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Buddhist-Christian Studies 21.1 (2001) 43-50

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On the Practice of Faith: A Lutheran's Interior Dialogue with Buddhism

Paul O. Ingram
Pacific Lutheran University

I earn my living practicing the craft of history of religions. In Lutheran theological language, this is my "calling" and "vocation." I know this to be true because of how I was first opened to an amazing world of religious pluralism nearly forty years ago during my first undergraduate history of religions course. I am still amazed by this world and at times stunned to silence. The history of religions continues to inform my self-understanding and has recently become for me a primary mode of theological reflection and practice that intensely energizes both my exterior conceptual dialogue with Buddhist doctrine and teaching and my interior dialogue with Buddhist meditative practice. 1

So my vocation is teaching an academic field of inquiry I love to young people as I engage in research and writing. I am paid for doing this by a university related to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America that bills itself as a "new American university" located in one of the most culturally pluralistic and beautiful regions in the United States.While I'm not sure what a "new American university" is, I am certain I have a great gig. I am equally convinced that my professional life constitutes for me some of the evidence of the grace that Christian tradition in general--and Luther's theology in particular--describe as flowing "in, with, and under" this universe like a waterfall, like a tidal wave.

Admittedly, all this is highly confessional, perhaps too confessional, for a scholar's essay on how reflection on Buddhist traditions of practice has informed his practice. Yet when it comes down to it, all theological reflection--as well as the discipline of practice itself--is confessional. We can only write about our particular interior journey as it is informed by the particular community of faith that gives context to our practice, for it is not probable that most persons can be religious in general, but only in particular. 2 After all, Carmelite nuns do not ordinarily seek or experience nonduality with the Buddha Nature, nor do Buddhist nuns ordinarily seek or experience interior union with Christ the Bridegroom.Yet sometimes a few historians of religions and a few Christian theologians and Buddhist philosophers are able to participate in communities of faith and practice other than their own. This too seems to me a sign of grace. [End Page 43]

I have learned two lessons from interior dialogue with Buddhists as this shakes out in my particular practice. First, our interior journeys lead us through time--forward and back, seldom in a straight line, most often in spirals. Each of us is moving and changing in relationship to others and to the world, and, if one is grasped by Christian faith, to God, or if grasped by Buddhist faith (srada), the Dharma. 3 As we discover what our interior journeys teach us, we remember; remembering, we discover; and most intensely do we discover when our separate journeys converge. It is at spots of Christian and Buddhist convergence that I have experienced the most dramatic and creatively transformative processes of interreligious dialogue.

Second, as a Lutheran it strikes me as a bit glib to suggest that the focus of practice is "God" or, if Buddhist, "Emptiness," because I often feel intellectually and emotionally blindsided by what people who practice mean by these words. The question, always an epistemological one, is what do these terms mean as we practice whatever we practice. Plenty of theological-philosophical propositions can be strung together to answer this question, and, I think, it is important to guide practice by theological-philosophical reflection. But we must never cling to belief in propositions, because the moment we do, they will hide the reality to which they point. Conceptualizing and believing in rational propositions is a necessary beginning because it is a form of"faith seeking understanding." But faith is never, in...


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