Dialogue between Buddhism and Christianity
Yoichi Kawada, director of The Institute of Oriental Philosophy, Tokyo
Inter-religious Dialogues--Christians and Buddhists, Vol. 31, NR XI, MMI (2001), Annals of the European Academy of Sciences and Arts
The United Nations has called the year 2001 the "Year of Intercultural Dialogue,"comprehending quite clearly that it is the most important task for the people of the 3rd millennium to secure their coexistence via dialogue among cultures. If the different cultures with their individual histories and specific characteristics were able to communicate, this would lead to the transformation of a "culture of war" into a "culture of peace."
I.P. Huntington's book, Clash of Civilizations(1), has caused a great deal of discussion. His essay is of great significance inasmuch as today's conflicts can no longer be considered confrontations between ideologies but between civilizations. The historian Arnold Toynbee found the source of civilizations' vitality in their respective religions. These very religions however, are all too often the cause of confrontations between civilizations. Of course, other factors, such as nationality, race, politics, economy etc., also play a role, but in many cases religion is the essential starting point. Already existing conflicts caused by political or economic factors may also be inflamed by the specific interests of those in power. Yet it is a fact that conflicts between parties become even more serious where religious confrontation is involved. In this sense, since the beginnings of mankind and now as well, an honest dialogue between religions is needed.
The essential goals of this Inter-religious Dialogue, can be summarized in the following three points:
First, mutual understanding. The basis of each religion is an individual system of beliefs and thoughts, constituting their respective uniqueness and religious conviction. And as such, must be mutually respected. Tolerance, however, means more than just respecting the other's system of beliefs. It takes combined efforts to correctly understand the other religion. The first step towards tolerance is to listen humbly to the points of view of the other religion, to put oneself into its position and to reconsider from there. Here, one must try to abandon the thought patterns of one's own religion and adopt the other point of view. Only then can one clearly comprehend those things one would never have been able to understand from one's own standpoint. Direct, face-to-face communication is necessary for mutual understanding. This kind of exchange plays an important role in mutual understanding, and the symposium, which was held under the direction of Felix Unger, fulfilled this purpose.
Secondly, inter-religious dialogue serves the creative development of one's own faith. Understanding different religions and recognizing common ideas enables us to view our own faith objectively and thus enlarge the angle of vision of our own system of beliefs. By enlarging our restricted thinking when we accept another body of thought, we open up a path to new creative energies in our own faith. This highly developed stage of tolerance indicates an attempt to absorb the knowledge and the wisdom of others and to actually change oneself in the process. The concrete effect of the changes caused by this symposium of both religions, Buddhism and Christianity, will only become apparent in the future. In fact, both have gained important insights from one another, and future development can be expected.
The third goal of this inter-religious dialogue is to inspire many religions to cooperate in order to contribute to answering global and human questions. In the present situation, with so many problems affecting the world as a whole, it is necessary for all religions to aim predominantly at securing the continuation of the human race. The coexistence of all religions must be an active one, i.e., geared to finding solutions to mankind's pressing issues and striving for their success.
How can people cooperate and not only solve their religious, cultural or national conflicts, but also overcome other global problems, such as nuclear weapons, nuclear power plants, destruction of the earth's, ecological system as well as problems arising from materialism which appear in the form of weakness, madness and violence of the human mind? This is the biggest issue of the inter-religious dialogues. Today, both mutual understanding and the creative change of one's own beliefs must have as their goal the continuation of mankind. Herein we find the third level of tolerance: to discover what religion can do to ensure the continuation of mankind and what we as religious people must do in order to cooperate in this endeavor.
The present Dialogue between Buddhism and Christianity is an encounter of Oriental and European thought as the basis of the respective religions. Buddhism cultivated the oriental mind and caused the western Asian cultures to blossom. Furthermore, it greatly influenced the cultures of China, the Korean peninsula, Japan and Southeast Asia. Together with Greek philosophy, Christianity built modem European civilization, as well as the scientific and technical civilization. Buddhism is a symbol for the religious body of thought penetrating the minds of the Oriental people, while Christianity, a monotheistic religion, represents the body of thought in Europe. Characteristic of Oriental philosophy is the melting of microcosm (self) and the macrocosm (universe)- "the universe and I are one." Shakyamuni, who transcended himself by his enlightenment at the most profound level of his own life, became one with the macrocosm. Through his experience of enlightenment he gained both wisdom and a deep compassion for ordinary people. Buddhism is in this sense a "religion of wisdom."
In comparison to this, Christianity, representing the European body of thought, presents the one and only God as the creator As such, it is a "religion of revelation," teaching the relationship between God and his creation.
This symposium, which took place in six meetings, was, in spite of contrasting systems of thought concerning "wisdom" and "revelation" a great success, since when it came to the solution for questions facing mankind, we were able to find or confirm several common issues:
The first symposium focused on the interpretation of the Bible from a Christian point of view. The second symposium consisted of the explanation of Mahâyâna Buddhism with an emphasis on the Lotus Sutra from a Buddhist point of view. Both lectures offered a good platform for experiencing the respective fundamentals. On the basis of these thought-provoking lectures, the third symposium led us to the core of the religious experience: to prayer. In spite of differing practices, or perhaps rather because of this, we were able to comprehend the respective essence of the other religion. The subject of the fourth symposium (human rights), the fifth (values) and the sixth (global environment) are all part of the common focus of religions and the questions facing mankind. Here a "basis for further consideration" seems to have been established, giving Buddhism and Christianity a common scope of action for finding effective solutions for the problems facing us.
From the point of view of Buddhism, the foundation of the Mahâyâna Buddhist body of thought was explained: The interdependent origin of compassion, desire (darkness of life), karma, Buddhahood, etc. These terminologies are the basic teachings directly connected to the enlightenment of Shakyamuni. His motivation for leaving his home was his confrontation with and his desire to overcome the suffering of birth, old age, disease and death, which every human has to face. Shakyamuni is said to have left his home at the age of 29, and at the age of 35 he was to achieve enlightenment under a Bodhi tree. What did his enlightenment look like? Contents of the Udana offer a few clues to this: At dusk, at midnight and at dawn Shakyamuni spoke as follows:
At dusk, "At that moment, when the Dharma really clearly appeared to the one that practiced with earnest concentration, his own doubts disappeared, since he comprehended the doctrine of mutual influence."
At midnight, "At that moment, when the Dharma really clearly appeared to the one that practiced with earnest concentration, his own doubts disappeared, since he comprehended the extinction of all sorts of influences."
At dawn, "At that moment, when the Dharma really clearly appeared to the one that practiced with earnest concentration, he is in a state of perfect rest, since he vanquished an army of devilish powers. It is as if sunlight were flooding the entire sky."
Here, Dharma refers to the basic, in other words, to universal life. The Dharma appears when the fundamental darkness of life is destroyed within us, or when the original desires and illusions (the army of devils) are overcome and at that moment the state of Nirvâna is revealed. This Dharma, also called Tathagata, became the basis of Mahâyâna Buddhism and from it emerged the doctrine that the Buddha nature, "Tathagata-Garbha," which is immanent in all humans, constitutes the cause of the ability to become a Buddha.
Shakyamuni, who was enlightened to the Dharma, untiringly wandered across East India exercising his deep compassion for the redemption of all people until he died at the age of 80. Calling Buddhism a "religion of wisdom" means that this wisdom is manifested as active compassion.
One or two hundred years after Shakyamuni's death, the Buddhist order split into the school of Theravada (the top) and the school of Mabasamghika (school of the normal people). This is the basic division of Buddhism. From that point until the first century BC, both schools split further into about 20 groups. After splitting, Buddhism was called Nikaja Buddhism. This form was carried on mainly by priests and nuns and tended to treat Buddhism purely scientifically. It cannot be overlooked that for this reason Nikaja Buddhism more or less neglected the main concern of religion, i.e. the salvation of man.
Mahâyâna-Buddhism emerged as a new movement in the first century BC. Vehemently criticizing the traditional and conservative Nikaja Buddhism, which was mired in complicated theoretical constructs, it emphasized that all humans can attain Buddhahood Among the many Sutras which were written down. During this process, the Lotus Sutra was one of the first of the Mahâyâna ones. The lay believers were at the center of Mahâyâna-Buddhism. They sought the basic practice of Buddhism in the active compassion of the "Bodhisattva" as Shakyamuni was called in a former existence. They attempted to spread the Boddhisattva practice and to reveal the religious truth by applying the Dharma on Shakyamuni's enlightenment to themselves.
As I have already mentioned in my paper (in the second dialogue, Mahâyâna Buddhism and the issue of redemption), the believers who supported Mahâyâna experienced their own enlightenment during their meditations through an encounter with the Buddha (the experience of seeing the Buddha in oneself). The core of this experience of enlightenment is called "the highest true perfect enlightenment" in the Lotus Sutra. Hiroshi Sugano writes, "The Lotus Sutra consists of personal experiences of awareness related to the enlightenment of Shakyamuni." The Lotus Sutra declares that this teaching is addressed to the Bodhisattvas so that they can achieve the "highest true perfect enlightenment." This Sutra aims at experiencing the Dharma, lauded as the sun in the Udana, as the "highest true perfect enlightenment."
In Buddhist history, the "Dharma" (cosmic or universal life) was passed on in the form of the Lotus Sutra of T'ien-t'ai in China and of Dengyo and Nichiren in Japan. The experience of enlightenment of the second president of the Soka Gakkai during World War II is the continuation in this historical series of transfers. The statements made by the Buddhists participating in this symposium are based on this interpretation of Mahâyâna Buddhism, with the Lotus Sutra at its core.
Finally I would like to summarize the points we have in common as they became clear to me in the course of this symposium.
The first point, referring to a common issue, is the subject "compassion and love": The compassion, emphasized by the Buddhist, is an expression for the wisdom which originated in the "Dharma" (in the universal life), while love in Christianity refers to God's love and brotherly love. In spite of this difference, both share the religious idea of the redemption of mankind. Buddhist compassion embraces all mankind, since all things and events are interrelated. The Bodhisattva practice of Mahâyâna Buddhism is the practice of compassion arising from this wisdom. The love preached by Jesus, saying that you should love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you (Matth 5:44), refers to the general love of all mankind. The statement known as the golden rule of Christian ethic, "Therefore all things what so ever ye would that men should do to you do ye even so unto them" (Matth 7: 12) applies to everyone.
The second point, which both religions have in common, refers to overcoming human suffering, although the theoretical basis for the explanation of the etiology of these sufferings is different. Buddhism describes the three steps of "desire, karma and suffering." Here, two causes are considered as the foundation of human suffering: desire (fundamental darkness of life) and the negative karma influenced by it. In Christianity human suffering is considered to be caused by the "evil one" and ascribes the reason for this to "original sin." In spite of this difference, they share the religious attitude towards the suffering of birth, old age, disease and death, and the attempt to fundamentally transform them.
The third common issue refers to facing death. Both religions point out that earthly happiness is temporal, as long as you cling to it. Since life as a human being is limited, all sorts of earthly happiness and fame are merely dreams and illusions. This religious recognition opens up the "dimension of eternity" as the basis for evaluating what lends meaning to our life. According to Buddhist doctrine, the way of life of a Bodhisattva increases the moral worth of our lives and causes happiness both in this and in the next life. In Christianity, the ethical way of life, in tune with the heart of God, opens the door to "heaven." By confronting death, one experiences on a spiritual level, a state that surpasses material and social greed. Since modern civilization tends to overemphasize material and earthly things, while overlooking or ignoring the spiritual and psychological, or the world of eternity, renewed importance should be given to the perspective on life and death that both religions have to offer.
The fourth similarity between both is the concept of human dignity or the dignity of life. It is of great significance that, in the course of the symposium, both religions explained their point of view concerning the basic idea of the dignity of man and the dignity of life in light of their human and religious sense of mission.
Mahâyâna-Buddhism considers the potential to attain Buddhahood (the revelation of Dharma) the prerequisite for the dignity of all men. In contrast to this, Christianity seeks the reason for dignity in the "creation of God." In spite of these differences, there was a religious convergence, in order to be able to confront the current tasks such as human rights and values, as well as environmental problems. The issue of human rights has developed through different stages, from the first generation (freedom) to the second (equality) and the third (solidarity). On the one hand, "values" have multiplied, on the other hand, too much emphasis has been placed on material things, while spiritual values have disappeared. The issues of human rights and values suffer from a lack of human dignity and the ecology generally suffers from a lack of dignity of life. I believe that we were able to jointly confirm the significance of both the dignity of man and of life and that we are able to find the relevant theoretical basis to reestablish them. The dignity of man and of life should become the foundation for the solution to those problems that we were not able to discuss concretely this time, yet with which we, as religious people, should nevertheless concern ourselves. These include the ethics of life, the weakness of the human mind, violence, environmental problems due to technical developments or other reasons, and the nonviolent solution to these conflicts.
A future symposium should guide the topics of discussion towards those problems generated by genetic engineering and information science and should help to enhance man's spirituality regarding life and death. In addition to this, our dialogue should expand to include the other great religions besides Buddhism and Christianity: For example in the Orient--Confucianism, Taoism, and Hinduism; and in Europe--Islam and Judaism. In such continual efforts to carry on dialogue, the foundation can be laid for jointly building a "civilization of the spirit," with religion as its major inspiration, enabling a revival of the soul and an activation of the spirit.
(1) I. P. Huntington: The Clash of Civilizations, New York 1996. [Return to text]