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  • Introduction to Liberation Theology and Engaged Buddhism
  • Kristin Johnston Largen

As more and more people continue to discover, Buddhism and Christianity are fruitful dialogue partners, not least because while they have different significantly world-views and orientations, their doctrines and practices often seem to be generally complementary, rather than contradictory. So, when these two religions are brought into conversation around a specific issue or challenge, often the result is that fresh light is cast onto an old problem, creating the possibility for creative thinking and new insights. Such is the case in the four articles that appear in this issue of the journal.

All four articles take as their theme an encounter between Engaged Buddhism and liberation theology, asking what resources each has to offer the other, and what new interpretations and/or correctives might be shared in the course of the conversation. There are several common threads that weave through all the articles, and serve as touchstones for the overarching discussion. First and foremost is the dialectic between compassion (or love) and justice. Several authors note how sometimes these two attitudes are juxtaposed, as though they are opposites, when in reality, they stem from a similar motivation and share a similar purpose. And, even more, they need each other for true transformation to occur. Paul Knitter discusses this symbiosis, showing not only how compassion must be translated into action through the demands of justice, in order to create structural change, but also how actions for justice always must arise out of “genuine feelings of deep compassion for all sentient beings,” in order to endure (Knitter, p. 102).

The second commonality is the reexamination of the theological idea of a “preferential option for the poor.” This is a key theme of liberation theology, and it is one of the important insights liberation theology offers to the theological community as a whole. However, as several of the authors note, this concept easily can be both misunderstood and misapplied. From a Buddhist perspective, this idea too quickly causes one group to be pitted against another, with one group labeled “good” and the other labeled “bad.” As Karen Enriquez notes in her article, “The main objection of Engaged Buddhists against the preferential option for the poor is that, from a Buddhist perspective, it can and has led to partial, dualistic and exclusionary language, attitudes, and actions that lead to greater suffering” (Enriquez, p. 70). In the articles, [End Page 51] both Christian and Buddhist authors seek to reinterpret the preferential option in such a way that it becomes liberating for everyone and encourages empathy for the other, rather than judgment.

The third important commonality in the articles is the interrogation of the practice of universal compassion in Buddhism. What does it mean to have compassion for both perpetrator and victim? Is that compassion the same? How can/should that compassion be actualized in the life of a community? In this context, both Sallie King and Karen Enriquez cite the famous poem by Thich Nhat Hanh “Please Call Me by My True Names.” This is a powerful poem, inspired by the tragic rape of a twelve-year-old Vietnamese girl by a pirate, and her subsequent suicide. In the poem, Hanh not only imagines himself in the place of the girl and voices her suffering, but also puts himself in the place of the pirate and imagines his suffering, too. King used this poem in a class she was teaching in Germany, and she was surprised by the strong reaction of some of her German students, who passionately insisted “that it is not right to always be nonjudgmental, that it is imperative that the Nazis be judged as deeply wrong” (King, p. 58). Appreciating their perspective and experience, she says, “I found it impossible not to feel that sometimes one side is simply wrong and the side trying to stop it is simply right” (King, p. 60).

Finally, all the articles address the need to balance the desire to change society with the necessity of first or simultaneously changing oneself. To this end, both Knitter and King quote Thich Nhat Hanh’s well-known formulation “To make peace you first have to be peace...


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pp. 51-53
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