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  • Eighth Conference of the European Network of Buddhist-Christian StudiesSt. Ottilien, Germany, 11–15 June 2009
  • John D’Arcy May

With a higher proportion of Buddhist participants from Europe, Asia, and the United States than ever before, the European Network of Buddhist-Christian Studies at its 2009 conference in the Benedictine Archabbey of St. Ottilien near Munich addressed the question of authority, both spiritual and temporal, in the two traditions. There seems to have been little comparative study of this topic, and there were many surprises as the speakers were confronted with aspects they had not been aware of in their own traditions and in those of others.

The conference began with intercultural music that drew on Christian and Buddhist themes. After this, Brother Josef Götz spoke about the Benedictine Archabbey of St. Ottilien, stressing its longstanding and enriching participation in intermonastic dialogue. Elizabeth Harris, the incoming president of the network, then introduced the theme. She pointed to contemporary literature in English that represented the crisis in authority in the West and stressed that this was compounded by the awareness that some of those with power to enforce authority in the world did not possess legitimacy. She then raised a series of questions connected with the different forms of authority to be discussed at the conference—from the balance between external and internal authority to the struggle with institutional authority for equality between men and women. She hoped for three outcomes from the conference: that participants would be able to explore what their own tradition said about authority; that they would give wisdom to each other on the theme, Buddhist to Christian and Christian to Buddhist; and that all would reflect on how they represented themselves to the wider society, both to those searching for religious authority and those rejecting all authority.

Following up this theme of a contemporary crisis of authority, Rita Gross said that Buddhists, in the spirit of the teaching on impermanence (P. anicca), need to take seriously the historicity of their different traditions in order to develop a nonsectarian history of Buddhism that acknowledges the authenticity of the foundational Buddhism [End Page 189] of the first four hundred years. The Kālāmasutta (AN.I.188 –193), one of the discourses in the Pāli canon, which was cited again and again in the course of the discussion, urges the Buddhist to assess the trustworthiness of teachers and their teaching, but criteria such as “what the wise would accept” or whether a text is accepted by the saṅgha (community) raise the problem of determining what constitutes wisdom and the authenticity of a text, as noted by Shenpen Hookham and Zhiru Shi. Rita Gross remarked on the irony that many Western Buddhists, despite their rationalistic education, abandon critical discernment and prefer myths to history. This is regrettable, as Western Buddhists have their own contributions to make to the further development of Buddhism.

Kajsa Ahlstrand, referring to the World Values Survey, pointed to changing attitudes toward obedience, disobedience, and rebellion. Disobedience is now seen as praiseworthy, whereas obedience could be harmful to one’s mental health. Obedience in this “new key” emphasizes rights over duties. One can thus identify varieties of Christianity that are “hard” or “soft,” “strong” or “mild,” in various combinations, which she illustrated using different cheeses (thereby causing some puzzlement among the Asian participants!). We were left with the question whether there is an unchanging essence of eternal truth in either tradition, which is beyond historical change and sociological conditioning, and the realization that both obedience and disobedience can go terribly wrong. As Rita Gross concluded, it is our attachment that is the problem, not the things we are attached to.

Spiritual authority is central to both Buddhism and Christianity, but it can take very different forms. Shenpen Hookham maintained that for Buddhists spiritual authority resides in enlightened people, whether monastic or lay, and is the result of realization rather than learning. The visible monastic saṅgha merely “represents” the ariyasaṅgha (noble community) of the truly enlightened (though this was later contested). The authority to teach derives directly from the teacher’s spiritual attainments or his or her status as the...