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  • Buddhist-Christian Dialogue: Promises and Pitfalls
  • Mark Berkson

The Center for the Pacific Rim and the University of San Francisco hosted a conference on Buddhist-Christian Dialogue on May 8, 1998. The conference brought together scholars and practitioners of both traditions in an encounter that was not only academically stimulating, but also personally and spiritually enriching for those involved. The participants included both those who have had extensive experience in the dialogue, as well as a number of new voices. The conference both critiqued previous and ongoing efforts at dialogue and also took the dialogue itself in new directions. While Buddhist-Christian dialogue of the past has often focused on comparative doctrine, involving theological issues and comparative beliefs, this conference focused instead on comparative practice, an approach that was quite productive. The practices explored included monasticism, pilgrimage, bowing, meditation, renunciation, social action and—of particular relevance to the overall project of interfaith encounter—the practice of dialogue itself and the methods and virtues necessary to carry it out successfully.

Comparative Practice

In the first of three panels, the following questions were central: Despite the differences that exist in metaphysics, doctrine, and worldview between the traditions, are there certain practices which, because they are shared, point to some deep commonalities between the traditions? What is the relation of belief to both the interpretation of practice and to the experience itself? Can a tradition authentically incorporate the practices of another tradition? What obstacles are involved in the process?

The first speaker, Sister Mary Margaret Funk, executive director of the Monastic Interreligious Dialogue and a Benedictine prioress, gave a paper entitled “Monastic Practice: Views of the Mind.” She focused on the theme of renunciation in monastic life and discussed three types of renunciation Benedictine monastics undergo that seem to resonate with the experience of Buddhist monastics. The first is the renunciation of the former way of life, moving away from “the designs of self-willed projects and works that serve to shore up the ego and make one’s own personality the main concern in life.” Following that comes the renunciation of thoughts about the [End Page 181] former way of life. Sister Funk pointed out that while monastics might physically renounce their former life (e.g., move into a monastery), their thoughts, desires, and passions follow them. The final renunciation is to give up even thoughts, images, and mental constructs of God. She observed: “The monastic practices that deal with the mind seem to be parallel tracks in both spiritualities. The observation of our thoughts, desires, and passions [is] a universal experience.”

David Komito, a fellow at the Center for the Pacific Rim and scholar of Tibetan Buddhism, in his talk “Teacher, Reliquary, Circumambulation,” discussed the practice of pilgrimage in the Vajrayana Buddhist tradition of Tibet. The questions that framed his talk included, “What would be the virtue of visiting a stupa (reliquary) and what would be the goal of travel?” He pointed out that the answer to such questions would depend on one’s philosophical or theological position, explaining that the different schools of Buddhism would often provide different answers. This raised an important point for the conference: We might look at Buddhists undertaking a particular practice, such as pilgrimage, and assume that they’re doing the same thing; for example, traveling to a place in a group, walking around that place, and returning home. Yet their experiences might be very different; in fact, pilgrims on the same journey who arrive at a sacred site may even be seeing different things while looking at one and the same object. This is because they might be framing, interpreting, and understanding the experience differently. If this is true among Buddhists, how much more so between Buddhists and Christians?

The panel continued with Father Paul Bernadicou’s “Catholic Guides to Buddhist Practice.” Father Bernadicou, the chair of the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at USF, discussed a number of Catholics who have had deep encounters with Buddhism and incorporated Buddhist practice and insights into their own spiritual path. Through this historical survey, he both provided a context in which to understand our conference and showed us the possibilities that lie in our own...

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