Interreligious dialogue: Report on the Conference on Buddhist-Christian Relations in Asia

Background

The 11th International Conference of the European Network for Buddhist-Christian Studies (ENBCS) took place in 2015 at the Archabbey of St. Ottilien near Munich, Germany from June 25 to 29, 2015.

While many of the previous conferences had a European based academic focus on different aspects of the ongoing global Buddhist-Christian dialogue, the topic of this conference clearly concentrated on the different levels of dialogue in Asia. Evaluating the present state of Buddhist-Christian dialogue in a number of Asian countries demanded a Buddhist as well as Christian perspective. Each was given by a scholar active in the field within the respective country. The historic perspective right from the first Buddhist-Christian encounters a few hundred years ago up to the present day was given by yet another renowned scholar in the field for each of the countries in question, which were: Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, China, Korea and Japan.

These countries’ widely different relations with colonial powers and their Christian missionaries made it clear that each region deserved a closer and more different look at the origins and developments of Buddhist-Christian dialogical experience. The different forms and traditions of Buddhism involved were another aspect to keep in mind. A third aspect appeared when categorising the above mentioned countries as some being still predominantly Buddhist, like Thailand and Myanmar, some being rather secular like China or Japan and some showing almost equal shares of secular, Buddhist and Christian followers, like South Korea. Tolerance for Christian converts varied a lot over the centuries ranging from friendly acceptance to prohibition and persecution. Often this depended on early missionaries showing an attitude of superiority and arrogance, or on the other hand missionaries who engaged in educational and social activities.

The Program

The conference was ushered in with a keynote speech by Prof. John D’Arcy May on general aspects of “Buddhist-Christian Encounter in Asia”.

The second day started with an historical overview of the rather complex picture of developments in Sri Lanka given by Dr. Elizabeth Harris, Liverpool, author of various studies on Sri Lanka. The Christian perspective was given by the Bishop Emeritus of Colombo, the Rt. Revd. Duleep de Chickera followed by the Buddhist Perspective delivered by Prof. Asanga Tilakaratne from the University of Colombo. The afternoon gave an insight into historical aspects and challenges of inter-religious relations through the lecture of Rev. Dr Samuel Ngun Ling from Myanmar Institute of Theology. The Christian Perspective was given by Rev. Dr Aye Mint while the Buddhist Perspective was highlighted by Prof. Dr Hla Myint from the International Theravada Buddhist Monastery, Yangon. The second day was concluded with presentations on Buddhist-Christian relations by younger scholars.

Thailand was at the focus of the second day with an historical overview by Prof. Suwanna Satha-Anand, Chulalongkorn University. The Christian Perspective came from Rev Dr Bantoon Boon Itt, Senior Pastor at Bangkok Institute of Theology, and Dr. Parichart Suwanbubbha from Mahidol University contributed the Buddhist view. The following afternoon was devoted to a social and cultural tour to Bavarian lakes and mountains.

On Sunday morning Dr. Martin Repp from Heidelberg University gave the historic overview on developments in Japan since the first Jesuits had landed on the islands. Prof. Maria de Giorgi, from the Gregorian University in Rome looked at the Japanese situation from a Christian perspective, while Prof. Dr. Yasutomo Nishi from Chuo Academic Research Institute sent his paper looking at Buddhist-Christian relations from a Risho Koseikai Buddhist perspective. The afternoon was dedicated to a closer look at the very special situation of south Korea with Prof. Donald Baker, University of British Columbia giving the historical overview, followed by the Buddhist perspective given by Ven. Dr. Jinwol Sunim and the Christian side explained by Prof. Sister Kim Sung Hae from Sogang University. Again presentations on recent research by younger scholars concluded the day.

On Monday morning we entered the vast field of Buddhist-Christian Relations in China. All the presenters concentrated on the more open situation in Hongkong and tried to feed in aspects on the situation in mainland China as well as Taiwan. Obviously the historical overview, given by Dr. So Yuen-tai from the Chinese University of Hong Kong started with very early encounters in the Middle Ages and continued up to the middle of the 20th century. Following the Christian Perspective by Prof. Lai Pan Chiu, who also provided aspects up to the 21st century, the Buddhist Perspective was given by Dr. Xue Yu, both from Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Personal Impressions

One of the most astounding impressions for a European Buddhist was a clear feeling of sympathy and solidarity with Christians in Asia, who often are being widely ignored by majority Buddhists or find it rather difficult to get in contact with Buddhists genuinely interested in Buddhist-Christian dialogue.

A second impression also had a taste of familiarity; often the different Christian denominations find it very difficult to accept each other, not to say anything about cooperating. In certain cases, primarily in South Korea the situation ranges somewhere between rather competitive and outright hostile. European Christians participating at the conference expressed surprise at the low level of interest in dialogue on the side of majority Buddhism. Their own sincere engagement in dialogue obviously blurs their perception that there is hardly any interest on the side of majority Christianity in Buddhist-Christian dialogue in Europe. Even the sentiment in certain Buddhist dominated countries in Asia that every person belonging to a different religion is considered non-patriotic has some parallels in Christian Europe.

It was also interesting to see that Christian attempts of inculturation in Asia, like using Buddhist language and symbols to explain the Christian gospel, or building churches in the style of Buddhist temples etc. would be viewed completely differently by the Christian or the Buddhist side.

Kurt Gakuro Krammer, coordinator of the EBU network Buddhist-Christian dialogue

more info on: http://www.buddhist-christian-studies-europe.net/

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