Interfaith Dialogue

Tuesday December 12, 2006

Religious Dialogue

Recently I reviewed Kristen Kilbinger’s book for the journal Contemporary Buddhism, and this has got me thinking about the idea of interfaith dialogue. Kiblinger’s book is an interesting attempt to suggest how Buddhists might be able to engage constructively in dialogue with those from other religious groups. Her conclusion, very briefly, is that the best approach is a form of inclusivism, which is to say an approach that could perhaps be called a middle way between exclusivism – the idea that one’s own tradition is largely and substantially right and all other traditions are largely and substantially wrong – and pluralism – the idea that all forms of belief are valid in their appropriate contexts.

Kiblinger suggests what she calls a “preferred form” of inclusivism that Buddhists could fruitfully adopt, an inclusivism that recognises the reality of different religious ends. This approach is one that recognises that there are many paths, but that they emphatically do not all lead up to the same mountain, as the hackneyed image has it. Instead, they may lead in very different directions, even if they intersect along the way. Kiblinger takes two examples of recent Buddhist writers – Thich Nhat Hanh and Masao Abe – as an example of a kind of inclusivism that fails to recognise the divergence of ends. She is perceptive in her criticism of the two. A good example of the problem comes from Thich Nhat Hanh in his Living Buddha, Living Christ where he uses the analogy of fruit for different religions, and says:

It is good that an orange is an orange and a mango is a mango. The colors, the smells, and the tastes are different, but looking deeply, we see that they are both authentic fruits. Looking more deeply, we can see the sunshine, the rain, the minerals, and the earth in both of them…If religions are authentic, they contain the same elements of stability, joy, peace, understanding, and love. The similarities as well as the differences are there. They differ only in terms of emphasis. Glucoise and acid are in all fruits, but their degrees differ. We cannot say that one is a real fruit and the other is not. (p194-195).

The problem is this: questions of “authenticity” of various fruits on one side, what is unwarranted here is the a priori assumption that these particular forms of practice and belief are all fruits in the first place. This, it seems to me, is already to assume to much. It assumes that religions are all more or less the same, whilst the real question when it comes to dialogue – at least for Kiblinger – is how to have dialogue between faiths whilst there is a recognition that they are manifestly different.

There are problems with this modified form of incluvism, however. Firstly, if the different ends appear to be mutually exclusive, even antagonistic, then dialogue might only increase dispute, discord and disharmony. But the second problem runs more deeply, and it is this: the problem of considering religion or faith in terms of identity. In the time of the Buddha, this was not the approach. It was not so much a question of “what are you?” as it was a question of “what exactly do you do?” The following passage, taken from Access to Insight’s translation of the Vinaya makes this clear:

Then Ven. Assaji, having gone for alms in Rajagaha, left, taking the alms he had received. Sariputta the wanderer approached him and, on arrival, having exchanged friendly greetings and engaged in polite conversation, stood to one side. As he stood there he said, “Your faculties are bright, my friend, your complexion pure and clear. On whose account have you gone forth? Who is your teacher? In whose Dhamma do you delight?”

Between different practices, it is possible to negotiate a harmonious co-existence; but between beings who recognise themselves as fundamentally different from each other, it is hard to know how such peaceful co-existence could be established: as long as we remain stuck in the politics of identity, then we always risk creating further suffering. The claim “I am this” or “I am that” is itself a part of the problem. Is there a single incident of communal violence – from wars between nation states to persecution, progroms and so-called “ethnic cleansing” – that is not rooted in this politics of identity?

When we see that our identity itself is not fixed but in flux, a part of the conditioned nature of the world, it becomes possible to go beyond the politics of identity. According to the Udana

The perception of impermanence should be cultivated for the removal of the conceit ‘I am.’ For when one perceives impermanence, Meghiya, the perception of not-self is established. When one perceives not-self one reaches the removal of the conceit ‘I am,’ which is called Nibbana here and now.”

What if we were to give up on the idea “I am”? To see that we are thoroughly conditioned, to see that we have no substantial self, and to give up on the idea that we are Buddhists, atheists, Marxists, Christians, Jews? Then might it not be possible to experience Nibbana – the extinguishment of the heat of our struggles and our rivalries – here and now?

Because such Nibbana is not, I think, a religious goal at all. It has nothing to do with religion. It has nothing to do with being a Buddhist. As long as you think you are a Buddhist, I wonder if it is impossible. Perhaps it is, instead, the ordinary peace for which our poor human hearts ache.

# · Dave

“there are many paths, but they emphatically do not all lead up to the same mountain”
Yes! Thanks for addressing this. Oddly, I was just thinking about this very thing last night. The cliché I’ve heard is “one ocean, many shores.”

One of the problems with this belief about belief systems is that it tends to discount humbler traditions, where the chief end is often healing/reintegration of tribe and individual, and success or happiness in this life is typicaly given priority over loftier goals and possible afterlife accomplishments.

# · Jeff G

Along a similar vein, sociologist Peter Berger discusses the dichotomy of relativism vs. fundamentalism.

“My presupposition, again, is that both extremes are unacceptable: the relativist view that finally all religions are equally true (quite apart from theology, a philosophically untenable view); and the aggressive and intolerant fundamentalist claim to absolute truth (which even a modest acquaintance with historical scholarship about religion makes very hard to maintain). It is possible and desirable to stake out middle positions that use the resources available from within the major religious traditions. The traditions coming out of southern and eastern Asia—notably Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism—have never had much difficulty doing this theoretically (but which, by the way, did not stop them from being savagely intolerant in practice from time to time). The Abrahamic traditions emerging out of western Asia—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—have had greater difficulties.”


# · richard odabashian

As long as people cherish their particular religous identities there is opportunity to forge differences. The idea of God or the “Spiritual” is often more seductive than the real work of actualizing the teachings, which requires some real sacrifice.

Comments are turned off for this article.

  • Today's Most Popular

  • Related Articles

  • Featured Articles