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Buddhist-Christian Studies 22 (2002) 183-187

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The 2001 Meeting of the Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies

Edward L. Shirley
St. Edward's University

The annual meeting of the Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies met in Denver, Colorado, on Friday and Saturday, November 16 and 17, 2001. This year's papers addressed the question of "dual belonging" from both Buddhist and Christian perspectives.

On Friday afternoon, two papers were delivered, the first paper by Catherine Cornille, who suggested three categories of dual belonging: syncretism, drawing elements from both traditions; belief that both traditions point to a higher reality, which may not be expressible in itself; and inculturation, incorporating local symbols and rituals into a tradition that is being transplanted from elsewhere. She then focused on the issue of inculturation.

Inculturation, she argued, assumed an essence of a religion that had independent existence from cultural expressions. The people involved in the process of inculturation may not, in fact, believe that they are dual practitioners, but rather that they are simply expressing the essence of a tradition through new symbols. She understands this as belonging to a symbol from one religious tradition (e.g., Christ) while using the hermeneutical tools of another.

The caveat that must be acknowledged in this process, according to Cornille, is that it is impossible to separate religious developments from their roots. For example, while there has been some talk of a "Christian Vedanta," the fact is Vedanta was developed in a particular context, and cannot be separated from its Vedic roots. At the same time, however, it must be admitted that religious traditions have, in fact, historically developed in such a manner. As Cornille points out, Greek expressions are not in themselves Christian, but have in fact helped to shape Christianity, as, for example, in the Nicene Creed.

Ruben Habito, who focused more on his personal journey, delivered the second paper. In his late twenties, while still in Jesuit formation, he was sent to Japan and there was introduced to the practice of Zen. He spoke of his meditation on the mu koan, and his first experience of kensho, direct insight. He went on to further koan meditation from there.

As he was preparing for ordination as a Jesuit priest, he began to wonder: How did [End Page 183] he still deal with Jesus, the Trinity, Incarnation, and the Paschal Mystery if he was committed to Zen practice? He found his answer in his Jesuit training: He was being called to continued metanoia, the continual movement from self to love. In Zen terms, he was undergoing a continuing process of transformation.

In Buddhism, it is said that the myriad beings are one's true self. This is the meaning of the phrase "to be awakened by the myriad beings." In the Buddhist tradition, one of those myriad beings who assist in awakening is the bodhisattva Kanzeon, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. In the Christian tradition, this function is often associated with the Virgin Mary. The iconography of these two figures is often quite similar, to the point that early Jesuits took the figure of Kanzeon to be the Virgin Mary. During times of persecution, Japanese Christians would use a double-sided figure, with Kanzeon on one side and Mary on the other. This composite of Maria-Kannon has become, for Habito, a symbol of the potential of being nourished by the two traditions.

The first response was from Jay McDaniel, who drew an analogy from biology. Some trees have two sets of roots, one a deep taproot and the other a secondary root system. Could this be an image for those drawing from two paths?

McDaniel's response was based on his personal encounters with two traditions. He spoke of how reading Thomas Merton twenty-five years ago changed his life and helped him overcome a fundamentalist Christian background. He spoke of how Ruben Habito has helped him understand what it means to walk two paths. Like Whitehead, he feels that he can say "yes" to both a Personal God and to the Ultimate Reality of Emptiness...