The end of Christian-Buddhist dialogue or charting a different future?

The “structural establishment” of both Christian and Buddhist traditions shows little interest in reviving what was once a vibrant dialogue, writes James W. Heisig (Nanzan Institute) in the latest issue of the Bulletin of the Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture (Issue 41, 2017), noticing a dwindling of dialogue events, publications, and participants. While the dialogue has probably reached its natural end, the time might be ripe “to welcome back cross-religious believers like the Christian-Buddhist mestizos, and that means finding ways to welcome access, for believing Christians who are so inclined, to the intellectual, scriptural, ethical, and ritual resources of other religions as an enhancement to their own faith,” he adds.

Paying special attention to Roman Catholic dialogue with Buddhism, which started in the final decades of the 20th century, Heisig remarks that there was always reluctance within the church establishment, while believers “at the fringes” were more eager. But more than resistance by church bureaucracy and fears of compromise, Heisig claims that “it was the expropriation of the dialogue by the weary grind of scholarly culture that crushed the life out of it.” Dialogue turning into a “field” of study for academics in the West became much less appealing to Buddhist partners. And while well-intentioned Christians allayed suspicions of a “hidden missionary agenda,” Heisig writes that the theological stamp on the meetings was “indelible,” with Buddhists unable to propose alternative models—hence the author’s choice to speak of “Christian-Buddhist” instead of “Buddhist-Christian dialogue.” Moreover, what organized religion is looking for in such a dialogue rather looks like “a cessation of hostilities,” hence church-sponsored interreligious encounters leading merely to “basic civility and mutual tolerance.”

Thus Heisig suggests putting an emphasis on “religious mestizaje,” which means not just the selection of what one likes but “supplementing the resources of one’s own tradition with those of another.” Such an approach welcomes religious diversity as an opportunity to transform the nature of dialogue. There are Christians of all sorts among Buddhist-Christian mestizos, writes Heisig, including monks, “theologians and even church leaders.” This approach also means bringing dialogue back to the spiritual motivation that inspired it in the first place. The author is aware that such a proposal potentially involves radical shifts but contends that there is no other way in a religiously plural world. Heisig does not rule out a new stage of formal dialogue with Buddhists in the future, but “it is probably better left to the initiative of the Buddhists.”

(Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture, 18 Yamazato-chō, Shōwa-ku
Nagoya 466-8673, Japan –