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Buddhist-Christian Studies 22 (2002) 201-202

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Conference on Pure Land Buddhism in Dialogue with Christian Theology

James Fredericks
Loyola Marymount University

As Charlie Parker devotees will attest, improvisation at its most thrilling, if not its most ingenious, is often the result of careful planning. Cannot something similar be said of interreligious dialogue? All our planning and study are best put to use when they suddenly become mere prologue to an encounter that has forced us off the well-trodden path. A dialogue meeting at Loyola Marymount University, September 9-14, 2001, began with much planning and became highly improvisational on September 11th.

The roots of this conference go back to discussions between Dennis Hirota and myself in Kyoto in 1998-1999. The two of us are interested in contributing to the future development of Shin Buddhism by placing it in dialogue with Christian theology. The focus here is on Christian theology as one aspect of Christianity's response to the modern world. We are both interested in investigating various theological methods as Christian responses to modernity, and the contributions these methods have made to the reform and renewal of Christian institutions. The ulterior purpose of these investigations is to think in new ways about how a Buddhist "theology" might contribute to the institutional reform and religious renewal of Shin Buddhism.

A first dialogue meeting was held at Chikushi Jogakuen University (Dazaifu, Japan) in June of 2000. Participants included faculty from Chikushi Jogakuen, Charlie Hallisey (then of Harvard University), Peter McCormick (International Academy for Philosophy, Liechtenstein), and me (Loyola Marymount University). A second meeting was held at Loyola Marymount in September 2001. For one week, beginning September 6th, meetings were held at the Shin Buddhist temple and a neighboring Roman Catholic parish in the Little Tokyo district of Los Angeles, followed by an academic conference at Loyola Marymount starting on Monday, September 10th. These meetings brought together faculty from Chikushi Jogakuen and Loyola Marymount, Shin Buddhist specialists from the Eastern Buddhist Society in Tokyo, ministers from the Los Angeles Nishi and Higashi Honganji Temples, Charlie Hallisey (Wisconsin), and John Ross Carter (Colgate University). The visiting Buddhists had a chance to meet with the Buddhist-Catholic dialogue group in Los Angeles. Papers were presented on a number of subjects, including (1) Christian theology's [End Page 201] contribution to institutional reform and religious renewal in recent Roman Catholic history and its implications for Shin Buddhism in both the United States and Japan; (2) theological method and moral theology in relation to end of life issues from both a Shin and Christian perspective; (3) truth and history in interreligious understanding; (4) Shin Buddhism, Christianity and religious responses to social discrimination; and (5) Christian theology as a stimulus to the development of a Shin Buddhist theology.

On the morning of September 11th, dialogue as formal academic presentations ended and dialogue as spontaneous improvisation began. With U.S. air transportation closed down by the federal government, prospects for return flights to Japan were indefinitely postponed. A planned outing to watch Ichiro Suzuki (of the Seattle Mariners) play the Angels had to be canceled (Anaheim stadium was also closed). Instead, Christians and Buddhists, Americans and Japanese suddenly were brought together in ways they could not have predicted and began to improvise. The campus ministry of Loyola Marymount organized an impromptu mass for the entire university on the evening of September 11th. The Buddhist visitors were given a place of honor at the liturgy and publicly welcomed as guests of the Catholic community. The psalm response for the mass was a musical setting of the words, "Shepherd me oh Lord, beyond my wants, beyond my fears, from death into life." In the days that followed, this text became the basis for very affecting conversations among the Buddhists and the Christians in response to the terrorist attacks. From the Shin perspective, Buddhists were able to bring a depth of meaning to these words even as they were interested in what the psalm might mean to Christians.

Like improvisation in jazz, interreligious dialogue is sometimes at its...