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  • Acceptance of the Other as a Similarly Valid Path and Awareness of One's Self-Culpability:A Deepening Realization of My Religious Identity through Dialogue
  • Kenneth K. Tanaka

As the title of my paper indicates, two features of my identity have become more vivid as the result of my participation in the International Buddhist-Christian Theological Encounter (IBCTE) sessions. The first of the two stemmed from my rude awakening that not everyone involved with our sessions accepted the assumption that the other was a similarly valid soteriological path.

In one of our sessions a few years back, the discussion moved to a topic of the nature of "ultimate path," which, as it turned out, began to raise some extremely sensitive issues. An unusually tense atmosphere hung over the discussion table, a rare turn of events for our usually jovial dialogue group composed mostly of liberal-minded members. One of the Christian members gave voice to her fundamental view that Jesus was the sole path through which one can be saved. It was clearly what anyone would regard as an exclusivist position. In asking for further clarification, she reiterated her view that her Christian faith necessitated that she took that position, and that I as a Buddhist was, therefore, not included in that soteriological scheme. I responded to her that I understood that I would not be in her scheme since I was not Christian, but would I nevertheless be saved? After some hesitation, in so many words, she replied that I would not be! Had she been a member of a more conservative group, it would have been easier to accept that kind of a response, but coming from an academic with liberal leanings, her comments caught me off guard. But on the other hand, I appreciated her honesty in being true to her understanding of the tradition, for it seemed to me that it was not an easy thing for her to say.

This short encounter has been etched firmly in my mind and, ironically, remains for me the most memorable moment among all of the IBCTE sessions attended. I did not pursue the matter further at that time (aside from the fact that time had run [End Page 41] out for that particular session), since I was aware that such an exclusive position (as distinguished from those of inclusivism and pluralism) was common among Christians. I just happened to have encountered it in a rather unexpected circumstance and was not prepared with a comeback.

This encounter forced me to inquire about my own position concerning the salvation of people other than Buddhists. Would I regard her as not being saved? After some probing and reflection on my part, I can say with little hesitation that I would never be able to say, "no, you are not." I have no basis on which to refute what her time-tested tradition promises. I am not in a position to negate the claims of her tradition or to question the sincerity of her commitment. From my Buddhist perspective there is no universal criterion on which to make judgments about others. My personal view on this issue has been similar to John Hick's pluralism position, but without his insistence that all paths reflect and lead to the same truth.

Perhaps, my view reflects a prevailing, modern or postmodern understanding of Shinran (1173–1262), the founder of my tradition (Jodo-Shinshu), who is often portrayed as an extremely liberal thinker as seen in the following words attributed to him from the Tannisho (emphasis added):

Now, whether you accept the Nembutsu, entrusting yourself to it, or reject it, that is your own decision.

These rather well-known passages reinforce the image of Shinran, particularly in the Jodo-Shinshu community in the United States, as an accommodating and tolerant thinker.

However, the picture is a little more complex, for I am also aware that Shinran held what I refer to as an "exceptionalist" view. Based largely on his historical belief that with the arrival of Mappo, the Last Period of the Dharma, there were no other teachings appropriate for the age of spiritual decadence. While he was tolerant of others, thereby allowing even his...


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