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  • Proceedings of the 1998 International Buddhist-Christian Theological Encounter
  • Barbara Fields Bernstein and Brian Muldoon

The 1998 International Buddhist-Christian Theological Encounter, the continuation of the Cobb-Abe group, met in Indianapolis, Indiana, from May 1 to 3, 1998. Following the reading of a statement from Prof. Masao Abe in which he stated his regret at not being able to attend this important gathering and his hope that the encounter would begin to address the global crises facing humankind today, John Cobb provided a brief history of the encounter for the new participants.

First Paper: “Buddhism and Ecological Ethics,” by Chatsumarn Kabilsingh

Prof. Kabilsingh began the morning discussion by focusing on the Buddhist doctrine of dependent origination, which reveals the interconnectedness of all life, as the starting place for fashioning a response to the environmental crisis. Suggesting that the inner and outer worlds are necessarily related (“As the king is, so are the sun and the moon”), she recommended adopting certain monastic practices to create a more harmonious relationship with nature. This provoked a discussion about the need for concrete action in addressing the behaviors not so much of individuals as of institutions. Institutions are uniquely human, embodying human imperfection even as they shape who we are. Noting that both traditions tended to focus on individual awakening or redemption, the question was asked how the principles of individual enlightenment or salvation could be applied to a community or institution. Further, there needs to be some practical balance between the two traditions’ extreme views of civilization, one of which places it in the heart of the forest (the East) and the other that finds it in the marbled city (the West). This balance, which must restore the tree of life to the heart of the city, will require a new model of institutions as living organisms rather than lifeless monoliths or random encounters. The balance of the morning’s discussion addressed the relationship between community and institutions and the “eschatological hope” of both Christianity and Buddhism. Chatsumarn concluded the session by highlighting the principle of interrelationship as the common ground between Christianity and Buddhism. [End Page 193]

Second Paper: “Self and Nature in Christianity (and Buddhism),” by Sallie Mcfague

McFague’s paper generated a spirited discussion about a series of paired concepts: Self-other, individual-community, sacramental-prophetic, absolute-relative, commonality-distinctiveness, vertical-horizontal, thinking-feeling, and scientific-aesthetic. The observation that ethics must be based on empirical data led to an exploration of the relationship of the relative (concrete reality that can be described) and the absolute (that which cannot be described, but may or may not be expressed through that which is particular) levels of truth. Interdependence, in the Buddhist model, includes an appreciation of the particularity of each thing while also recognizing the sameness of all. Speakers agreed that we must think both relatively and absolutely (although a new way of applying language to these concepts is needed). Meaningful environmental ethics must be grounded in the sacramental, in scientific particularity as perceived through the heart of the aesthete in intimate relationship with the natural world. But how could we move from these theoretical reflections into a closer encounter with that world? Stephanie Kaza would provide the needed vehicle in her comprehensive overview of the environmental crisis in the next session.

Third Paper: “Overcoming the Grip of Consumerism,” by Stephanie Kaza

It is fair to say that Kaza’s paper catalyzed provocative directions for thought during the three-day encounter, both because it provided the factual data from which an ethical discussion might proceed and because it focused the conversation on the role of consumerism in the environmental crisis. Prof. Kaza provided a telling comparison of consumerism and liberation practice as paths to self-realization and fulfillment, showing how the twelve links of dependent origination are integral to both paths. Breaking the grip of consumerism requires breaking any one of these links, like an addiction. This generated a spirited discussion about the relationship between enlightenment—whether “sudden” or otherwise—and consumerism and the relationship between consumerism and the more fundamental human tendency toward the acceptance of suffering over practices that promote liberation. While education was obviously critical for a...

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