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Buddhist-Christian Studies 23 (2003) 151-155

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Buddhism and Christianity: A Multicultural History of their Dialogue . By Whalen Lai and Michael von Bruck. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 2001. xiv + 265 pp.

This book is an abridged translation of Buddhismus und Christentum: Geschichte, Konfrontation, Dialog, first published in 1997 by Verlag C. H. Beck in Munich. I do not know how much has been lost in the abridgement, but this English version remains a treasure trove that deserves to be read and digested by everyone engaged in Buddhist-Christian dialogue.

From the English title, I expected a somewhat dry work of intellectual history, summarizing dated doctrinal debates. This book provides much more than that. Most valuable is its emphasis on the historical and cultural context of Buddhist-Christian encounters, especially the poisonous legacy of Western colonialism (which still survives today as economic neocolonialism). These quite varied contexts have usually been decisive for the success or failure of the encounter, and as this nuanced but frank study shows, the failures have been at least as notable as the successes. Here, too, we must remember the past if we want to do more than keep repeating it. As well as identifying specific problems, there is a perceptive analysis of the obstacles to openness and dialogue in each case.

The penultimate chapter includes a discussion of our Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies, its conferences, and this journal. As a relative newcomer to the conversations, I found this particular example of contextualizing fascinating. In just the few conferences I have been able to attend, there have been so many facets to the dialogue that it has been difficult to gain a sense of the whole, to understand how the main threads have developed and interwoven. How well do we remember what has already been discussed, and often agreed upon? It is important that we do not just keep repeating ourselves, and I know of no other book that conveys the historical dimension of the dialogue so well. The silent, contemplative aspects of the encounter are also addressed: cross-cultural meditation groups, Christian Zen teachers, and visits to each other's monastic centers.

A useful foreword by Hans Kung reviews his own contributions, including his [End Page 151] paradigm analysis of six different "general constellations" found in the Christian tradition (the original Jewish-apocalyptic paradigm, the ancient ecumenical-Hellenistic paradigm, the medieval Roman Catholic paradigm, the Reformation Protestant-evangelical paradigm, the modernist progress-oriented paradigm, and now the postmodern ecumenical paradigm) and six other constellations in the Buddhist tradition (Gautama's original paradigm, the Theravada- sravakayana paradigm, the Mahayana paradigm, the tantric Vajrayana paradigm, a defensive modernist paradigm, and most recently an emerging postmodernist paradigm), with the implication that we need to be careful to clarify which of the paradigms we are comparing.

Inevitably, the focus is limited: India and Sri Lanka are discussed at length, but not southeast Asia; China and Japan, but not Korea; Germany, but not the rest of Europe. The Indian chapter is mostly about Tibetans in exile. I was intrigued by the generation gap between older, conservative Tibetan monks and more freethinking younger ones. Otherwise, the Indian dialogue seems not to have been as intensive as many other places in Asia, which makes sense since there are relatively few Buddhists in India today. Given the mass conversions of Dalits, the social context has usually been the emancipation of disadvantaged social groups, and is further complicated now by the increasing influence of neo-Hindu political movements, which makes all interreligious exchange more sensitive.

The Sri Lankan dialogue, perhaps more than any other, has been preoccupied with the heritage of colonialism. Sinhalese take pride in being citizens of the only country to have shaken off colonial rule with a successful Buddhist revolution, which reversed the power relationship between the two religions. Evidently most Sinhala Buddhists, including much of the sangha, accept the need to defend Buddhism and Buddhist culture militarily, if necessary. The ruling political class that succeeded the British, a largely Buddhist- and Marxist-inspired elite, opted for constructing a national identity...


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