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  • Conversion and Religious Identity in Buddhism and Christianity
  • John D'Arcy May

A Benedictine abbey that has been involved in exchanges with Buddhist monks since 1979 was an appropriate setting for serious discussion of double identity and change of identity between Buddhists and Christians. The European Network holds its conferences every two years, and after experiencing the Benedictine hospitality of St.Ottilien once again it was decided that every second conference should be held here in the future, with the intervening ones in different centers throughout Europe. Br.Josef Götz OSB introduced the conference by telling the story of the intermonastic encounters with monks of the Soto, Rinzai, and Shingon traditions over the last twenty-five years at St. Ottilien. Participants in these agreed that they had never learned so much about their own traditions as when they were engaged in dialogue at a spiritual and experiential level with their monastic "others." One Zen monk told the Benedictines, "Working with your carpenter, I understand Christianity," and another asked for baptism in order to participate more fully in the liturgy.

The situation in the Buddhist countries of Asia, however, is not necessarily so harmonious, as reports by Fr. Thomas Timpte OSB from Korea and Dr. Elizabeth Harris from Sri Lanka made clear. Just to hear about the religious situation in South Korea, the "great unknown" of East Asian Buddhism, was worthwhile. Though four traditions—Shamanism, Buddhism with elements of Daoism, Confucianism, and Christianity—coexist largely peacefully, the advent of Christianity caused tensions arising from both persecutions and conversions. Though many Koreans would find no contradiction in being both Confucianist (at least in a cultural sense) and Christian, Buddhism itself is coming to be seen as a cultural phenomenon, and those earnestly seeking peace of heart turn to Christianity. Almost half the members of [End Page 189] parliament are either Catholic or Protestant, though there is little evidence of Christian ethics in political practice. Nevertheless, Buddhism is now the fastest-growing religion, as Catholics in particular find themselves attracted to the temple environment, which is experienced as "a kind of homecoming." "Christian in the head, Shamanist in the belly, Buddhist in the heart," though a simplification, sums up the situation.

In Sri Lanka, on the other hand, things are considerably more fraught, and with the passage of anticonversion legislation the conference theme of conversion and identity is a charged topic. Elizabeth Harris illustrated the lengths to which certain Christians are prepared to go to win converts, such as working the camps of tsunami survivors. Though British evangelical missionaries had originally been afforded remarkable hospitality by the Buddhists—even being invited to preach in temples —their insistence that if Christianity is right, Buddhism must be wrong polarized relations, and the great public debate of 1815 still sets a precedent. Thus even for contemporary Christian inheritors of the fusion of the European Enlightenment with evangelical Christianity, both the conviction of sin and rational argument assure the superiority of Christianity. In the ethnic conflict presently raging, the religions are "not innocent," with Tamils and Christians being conflated into the "other" against which Sinhalese antipathy is directed. This is all the more tragic in that most Sri Lankan Buddhists accept the traditional ethic of tolerance.

Jørgen Skov Sørensen and Kajsa Ahlstrand illuminated the religious situation in Scandinavia from different perspectives. Sørensen reflected on the "soft boundaries" that actually exist in many pluralistic societies, something that puzzled both civil servants and missionaries even in colonial India. There is a danger that contemporary Christians will try to impose the same unambiguous boundaries on postmodern Europe as they did in their former colonies. Ahlstrand's report on an empirical study done in Sweden showed how unrealistic this is. Dual identity as both Buddhist and Christian was more common than complete identification with either, and 42 percent of those who identified completely with Christianity said they did not believe in God!

The centerpiece of the conference was a vigorous debate between Paul Williams, a prominent British Buddhist and professor of Indian and Tibetan philosophy who announced his conversion to Catholicism in a provocative book, The Unexpected Way, and two protagonists who disagreed with his reasoning from...


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pp. 189-192
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