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  • The 1998 Meeting of the Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies
  • Peggy Starkey

The annual meeting of the Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies was held at the Walt Disney World Dolphin in Orlando, Florida, on Friday, November 20, and Saturday, November 21, 1998. The theme for this year’s sessions was “Ritual and Its Connection to Ethical Activity in the World.”

The Friday afternoon panel, moderated by John Berthrong (Boston University), focused on Buddhist views. John Makransky (Boston College) argued from a Mahayana Buddhist perspective that ritual/contemplative activity is a more effective paradigm for contemporary Buddhist ethics than that of Buddhist doctrine, which is now regarded by many as the source of Buddhist ethics. Historically, ethics has been the outflow of ritual activity and as such is both available to many more Buddhists than doctrine and draws more fully upon the various resources of the tradition. Furthermore, rituals as communal/universal expressions of ultimate reality, when practiced within the horizon of the concerns of one’s culture, naturally take expression in forms of social engagement. Stephanie Kaza (University of Vermont) provided insight into the connection between ritual practice and ethics through her vivid explanation of specific Zen rituals. One such ceremony, adapted to address human suffering in a specific situation, took place at the Nevada Nuclear Test Site. The ceremony prepared people for the difficult decision of choosing or not choosing civil disobedience. Thus, Zen rituals not only provide the invitation for mindful awareness in daily life, but also the possibility, though not the guarantee, for transformation everywhere. Yukio Matsuda (University of Heidelberg) discussed the relation between ritual and social activities in the areas of peace, culture, and education in Nichiren Buddhism as practiced by the Soka Gakkai movement. Chanting the diamoku in front of the gohonzon, for example, enables one to directly touch one’s own enlightened life and encourages not only a responsibility for changing one’s own destiny, but also a commitment to social engagement that works toward the creation of a peaceful society. Don Mitchell (Purdue University), responding from a Roman Catholic perspective, stressed those aspects of the three papers that led him to a better understanding of his own tradition. As in Buddhism, he sees the ritual sacraments in Christianity as providing models for moral behavior, reinforcing faith, and [End Page 175] empowering ethical behavior. He also raised several issues pertaining to the reinterpretation of Buddhist rituals or even the creation of new ones by Western Buddhists.

John Berthrong introduced the Saturday morning panel, which focused on Christian views. Nicholas Groves (Chicago Public Library) drew on the history of the Oxford Movement, which he traced from its inception in 1833, for his example of the influence of Christian ritual upon ethics. For this movement, ritual was both an expression of the Christian doctrines of the Incarnation and the Trinity and the basis of an imperative for social justice. For the discussion to follow, he asked, “What is the function of a prophetic and radical reading of a spiritual tradition, either Christian or Buddhist, within the larger community of the Sangha or the Church?” Speaking from a Protestant point of view, Jay Rock (codirector, Interfaith Relations, National Council of Churches of Christ, USA) discussed Christian ritual in terms of the reactualization of the past and of the transformation of the present. Baptism and the Eucharist commemorate past historical events that are made present in the liturgy in such a way that the participating Christians not only receive God’s gift of unlimited love, but also are sent out into the world to live out this love in ethical behavior. Christian ritual confronts the participants with the question, What is now required? Responding from a history of religions perspective, Jan Nattier (Indiana University) raised several questions for discussion: How does ritual—not the theological ideas behind it—empower social action? Would there be Christian social activists without the ritual of the Eucharist? What are the political factors, past and present, that have created a shared sense of the necessity of social action across the boundaries of such radically different traditions as Buddhism and Christianity? The session then ended with a lively discussion.

President Paul Ingram presided over...

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