It's All about Practice, Dialogue: Buddhists, Christians Find Their Differences Enhance Their Faith

Article excerpt

Historian Arnold Toynbee once said that when looking back on our time in a thousand years, historians will be more concerned with the interaction of Buddhism and Christianity than with wars, politics or racial strife.

Toynbee himself might have been fascinated, then, with the seventh international conference of the Society of Buddhist-Christian Studies titled "Hear the Cries of the World." About 150 people--nuns, monks, priests, scholars and the curious from many faiths--gathered June 3-8 at Loyola Marymount University here to discuss the latest issues of a dialogue that has been gaining in importance for three decades.

"The purpose of our dialogue is not to convert," said James Fredericks, a priest of the San Francisco archdiocese and the conference's program director. "The purpose is also not to reach agreement," Fredericks said. "We should think of dialogue as a conscious effort to create solidarity among our communities."

While Buddhism and Christianity share many remarkable similarities, Fredericks said they also have "fascinating differences--differences that have transformed my practice of my own faith."

Religious practice was a particular focus of the conference. Kusala Bhikshu, a monk ordained in the Vietnamese Zen tradition, explained that since Buddhism does not have grace, "it's all about practice. "Benedictine Fr. Laurence Freeman noted that the word "practice" itself is emerging in the Christian vocabulary and that Buddhism is helping Christians rediscover their contemplative traditions.

As the spiritual teacher for the World Community for Christian Meditation, Freeman has seen firsthand how Catholic contemplation, once the dominion of monks and nuns, is moving beyond the monastery. He disagreed with the notion, embedded within both Buddhism and Christianity, that lay people cannot meditate as deeply as those whose lives are dedicated to religion.

"It's a very theoretical approach to spiritual practice that doesn't relate to reality, to people's hunger for spiritual practice today," Freeman said. "The hope for the salvation of the world lies in the greatest number of wise people." He encouraged advocates for contemplation's reemergence in Christianity to lead their local communities in practicing silence.

Buddhist-Christian dialogues began to bloom in the 1980s. The first international conference on Buddhist-Christian dialogue was held in 1980 in Hawaii, and has been held about every four years since then. Seven conferences on Buddhist and Christian contemplation were held between 1981 and 1988 at Naropa University in Boulder, Colo. The Vatican has sponsored three Buddhist-Christian Colloquiums since 1995 and various monastic, scholarly and local dialogues have also taken place.

Not all of the interaction between the two religions has been cordial. In his 1994 book Crossing the Threshold of Hope, Pope John Paul II wrote that Buddhism is an atheistic system in which enlightenment "comes down to the conviction that the world is bad." While Rome stressed that the book merely stated the private opinions of the pope and does not carry Vatican authority, the pope's words offended many Buddhists. When the book came up several times at this month's conference, more than one person questioned how the pope can come out with an unofficial book? …