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Buddhist-Christian Studies 26 (2006) 213-216

Reviewed by
John Berthrong
Boston University School of Theology
Dialogues at One Inch Above the Ground: Reclamations of Belief in an Interreligious Age. By James W. Heisig. New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 2003. 215 pp.

Few scholars are better prepared than James W. Heisig to write about the current state of Buddhist-Christian dialogue, and few have written more insightfully about the historical, theological, religious, and spiritual factors that have made Buddhist-Christian dialogue so intriguing for the last four decades. Heisig is the director of the Nanzan Institute, one of the premier institutions in the world dedicated to cultivating dialogue primarily between Christians and Buddhists, but also with people of other traditions and no religious belief at all.

The title of the book is taken from the writings of the famous medieval poet Saigyō, who said that he tried to live at "one inch above the ground." Heisig follows Saigyō's advice by focusing many of his articles on themes such as health and ecology rather than abstruse metaphysical discussions of the intricacies of Buddhist and Christian doctrines, although, as one would expect, he shows a deft hand at explaining the philosophical and theological dimensions of living life at one inch above the ground.

The opening two chapters on how we can collectively view the current ecological crisis demonstrate Heisig's sure hand at moving between profound meditations on current events and demonstrating how these problems can be even better understood in terms of spiritual and religious insights. Heisig argues that having two eyes, one Buddhist and one Christian, might just help us walk better on the ground, especially a ground that is being harmed on a daily basis by human disregard for the natural environment. His essay on the interpretation of the Buddhist principle of sufficiency is based on the injunction that we should learn to "consider how much is enough." The following essay demonstrates how hard-headed he can be with his call for us not to move from an uncaring contempt for nature to an equally ill-conceived sentimentalization of nature.

There are so many insightful and clever features to the essays in the book that it is hard to pick out any one essay for special comment, but one of my favorites, high-lighting [End Page 213] Heisig's rhetorical powers, is "Six Sūtras on Dialogue" (pp. 139–157). This essay demonstrates what a Christian theologian might learn from engaging in interreligious dialogue. Moreover, it even takes the form, as Heisig explains, of the traditional Buddhist sūtra of six teachings on the nature of dialogue. Dialogue, according to Heisig (echoing Alfred North Whitehead), "is an adventure of ideas" (p. 141). The first teaching is "The spirit of interreligious dialogue need not be born of traditions in order to be reborn there" (p. 145). One of the strong points Heisig makes over and over again is that we now live with increasing self-awareness in a religiously pluralistic world. Actually, we always have, though various theological traditions have been adept at either ignoring or rejecting the notion that there could be anything positive about religious pluralism. At its worst, pluralism simply demonstrated the spiritual depravity and turbidity of humankind, and at best, it could simply be ignored as unworthy of serious comment. With the growing social, political, economic, military, and cultural interconnections of the modern world, no one can ignore pluralism. Theologians and religious leaders, in particular, need to think about religious pluralism even if this dialogue is not something that was "born" within their traditional theological discourse.

The second teaching is a corroloary of the first: "Dialogue is primarily a minority enterprise that stands free of the obligations of institutional religion" (p. 147). Now, the leaders of institutional religion might dispute this point, but again Heisig is correct in noting that people are going to talk to their neighbors regardless of what they are told to do by worried religious authorities. He makes the...


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