Issue 45, July 2005
Conversion and Religious Identity in Buddhism and Christianity
John D’Arcy May
A Benedictine abbey which has been involved in exchanges with Buddhist monks since 1979 was an appropriate setting for serious discussion for ‘double identity’ and change of identity between Buddhists and Christians. The European Network holds its conferences every two years, and after experiencing the Benedictine hospitality of St Ottilien once again it was decided that every second conference should be held here in future, with the intervening ones in different centres throughout Europe. Br Josef Götz OSB introduced the conference by telling the story of the inter-monastic encounters with monks of the Soto, Rinzai and Shingon traditions over the last 25 years at St Ottilien. Participants in these agreed that they had never learned so much about their own traditions as when they were engaged in dialogue at a spiritual and experiential level with their monastic ‘others’. One Zen monk told the Benedictines: “Working with your carpenter, I understand Christianity”, and another asked for baptism in order to participate more fully in the liturgy.
The situation in the Buddhist countries of Asia, however, is not necessarily so harmonious, as reports by Fr Thomas Timpte OSB from Korea and Dr Elizabeth Harris from Sri Lanka made clear. Just to hear about the religious situation in South Korea, the “great unknown” of East Asian Buddhism, was worthwhile. Though four traditions – Shamanism, Buddhism with elements of Daoism, Confucianism and Christianity – co-exist largely peacefully, the advent of Christianity caused tensions arising from both persecutions and conversions. Though many Koreans would find no contradiction in being both Confucianist (at least in a cultural sense) and Christian, Buddhism itself is coming to be seen as a cultural phenomenon, and those earnestly seeking peace of heart turn to Christianity. Almost half the members of parliament are either Catholic or Protestant, though there is little evidence of Christian ethics in political practice. Nevertheless, Buddhism is now the fastest-growing religion, as Catholics in particular find themselves attracted to the temple environment, which is experienced as “a kind of homecoming”. “Christian in the head, Shamanist in the belly, Buddhist in the heart”, though a simplification, sums up the situation.
In Sri Lanka, on the other hand, things are considerably more fraught, and with the passage of anti-conversion legislation the conference theme of conversion and identity is a charged topic. Elizabeth Harris illustrated the lengths to which certain Christians are prepared to go to win converts, such as working over the camps of tsunami survivors. Though British evangelical missionaries had originally been afforded remarkable hospitality by the Buddhists, even being invited to preach in temples, their insistence that if Christianity is right, Buddhism must be wrong polarised relations, and the great public debate of 1815 still sets a precedent. For these Christian inheritors of the European Enlightenment, both the conviction of sin and rational argument pointed to the superiority of Christianity. In the ethnic conflict presently raging, the religions are “not innocent”, with Tamils and Christians being conflated into the ‘other’ against which Singhalese antipathy is directed. This is all the more tragic in that most Sri Lankan Buddhists accept the traditional ethic of tolerance.
Jørgen Skov Sørensen and Kajsa Ahlstrand illuminated the religious situation in Scandinavia from different perspectives. Sørensen reflected on the “soft boundaries” which actually exist in many pluralistic societies, something that puzzled both civil servants and missionaries even in colonial India. There is a danger that contemporary Christians will try to impose the same unambiguous boundaries on post-modern Europe as they did in their former colonies. Ahlstrand’s report on an empirical study done in Sweden showed how unrealistic this is. ‘Dual identity’ as both Buddhist and Christian was more common than complete identification with either, and 42 per cent of those who identified completely with Christianity said they did not believe in God!
The centrepiece of the conference was a vigorous debate between Paul Williams, a prominent British Buddhist and professor of Indian and Tibetan philosophy who announced his conversion to Catholicism in a provocative book, The Unexpected Way, and two protagonists who disagreed with his reasoning from Christian and Buddhist points of view. Perry Schmidt-Leukel, professor of religious studies at Glasgow University, made the case that genuine Buddhism affirms the existence of a transcendent reality upon which salvation depends, without excluding both free will and grace. Williams had previously affirmed this and had now changed sides without changing his view of Buddhism. Jose Cabezon, professor of Tibetan studies in the University of California at San Diego, stressed that all religions do not say the ‘same thing’ and that there is scope for real debate about truth. Buddhism is not simply “passively tolerant” of Christianity. Though enlightenment does not require divine intervention, there is a place for the help and protection of enlightened ones. Buddhist insight depends on non-dualistic experiences which are not simply ‘pleasant’ but involve direct cognition of reality. Buddhism therefore makes both truth claims and moral demands, and the transcendence of subject-object duality does not exclude love.
In reply, Paul Williams emphatically defended his position. Buddhism denies the possibility of a creator God and is therefore atheistic, whereas orthodox Christianity affirms that God is the efficient, not just the final cause of the world. Affirmations made of God are not simply metaphorical or existential but are true of God, without disclosing the quid est of God in Godself. Whereas most Buddhists think Christianity is irrational, the affirmation of God’s existence is entirely rational. The Buddhist reduction of reality to ‘mind’ doesn’t work as an answer to the question ‘why is there something rather than nothing?’. Though the ensuing discussion was quite technical and was carried on entirely in English, the largely German-speaking audience was enthralled by it and participated willingly.
Ruben Habito of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, who came to St Ottilien directly after the Los Angeles conference as president of the Society of Buddhist-Christian Studies, gave a contrasting account of his own journey from traditional Roman Catholicism to the twin realisations that the God present in the eucharist is the God made known as the Crucified One among the suffering peasants of Asia, and that the Buddha he encountered in Zen practice was the Dharmakaya of ultimate reality. Zen tradition ‘outside the scriptures’ “uses words to overturn words”, and by employing ‘skilful means’ we can come to see how the words of the Buddha and the words of the Gospel flow together in the practice of compassion. There is no ultimate dichotomy between the discovery of the Crucified in the oppressed and the discovery of the Buddha-nature in reality; different as the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius and Zen practice are, there is no sui generis religious experience that would exclude all others.
There was need of a theological framework in which to make sense of these differing testimonies, and it was provided by Michael von Brück of the University of Munich. For him, a theology of dual religious belonging would have to be Trinitarian. It would have to take account of the psychological fact that, just as all subsequent language learning is built on one’s ‘mother tongue’, so too each of us, in the end, has “one mother” religiously as well. This proved controversial. Von Brück maintained that ‘pluralism’, in the West, has political origins, whereas metaphysical and epistemological pluralism is ultimately incoherent. Theological pluralism, however, is conceivable as long as particular expressions of the truth are not made mandatory for salvation. All our traditions are the result of cross-cultural historical processes, and even the question of ‘truth’ itself is culturally conditioned: satya, aletheia and veritas are by no means the same. Truth involves not just facts but experiences, which is why dual belonging, though possible, can be emotionally difficult, and religious plurality has a contemplative dimension. Logical consistency and emotional integration must work hand in hand if an “inclusivistic pluralism” is to be achieved.
An established feature of Network conferences is the time reserved for graduate students to present their research projects, which were once again of considerable variety and interest. There were, however, relatively few Buddhists present, and it was resolved to make Buddhist approaches to pluralism the topic of the 2007 conference, to be co-ordinated by Perry Schmidt-Leukel. John D’Arcy May succeeded Aasulv Lande, recently retired from the University of Lund in Sweden, as president of the Network, new members were invited to join the core organising group, and it is hoped that by 2009 it will be possible to hold a truly international conference together with the Society of Buddhist-Christian Studies.
John D'Arcy May, Irish School of Ecumenics, Trinity College Dublin.