The Importance of Interfaith Dialogue: A Buddhist perspective
Interfaith Dialogue a Buddhist Perspective an Examination of Pope John Paul II's Crossing the Threshold of Hope a talk given at the Intermonastic Dialogue Gethsemani Monastery, Louisville, Kentucky July, 1996 by Ven. Havanpola Ratanasara, Ph.D.
In his published work, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, His Holiness, Pope John Paul II, made some observations with which I, as a Buddhist, wholly agree. The Holy Father reminded us all, that "what unites us is much greater than what separates us ... It is necessary ... to rid ourselves of stereotypes, of old habits and above all, it is necessary to recognize the unity that already exists." Since all of you are already knowledgeable about the history of inter-religious dialogue, it isn't my intention to bore you by rehashing it. But I think it is worth our while to pause every now and then, to "step back" and remind ourselves just how far we've come in the last three decades. The evidence, which confirms the Pope's observation of a "unity that already exists" is most encouraging. Formal interfaith dialogue, however, does not materialize, fully developed, out of a vacuum. It evolves gradually, in response to the needs and aspirations of the broader community of which its participants are members. The "unity that already exists," of which the Pope speaks, is the life of the community, and a tacit consensus, that "what unites us" is at least as important as "what separates us." On the other hand, this pre-existing "unity" must be recognized, and positive steps taken to build on it. No less encouraging, therefore, is the evidence that what was begun some thirty years ago continues with increasing momentum.
Brief History of the Development of Inter-religious Dialogue
While in recent times interfaith dialogue has become not only national but international in its scope, I cite the experience of Los Angeles as but one example, since it is the one with which I'm most familiar. Almost from the very beginning, dialogue in Los Angeles included Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Jews, and Christians. Since it is unique in being a truly "global" community, Los Angeles provided an ideal environment for such dialogue. Over 120 languages are spoken there. And all religions and ethnic groups are represented as well, including all major Buddhist traditions, each with its own language and customs.
Formal dialogue, however, required a catalyst, and it was the Catholic Church which, by the enlightened leadership of its pontiffs, provided it. As early as 1964, in his first encyclical letter, Ecclesiam Suam, Pope Paul Vl already emphasized the need for inter-religious dialogue, an attitude which was further underscored in Nostra Aetate which was wholly dedicated to the subject indicated by title. It was Nostra Aetate however, that set the stage for the beginning of genuine interreligious dialogue. This decree initiated a fundamental change in the way the Church viewed other religions. For the first time, it encouraged dialogue with them.
For its part, the Catholic community in Los Angeles lost no time following the guidelines set by Nostra Aetate. In 1969 the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles, together with representatives of the Catholic and Jewish communities, founded the Interreligious Council of Southern California (ICSC). In 1971, Buddhist communities joined in. This became the focal point of the Los Angeles dialogue. In 1974, the Catholic Archdiocese formed the Commission on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs (CEIA) to coordinate and expedite its relations with other religious communities. The work of both of these organizations continues, sponsoring ongoing dialogue, but also (and just as important), informal contacts among the various participating religious organizations. These activities have enhanced considerably mutual understanding, and a lessening of conflicts among religions.
Development of dialogue after these first steps was impressive. Nostra Aetate, to its great credit, called upon Catholics to repudiate anti-Semitism in all its forms. It also encouraged them to promote dialogue between Catholics and the Jewish community. In 1977, in Malibu, an all-day conference, the first of its kind, brought together about 50 Catholic sisters, with about as many Jewish women. Since that auspicious beginning, conferences have been held annually. It's worth noting too, that in Los Angeles, the Catholic and Jewish communities had already developed strong ties prior to Nostra Aetate indeed as far back as the 1920's. And in the 1950's and 1960's Loyola University (now Loyola Marymount) became a meeting place for members of the two faiths, and the American Jewish Committee did much to encourage this. During this period, however, such contacts were mostly informal, but nonetheless important. Most significant as well, have been the activities of the National Conference of Christians and Jews, which has its headquarters in Los Angeles, and is dedicated to combating racial and religious bigotry.
Through the initiatives of both of the organizations I mentioned earlier (ICSC and CEIA), meaningful informal exchanges with the Buddhist community were begun, and have continued apace. A highlight of this process was a visit by Pope John Paul II to Los Angeles in 1987. In 1989, the Los Angeles Buddhist-Catholic Dialogue began. It marked the beginning of a formal Buddhist-Catholic communication. It was sponsored by the Buddhist Sangha Council of Southern California and the Catholic Office of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs. A commemorative pamphlet published in 1991 described this as a "very early and preliminary dialogue, with a great need for mutual patience and simply getting to know one another."
This is certainly true. But what I think is most significant is that this formal dialogue in fact conferred recognition on what had already been happening, more informally, for almost twenty years. And this "informal" communication continues to the present day, alongside more formal or "official" dialogue. This suggests that the mandate for our dialogue, far from being "imposed from on high," whether by Nostra Aetate or anything else, is an expression of a genuine respect and friendship, which, I would like to think, would be happening anyway. As a document prepared by the Vatican's Secretariat for Non-Christians puts it: "Dialogue does not grow out of the opportunism of the tactics of the moment, but arises from reasons which experience and reflection, and even the difficulties themselves, have deepened." This is not to suggest, of course, that Nostra Aetate did not provide the impetus to get it going; it surely did. But if the will to carry it forward had not existed, I think we would not be meeting here today.
Also encouraging, is the evidence of international interreligious dialogue. In 1979, The World Council of Churches first published its Guidelines on Dialogue with People of Living Faiths and Ideologies. In the index to the fourth edition of that publication, I counted 75 major international meetings concerned with interreligious dialogue, from 1969 to 1989. And most recently, in Summer 1995, the Vatican Pontifical Council for ~ Interreligious Dialogue organized a Buddhist-Christian Colloquium in Taiwan. It was attended by 10 Christians and 10 Buddhist scholars, as well as four members of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, and many monks and nuns from a monastery in Taiwan, as well as some of the Catholic Bishops in Taiwan. The attending scholars came from Japan, Taiwan, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Italy, and the United States. The very fact that an international colloquium at such a high level was taking place at all, seems to me, a most auspicious development.
The Prospects for an Ongoing Dialogue
Perhaps the only mistake we can make now, is to allow our optimism to become complacency. While it is true that much has been accomplished by way of interfaith dialogue, there remain significant stumbling blocks to its longevity. One of the most enduring impediments to dialogue is the belief by members of the various religions, that by participating in it they may be compromising their own beliefs. I would like to address this concern.
In his book which I cited at the beginning of this address, the Holy Father, with characteristic eloquence, makes another point with which any Buddhist would find it hard to disagree, and which states an important principle on which dialogue can go forward: "... there is basis for dialogue and for the growth of unity, a growth that should occur at the same rate at which we are able to overcome our divisions --- divisions that to a great degree result from the idea that one can have a monopoly on truth." For a Buddhist, his or her faith is no bar to dialogue with other religions. The reason is that Buddhism is neither a system of dogmas, nor a doctrine of "salvation" as that term is generally understood in theistic religions. The Buddha exhorted his disciples to take nothing on blind faith, not even his words. Rather, they should listen, and then examine the teachings for themselves, so that they might be convinced of its truth.
Once, when the Buddha was visiting a market town called Kesaputta, the local people, known as the Kalamas, sought his advice. Wandering ascetics and teachers used to visit the town from time to time, and were not reticent about propagating their own particular religious and philosophical doctrines, and at the same time disparaging I the teachings of others.
The Buddha advised them in this way:
"It is proper for you, Kalamas, to doubt, to be uncertain, do not be led by reports, or tradition, or hearsay. Do not be led by the authority of religious texts, nor by mere logic or inference, nor by considering appearances; nor by delight in speculative opinions, nor by seeming possibilities, nor by the idea, this ascetic is our teacher. But rather, when you yourselves know [that] certain things are unwholesome and wrong, [that such] things are censured by the wise, and when undertaken, such things lead to harm, [then] abandon them. And when you yourselves know [that] certain things are unwholesome and good, [that such] things are approved by the wise, and when undertaken such things lead to benefit and happiness, [then] enter on and abide in them."
What the Buddha's teaching offers, then, is an intellectual and spiritual "crutch," that we may use until we I are able to tread the path to liberation and Enlightenment alone. While the teachings of other religions do have much in common with Buddhism, the latter is unique in its emphasis on this point. As the Buddha put it: "One is indeed, one's own savior, for what other savior could there be? When one is in control of oneself, one obtains a savior difficult to find." The Buddha compared his doctrine, the Dhamma, to a raft which one uses to cross over a lake or stream, but is left behind when one reaches shore. It would make no sense to continue lugging the raft about, once it had served its purpose. So attachment to doctrine for its own sake, be it religious, political, or ideological, is illogical from a Buddhist's point of view. It follows then, that a Buddhist needn't fear "losing" his faith by coming into contact with the faiths of others.
This principle of "eclecticism" has, in my view, two corollaries. The first is that differences between faiths should not be overdrawn, or created where none exist. For example, in his book, the Pope characterizes Buddhist soteriology as almost exclusively negative.
This he explains in the following way:
"We do not free ourselves from evil through the good which comes from God; we liberate ourselves only through detachment from the world, which is bad. The fullness of such a detachment is not union with God, but what is called nirvana, a state of perfect indifference with regard to the world. To save oneself means, above all, to free oneself from evil by becoming indifferent to the world, which is the source of evil. This is the culmination of the spiritual process."
Now, it seems that such "indifference" to the world, were it true, would be but a step removed from contempt for the world. And nothing could be farther removed from the Buddhist attitude. In fact, it was out of love for the world, that the Buddha spent 45 years of his life teaching. Nor was he reticent about involving himself in what today, we would call "social issues." On one occasion, in fact, he intervened to prevent what started as a petty squabble over land ownership, from developing into armed conflict. And many Buddhist traditions emphasize the Bodhisattva ideal. This means that even one who has achieved liberation vows to remain in samsara (the cycle of birth and death), until all sentient beings have been enlightened. It is difficult, in Buddhist terms at least, to imagine an altruism more encompassing than this.
The second corollary is that we must be no less candid about our differences than we are sanguine about our similarities. Sometimes Buddhists who are highly regarded in the Buddhist community, and whose words therefore carry an aura of authority, lose sight of this principle. In a misguided zeal to promote an ecumenical atmosphere, they misrepresent the Buddhist position, by making it more compatible with the beliefs of other religions than it actually is. For example, in his (1995) work, Thich Nhat Hanh attempted to attenuate the doctrine of "not-self" (anatta) by suggesting that the Buddha did not really mean what he said. Such attempts to water down basic Buddhist principles tends to have the opposite effect of that intended, because other participants will then express opinions on Buddhism, based upon what they have heard, believing that they have it on good authority. As a result, their remarks will appear to their Buddhist colleagues as ill-informed or disparaging of Buddhism.
What I am actually talking about here are canons of sound scholarship which all participants in the dialogue should recognize and try to honor. When non-Buddhists express opinions on Buddhism, they should take care to do their homework. Informed comments not only engender ill feelings, but an attitude of condescension on the other side. Genuine dialogue, however, is possible only in an atmosphere of mutual respect, based upon a consensus that it is being conducted among equals. And, this is obviously no less true when Buddhists talk about Christianity or other religions. At the same time, it is necessary that all of us remain committed to an open forum, where the participants are free to express ideas and views without fear of recrimination for "political incorrectness." It may happen that certain religious communities who are only recently part of the dialogue and therefore new to its ways, will be unable to "find their tongue" when others make criticisms which seem to them unjustified or ill-informed. Their first inclination, then, will almost naturally be to want to silence their critics. This is all the more reason why the representatives of each faith should be aware of the special needs of others. And again, this means each member should recognize a responsibility to familiarize himself with the traditions of the others.
These caveats, however, are not merely a paraphrase of the old saw, "lf you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all." As Buddhists, we cannot and do not close our eyes to the evil and injustice in the world. We are no less bound than our Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu brethren to take a stand on it. The easy part, of course, is staking out a position when we agree with each other. No religion that deserves to be taken seriously condones slavery or oppression in any form. Both the Pope and his predecessors have issued encyclicals sternly condemning political and religious persecution, as well as reproving the excesses of all forms of economic organization, capitalist, socialist, or communist. And Buddhists would be the first to agree. The hard part is taking a stand, when we disagree with each other. And this I identify as a second potential stumbling block to interfaith dialogue. Buddhists have often said what everyone knows, but is all too easily forgotten, that harsh or idle words, once uttered, cannot be retracted. They remain "out there," to poison the ambiance in which dialogue takes place, and may, in the few seconds required to utter them, undo what has taken years to accomplish. On the other hand, we cannot and will not always agree; and none of us can hope to enjoy the approval of everyone all the time. As the Buddha reminded us, "there never was, there never will be, nor does there exist now, a person who is wholly praised or wholly blamed." The very fact we are here, however, and expressing our willingness to talk to each other, suggests that we --- all of us --- must be doing something right!
Reflection on this second potential impediment to dialogue at once reveals a second reason why it should continue. In the WCC's booklet, Guidelines on Dialogue, to which I alluded earlier, the author remarks that "[i]t is easy to discuss religions and even ideologies as though they existed in some realm of calm quite separate from the sharp divisions, conflicts and sufferings of humankind." I wholly agree, and not only, but all Buddhists would agree with the author when he suggests that "[r]eligions and ideologies often contribute to the disruption of communities and the suffering of those whose community life is broken." Religious differences have often been the most deeply rooted and destructive of all. If we, as representatives of the world's major religions, can show the rest of the world that we can communicate with each other, they just might come to realize that there is no reason why they cannot do the same.
In Buddhism, virtuous conduct (sila) includes "right speech" (samma vaca). And by practicing the virtue of right speech in the context of dialogue, we will be setting an example for the larger community to emulate. As I pointed out earlier, dialogue already takes place as a part of the life of the community, even before it becomes formal. The many problems which beset our communities, indeed all mankind, at the close of this century are articulated in the political forum --- the environment, nuclear proliferation, international terrorism, human rights, urban violence, social justice, and the like. Representatives of the religious community, therefore, are drawn into the fray. The only question is whether we will rise to the occasion.
I would like to focus upon just one of these issues --- one indeed, that must concern us as representatives of the world's religions --- religious intolerance and persecution. Not only has it not disappeared, but it is actually on the rise in many parts of the world, and has shown itself in shameful incidents, even in our own country, and even within the last few weeks.
A recent spate of Church bombings has elicited a formal response from the White House, and has alarmed the public out of its characteristic lethargy. In fact, on the very day that I was working on this address, I happened to glance at the daily paper, only to see on the front page, a heart-rending picture of a 92-year old black minister standing in front of what was left of his church, in Boligee, Alabama. Let me put it in his words: "The last Sunday we were in [our church] I had a real good sermon. And there wasn't any quarrel in the church. My sermon was about turning over a new life, to start a new thing, to start living better, to start working together, to live in the Spirit of God, to get along. Four days later they called me. My daughter drove me back out there. And it was all burned down. It was gone. The church was all down in ashes, just one wall and one corner still standing. The other walls had fallen in, and there was nothing left but ashes. So I said a prayer, and I asked the Lord to take charge. I asked the Lord to take control of it. I asked him two things. I asked him to help me build another church. And I asked him to tell us who did it. Because he's the Lord. He knows.'' The very same day the Times reported that a church in South-central Los Angeles had received its second arson threat.
As a Buddhist, who with great sadness must watch what is happening to his Christian brethren, I am reminded of the words of the Buddha: "Yo appadutthassa narassa dussati suddhassa posassa ananganassa. Tam eva balam pacceti papam sukkhumo rajo pativatam' va khitto." ("Whoever harms a harmless person, one pure and guiltless, upon that very fool the evil recoils like a fine dust thrown against the wind.") When I see things like this happening, I find it difficult to forgive the perpetrators, even though I know I must. The Buddha told his monks that "even if bandits were to sever you savagely limb by limb with a two-handed saw, he who gave rise to a mind of hate towards them would not be carrying out my teaching." As a Buddhist I do not profess to know whether Christ ever really healed the sick, raised up a cripple, made the blind see, the deaf hear, or raised the dead. But I do know that he never made anyone lame, or blind, or mute; nor did he ever put anyone to death. He was at the very least a good, compassionate, and virtuous human being; he was, indeed, everything that the Buddha was, and taught us what we should be. Even though we (and I speak now not only as a Buddhist, but as a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, a Hindu, as a human being, as one of you) . . I say, even though we may wonder whether we can find it in our hearts to forgive those who harm us, who beat us, kill us, defame us, or burn our churches and temples, we must remember that Christ himself had no second thoughts about those who persecuted him, beat him, spat upon him, and even killed him. He forgave them from the cross; can we do less?
And this is why we must continue our dialogue; this is why we must talk! The only alternative to talk is the build up of resentment and anger, which in time must inevitably become open hostility and conflict. Nor can religions take the attitude that they will start talking, when they have "settled scores." As the Buddha reminds us, "In those who harbor such thoughts as 'he abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me,' hatred is not appeased." In Buddhism there are few instances of "eternal truths," and so, when the Buddha himself declares something so to be, we have to assume that he really meant it. In an often quoted verse, the Buddha stated that "[h]atreds never cease through hatred in this world; through love alone do they cease. This is an eternal law." And did not Jesus say, "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you"? And again, in St. Paul's letter to the Romans, we read: "Bless those who persecute you; never curse them bless them resist evil and conquer it with good."
The Pope's conviction, then, that what unites us is greater than what separates us offers firm ground upon which to continue building an edifice in which all faiths can feel at home. I, as a Buddhist, believe that Buddhism is a "uni