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Buddhist-Christian Studies 22 (2002) 195-197

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Fourth Conference of the European Network of Buddhist-Christian Studies

John D'Arcy May
Irish School of Ecumenics, Trinity College Dublin

Hosted by the Department of Theology at the University of Lund, May 4-7, 2001, this conference reversed the perspective of the previous one, which studied Buddhist perceptions of Jesus. In the event, a strong Buddhist presence from Europe, Thailand, and Japan ensured that distinctive, even conflicting Buddhist views of Christianity were represented at the Lund conference. But there were also some impressive attempts by Christians to come to terms with the history of the relationship and its implications for theology.

A feature of the conference was personal testimonies to lives transformed by awareness of other traditions. Eshin Nishimura described his "Zen way—with Christians," starting with his contacts with Quakers in postwar Japan and America. In an extremely interesting and controversial session, Sulak Sivaraksa of Thailand and Reimyo Tierelinckx, a Belgian living the life of a Zen nun in Dortmund, Germany, disagreed about those aspects of Christianity that are actually relevant to Buddhism: social action or contemplation? In his Christian response, Jacques Scheuer emphasized the "always already, always now" character of grace and the eschatological perspective of "Christ ahead of us" as a fundamental contrast, while Asa Egner pointed out the difference between salvation without self-interest and the "god" of capitalism.

There were also examples of how Buddhism is understood by Christians in specific contexts. Sulak Sivaraksa recalled the intolerance of the missionaries in Thailand, who assumed they had a monopoly on truth and morality and were "not comfortable with differences." On the other hand, they stimulated renewal in the Theravada sangha and forced Buddhists to confront structural violence. Kosuke Koyama, who was one of those missionaries, said he became more relaxed about living in space-time as the coordinates of divine-human encounter, but questioned whether dependent coorigination and the Buddhist emphasis on psychology leave enough room for a sense of history. Yet Buddhism too requires that we make an effort to "put out the fire," which in today's context should lead to a hermeneutic of ethical action. Eshin Nishimura told how Buddhism, even before it reached Japan, had begun to conceive of the Buddha as an absolute being transcending time and space who was to be worshipped as a savior. He startled participants by speaking of "the secret reason why [End Page 195] Japanese Buddhism is so degenerate," which he later clarified to some extent by illustrating how practice can have priority over charity.

Though there was plenty of opportunity to practice at the conference, the personal side was complemented by a number of first-rate scholarly studies of both history and theology/buddhology. Elizabeth Harris drew on her firsthand knowledge of Sri Lanka to analyze the different phases the Christian understanding of Buddhism passed through there. In the period 1800-1830 there was puzzlement among the British as to whether the Buddha was a god or a man who proposed a "system of undisguised atheism." Between 1830 and 1870, though the realization was dawning that Buddhism represented a high degree of ethics and even holiness, the missionaries did everything in their power to undermine it and demonstrate its inferiority and inauthenticity. From 1870 to 1900 this trend continued, despite a growing sympathy for the Buddha and Buddhism on the part of humanists and scholars. The outcome was a "demythologizing" of the Buddha to a status below that of Jesus as the prelude to the growth of conservative evangelical Christianity in Sri Lanka.

Hakan Eilert gave a reassessment of Karl Reichelt, the Norwegian Lutheran missionary to China, where he arrived in 1893 after having a healing experience of nature mysticism. This made him more open to Daoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism than might have been expected of a Lutheran from such a conservative background. Though his motto was "the light of the Buddha shines everywhere," in fact he seems to have read Christian ideas into Buddhism. Constrained by incipient Barthianism and a watchful home church, Reichelt...