by Paul O. Ingram

Interreligious dialogue needs to include practical issues that confront all human beings whatever their religious labels.

PAUL O. INGRAM is Professor of Religion at Pacific Lutheran University and Past President of the Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies. His most recent book is Wrestling with the Ox: A Theology of Religious Experience.

In Living Buddha, Living Christ, the Vietnamese Zen monk Thich Nhat Hahn described an interreligious meeting in Sri Lanka where the participants were assured: "We are going to hear about the beauties of several traditions, but that does not mean that we are going to make a fruit salad." When it was Thich Nhat Hahn's turn to speak, he commented: "Fruit salad can be delicious! I have shared the Eucharist with Father Daniel Berrigan, and our worship became possible because of the sufferings we Vietnamese and Americans shared over many years." Thich Nhat Hahn then observed that some of the "Buddhists present were shocked. . . and many Christians seemed truly horrified."(1)

This meeting between Thich Nhat Hahn and Daniel Berrigan was a form of Buddhist-Christian dialogue. Both are ordained clergy in their respective traditions; both were at the time living in exile because of their protest of the war in Vietnam; each shared the depths of his religious life with the other. What brought them together in Sri Lanka was not mere intellectual curiosity, but a sense of compassion and kinship engendered by their experiences of the Vietnam War that deepened their religious lives while transcending theological, philosophical, ideological, and institutional boundaries. Such creatively transforming events are common experiences among Buddhists and Christians engaged in serious dialogue.}

Because most conversations between religious persons tend to be monologues rather than dialogues, it is helpful to sketch briefly the interdependent elements that structure an interreligious dialogue. First, interreligious dialogue is a specific type of conversation between faithful persons of different religious traditions that lacks ulterior motives. This is perhaps the most important element of genuine dialogical encounter. Dialogue is a mutual sharing between two or more persons in which one seeks to place one's faith in conversation with persons dwelling in a faith perspective other than one's own, while at the same time sharing one's own faith perspective openly and honestly with that person. Ulterior motives of any sort, such as the conversion of another to one's own point of view, transforms the conversation to a monologue.

Second, genuine interreligious dialogue requires being engaged by the faith and practice of persons dwelling in religious perspectives other than our own. In such a conversation, our own perspectives are stretched, tested, and challenged by the faith and practices of our dialogical partner. Third, interreligious dialogue requires critical and empathetic understanding of one's own point of view. It is a bit like being in love. We can recognize the reality of another's love because we also experience receiving and giving love. In a similar way, living in the depths of our own tradition enables us to apprehend the depths of our partner's tradition. It is not possible to hear the music of another person's faith and practice unless we can hear the music of our own.

Fourth, interreligious dialogue presupposes that truth is relational in structure. It may not be quite correct to think that truth is relative, but our sense of truth is certainly relational. We can only understand from the perspective we occupy; we can only apprehend whatever truth is from the particular cultural, religious, social, gender-specific perspectives we inhabit. For this reason, Carmelite nuns practicing contemplative prayer do not ordinarily experience the Buddha nature underlying every thing and event at every moment of space-time. Nor do Buddhist nuns ordinarily experience mystical union with Christ the Bridegroom as the result of their meditative practice. Since no one and no religious tradition can enclose the whole of reality -- the way things really are as opposed to the way we desire things to be -- within its particular institutional and doctrinal boundaries, dialogue reveals how the faith and practice of another faithful human can challenge, stretch, and enliven our particular self-awareness as religious persons. In other words, the purpose of interreligious dialogue is mutual creative transformation.(2)

Finally, the practice of interreligious dialogue requires taking risks. It is not for the spiritually timid. Openness to the insights of persons living in the depths of religious traditions other than one's own is a kind of "odyssey," which John S. Dunne described as "passing over and returning."(3)

In dialogue, we cross our borders into the faith and practice of other human beings, learn and appropriate what we can, and return to the "home" of our own faith perspective. Most of the time Christians pass over into the faith and practice of Buddhists, for example, and return to their own Christian perspective changed and enriched, while maintaining a Christian self-identity, but one different from the self-identity known before passing over. The same process happens for Buddhists in dialogue with Christians. The risk is that one's faith and worldview are transformed in unpredictable ways. Sometimes, persons crossing over to another religious tradition remain there. Sometimes they experience multiple religious identities. Interreligious dialogue is not for persons who easily lose their nerve.

Those who participate in dialogue learn early that generalizations about Buddhism and Christianity, or about Buddhists and Christians, are difficult and dangerous. Still, the need for generalization is necessary, provided one is aware that there are always exceptions. One such generalization is that because Buddhists and Christians often practice dialogue for different reasons, it is useful to describe three major forms of dialogue that have evolved in contemporary Buddhist-Christian encounter: conceptual dialogue, socially engaged dialogue; and interior dialogue. As the elements of interreligious dialogue are interdependent, so also are the forms of dialogue. The specific form of dialogue at work is a matter of emphasis for the person in dialogical encounter.

The focus of conceptual dialogue is doctrinal, theological, and philosophical;. it concerns a religious tradition's self-understanding and worldview. In conceptual dialogue, Buddhists and Christians compare theological and philosophical formulations on such questions as: "ultimate reality," human nature, suffering and evil; nature and ecology; salvation}/liberation;} the relation between love, compassion, and justice; the role the Jesus in Christianity and the role of the Buddha in Buddhism; and what Christians and Buddhists can learn from each other.

Conceptual dialogue has been especially emphasized by Christian participants in contemporary Buddhist-Christian encounter because Christians inherit a long tradition of theological reflection as a means of structuring belief and practice. This tradition is called "faith seeking understanding," and it is one of the reasons that the Christian tradition places heavy emphasis on doctrinal and conceptual clarity in a way not emphasized by non-Christian traditions. Consequently, many dialogically engaged Christians locate themselves as heirs of a tradition that has, as a whole, lost credibility and relevance within the context of contemporary religious and secular pluralism. For them, the task is to apprehend theological formulations that respond to these challenges.

This is a major interest of Methodist theologian John Cobb's dialogue with Buddhism, especially with noted Buddhist philosopher, Abe Masao. Cobb has appropriated Buddhist doctrines of impermanence, "non-self," and interdependence into his version of "process theology" because he claims these Buddhist insights can help Christians recover biblical insights about human nature and God that are more relevant to contemporary life and experience. He is noted for his claim that "a Christian can be a Buddhist, too."(4)

Conceptual dialogue has been of interest to Buddhists as well. Abe Masao is the oldest member of the "Kyoto School" of Japanese philosophy, mostly composed of Zen Buddhists trained not only in the abstractions of Mahayana Buddhist dialectics but also in the traditions of German philosophy, particularly Hegel and Kant. More than any other Buddhist I know, Abe comprehends and appreciates the complexities of Christian theological tradition. He senses that Christian tradition has a long history of working for social and economic justice as a central form of its practice, and thinks Buddhists have much to learn from Christians about the struggle for justice within the rough-and-tumble of political and economic existence.

Conceptual dialogue -- here exemplified by John Cobb and Abe Masao -- has clearly demonstrated the need to confront issues of economic, social, and ecological injustice. These issues are global, interconnected, interdependent; they are not religion or culture specific. Conceptual dialogue engenders what contemporary Buddhists and Christians refer to as "socially engaged dialogue." The list of Buddhists who have emphasized social engagement as their primary form of dialogue is long and distinguished: Dr. B. Ambedkar led millions of economically exploited former untouchable Hindus to Buddhism; Dr. A. T. Arianyaratne struggles against government-sponsored violence against the minority Tamil people of his country; the Dalai Lama's nonviolent Tibetan Liberation Movement non-violently contends with acts of Chinese genocide against his people and culture; Sulak Sivaraksa's "gad fly" protest movement aims to push the government of Thailand toward a democratic system based on the Buddhist idea of compassion for all living beings, as well as to convince the Thai military and political establishment to end their participation in the drug trade and their support of the Thai sex industry.

The heart of Buddhist social engagement is nonviolence, which according to traditional Buddhist teaching is an awareness of the utter interdependence of all things and events at every moment of space-time. What Buddhists refer to as "Awakening" (nirvana) is experiential awareness of this interdependence, which in turn gives rise to a mind of compassion (karuna) that is able to experience the suffering of all sentient beings as if they were one's own, for it is one's own. Motivated by compassionate wisdom, socially active Buddhists seek through nonviolent means to heal systemic suffering engendered by social, political, economic, and military institutions, often at great personal risks.

But for Christians the question is the relation between nonviolence and justice. Sallie B. King, a Quaker who also regards herself as a Zen Buddhist, thinks that the struggle for justice has not been a major force in Buddhist history, although it is central to Christian self-understanding and practice.(5)

Since in traditional Christian teaching there are greater evils than violence, while in Buddhist teaching there is no greater evil than violence, Christians in serious conversation with Buddhists about the relation between justice and nonviolence misrepresent their tradition if they do not emphasize the importance of justice. Accordingly, Christians normally do not find themselves happy with the principle of nonviolent resistance to all forms of injustice, including genocide, unless the perpetrators receive justice for their crimes.

Consequently, Christians who emphasize love and forgiveness of enemies also want justice. While justice is not the same as revenge or retaliation, Christians want those who commit crimes to be legally prosecuted, so that unjust persons or institutions do not "to get away with it," even if that is often what happens. So while Buddhists like King think Buddhists need to develop a concept of justice in relation to their practice of nonviolence, Christians in conversation with Buddhists need to reflect on their passion for retributive justice and how to balance compassion with justice.

A third form of interreligious dialogue -- "interior dialogue" -- concentrates on spiritual techniques and their resulting experiences. This form of dialogue has been the special concern of Catholic participants in Buddhist-Christian encounter, mostly because Protestants generally, and incorrectly, regard contemplative practices and as "works righteousness." For Catholics, it seems easier, and less theologically dangerous, to share meditation and contemplative prayer techniques than to engage in discussion about doctrines, especially when Buddhist and Christian doctrine and teachings seem incommensurable. My first instructor in Zen meditation, Shibayama Roshi, once told me of his dialogue with German Catholic monks and nuns and Lutheran theologians and pastors. At the conclusion of the joint meditation session, the Catholic monks and sisters embraced the Buddhist monks and nuns because of their strong sense of their shared spiritual quest. But when the discussion turned to "God" this sense of intimate fellowship was overwhelmed by feelings of mutual antagonism and divisiveness. This happens often in conceptual dialogue. The desire for, and experience of, transcendence is common to all religious persons, but perceptions about the nature of that transcendence and the means to experiencing it are sometimes the stuff of theological and philosophical discord.

There are, however, occasions when conceptual dialogue and interior dialogue work together to push Buddhists and Christians in new directions. For example, Thomas Merton, dissatisfied with the state of discipline in his Trappist tradition, journeyed to Asia to enter into a conceptual and interior dialogue with Asian religious traditions. Merton's conversations with the Dalai Lama confirmed his belief that by appropriating Buddhist meditative practices, Catholic monks and nuns could rejuvenate and reform Catholic monastic life.(6) Following Merton's lead, Ruben Habito organized a Buddhist-Christian meditation group called the Maria Kannon Society in Dallas, Texas.(7) Habito is an ex-Jesuit who now teaches history of religions at Perkins School of Theology. His Awakening experience has been certified by his Zen teacher, Yamada Koun Roshi, who also authorized Habito as one of his "Dharma Heirs."

What Thomas Merton and Ruben Habito and Buddhists like the Dalai Lama and Yamada Roshi discovered is that their practice of interior and conceptual Buddhist-Christian dialogue engendered forms of theological-philosophical reflection and experience that pushed them in new directions of social engagement. They were, in other words, mutually transformed by their experience. From a Christian perspective, such transformations seem a sign of grace.

Crossing the borders of my own religious tradition into Buddhist traditions and practices has taught me three lessons. First, interior dialogue with Buddhist meditative practice has taught me that faith is an interior journey through time -- forward and back, seldom in a straight line, most often in spirals. Each of us is moving and changing in relationship to others, to the world, and, if one is grasped by Christian faith, to God, or if grasped by Buddhist faith, to the Dharma. As we discover what our particular religious journeys teach us, we remember; remembering, we discover; and most intently do we discover when our separate journeys converge. It is at spots of Christian and Buddhist convergence that I have experienced the most dramatic and creatively transformative forms of interreligious dialogue.

Second, as a Lutheran it strikes me as glib to suggest that the focus of interreligious dialogue or any other form of religious practice is "God" or "Awakening," because I often feel intellectually and emotionally blindsided by what religious persons mean by these words. What do these terms mean as we practice? Conceptual dialogue with Buddhists has taught me that plenty of propositions can be strung together to answer this question, and I think it is important to guide one's religious practice by theological-philosophical propositions. But what Buddhist and Christian contemplatives have taught me is that we must never cling to propositions, because the moment we do, we will miss the reality to which they point. Conceptualizing and believing in propositions is a necessary beginning because they are a form of "faith seeking understanding." But faith is never, in Christian or Buddhist understanding, identical with belief in propositions. Faith is the state of trust in the reality to which propositions can point yet never capture, a grasp that goes beyond propositions; it is not caused by propositions, yet cannot be experienced non-propositionally, since even the statement "God" or "Awakening" is "beyond the grasp of propositions" is still a proposition.

Finally, dialogue with traditions of Buddhist social engagement has taught me that interreligious dialogue is not merely an abstract conversation. Interreligious dialogue requires and energizes involvement in the rough-and-tumble of historical, political, and economic existence. Or to paraphrase the Epistle of James, conceptual dialogue and interior dialogue "without works [are] dead." For me, this means that the central point of the practice of faith within the context of interreligious dialogue is the liberation of all creatures in nature from forces of oppression and injustice and the mutual creative transformation of persons in community with nature. The wisdom that Buddhists affirm is engendered by Awakening, and the Christian doctrines of creation and incarnation, point to the utter interdependency of all things and events at every moment of space-time -- a notion also affirmed by contemporary physics and biology.(8) Thus as we experience the suffering of others as our suffering, the oppression of others as our oppression, the oppression of nature as our oppression, and the liberation of others as our liberation, we thereby become empowered for social engagement.

Consequently, interreligious dialogue needs to include focus on practical issues that are not religion-specific or culture-specific, meaning issues that confront all human beings regardless of what religious labels they wear. Thus my running thesis about dialogically crossing religious borders is in agreement with Christians like Martin Luther, Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, John Cobb, and Thomas Merton; the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn and the Thai Buddhist layman Sulak Sivaraksa and the Dalai Lama; the Hindu activist sage Mahatma Gandhi; as well as Jewish and Islamic calls that we struggle for justice in obedience to Torah or in surrender to Allah guided by the Qur'an. All agree that interreligious dialogue throws us into the world's rough-and-tumble-struggle for peace and justice. Any religious practice that refuses to wrestle with the world's injustices is as impotent as it is self-serving. Accordingly, whatever particular form of religious faith we practice and whatever form of interreligious dialogue we pursue needs to be guided by concern for the liberation of all sentient beings, for as both Christian and Buddhist teachings affirm, we are all in this together. Distinctively Christian practices and, I suspect, distinctively Buddhist practices cannot have it any other way because in an interdependent universe, there is no other way.


1. [Back to text]  Thich Nhat Hahn, Living Buddha, Living Christ (Berkeley: Riverhead Books, 1995), 1-2.

2. [Back to text]  Paul O. Ingram and Frederick J. Streng, eds., Buddhist-Christian Dialogue: Mutual Renewal and Transformation (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1986), 177-94.

3. [Back to text]  John S. Dunne, The Way of All the Earth (South Bend, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1978).

4. [Back to text]  John B. Cobb, Jr., "Can a Christian Be a Buddhist, Too?" Japanese Religions 10 (1979): 1-20.

5. [Back to text]  Sallie B. King, "Buddhism and Social Engagement," in The Sound of Liberating Truth: Buddhist-Christian Dialogues in Honor of Frederick J. Streng, ed. Sallie B. King and Paul O. Ingram (Richmond, Surrey: Curzon Press, 1999), 159-80.

6. [Back to text]  Naomi Burton, Patrick Hart, and James Laughlin, eds., The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton (New York: New Directions, 1973), 78-190.

7. [Back to text]  See Ruben Habito, Zen Breath, Healing Breath (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1997).

8. [Back to text]  See Arthur Peacock, Theology for a Scientific Age (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 39-43.

Copyright of Cross Currents is the property of Association for Religion & Intellectual Life and its content may not be copied without the copyright holder's express written permission except for the print or download capabilities of the retrieval software used for access. This content is intended solely for the use of the individual user. Source: Cross Currents, Winter 2000-01, Vol. 50 Issue 4.