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  • Buddhist-Christian Dialogue:Moving Forward
  • Thomas Cattoi (bio) and Carol S. Anderson (bio)

The San Francisco Bay Area is an interesting location in which to ponder Buddhist-Christian relations. The website lists more than a hundred institutions affiliated with Buddhist organizations—a density higher than in the Beijing metropolitan area. Some of these centers have a clearly ethnic and denominational character, serving a predominantly immigrant population. Some, like many of the Tibetan organizations, function as cultural centers but also attract a considerable Western clientele. Others, like the San Francisco Zen Center or Spirit Rock in Marin County, belong to the first wave of historical Buddhist centers established in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s. A few more are trying to establish new forms of enculturated Buddhist practice that are more suited to Western sensitivities and are only loosely affiliated with the cultures of traditional Buddhist societies. At the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, alongside schools training Jesuit priests, Dominican friars, and Protestant ministers of various denominations, the Institute of Buddhist Studies prepares students from different walks of life to work as Buddhist chaplains in hospitals and educational institutions. Buddhism, in its various forms and manifestations, is no longer an exotic import from a little known “elsewhere,” but is part and parcel of the local spiritual landscape.

For students and scholars practicing in such a diverse environment, it is perhaps difficult to imagine that for the greatest part of its history, most of Christendom was largely unaware of the very existence of the Buddhist tradition. While Clement of Alexandria and Jerome do mention Buddhism, and references to its practice can be found in the writings of medieval travelers such as Marco Polo, most European Christians lived in a world where the role of the religious “other” was played by Judaism and Islam. It was only in the early modern era, with the beginning of the European colonization of Asia, that non-Abrahamic religious traditions gradually entered the intellectual horizon of Western intellectuals and scholars. Around the year 1740, a French Jesuit named Jean-François Pons (1688–1752), otherwise remembered as a pioneer of Sanskrit studies in the West, came to the startling realization that many of the religious practices that missionaries and travelers had come across in regions as far apart as China, Japan, Nepal, and Mongolia were actually all parts of the same religious tradition. In his correspondence with his fellow Jesuits in France, he coined the [End Page vii] term Bauddhamatham—teaching of the Buddha—to refer to what would eventually be known as Buddhism. In the early years of the nineteenth century, many Sanskrit and Tibetan texts started to be catalogued and translated into the major European languages, bringing about the first encounter between Europe’s intellectual elites and this utterly foreign religious tradition.

The nineteenth century also saw the beginning of a more existential engagement with the Buddhism tradition, albeit one that was limited to intellectual elites who were highly critical of institutional Christianity. In his work The World as Will and Representation, Schopenhauer found in Buddhism many echoes of his own philosophical insights. Many of the members of the Pāli Text Society, established in London in 1871, had rejected Christianity and thought they would find in Buddhism a moral framework in a society where the normativity of the Christian tradition had already started to be questioned. At the same time, we also see the beginning of the first comparative studies, where Buddhism and Christianity are compared from a speculative and doctrinal perspective. In 1880, Ernest de Bunsen claimed that if one made an exception for the crucifixion, many of the fundamental moral teachings of Buddhism and Christianity were virtually identical. This was just the beginning of a slew of similar studies.

While the Christian churches were initially uninterested or outright skeptical about engaging in dialogue with non-Christian religious traditions, this attitude started to shift in the decades following the Second World War. The Second Vatican Council, for instance, marked an important shift in the Catholic Church’s attitude toward other religions. Before the 1960s, Catholic theology departments did not offer courses on other religious traditions or on interreligious dialogue...


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