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  • Asymmetry, Essentialism, and Covert Cultural Imperialism: Should Buddhists and Christians Do Theoretical Work Together?
  • Grace G. Burford

Meaningful dialogue among Buddhists and Christians on any topic—theological or otherwise—requires the participation of open-minded and mutually respectful Buddhists and Christians. It is just such Christians and Buddhists who founded the Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies (SBCS), and it is this society's ongoing commitment to a balance of Buddhists and Christians, as well as other forms of diversity, in our programs and projects that has kept this dialogue lively. In this supportive context, Christians have done some excellent work in developing their religious thinking by reflecting on Buddhism, as have Buddhists by engaging with Christian theology. Nevertheless, a certain asymmetry has at times emerged in our dialogical endeavors, particularly when it comes to theological issues: it seems there might be more Christians interested in Buddhist thought than Buddhists interested in Christian theology.

Asymmetry of Interest

This asymmetry became clear to me when I contributed to two books Rita M. Gross and Terry C. Muck put together in 2000 and 2003. In the introduction to the first of these books, Buddhists Talk about Jesus, Christians Talk about the Buddha, Gross notes that the Christian authors who contributed to this volume attest to a far greater positive impact of the Buddha and Buddhism on their Christian lives than the Buddhists attribute to Jesus or Christianity. 1 Gross offers two possible explanations for this asymmetry. First, she says Christians may feel free to admire the Buddha without facing any resulting pressure from Buddhists to convert to Buddhism, whereas Buddhists who might be drawn to Jesus could expect to be the targets of Christian proselytization. Related to this first explanation, Gross also implies, if I read her correctly, that these Christians' guilty feelings about Christianity's history of missionizing and proselytization [End Page 147] might lead them to emphasize their appreciation of a non-Christian religion—a sentiment the Buddhists, understandably, would not be inclined to reciprocate. Second, Gross points out that Buddhist claims about the Buddha leave room for Christians to admire the Buddha without compromising their Christian views and commitments, a point I also make in my Buddhist response to the Christians' essays in this book. 2 Gross goes on to note that parallel Christian claims about Jesus leave no such leeway for the Buddhists. She says, "Christians do claim that Jesus is the incarnation of a deity who creates and redeems the world and such claims run counter to essential Buddhist ideas about how the world works." 3 In other words, Christians can venture into Buddhism's teachings about the Buddha (what we might properly call "Buddhology") without compromising their Christian theology, but Christian doctrine about Jesus (i.e., Christology) prevents Buddhists from gaining anything meaningful from this area of Christian theology without forfeiting their Buddhist worldview.

The contrast is even more noticeable between the Buddhist and Christian halves of the second book, Christians Talk about Buddhist Meditation, Buddhists Talk about Christian Prayer. In their contributions to this book Christians describe how they have adopted Buddhist meditations as components of their Christian spiritual paths, and Buddhists write about how some Buddhist practices can be seen as resembling what Christians call "prayer." In the conclusion of this book, Gross suggests that this difference occurs because these Christians are incorporating a specific type of meditation (concentration) associated with Buddhism, practice of which does not require that the Christians take Buddhist teachings about the nature of reality seriously. But Christian prayer and other forms of Christian contemplation or meditation "all seem to have as a prerequisite a Christian view of the world." 4

In both of these examples of Buddhist-Christian dialogue, it seems that the Christians involved can, and do, happily use Buddhism as a resource for their Christian theology and spiritual practices. But these Buddhists hold back and seem precluded from benefitting similarly from the dialogue. The editors confirm this impression when they describe a practical matter that came up when they were recruiting contributors to the second book. Muck says that "the Christians were more eager to take on this assignment than were [the] Buddhists," 5 and Gross adds that...


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