Sunday, April 14, 2013

Possibilities for Engagement through Interreligious Dialogue... A reflection on Tibetian Buddhism and Christianity

This paper was written for my MTh course in Asian Religions and Christianity in 2012... 




What are the possibilities for two religions that seem to be on opposite ends of the theological spectrum to engage with each other? This is the question with which I initially approached this paper on Tibetan Buddhism and Christianity. The answer, as I discovered in my research and reflection is that engagement is possible on a number of levels. However any engagement must be approached carefully and with a correct methodology.
On the surface Tibetan Buddhism and Christianity are radically different in some of the core aspects of beliefs. Tibetan Buddhists refute the very idea of an independently existent, uncaused, and Supreme Being who is not only the first cause of all that there is, but who also is the Sustainer of the Universe and holds all things in it together. The Bible, on the other hand, reveals that the world as we know it, would totally disintegrate if God withdrew his sustaining power.[1]

Buddhism teaches that a deep philosophical insight into the nature of things is needed for complete liberation from the wheel of life.[2] As a result, all Buddhist practitioners seeks liberation from the cycle of rebirth (which is the ultimate goal of all practitioners in Theravadan Buddhism) but in Tibetan Buddhism there is the aspiration to become fully enlightened just as the Buddha is said to have become enlightened. In fact it is taught that within every person lies the potential to become Buddha (i.e. enlightened) and consequently become omniscient.[3]  Christians in contrast understand the world and humanity as inherently broken and flawed by sin as a result of the Fall. It is only through the salvation offered as uncreated and unmerited grace through Jesus Christ that one can be cleansed of sin, enter into a new relationship with God and have the assurance of eternal life.
It becomes obvious, even at a cursory level that there are fundamental differences not just in theology but more importantly in the worldview of Tibetan Buddhists and Christians. It is this difference of worldviews that must be understood as the foundational point of engagement of the two religions. Thus the method of engagement that I have chosen is based on Knitter’s Accommodation Model[4], or something akin to a “Christocentric Model of pluralism”. Within these models, the uniqueness of Christ is maintained while accepting that different worldviews and expressions of the otherness of God result in ‘many salvations’. The image is not of many paths leading up the same mountain as in the Mutuality/Theo-centric model but of each path leading up different mountains. The Acceptance/Christo-centric model provides, in my opinion the best options for meaningful and friendly dialogue and learning between Tibetan Buddism and Christianity.[5]
What follows in this paper, then, is what I have learned as a result of my friendly conversation, as a Christian, with Tibetan Buddhism.


Conversing with Tibetan Buddhism

According to L. Austine Waddell, Buddhism was introduced to Tibet by Ogyen from India in around 747 CE. The type of Buddhism however was not pure Mahayanan but a hybrid that included Trantism and traditional Tibetan shamanism known as Bon. The reformation led by Atisa between 1038 to 1050CE saw the development of Lamanist tradition, which is the main form of Tibetan Buddhism today.[6] Waddell argued that there was a minor influence of Christianity in the development of the Lamanist tradition by Atisa. While it is not widely substantiated, Waddell stated that Atisa included among the two hundred and thirty five Vinaya rules, “retirement during Lent for meditation etc”. Furthermore he believed that Atisa attracted followers by instituting “highly ritualistic services” which in part “borrowed from Christian missionaries, who undoubtedly were settled at that time in Tsön-Ka, the province of his childhood in Western China.”[7]
I have not come across any other author who makes the same claim as Waddell about Christian influence on the early Lamanist tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. Even if Waddell claims are not true, it makes for an interesting point on comparing Tibetan Buddhist and Christian practice.
As Tibetan Buddhism flows from Mahayana Buddhism my conversation begins with this “Great Raft”. In particular in terms of what it offers in the practice of scriptural hermeneutics. Mahayana Buddhism makes a distinction between two categories of scriptures: (1) interpretable scriptures, which are those whose meaning can, at best, be taken as provisional and therefore require further interpretation beyond their literal meaning; and (2) definitive scriptures, which are those crucial scriptures that can be taken at face value as literally true. Crucial to this hermeneutical approach is the Mahayana principle of the four reliances: (a) the reliance on the teaching, not on the teacher; (b) reliance on the meaning, not the words that express it; (c) reliance on the definitive meaning, not on the provisional meaning; and (d) reliance on the transcendent wisdom of deep experience, not on mere knowledge.[8]
Buddhism places a lot of emphasis on meditation and the purpose of some of these meditational practices is to encourage the practitioner to become acutely aware of all that is going on with regard to his or her own psychophysical makeup. If one spends time in quiet reflection upon one’s own mind and body, it soon becomes obvious that one’s thoughts largely revolve around the self (ego / the ‘I’). The practice of mindfulness is meant to make one alert to this tendency. Consequently the Buddhist must try to over-ride the natural functioning of his/her mind in an attempt to destroy one’s clinging to self or ego. All Tibetan Buddhist spiritual practice is directed toward developing the altruistic thought of the awakening mind.[9]
Buddha considered mere trance-like states to be only a diversion in the goal of removing suffering. He developed a completely new meditational technique:  first the practice of Samatha or 'calming meditation' where there is a cessation of intellectual activity; secondly, vispassana or 'insight meditation' where the aim is not that of peace and tranquillity but the generation of penetrating and critical insight whereby the critical faculties are brought fully into play in a detailed reflexive analysis of the meditator's own state of mind.[10]
Tantra harnesses the power of imagination in meditation through a practice called deity yoga. Deity yoga combines wisdom and compassionate motivation ; a single consciousness realises emptiness and also appears compassionately in the form of an altruistic deity. This is different from the Sutra system in Buddhism because it includes motivation and wisdom in one consciousness.[11]
Buddhist meditation practice can be utilised as a form of Christian reflection.  The Tibetan tradition holds two principal types of mediation. The first of these involves a certain amount of analysis and reasoning and is called contemplative or analytical meditation. The second, known as single-pointed or placement meditation, is more absorptive and focussing.
An example of a Christian meditation on love and compassion using the analytical/ contemplative meditation process would follow the reflection that to truly love God one must demonstrate that love through the action of loving fellow human beings in a genuine way, loving one’s neighbour. Reflecting on the life and example of Jesus, would contemplate how Jesus conducted his life, how he worked for the benefit of other sentient beings, and how this actions illustrated a compassionate way of life. These reflections help develop a profound understanding of the intrinsic value of compassion and tolerance in the Christian life. That profound understanding causes a sense of being touched and transformed from within. Focusing on this deep conviction is the absorptive/placement aspect of meditation. [12]
Often the criticism of Buddhism is that it is a path to “nothingness”. This leads many to label it as a philosophy or religion of nihilism. Perhaps this because of the particular system of Buddhism critiqued. Mahayana explains selflessness, in more depth than Theravada systems, as the absence of self-identity; that the person totally lacks any form of independent nature or inherent existence. This realisation leads then to an understanding of interdependence – a genuine realisation of selflessness /emptiness reaffirms one’s conviction about the interdependent nature of things and events.[13] 
This understanding of ‘equanimity’ is all about looking at other people and treating them without any partiality whatsoever is a challenge for the Christian because by nature, humankind is self-centred. The process is an overcoming the grasping at a solid ego identity and self cherishing attitudes, which obstruct us from generating genuine empathy towards others and limits our outlook to the narrow confines of our own self-centred concerns.”[14] Christianity also challenges humanity to move beyond the self. In the Letter of James, the author calls for impartiality or non-discrimination:
My dear friends, don't let public opinion influence how you live out our glorious, Christ-originated faith. If a man enters your church wearing an expensive suit, and a street person wearing rags comes in right after him, and you say to the man in the suit, "Sit here, sir; this is the best seat in the house!" and either ignore the street person or say, "Better sit here in the back row," haven't you segregated God's children and proved that you are judges who can't be trusted? [15]
The Buddhist, in his or her efforts to reduce attachment to self and others, finds the practice of equanimity helpful in breaking down his/her own mental barriers between himself/herself and others.
The cultivation of ‘equanimity’ in the context of Christian practice may be approached from the understanding of Creation and that all creatures are equal in the sense that they are all creations of the same God, much in the understanding of Francis of Assisi. While Christians understand human beings as created in the image of God, this sharing in the common divine nature (imperfect and broken as it is) is similar to the idea of Buddha-nature in Buddhism which provides a very strong basis for the possibility for every person to develop a genuine sense of ‘equanimity’ toward all beings.[16]
This leads to another area of conversation I have had with Tibetan Buddhism, on the subject of Compassion. In the Tibetan Buddhist pantheon of enlightened beings, Chenrezig is renowned as the embodiment of the compassion of all the Buddhas, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. Avalokiteshvara is the earthly manifestation of the self born, eternal Buddha, Amitabha. He guards this world in the interval between the historical Sakyamuni Buddha, and the next Buddha of the Future Maitreya. 
Tibetan Buddhism understands Bodhichitta ('Bodhi' is Sanskrit for Enlightenment and 'Citta' means Mind)as the compassionate wish to achieve Buddhahood for the sake of others. This is the practice of great compassion – a sense of personal responsibility to shoulder the task of freeing sentient beings from sufferings and providing them with happiness.[17] The realisation of Bodhicitta is quite profound, as it is obviously not easy to unconsciously put the welfare of others above one's own welfare. Someone who lives with this realisation is called a Bodhisattva: in all respects a genuine saint.
Compassion is rooted in the earlier discussed theme of selflessness or interdependence. To be genuine, compassion must be based on respect for the other, and on the realization that others have the right to be happy and overcome suffering just as much as you. On this basis, since you can see that others are suffering, you develop a genuine sense of concern for them.[18] Compassion also brings a certain inner strength. Once it is developed, it naturally opens an inner door, through which we can communicate with other fellow human beings, and even other sentient beings, with ease and heart to heart.[19]
For Christians, Jesus is the embodiment of Compassion. The Hebrew verb  רָחַם râcham, which means  is also the same as the noun רַחַם racham which means womb. The word compassion is evocative of nourishing, caring, embracing and encompassing. This was Jesus’ understanding of God and so the imitatio dei (imitation of God) was to manifest these qualities in one’s life. Paul’s use of love/agape is the same as Jesus use of compassion, stating that we need to understand compassion as the primary or main fruit of the Spirit. According to Jesus compassion is to be the central quality of a life faithful to God the compassionate one. [20] As Christians we are called to have a deep compassion for all. I think this is one of the areas in which Tibetan Buddhism come close to having common expressions.

That the 14th Dalai Lama considers not only Jesus to be a Bodhisattva, but Mother Teresa as well is a double-edged sword. In one sense it can be taken to mean that one does not have to be a Buddhist to be a Bodhisattva. At the same time while it can be argued that this reduces Jesus’ Christology. It cannot be denied that our reasons for showing others respect are very different and it is important to acknowledge this. For a Buddhist it is based upon the concept of ‘rebirth’. But for the Christian it should arise out of God’s deep love for all mankind. Jesus said that we should love others to the same extent that we love ourselves (Matthew 22v.39). I believe that this statement by the Dalai Lama challenges and affirms Christians to strive towards Christ-likeness even within our weakened limited humanity through the practice of agape/compassion/love of God through love of neighbour.
We should also remember that once we cultivate a compassionate attitude, nonviolence comes automatically. Nonviolence is not a diplomatic word, it is compassion in action. If you hatred in your heart, then often your actions will be violent, whereas if you have compassion in your heart, your actions will be nonviolent.[21]


Dialogue and Ethics as Opportunities for Engagement

A major landmark in the area of inter-religious dialogue came in 1977 at a meeting in Chiang Mai, Thailand where a group of Christians representing many different ecclesiastical traditions drew up Guidelines on Dialogue with People of Living Faiths and Ideologies.[22]
In May 2006, an inter-faith reflection on "Conversion: Assessing the Reality", was organised by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, Vatican City, and the Office on Interreligious Relations & Dialogue of the World Council of Churches, Geneva at Lariano, Italy. Many differences and disagreements among the participants remained at the end of the consultation. Indeed, there was no unanimity even on the meaning of "conversion". Nevertheless, the participants agreed that their deliberations helped develop a convergent understanding of the several aspects of the issue of religious conversion, making them more sensitive to each other's concerns, and thus strengthening their understanding that such concerns need to be addressed through appropriate action locally, nationally and internationally. 
During our dialogue, we recognized the need to be sensitive to the religious language and theological concepts in different faiths. Members of each faith should listen to how people of other faiths perceive them. This is necessary to remove and avoid misunderstandings, and to promote better appreciation of each other's faiths. [23]  
In his “Inconclusive” conclusion to “Introducing Theologies of Religions,” Knitter writes of engaging with other religions in friendship in ethical responses of their beliefs to situations of suffering and violence.[24]
As this conversation has shown, there is greater awareness of the interdependence of human life. This awareness of interdependence has led to the understanding of the need for collaboration across religious barriers in dealing with the pressing problems of the world caused by globalization of political, economic, and even religious life.
All religious traditions, therefore, are challenged to contribute to the emergence of a global community that would live in mutual respect and peace. At stake is the credibility of religious traditions as forces that can bring justice, peace, and healing to a broken world.
It is becoming clearer everyday that a viable economic system must be based on a true sense of universal responsibility. In other words, what we need is a genuine commitment to the principles of universal brotherhood and sisterhood. This is not just a holy, moral, or religious ideal. Rather it is the reality of our modern human existence. As human beings, we must also respect our fellow members of the human family: our neighbours, our friends, and so forth. Compassion, loving kindness, altruism, and a sense of brotherhood and sisterhood are the keys to human development in both the present and the future.[25]
From 22 - 26 August 2010, thirty Buddhists from the Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions and Christians from the Anglican, Lutheran, Baptist, Reformed and Roman Catholic traditions met at Payap University, Chiang Mai, Thailand, under the theme, “Buddhists and Christians Engaging Structural Greed Today.” The consultation was jointly organized by the World Council of Churches (WCC) and the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) and hosted by the Institute of Religion, Culture and Peace at Payap University. Participants included activists, economists, religious leaders and scholars from Australia, Germany, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Switzerland, Taiwan, Thailand, UK and USA.
Buddhists understand greed as a human disposition, one of the Three Poisons of greed, hatred and delusion. Greed is a cause of suffering and an obstacle to enlightenment. On the path toward enlightenment, human beings can overcome the overwhelming power of the Three Poisons and thereby become generous, loving and compassionate persons.
Christians understand that they live in structures of domination and greed, traditionally related to the power of sin. Since the time of the prophets, biblical faith resisted these oppressive structures and worked for legal and community related alternatives. Following in this tradition, Jesus Christ lived a life in opposition to the forces of domination and died in fierce struggle against these. In his resurrection, Christians believe that he was victorious over these structures and empowers his followers, through the Holy Spirit, to resist and transform similar structures today.[26]
To avoid addressing structural greed and to focus on individual greed is to maintain the status quo. As Buddhists and Christians, we are convinced that greed has to be understood both personally and structurally. Individual and structural greed feed each other in their interactive relation of cause and effect. They need each other for their sustenance and expansion.[27]
As Buddhists and Christians, we also affirm that meditation, prayer and other spiritual practices offer people access to spiritual power that gives them perseverance, release from their egos, compassion with those who suffer and the inner strength to love and deal non-violently with those who they have to oppose. As Buddhist teachers have reminded us: we must be peace in order to make peace.[28]
This process may not always be easy. Knitter recounting his experience with the Interreligious Peace Council shares that while sharing religious beliefs and motivations in determining the response to a situation has being for the most mutually supportive and clarifying, there have been occasions in which differences produced tensions. However he goes on to state that because they were speaking to each other as friends, they had to truly listen to each other out of friendship and learn from each other.[29]


I approached this paper from the position of not only a Christian but someone who comes from a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-cultural context. This, no doubt, has shaped my perspective / lens towards my conversation with Tibetan Buddhism. While I acknowledge there are many differences in theological understanding between Christianity and Tibetan Buddhism, this conversation has shown me that there are some points of convergence in expression, practice or response to religious belief. This is an important factor of the accommodation model of religious pluralism.
The approach of comparative religion, deep listening and friendship in dialogue with other faiths does not diminish my own faith but allows me, as a result of my faith to engage meaningfully with other human beings.
In my conversation, I have found that the Christian elements of love of one's neighbour, kindness, and compassion, present in Tibetan Buddhism – albeit from a different motivation. In spite of divergent philosophical views, it is possible to understand and approach this religious tradition on the basis of these common traits. Perhaps the Tibetan Buddhist practice of meditation and understanding of selflessness and compassion will help us to be better Christians.


Thanka (Tibetan Art form) Depicting the Life of Jesus

How to understand this thanka[30]
To the Western eye this painting may at first seem to have little meaning. But to the Buddhist people of Central Asia its style is very familiar. The painted ‘thanka’ is a traditional Tibetan art form which is used in teaching and worship by followers of Tibetan Buddhism.
There is a well-known Buddhist thanka that portrays life as an unbroken wheel, held tightly by the demonic ‘Lord of Death’. This ancient painting has some superficial similarities to this Christian thanka, but the concepts illustrated show a number of crucial differences.

It is a basic Buddhist belief that, because we are attached to worldly things, our ‘souls’ continue to remain within the ‘wheel of life’. After death, reincarnation in various forms occurs many times until eventually we manage to rid ourselves of our earthly desires and obtain enlightenment. Only then is it possible to escape rebirth and enter the ‘undefinable essencelessness’ known as ‘nirvana’. Although the Buddhist thanka’s wheel of life remains unbroken, in this Christian painting the circle is broken in two places: once when Jesus came into the world and again when He ascended into heaven. This illustrates the fact that when Jesus entered the world from an unchanging eternal realm He came fully omniscient ( all knowing ) and it also shows that He did not have to enter the Buddhist process of repeated rebirth in order to escape from the wheel of life. Jesus’ leaving the circle at His ascension symbolises the opening up of the way to enter the kingdom of heaven.

In the Christian painting, the Lord of Death, who once held the wheel of life, has been forced to let go because Jesus conquered death when he rose from the dead. This is powerfully symbolic to Buddhists because the Lord of Death is seen as a terrifying being, trapping them in the wheel of Life. In the bottom two corners you will also see demons fleeing from the circle and entering eternal judgement.
The cross in the centre of the wheel, representing our salvation, replaces three animals which are found on the Buddhist thanka. These animals represent ignorance, desire and hatred. The replacement of these animals illustrates the total forgiveness of sins through Jesus dying on the cross.
To show that Jesus was a human being you see His face once — when He was a baby. However in the other pictures of Jesus His face is not portrayed, reminding those who see this thanka that it should never be made an object of worship.

The Tibetan writing used here is in ‘every day’ language so that most Tibetans will be able to understand the script.
The top of the thanka reads: “BEFORE ANYTHING WAS MADE GOD EXISTED.”
And the wording at the centre of the wheel is: “JESUS DEFEATED SIN, DEATH AND THE POWER OF THE LORD OF THE DEMONS.”

The various sections of the thanka show the earthly life of Jesus.

v  His birth. Luke 2, verses 6-7.
v  Discussing in the Jewish temple.                    Luke 2, verses 46-50.
v  His baptism followed by his temptation. Luke 3, verses 21-22.                                        Luke 4, verses 1-2.
v  Teaching the people. Matthew 5, verses 1-2.
v  Healing the sick. Luke 4, verses 38-39.
v  His authority over evil spirits.                         Luke 8, verses 26-39.
v  The last supper. Luke 22, verses 14-16.
v  The trial. Luke 23, verses 13-14.
v  The crucifixion. Luke 23, verses 32-46.
v  The Resurrection Luke 24, verses 1-7.
v  Jesus appears to his disciples.                         Luke 24, verses 36-48.
v  The Ascension. Luke 24, verses 50-52.


Borg, M. Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time. San Francisco.Harper. 1994
Gyatso, T. The Essential Dalai Lama: His Important Teachings. London. Penguin Books. 2005
Gyatso, T. The World of Tibetan Buddhism. Boston. Wisdom Publications. 1995.
Keown, D. Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction Oxford. Oxford University Press. 1996.
Knitter, P.F. Introducing Theologies of Religions. Maryknoll. Orbis Books. 2002.
Robson, E.M. KALACHAKRA: Toronto Christians ask for clarification, Accessed 5/20/2012
Waddell, L.A. Tibetan Buddhism. New York. Dover Publications. 1885/1972.
World Council of Churches Documents
A Buddhist-Christian Common Word on Structural Greed: A Joint Statement, Accessed 05/20/2012
Guidelines on Dialogue with People of Living Faiths and Ideologies, Accessed 05/20/2012
Report from inter-religious consultation on "Conversion - assessing the reality”. 2006.

[1] Elaine M Robson, KALACHAKRA: Toronto Christians ask for clarification, Accessed 5/20/2012
[2] Damien Keown, Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 98-100
[3] Robson, KALACHAKRA
[4] Paul F. Knitter, Introducing Theologies of Religions, (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2002), 173-237
[5] As articulated by Prof. Wang-Shik Jang in the “Asian Religions and Christianity” course.
[6]L. Austine Waddell, Tibetan Buddhism, (New York: Dover Publications, 1885/1972), 55
[7] Waddell, 61
[8] Tenzin Gyatso- 14th Dalai Lama, The World of Tibetan Buddhism, Ed. Geshe Thupten Jinpa (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1995), 25
[9]Tenzin Gyatso-14th Dalai Lama, The Essential Dalai Lama: His Important Teachings, Ed. Rajiv Mehrotra (London: Penguin Books, 2005), 142
[10] Keown, 98-100
[11] Tenzin Gyatso-14th Dalai Lama, The Essential Dalai Lama, 201
[12] Tenzin Gyatso-14th Dalai Lama, The Essential Dalai Lama, 254, 255
[13] Tenzin Gyatso- 14th Dalai Lama, The World of Tibetan Buddhism, 34
[14] Tenzin Gyatso- 14th Dalai Lama, The World of Tibetan Buddhism, 59
[15] James 2:1-4, The Message version
[16] Tenzin Gyatso-14th Dalai Lama, The Essential Dalai Lama, 258
[17] Tenzin Gyatso- 14th Dalai Lama, The Essential Dalai Lama, 96
[18] Tenzin Gyatso-14th Dalai Lama, The Essential Dalai Lama, 22
[19] Tenzin Gyatso-14th Dalai Lama, The Essential Dalai Lama, 22,23
[20] Marcus Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, (San Francisco: Harper, 1994) 47-49
[21] Tenzin Gyatso-14th Dalai Lama, The Essential Dalai Lama: His Important Teachings, 28
[22] Guidelines on Dialogue with People of Living Faiths and Ideologies, Accessed 05/20/2012
[23] Report from inter-religious consultation on "Conversion - assessing the reality" (Lariano/Velletri: May 12-16, 2006 ), Accessed 05/20/2012
[24] Knitter, 244
[25] Tenzin Gyatso- 14th Dalai Lama, The World of Tibetan Buddhism, 63.
[26] A Buddhist-Christian Common Word on Structural Greed: A Joint Statement,, (17th September, 2010), Accessed 05/20/2012
[27] A Buddhist-Christian Common Word on Structural Greed
[28] A Buddhist-Christian Common Word on Structural Greed
[29] Knitter, 245

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