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Buddhist-Christian Studies 22 (2002) 105-112

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A Response to Reflections on Buddhist and Christian Religious Practices

Ursula King
University of Bristol

I appreciate the opportunity to respond to these essays of personal reflections, comparing Buddhist religious practices with some Christian examples. The different essays are rich in detail, engaging and challenging; they explore new vistas but also point to larger horizons that remain to be explored. Each contribution is so different; each can be read in multiple ways, and further questions can be asked about all of them. Although each contributor has chosen a specific focus, a particular way of interpreting Buddhist religious experience and practice, for me a common thread connects them all. The overarching question, implicitly present even when not explicitly formulated, seems to concern what religious and spiritual practices are really all about.

What is the nature and content, and even more, what is the purpose of religious practice? Can very different practices be compared across different religious traditions? Is it legitimate to compare Buddhist and Christian religious practices, even when they occur in very different contexts and are undergirded by different histories and systems of thought? Is the purpose of all religious practice always spiritual growth and transformation, or is the ultimate goal (if there is such a goal) utterly different and distinct from all such strivings?

There can be no doubt that both external and internal religious practices can be compared at some level, that certain common patterns, shared meanings, and significance, can be discerned in a wide variety of religions. It is these commonalities that phenomenological approaches to the study of religions have extensively explored and classified, but theological, philosophical, and spiritual comparisons are more difficult to delineate. Yet they do exist and have been investigated by many Eastern and Western thinkers. The religious practitioner, who may or may not be a scholar, more often than not remains unaware of the myriad of subtle scholarly distinctions that inhabit a long-trained rational mind. For such a practitioner the strength of spiritual commitment and the practical help in the business of daily living seems to count most when assessing the benefits or otherwise of religious practice. Somehow I find it impossible to capture the ultimate significance of religious practices, whether Buddhist [End Page 105] or Christian, within the limits of ordinary language. We always seem to deal with preliminaries, with passing realities rather than abiding truth and ultimate wisdom. Yet we all know of the paradox that there is no other way to the Ultimate than through the Ordinary. It is through the manifold religious practices, however routine and repetitive, that spiritual experience patiently plots its path and weaves its pattern in order to arrive at some eventual destination or be engraced by the gratuitous joy of sudden transformation.

These essays by academic colleagues and friends appealed to my spiritual imagination, and some passages moved me deeply. Their Buddhist insights are enriching and thought-provoking, their references to numerous Christian parallels—whether perceived in meditation, prayer, confession, almsgiving, asceticism, vows, gestures, use of religious texts, or reference to the need for community—sometimes drew my attention to links not seen before, comparisons not encountered earlier. From a Christian perspective I also recognized that some comparisons are only made in passing, so that several comments on Christian religious practices are not as developed as one might expect from an insider's point of view.

All religious traditions, not just Buddhism and Christianity, involve movement, process, and transformation. Each faith tradition, grown over so many centuries and practiced in different societies and cultures by so many different individuals, possesses an ocean of riches that none of us can receive fully. There are major directions and patterns, there are mainstream and marginal practices, but no one would be able to follow them all, nor even want to practice them all, and some may even need to be discarded as obsolete or spiritually unhelpful.

There exists always an excess of spiritual and ritual resources, an abundance of means whereby to find spiritual advance and fulfillment, just as there...