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  • Buddhist-Christian Dialogue:Looking Back, Looking Ahead, and Listening Ever More Deeply
  • Sallie B. King

I was asked to give a brief overview of the subject of the Buddhist-Christian dialogue, looking back over its history and looking ahead to its future. I begin with two caveats. First, of necessity, this account will be very general and I will paint with a very broad brush. I cannot speak to the many variations and exceptions to many, if not all, of the general statements that I make. Second, inevitably, this account will also be very subjective. It will especially be colored by my visits in recent years to Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Taiwan.

the dialogue on religious thought

Looking back over the history of the Buddhist-Christian dialogue, one notices a pattern that is regularly remarked upon: Christians show a lot more interest in dialogue with Buddhists than Buddhists show in dialogue with Christians. This is especially the case with respect to dialogue regarding each other’s religious thought.1 Sometimes Christians observe this fact with dismay, or with the implication that there is something wrong with the Buddhist side because of this lack of interest. There is a sense among some Christians that Buddhists should be more interested in learning from Christianity on the level of religious thought. I would like to address this idea that Buddhists should be more interested in learning from Christianity on the level of religious thought.

First, several people have noted that the place and function of religious thought in Buddhism are rather different than their place and function in Christianity. For example, as Rita Gross has pointed out, some forms of Buddhist meditation have no reference to Buddhist thought at all—especially some Theravada practices such as mindfulness and choiceless awareness—whereas neither she (at least, at that time) nor I can think of any Christian meditation that doesn’t reference God or Jesus.2

Again, Rita Gross has stated that for Christians to take at least some Buddhist thoughts and practices seriously, they needn’t give up necessarily any of their own fundamental doctrinal commitments, whereas the reverse is not the case.3 That is, a [End Page 7] Buddhist who wanted to take Christian thought seriously would almost immediately come face-to-face with Christianity’s theism. They likely would be unable to proceed, since accepting theism would require them to forego the whole edifice of Buddhist thought.

Here I must demur. It is true that Christianity’s theism and Buddhism’s nontheism give fundamentally different foundations to their respective worldviews. But surely there are some elements of Christian thought and practice that Buddhists could absorb from Christianity without a fundamental reorientation. Some examples of ideas in Christianity that seem unthreatening to the foundations of Buddhism, yet potentially growth-inspiring for Buddhism in dialogue, come readily to mind. For example, as the relative place of laypeople shifts within modernizing Buddhism, a great deal might be learned from Christian thought on church and community. Again, Christian thought that contemplates realization of the Kingdom of God here and now might be of interest to those Taiwanese Buddhists who speak of a “Pure Land on Earth.” Even in the (semi-)ontological area, Christian thought on Spirit or pneuma might make for a potentially enriching dialogical partner for Buddhists, with their ideas on Buddha nature, Tathagatagarbha and Dharmakaya. The two sets of thinking on Natural Law could be a place of mutual learning. And many of the parables of Jesus have the power to cause people to see things in a new way, regardless of world-view. There is much that Buddhists could absorb from Christians while maintaining their basic worldview. Yet it remains true that it is hard to see much evidence of Buddhists absorbing anything substantial from Christian religious thought.

I think that at this point in the Buddhist-Christian dialogue, we can say that the Buddhists have voted with their feet. Buddhist dialoguers are not ignorant of Christian religious thought. There have been some rather deep Buddhist studies, for example, of Jesus and of Christian mystics.4 However, it seems clear that they haven’t, as a rule, found anything there that has...