invites Buddhists to be challenged by other traditions.” (Thelle, 2001, p. 148) The appeal, therefore, at least of one Christian to Buddhists is that they should pay more attention to doctrine so that differences can be more readily recognized as such and so that whatever Christian element is accepted by Buddhists can be accepted as exclusively Christian in origin.
One further expression of Christian views of Buddhism is that “Christianity begins with stories and ends in philosophy while Buddhism begins with philosophy and ends in stories. [Thus] the entire history of Christian thought may be seen as an attempt to transform the stories into more or less coherent systems of philosophical understanding.” (Thelle, 2001, p. 149) By ascribing to Buddhism the progressive reduction of philosophical formulations to legend and storytelling, he unwittingly opens the way for harmless dialogue with a doctrinally incompatible system whose incompatibility may be circumvented through the more conducive to metaphorical interpretation encounter with “legends.” The situation appears equally conducive to tolerance and dialogue and definitely has its merits. It does, however, fall under the previously criticized by Thelle himself category of regarding deviant (or in this case novel and extraneous) traditions as naturalized aspects of secondary and tertiary levels of a unified and multileveled system of truth, (this time) Christianity.
Michael vonBruck’s suggestions sound similar. Globalization and pluralism enable the more trusting approach to “the other” and “God might be speaking to Christians even through the language and images of other religions.” (vonBruck, 2001, p. 159) He cautions against what he describes as inclusivist and exclusivist approaches to religion (vonBruck, 2001, p. 160) and calls for a pluralist, “relationist” approach. The meaning? In essence, no different to the usual practice of seeking insight and direction from “the other” in order to enrich our own position without either attempting to convert or boringly agreeing on everything. He called for “creative translation/imagination” (vonBruck, 2001, p. 171) of traditions for the purpose of facilitating dialogue.
On the Catholic side, Fr. Albert Poulet-Mathis,stated that the reason for interfailth dialogue given during the first meeting of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC), Manila November 1970 was, reportedly, “so that we may learn from one another how to enrich ourselves spiritually and how to work more effectively together on our common task of total human development.” (Poulet-Mathis, 1987, p. 27)
The following segments are among the paragraphs Poulet-Mathis quoted as evidence:
The great religions of Asia have been the treasury of the religious experience of our ancestors…Only in dialogue with these religions can we discover in them the seeds of the Word of God…[This] dialogue will teach us what our faith in Christ leads us to receive from these religious traditions, and what must be purified in them, healed and made whole, in the light of God’s word. (Poulet-Mathis, 1987, p. 28, italics added)
As the italicized terms suggest, the positive comments and praises do not dilute a definite regard of other faiths as in need of “healing” and “making whole” and only in some small “seeds” of truth at that. Even a firm belief in one’s tradition’s veracity and exclusiveness could well allow a participant in dialogue to receive the other view’s essential positions from the perspective of the other view holder him/herself. There is no necessity of keeping in mind the eventual projection of that other worldview on the evaluating framework of our own non-negotiable theses. For dialogue, there is no urgency to lead the encounter to an inevitable assessment of how far from “us” the other views are. Yet, during the First Bishops’ Institute of Missionary Apostolate of the FABC (BIMA I) held in Baguio City in July 1979, it was commented that,
Religious dialogue is not just a substitute for or a mere preliminary to the proclamation of Christ, but should be the ideal form of evangelization, where in humility and mutual support we seek together with our brothers and sisters that fullness of Christ which is God’s plan for the whole of creation in its entirety and great and wonderful diversity. (Poulet-Mathis, 1987, p. 29, italics added)
As a point of interest, the rhetoric of diversity and pluralism for group-exclusiveness has been examined elsewhere with regard to feminist flavors among the Greek Orthodox Church, Greek neo-Pagan groups, and various instances of Buddhist initiatives. (Voulgarakis, 2009). The noteworthy element in the above quote is the celebration of diversity under the Christian plan as opposed to a diversity which offers an understanding of many such plans and thus offers a better understanding of an anthropological nature rather than of a theological one. Despite sincere, if unpersuasive assurances that dialogue should be “intrinsically a process leading each partner to the deepening and enrichment of his own faith” (Poulet-Mathis, 1987, p. 32), some of the statements of the Bishops’ Institute on Buddhist Christian Dialogue (BIRA I, Thailand, October 1979) suggest a heavier – in fact, an exclusive – weight of importance upon the Christian deity’s facilitation of otherwise mutual enrichment and mutual evangelization. BIRA II (Kuala Lumpur, November 1979) confirmed that “the Church, sacrament of God’s message in the world, continues Christ’s work of dialogue [and that] the Christian finds himself continually evangelising and being evangelised by his partners in dialogue.” (Poulet-Mathis, 1987, pp. 32-3, italics added) Here the essence of dialogue is firmly stated to be Christian, Christ’s work of dialogue, despite the assurances that evangelization is reciprocal and aims at mutual enrichment on an equal partnership level. The approach is not so different from the above-considered McLaren’s beliefs that all religions are ultimately limited, including Christianity, and all share equally the human wish for understanding the divine as well as the human shortcomings of misunderstanding the divine, and that all, including Christianity, are subject to critique…by the Christian God. (McLaren, 2006b)
Reverend Stanley J Samartha of the CCA commented on the same initiatives that “exclusiveness divides people into ‘’we’ and ‘they’ [and] it leads to extremely difficult social and ethical consequences on human relations in a multireligious community.” (Samartha,1987, p. 56) He added that “a ‘Christo-monistic’ attitude of Jesus-centered exclusiveness should acquire a more developed ‘Trinitarian elaboration’ because of the two factors of pluralism in religious views and secularism in society in general.” (Samartha,1987, p. 56) This inevitability informs the initiatives for dialogue, notably “so that together [with other faiths we can] promote moral and religious values in a way that will contribute to the total development of our people…” (Samartha,1987, p. 59)Nevertheless, Samartha reminds the reader of the dangers of becoming spiritual jellyfishes without theological backbones. (Samartha,1987, p. 59).This complementarity of theological and moral/ethical focus in dialogue seems more of a call to protect, within the group, doctrinal distinctiveness while encountering other groups in an effort to discuss common (and therefore negotiable) interests such as social/moral development and ethics.
However, Samartha questions the manner of relating dialogue to mission by pointing out the need for dissociating the concepts of equality of partnership from Christian recruitment:
If dialogue is regarded as “an essential part of all evangelization” (Fr. Albert’s report) or “as an integral part of Christian mission,” (Yuzon report) then it is unlikely that neighbours of other faiths will respond to our initiatives…Are our neighbours of other faiths in Asia recruits to the kingdom or partners in community?…This is not to deny the validity of “mission” and ‘conversion’…But it rejects the notion of mission as numerical growth, statistical expansion, seeking to diminish other religions. (Samartha,1987, pp. 60-1)
The sentiments of Fr. Samartha in the above quote are sincere and admirable. It is understandable that a religious system will have to offer itself as an option in the lives of people that encounter it. Father Jonas Mourtos, a Greek missionary monk and priest of the Eastern Orthodox Trinity Church in Taiwan talks of mission as sharing…and that Buddhism is much closer to Orthodox Christianity culturally than “the Western man”:
The Chinese people are much closer culturally to Christianity than the Westerner [who] are individualistic beings. [The Chinese] can comprehend the Trinity much more easily because… of being a part of a family. Thus, if the Westerner can learn to say “I am myself not because I am not the other but because the other exists [it is the existence of the other that makes mine meaningful—I cannot exist alone]” and if the Chinese person who says “I am a part of my family” can find his “ego” [his distinct self, his personhood] and to place these two aspects in harmony, that will be very good. (Mourtos, 2009)
Similarly, Paul Baolin, a Jesuit missionary to many regions of the world, including Taiwan, does not see mission as harmful intervention: When asked why introduce foreign elements to foreign cultures and not merely study those cultures in order to offer them assistance on those cultures’ own terms and context, he responded, “While it is important to learn from Chinese, still Chinese are not merely waiting to be taught what they know already. They don’t expect foreigners to teach them how to use chopsticks to eat rice. What they might be interested in is something challenging and capable of enhancing their own inquiries.” (Baolin, 2011) Mourtos rejects emphatically the description of himself as a proselytizer and says "Now, I am not coming here with the arrogance of saying that what I believe is 100% correct and I have to find a way to communicate it to them. … I am also coming here to receive concepts and to enrich Orthodox theology with them. (Mourtos, 2009) Baolin believes that “every discourse – religious included – aims at creating an effect in the listener [which] can be called conversion. This general definition does not exclude specific or particular connotations which have been given to the term and that bore an exclusivist meaning.” (Baolin, 2011). Similarly, pastor David Homer of Grace Evangelical Church, Taipei, rejects the forceful connotations of the term but retains the basic aim, namely, providing the opportunity, through information, to people to accept his faith’s main message. “I don’t think that my mandate is to make everyone believe. My mandate is to say to everyone “hey, listen, I know someone that you should meet.” (Homer, 2011) The avoidance of appearing as directly converting their otherwise other-faith partners in this mutual enrichment and learning interaction is sincere but indicative of the pressure of pluralism on exclusiveness, a pressure which sometimes is makes the view of the other faith during mission as needy and innocent instead of evil and demonic. For example, Mourtos claims that,
“Everything is from God…The fact that the heart of man wants to speak with God, comes from the One God, whom we believe, of course, that He is the One whom we, Orthodox, worship. The [Buddhist] does not know Him because we have not found the appropriate language to approach “the other”. So, [it] is like [an orphan child] who makes-believe that her toy-doll is her…“mommy”. This makes us feel enormously responsible for not attending to mission. (Mourtos, 2009)
Father Mourtos would even go so far as to allow for the possibility of the Buddha’s sainthood, though not canonization. In his view, it is God, not the Church, that is perfect -- except of course in matters of doctrine in which case the Church and the divine Will are identical. His willingness to concede the Church’s error somehow coincides with his unwillingness to propose the possibility for a corresponding official change in Church policy regarding these otherwise non-doctrinal matters:
Canonization is not a doctrinal issue – the Church could very well have erred in that case. For example, the Tsar of Russia, or, Constantine – were they really saints? The Church [said so]. However God may [disagree]. We do not know. So, if a Christian says ‘I honor the Buddha as a saint, I would not have any objection. Although, there would be an objection on the formality of having a service on a particular day [for the Buddha]…I cannot officially declare him a saint. If you wish to pay respects to him, yes.” ” (Mourtos, 2009)
The areas of incompatibility between Buddhism and Christianity as perceived by the missionaries mentioned here, agree in general terms on the non-negotiability of Jesus’ position in their faith: Father Baolin stated that “
What is typical in Christianity is the relation between Creator/Redeemer/Savior and the created. The origin and finality of human existence enfolds in this relation.[Therefore] themes such as creation, sin and redemption take a primacy that might have different importance in Buddhism. Meanwhile, it renders key Buddhist concepts such as reincarnation, karma, merits etc. of less appeal. (Baolin, 2011).
For Pastor Homer, “the main incompatibility is nothing apart from the non-negotiable belief in Jesus Christ. Our faith tends to be more on a personal level whereas the Buddhist is more in search of truth --I am not saying we are not.” (Homer, 2011) Pastor Street added, “apart from…Jesus, the only other problem I have with Buddhism is [its] emphasis on good works. What I have found in the people I have come to know who are either Taoists or Buddhists is that they are so worried about doing something bad, about not pleasing their god.” (Street, 2011)
The views on interfaith dialogue, however, in this case with Buddhism but in general with any religious tradition, vary among the respondents. Homer prefers multifaith as opposed to interfaith because,
I do respect Buddhists and do enjoy my conversations with them, not so much because I want to discover any common grounds but because I just want to learn more about them. But the bottom line is, I am here to convert them. And if the Buddhist is serious in what he does, then he will also want me to know his beliefs. So, there needs to be this dialogue for this reason. I have to allow a person to be who he is and I can learn from him. And I also believe that this multifaith gives a person the freedom to believe what they want to believe and so I don’t have to feel that I must find some common things to come together around – we could get together on some other things [e.g., charity] – but not on our faith and belief in God. (Homer, 2011)
Pastor Doug Street of the Taipei International Church shares the same misgivings about interfaith dialogue: About participation or observation of Buddhist or local rituals or studies or practices, “I haven’t done any of that because I believe there is a conflict with what I believe in and thus this is something I don’t want to get involved in.” (Street, 2011) He emphasizes that he would not discourage people from observing Buddhist rituals or visiting Temples out of curiosity, but the one thing he would really encourage them would be to go and findex-Buddhists who converted to Christianity and ask them, “what was…that God used to bring you out of that? What were the struggles you were having?’ Because this helps me understand [and help] better those former Buddhists who are now Christians. Maybe people want to become Christians but are struggling with family issues, etc. That would help me be a better friend to them.” (Street, 2011) Baolin and Mourtos on the other hand are more positive about interfaith dialogue. Baolin has learned from Buddhism “the necessity to nurture my faith, to be consistent with what I believe; the appreciation of my religion as a relation with God who reveals himself as a parent, a friend who cares and is concerned, etc” (Baolin. 2011) When asked if he would encourage people to learn about Buddhism (e.g., by associating with Buddhist organizations or by visiting Buddhist temples with their Buddhist friends), he replied, “Why not? It will enhance a better appraisal of their own religion, if they had one. I encourage [my congregation] to visit Buddhist organizations and get objective information about them.” (Baolin, 2011) Homer is positive toward a more personal and individual rather than official type of dialogue:
In multifaith it is better to talk as different individuals than as different faiths because what you might understand about my faith might not be my faith at all; what I understand about your Buddhism might be a completely different kind of Buddhism. I wanna know what you believe, not what your faith says you should believe, This is a better opportunity for dialogue: we do not end up trying to defend our faiths (Homer, 2011)
The fact remains, however, that the pluralistic, secular context of Western sensitivities in combination with the diversity of religious traditions which did not lack in philosophical sophistication (Schlesinger, 1974) leads even the sincerest and most egalitarian of dialogue initiatives toward a nevertheless mission-centered rhetoric which is absolved of its missionary burdens through the claim that other faiths must continue to exist alongside mission (however modified as sharing of outlooks or cooperating in moral issues and social projects) among them..
The Asian approach to reality is total…This is an understanding by intuition into the whole of reality and it goes beyond the ideological reflection and discursive thought. Hence, knowledge is not characterized as …the ability to analyse a particular segment or part of reality, but as…the capacity to relate the part to the whole and the whole to the part by a deeper understanding of the inner order and harmony binding them together. Here truth is not something to be possessed, so to say, as furniture; it is something that appears and lets itself be seen progressively as we all grow in wisdom. (Wilfred, 1978, p. 79).
The similarities with the comments by Wallace and Thurman (Voulgarakis, 2010b, p. 6) against the possessive nature of Western epistemology as opposed to Buddhist interactive epistemological function and potential for growth is telling. However, the importance of the above quoted statement here has to do with the very “Orientalist” – like approach which seeks, like its historical counterpart, to create two monolithically separate constructs – epistemological this time – between the Western possessive and fragmenting route, on the one hand, and the Asian holistic, interrelational, harmonious, and humble (not possessing wisdom but arriving to realization through it). All this is achieved, according to Wilfred, through learning,
to look at Buddhism, Hinduism, or Taoism, through Asian eyes and with an Asian mind and an epistemology that is part of our life and heritage. Breaking open from the epistemological captivity in which we are is a primary condition for a fruitful dialogue in Asia today. (Wilfred, 1978, p. 781.
In agreement with the above comment stands Wiest’s statement which echoes the much-commented upon truth that the world in general (let alone the Western world) is a global, pluralist one:
[Dialogue] with people of other religions or with no religion [no longer means ]a geographical division between western and non-western countries for it has become too obvious that western civilization can no longer be identified with the Christian message. (Wiest, 2001, p. 36).
“The Buddhist” in dialogue
The patterns are by now identifiable. Buddhism in dialogue is a religion (or a set of practices informed by at least the same symbols irrespective if interpretative variation in different locations and contexts) with a distinct and ultimately non-negotiable message.
Is there a creed anywhere that would not welcome having its own premises become universally and uniformly embraced? Buddhism [like any other religious-ethical system] regards its own premises as absolutely true. It recognizes points of congruence with other teachings and celebrates those points as corroboration of initially Buddhist truth…. And it embraces the optimistic proposition that one day the world as a whole will be won over by the force of the dharma. Ironically, however, the issue of uniformity posits an equally problematic Buddhist essentialism (Nosco, 2007, pp. 82-3)
Peter Nosco notes the Dalai Lama’s 2004 visit to the University of British Columbia], where he presented “a secular ethic that promotes good-heartedness without a theological superstructure [which explains] the power appeal of his teachings. (Nosco, 2007, pp. 82-3) Joseph B. Tamney also examines the reasons for the initially paradoxical situation whereby Western individualism would accept Buddhist detachment. (Tamney,, 1992) He states that
…many Westerners yearn…to reinvigorate a religion of self-sacrifice…of boundless compassion…Buddhism has been interpreted [as offering] the same basic message, however with a appealing twist: Boundless compassion need not be accepted because it is required by an authoritarian God….In the present century, an aversion to dogmatism and authoritarianism has been especially strong [and there has been discontent with] reliance on words and thus on intellectual transmission…People do not want to read about religion, they want to experience the religious. (Tamney, 1992, p. 158)
For this reason, doctrinal technicalities become circumvented for a more accommodating attitude during dialogue, though care is taken to tilt “similarities” on the side of “our own” tradition, making the agreeable, to “us”, aspects of our dialogue partners appear as confirming “our truths.” Often, Buddhists’ views on Christianity are accompanied by the proposition that both traditions must come to dialogue not only for mutual understanding and enrichment but also transformation – one which does not, nevertheless, lead to syncretism or dilution of doctrinal dilution.:
The dialogue...should not be regarded as an interfaith one…While interfaith dialogue presupposes the validity and significance of religion...our present secularized world [does] not…Moreover, ideologies that negate religion prevail in our society....Scientism, Marxism, traditional Freudian psychoanalytic thought, and Nihilism...Apart from the issue of religion and irreligion, there wouldn’t be much sense in taking up the problem of Buddhism and Christianity. (Abe, Masao, 1990, p. 3).
Abe’s well known proposals to overcome these two threats of his day led him to some interesting and creative doctrinal interpretations which, as expected, did not appeal to any substantial segment of the Buddhist world but only to innovatively-inclined individuals who, by definition, hold no great sway in influencing entire populations. On the contrary, such of Abe’s suggestions as the interpretation of the Christian principle of Kenosis (a much disputed doctrine within Christianity itself) can be and has been employed for very traditional goals of conversion, from both sides. Father Jonas Mourtos, considers the pursuit of understanding Buddhist doctrines as an opportunity to make Buddhists understand Christianity: “[W]hen the Chinese view their cultural legacy, even before the onset of Buddhism, as becoming “empty” to the world, opening oneself up to the world, without becoming zero, then what better way to express the Father’s opening up and emptying Himself than through this concept?” (Mourtos, 2009) Such an approach may be popular among some Christian missionaries but not all:
Caution has to be taken in conveying those theological terms. They are understandable only when emphasis is given of the historical context where they emanated; otherwise, they can be very confusing. I experience the difficulty of a Christian-Buddhism dialogue that proposed “kenosis” as equivalent to the Buddhist concept of “emptiness.” (Baolin, 2011)
Other examples of Buddhist interpretations of Christianity expressed in conciliatory and pluralistic terms is Carl Schmied’s accounts of Anya Khema’s comparison of key aspects of The Sermon on the Mount and the Mahamangala Sutta and the Karaniya Metta-Sutta, focusing on “love” as the common value in all religions. Similarly, “love” also features prominently in the Dalai Lama’s The Good Heart, but the ingeniously discreet exclusiveness does not escape notice: “Though we all have divine nature within us, you as practicing Christians activate, implement, and perfect this divine spark through Christ. [through Whom] this divine nature comes into full bloom, joins the Father, and becomes indispensable from him.” (Scmied, 2001, p. 133) The interesting point, of course, that the idea of divine spark conjuring up images of the “image and likeness” in Christian minds is actually interchangeable in His Holiness' narrative with the “divine nature” which is thoroughly antithetical to any Christian interpretation of human nature, and, as the case would have it, very compatible with the doctrine of tathagatagarba [vonBrucke 167, Thelle, 153] or Buddha nature. Thiek Nhat Hanh Living Buddha, Living Christ is yet another sincere example of “dialogue” between one's Buddhist views and the same person's interpretations of Christianity. For the famous Vietnamese monk, “studying the life of Jesus is crucial to understanding his teaching. For me, [his life] is his most basic teaching, even more important than faith in the resurrection or faith in eternity.” (Schmied, p. 135) As for divine nature, “Jesus is the Son of God and the Son of Man. We are all sons and daughters of God as well as children of our parents. This means that we are all of the same nature as Jesus. This may sound heretical to Christians. But I think that theologians who have a problem accepting this may do well to rethink the issue.” (Schmied, p. 136) It is, of course, a fact of life that the majority of religious adherents seldom, if ever, rethink, or even think, of theological complexities. By consigning the heretical nature of the issue to theologians, he wishes to free at least those among the ordinary Christians who have reasons or inclinations to consider Buddhism from doctrinal considerations and to focus on a common sense expression of a very Buddhist Mahayana doctrine (the kind of non-exclusive, universal “divine nature” that is better known as the Buddha nature) as well as on walking and sitting meditation which Jesus is presented as having practiced. for forty days in the desert (Schmied, p. 137) Schmied's concluding remarks bring all the above cases nicely under the umbrella of globalization's inevitability:
In this increasingly small world we become increasingly aware of the interdependence of everything that exists...An even deeper, more ecological consciousness – Interbeing – which can be experienced through meditation on Anatta, non-ego, is our chance for survival. We shall take a fresh, contemporary look at the wonderful jewels of Buddhist and Christian teachings, analyze them, and let them become living reality through our concrete and continuous practice. But let us also not cover up differences.” (Schmied, p. 139)
The italicized words and phrases in the above segment indicate that we will not, in fact, have to. “Jewels,” “ interdependence,”and ”Anatta,” may be phrased as doctrinally neutral and morally/socially universal and relevant but they are doctrinally-specific Buddhist terms, making the direction of dialogue one-sided through offering to meet his other faith partners half way but on a road laid down on Buddhist concepts. In such a setup, Buddhist followers will not have to give up their non-negotiable doctrines despite the fact that their Christian counterparts are indeed encouraged, according to the italicized words in the above quotes, to do so. As for the phrase on “survival,” it is obviously connected to the “increasingly small world” and this can carry both the interpretations of survival from our self-destructiveness, and from the shrinking societies which, driven by globalization, pluralism, and modernity always demand of religious traditions (especially he inevitably exclusive ones) an ever-available account of relevance and tolerance.
In another characteristic example of contrasting Christianity to Buddhism in the light of pluralism and tolerance, David W. Chappel states that,
In contrast to the recent discovery of pluralism by Westerners, from its beginning Buddhism has repeatedly flourished in religiously plural cultures. As a consequence, patterns of interreligious competition and mutual exclusion have been less extreme or brutal than in the West and have often been balanced culturally by many experiences of mutual coexistence, accommodation and collaboration and in some instances…of equality. (Chappel, 1999, p. 6)
The issue is, of course, colonial guilt which would prohibit one from denying the accusation of “Western” – an ethnic? religious? racial categorization? – accountability in religious intolerance in the West and from questioning the validity of the general quantifier “less brutal.” The same contrast to Christianity and colonialism plus a purported epistemological independence minus the Eastern devotion elements is presented for the previously noted Buddhist approach by Robert Thurman. Buddhism in the West appears (also) as free from dogmatic and historical authoritarianism only in comparison to Christianity. Kosuke Koyama stated, “No profit in pursuing a quest for the historical Gautama. The Dharma, once discovered, can stand by itself even as E=mc2 is effective independent of…Einstein. Christian truth cannot be timeless and detached.” (Koyama, 2002, p. 252) There is agreement on this among some Christians: “Without Christ, Chistianity would be nothing. Would we be able to say [the same thing about Buddhism and the Buddha]?” (Homer, 2011) However, the professed detachment from the Western infatuation with historical linearity, personality cults, and colonialist spreading of monotheistic and prophetic doctrines, fails, nevertheless, to avoid – indeed, it actually promotes essentialism in the strangest sense. The comparisaon with Christianity brings out a very recognizable pattern encountered in Orientalism..
It would furthermore be interesting to enquire about Chappel’s definition of “pluralist” cultures, considering the beginnings of Christianity in antiquity and its flourishing also in non-Western contexts such as the missionary effort in China, not all of which can be fairly regarded as a Christian propensity for intolerance – for non-negotiable and exclusive doctrinal and even soteriological positions are neither absent from Buddhism nor regarded there as intolerant. In this context, it is not surprising the contrast between the “Buddhism” religion and “the West,” and the identification of the latter with Christianity.
Exclusiveness is a characteristic of Evangelicalism (in both the denomination of its namesake and other mission-prone movements): “It may be that Evangelicalism flourishes best in a world that is tranquilly religious rather than in one that is either secularized or defensively religious.” (Preston, 2008). It is therefore inevitable that dialogue will bring out the strenuous complementarity of the two situations, namely, the exclusiveness-driven mission, on the one hand, and the pluralist-driven rhetoric of dialogue for the purpose of maintaining that tranquilly religious environment for mission to continue. The language of pluralism is used in either positive or negative ways only within the arena of healthy religious competition. Within that arena, the overarching reality of pluralism causes that competition to change the competitors’ expressions and descriptions of each other. Group identities and dynamics take on local and regional attributes, among which the religious attributes are but a part. Globalization and ethnoreligious diversity strongly encourage the new forms of competition into expressions of dialogue and mutual enrichment which are most of the time self-serving though sincerely felt. At all times, it seems, the common ground is to be found in the area of charity and social ethics, consigning the more problematic doctrinal explorations to a distant and therefore non-influential elite. As with the focus on textual sources of futilely pursued pristine and essential origins of traditions during the Orientalism of the Nineteenth Century, dialogue partners today seem to be focusing on common ground and cooperation as primarily an epistemological tool which will present in a friendly, cooperative and tolerant manner the evidence for each individual tradition’s truth, exclusively, as also found, conveniently and in less complete development, in the traditions of everyone else.
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