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  • The International Buddhist-Christian Theological Encounter:Twenty Years of Dialogue
  • Rita M. Gross

In a world riddled by conflict, religions must take a large part of the responsibility for initiating and perpetuating these conflicts, which often include disagreements about whose political system is favored by the deity or to whom the deity gave land. The slogan "No peace on earth until there is peace among religions" is more than true.

No wonder some religious leaders consider interreligious understanding and dialogue to be urgent. Debate and proselytization cannot be the major modes of interreligious interaction when so much is at stake. Rather, conversations that actually promote mutual respect, understanding, and tolerance are mandatory in a religiously plural world. Such dialogue and interchange has taken many forms over the years: large conferences, meetings of world-renowned religious leaders, study groups in the basements and classrooms of religious institutions, university classes, friends meeting over coffee for discussion, scholarly presentations, and deliberately organized dialogues between representatives of various religious.

For twenty years, the International Buddhist-Christian Theological Encounter was one such dialogue, and this dialogue was unique in many ways. The group of people in dialogue was very small, always about thirty members evenly divided between Buddhists and Christians, and it was always a highly select group whose members were invited to join after deliberations among the group's leadership. Very few such groups have had the good fortune to meet regularly over so many years. This combination of a small, highly qualified group of dialoguers and the ability to meet often and regularly fostered a uniquely in-depth conversation characterized by candor and trust.

Over the years, the journal Buddhist-Christian Studies has recorded many of the deliberations of the International Buddhist-Christian Theological Encounter, known informally as the Cobb-Abe group. In this issue, we publish comments from the final meetings of that group, the final installment of an ongoing record kept by this [End Page 3] journal. (There are rumors that the group might eventually be reconstituted, but, for now, an era in Buddhist-Christian dialogue has ended.)

As can be ascertained from its informal name, this group owes much to the leadership and initiative of John Cobb and Masao Abe. These two friends, both concerned about what Buddhism and Christianity might learn from each other, wanted to establish an ongoing meeting of a small group of Buddhist and Christian thinkers who could come together with an agenda of only honest interchange. Members of each "team" needed to be firmly committed to their own tradition and expertly knowledgeable about it, but knowledge of the other tradition was not required in any way—only willingness to be in open conversation without agenda. Members of the group did not do cross-tradition representation; scholars of Buddhism who found their spiritual home in Christianity were not members of the group, and vice versa. For the most part, members of the group were "scholar-practitioners"; over the long term, those who were religious leaders without academic training did not find the group meaningful or become core members of the group.

The agenda of open listening and honest interchange was not simply an academic exercise. John Cobb and Masao Abe both hoped that in-depth, ongoing interchange, without pressure to agree or disagree in obvious ways, to find points of similarity and difference, would lead to significant mutual influence between the two traditions. Both claimed that the goal of dialogue could not be to convince others to change their point of view, but to modify one's own outlook based on learning from one's dialogue partner, a process John Cobb called "mutual transformation through dialogue."1 Based on the conviction that one's own religious tradition might not possess all the truth and wisdom in the world and could actually be improved by listening and dialogue, this claim that the purpose of interreligious interchange is mainly listening, understanding, and possible (mutual) self-transformation, runs counter to many peoples' assumptions about the purposes of conversations with people of other faiths. On the other hand, a rush to change was not encouraged either. The recommended method did not involve deliberate syncretism but an organic process of deep...


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