- The 2005 Meeting of the Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies
The annual meeting of the Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies was held in Philadelphia on November 18, 2005. The theme of the program was visual and aural expressions in Christianity and Buddhism and their relationship to religious practice.
The focus of the first session was visual images of sacred art. Victoria Scarlett presented the paper "The Iconography of Compassion: Visualizing Guanyin and the Virgin Mary." She noted that meditation exercises that explore visual imagery can mediate the experience of the holy in both Buddhism and Christianity. By comparing and contrasting the images of Guanyin and the Virgin Mary through both commentary and slides, she pointed toward the qualities of compassion, healing, empathy, generosity, and selfless love presented in both Buddhism and Christianity. Scarlett stressed the role of visualization in generating compassion and taking responsibility for cultivating and living the devotional life. Engaging the religious imagination in those visual ways, she said, can help us generate compassion in our world today.
Alice Keefe presented the second paper, "The Visual Dimension of Religion in Comparative Perspective." She challenged the assumption that visual experience is a derived or secondary aspect of religious life. As Tibetan Buddhism clearly shows, through its depiction of Buddhas, lamas, bodisattvas, and deities, the divine is form as well as formless. In Christian Orthodox traditions, the icon is viewed as material and glory, the transcendent visible to the human eye. Visual images in both Buddhist and Christian traditions indicate the possibility of transformation as one imagines one's own body as a body of light.
Keefe challenged us to bring the centrality of the visual in Buddhism and some portions of Christianity into our academic discussion. Western thinkers present the body in opposition to the spiritual, sometimes understanding images as idolatrous. We assume that the generative locus of meaning is in the subjective consciousness and seek out ideas, ignoring the body. However, communicating an idea is not the [End Page 181] object of visual attention to an icon—rather, it involves the constitution of a self in relation to others. Through practices that activate the visual dimension of religions, we come to know ourselves as part of a pantheon of beings.
Rita Gross responded to both papers, focusing on the biases of Western religion in the study of Buddhism. The prohibition of idolatry in Western religion has been identified with the sense of sight, rather than hearing or the use of words. Furthermore, idolatry is always a category defined by outsiders, Gross asserted. People who use the sense of sight to reach beyond themselves to the sacred know what they are doing. The papers and visual images presented gave the attendees insight into how that might happen in Buddhism and Christianity.
Michael Monhart and Jisho Shizuka opened the second session with their presentation of "Chanting as Practice: Japanese Shingon Buddhist Sutra Chant." After a brief history of the Shingon sect, the presenters focused on a central aspect of Shingon chanting practice: a realization of one's inherent Buddha-nature in this life. Through activating the mysteries of the ritual activities of the body, voice, and mind, chanting develops the specific connection between Buddha-nature and human nature. An explanation of the chanting itself—its modes, patterns, and energies—led to the conclusion that sound and word become reality through their use by the practitioner of ritual, a conclusion that was demonstrated by the chanting of three sutras.
Bill McJohn and Joseph Anderson next presented their work, "The Aural Dimension of Religion: Chanting Psalms in Gregorian Chant." McJohn focused on the history of chanting the Psalter, beginning in the monasteries of the fourth century. Singing the Psalms was motivated by a desire to pray constantly, and as the monastic communities developed, a practice of working through the 150 psalms developed. A shorter version, which eventually became the rosary, also developed. Anderson noted that the recitation of the Psalms is the analog to Buddhist chanting of the sutras. One is actually speaking as the Christ in recitation of the Psalms. Both also find a balance between time and timelessness as they are re-created in different ways...