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Buddhist-Christian Studies 21.1 (2001) 69-72

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Christian Experiences with Buddhist Spirituality: A Response

Robert Thurman
Columbia University

Recently I read an account on the CNN website of a statement made at the Kumbh Mela at Allahabad in India, where about eighty million devotees of Hinduism were joined in their worship of the grace of the Goddess River Ganga by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, informal head of Tibetan Buddhists and formal head of the Tibetan government in exile. His Holiness also joined the leaders of Hinduism, various Shankaracharyas and others, in a formal statement in which they requested with the followers of other world religions not to persist in the practice of aggressive conversion of the followers of other religions. The statement addressed a special plea to Christians and Muslims, who may currently be the most intense in their worldwide missionary activities.

The writer of the CNN article was clearly cynical about this, mentioning, as if to undercut the force of their appeal to other religions, that the Hindu leaders themselves wanted to declare India a Hindu nation. He noted that the Dalai Lama "giggled" when he sprinkled himself with Ganga water out of respect for Hindu beliefs, but declined to immerse himself in the river, saying it was too cold.

His Holiness has often challenged leaders of world religions, including Buddhists, Hindus, and secular humanists (which he considers a world religion/ideology, whether Marxist or liberal democratic), by saying that now is past the time when anyone should be attempting to convert others to a different belief system or institutional affiliation. If persisted in, it will lead to worse violence in the future than it already has in the past. His position seems eminently reasonable, looking realistically at the world situation, the powerful technologies of communication and possible scale of violence. Yet people filled with enthusiasm for their saving faith tend to feel deprived if they cannot have a mission to save others with it.

I do not think His Holiness means that you cannot share your enthusiasm, or make the jewels of faith, wisdom, and compassion of your tradition accessible to others, or even dialogue with others comparing your tradition with theirs. He travels the world teaching Buddhism, mostly to Buddhists, but freely to anyone who is interested. But then he does tell those who are not Buddhists notto convert to Buddhism. Rather, he cautions, they should take whatever they learn and use anything that seems good to them to enhance their original tradition, thereby remaining integrated with [End Page 69] their families, communities, and local customs, perhaps even enriching their own traditions. Those who are Buddhists from birth he urges to study other traditions, learn from them, and critically extricate themselves from feelings of superiority or estrangement. And some who may already have chosen to become Buddhist he strongly cautions not to criticize their birth traditions or look down on their followers.

What I love about the essays in this collection is that they all seem to be learning from Buddhism and appreciate its traditions, yet they interpret it in Christian terms, apply it to their own Christian understanding, and practice an enriched Christianity, perhaps what Bardwell Smith so aptly calls in his essay "becoming a Christian." I feel privileged to respond to the deep personal quest for truth I sense within each essay. I am not going to review each essay point by point, though I will touch on each of the five as I follow a kind of pilgrimage through them. Though all five essays are personal and confessional, those by Ingram and Muck are perhaps more theoretical in tone, Adeney and Frohlich more contemplative in focus, and Smith combines both in a special combination I will save for last.

Paul Ingram writes as a man who floats contentedly in a sea of God's grace, the vision of which seems to have been opened for him by Martin Luther. While he floats, he reflects deeply and knowledgeably about both Pure Land and Zen Buddhisms, acknowledging how his appreciation of the Christian...


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