Praying to the Buddha

Living amid Religious Pluralism

In 2000, twenty-five members of my family returned to Vietnam, many for the first time since leaving the country as refugees a quarter of a century earlier. Our nostalgic tour included a visit to the buildings of the Catholic high school where I used to teach. That visit was disappointing because the school had been seized years earlier by the Communist government and no longer existed. But our curiosity was aroused by a nearby Buddhist pagoda which, in contrast to the school, seemed to be prospering, with a beautiful garden and several new buildings.

As we entered the courtyard, dominated by a huge statue of the reclining Buddha surrounded by his five disciples, we were greeted by a smiling and gentle-looking nun in her late twenties. She was dressed in a light-grey habit, her head clean-shaven, a necklace of brown wooden beads hanging down from around her neck. She immediately recognized that we were viet kieu-foreign Vietnamese, the government’s designation for expatriates-and offered to give us a tour of the pagoda. She showed us various buildings, her voice soft and soothing, her demeanor radiating warmth and peace. When my mother asked her about her life, she replied that she had entered the monastery as a girl and had lived there ever since.

Finally she led us into the pagoda itself. In the dimly-lit sanctuary a huge golden Buddha sat cross-legged on a high lotus-flower throne, his eyes peacefully closed, his hands touching each other and resting on his lap in the traditional gesture of meditation. In front of the Buddha, offerings of fruit were artfully arranged in golden bowls, along with flowers, incense, and red candles. On the side stood a statue of the female bodhisattva, or the Buddha of compassion, known in Vietnamese as Quan Am. The whole place was suffused with a prayerful silence periodically punctuated by the muffled sounds of a gong. Never had I had as deep an experience of stepping on sacred ground and as overwhelming a sense of what Rudolf Otto calls the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, not even in Catholic churches. My mother stood reverently in front of the Buddha, her eyes fixed on him, her palms held together at her chest, her lips murmuring a prayer. When she finished, she rummaged in her handbag, took out a handful of American dollars, and dropped them into the coffer. As we left, she turned to me and said: “The Buddha is a holy man.”

Just a couple of decades earlier, my mother’s gesture would have been condemned as idolatry. In her youth (she is now eighty-two) she had been taught that only Christianity-more precisely, Roman Catholicism-was the true religion, and all other religions the work of the devil. To avoid contamination by such superstitions, Vietnamese Catholics usually lived together in so-called “Catholic villages,” separated from the “pagans.” For nearly four centuries they were strictly forbidden to practice ancestor worship, the most sacred ritual of the Confucian tradition, which the church condemned as idolatry. The correspondence between the bishops of Vietnam and the Propaganda Fide (now the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples) over those centuries contain repeated queries about the permissibility of venerating ancestors and of contributing money for the building of temples-queries to which the Propaganda Fide consistently replied with a firm, curt negative.

How, then, could an old woman like my mother, God-loving and church-fearing, a twice-a-day churchgoer raised to believe that no one except Catholics can be saved, do what she did that day in that pagoda? And what, exactly, happened between the 1960s and 2000 that enabled her to honor the Buddhist nun, pray to the Buddha, and contribute money to the maintenance of the pagoda? The answer lies in the dramatic expansion during our era of interreligious dialogue, particularly as it has been espoused by the church since Vatican II.

Being religious interreligiously

Lest it be thought that recent theologies of interreligious dialogue are responsible for my mother’s change of mind and heart, I must confess that she is illiterate (in her youth, girls were not allowed to go to school, and she has never even seen any of my books on theology-apparently to no spiritual harm). In the West, especially in academic circles, the word “dialogue” usually evokes images of a learned conversation among intellectuals at conferences and symposia. One envisions interfaith dialogue as an intellectual give-and-take among professional theologians, scholars, and religious officials such as rabbis, bishops, priests, monks, nuns, imams, and mullahs.

To distinguish between this kind of intellectual exchange and a broader conception of dialogue, the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences, taking a cue from a joint 1991 document of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples and the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, describes a fourfold activity: the “dialogue of life,” in which people engage others in their community in a neighborly exchange of daily joys, problems, and concerns; the “dialogue of action,” a call for Christians to cooperate with those of other faiths in projects of mutual interest; the “dialogue of religious experience,” in which people share spiritual practices, such as prayer and contemplation, with others of different faiths; and the “dialogue of theological exchange,” involving specialists who undertake to enrich each other’s conception of their respective religious and spiritual traditions.

Contemporary religious pluralism, in Asia and increasingly in the United States, requires interreligious dialogue not only at the theological level, but at the personal level too. It challenges one to be religious interreligiously. Consequently, pride of place must be given to the dialogue of life, in which, as the 1991 document prescribes, people of different faiths live together “in an open and neighborly spirit, sharing their joys and sorrows, their human problems and preoccupations.” This life-in-common with non-Christians, I have discovered, is what opened my mother’s mind and heart to other faiths and made her reject the older view of non-Christians as “pagans” destined to eternal damnation. My mother lives in an apartment complex where most tenants are Vietnamese. Among her close friends are two women who, she assures me, are holy and devout Buddhists. One of them, who is younger and can drive, helps my mother with shopping and visits to doctors. The other is older and calls my mother em, or “young sister,” while my mother in return calls her chi, “older sister.” They accept each other as ba con ruot thit-flesh-and-blood relatives. My mother also had a close Catholic friend who shunned all contacts with non-Christians and strongly disapproved of my mother’s friendship with the two Buddhist women. Ironically, after this woman’s death, one of my mother’s Buddhist friends gave money to the local priest to have a Mass said for her.

Another form of interreligious dialogue that deserves equal emphasis is the dialogue of action, the collaboration between Christians and other believers “for the integral development and liberation of people.” Here in the United States, Vietnamese Catholics and Buddhists in Mississippi helped each other rebuild both a church and a pagoda destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. In Asia, where Christians make up only 3 percent of the population, a dialogue of action is not an intellectual luxury but a basic necessity for survival; learning to live harmoniously with non-Christians and to work together for justice and peace are essential parts of the church’s evangelizing mission. In recent years, Vietnamese Catholics and Buddhists have worked together to help victims of natural disasters and to protest against infringements of religious freedom in Vietnam, especially in cases of persecution against Catholic priests and Buddhist monks.

The most challenging and spiritually fruitful form of interreligious dialogue is the dialogue of religious experience, in which believers, while “rooted in their own religious traditions, share their spiritual riches, for instance, with regard to prayer and contemplation, faith and ways of searching for God or the Absolute.” This can entail either an intellectual conversation with others about one’s spiritual traditions, or a common act of “religious experience,” in which Christians and non-Christians come together to pray, meditate and contemplate, profess faith, and search for God or the Absolute (the latter expression takes into account nontheistic religions such as Buddhism and Jainism). Pope John Paul II’s meetings with leaders of various religions in Assisi in 1986 and in subsequent years to pray for peace are often invoked as an example of this dialogue of religious experience. Yet even Pope John Paul’s actions, symbolically and doctrinally significant as they were, fell short of what the dialogue of religious experience could be. In Assisi, peoples of diverse faiths gathered together in one place to pray, but not to pray together. Traditionally, a fear of religious syncretism has made religious leaders-and not only Catholic leaders-hesitate to recommend merging prayer rituals. But a number of theologians argue that praying together is possible and highly desirable, especially for believers of theistic faith (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Confucianism), and particularly in situations of violence and conflict caused in the name of religion.

Although it may sound like a strange thing for a theologian to say, as the final means of effecting a better awareness of God’s saving presence in all religions, theological dialogue is less important than the other three forms of dialogue. It is by necessity limited to a narrow circle of experts and often deals with subjects too recondite for the average believer. More crucially, theological exchange presupposes the other three dialogues, and ideally is deeply rooted in them. As is clear from the history of theology, dogmas and doctrines are almost always framed in controversies and frozen in texts that are intelligible only in their historical contexts. It is only within the dialogues of life, action, and religious experience that one can obtain an accurate gauge of the relative importance-or, to use an expression of Vatican II, the “hierarchy of truths”-of these doctrines.

For example, Dominus Iesus, the declaration issued in 2000 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, asserts that “if it is true that the followers of other religions can receive divine grace, it is also certain that objectively speaking they are in a gravely deficient situation in comparison with those who, in the church, have the fullness of the means of salvation.” As I was writing this essay, meanwhile, the Washington Post reported that official Saudi first-grade textbooks for Islamic studies affirm that “every religion other than Islam is false.” My point is not that Dominus Iesus and Saudi religious textbooks are parallel. Rather, it is that the Dominus Iesus statement will be read and understood one way in the corridors of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and in another, quite different way in the context of a dialogue with Islam-and specifically in a contemporary geopolitical context inflamed by the notion of a “clash of civilizations” that pits Muslim against Christian. Furthermore, it is only after serious and prolonged dialogues of life, action, and religious experience that one can say with any degree of certainty whether a devout Muslim is always and “objectively speaking” in “a gravely deficient situation” and necessarily worse off than a Catholic who has at his or her disposal “the fullness of the means of salvation.”

Such dialogues will also determine whether and when one should compare Christianity with Islam or any other religion, given the serious possibility of misunderstanding and violence. Imagine, for instance, that you are in Nigeria, a country with a longstanding and violent history of conflict between its Muslim north and Christian south. Suppose you inform a Muslim Nigerian, with full fervor and conviction, that in comparison with Catholics he is in “a gravely deficient situation” with regard to salvation. What is the chance of your convincing him of the salvific advantages of the Catholic Church-a church whose primary meaning to him may be that it once led the Crusades and is currently awash in sexual scandal? How would you answer if he countered your assertion with the Saudi textbook’s assertion that “every religion other than Islam is false”? Such an exchange might exacerbate the already violent tension between Nigerian Muslims and Christians. Unless it is deeply rooted in genuine and sincere dialogues of life, action, and religious experience, your description of his religious condition, inspired by an innocent affirmation of an ecclesiastical document such as Dominus Iesus, would be the equivalent of shouting “Fire” in a crowded theater.

A Christian theology of religion

I am not suggesting that the dialogue of theological exchange should not be undertaken. Indeed, such a dialogue can be mutually enriching, dispelling the misunderstandings of teachings and practices that complicate relations between different faiths, even as it clarifies the teachings and practices of one’s own religion. However, such a dialogue must be accompanied by a reflection, on the part of Christians, on the role of Christ and the church with regard to other religions. How are we to understand this role? The answers tend to fall in one or another of four groups, as Paul Knitter has helpfully explained in Introducing Theologies of Religions: replacement (there is only one true religion), fulfillment (one true religion fulfills other religions), mutuality (there are many true religions which are called to dialogue), and acceptance (there are many religions which have different ends). More simply, theologies of religions are often categorized in three models: exclusivism, pluralism, and inclusivism. Exclusivism holds that there is only one savior and one true religion or church and that no salvation is possible outside of them. At the other end of the spectrum, pluralism holds that there are many saviors and different paths leading to salvation, none necessarily superior to the others. Inclusivism maintains that although there is only one savior and one true church, salvation remains possible outside them-though it is always ultimately dependent on them.

Respected Christian theologians advocate each of these positions, making credible appeals to both Scripture and Tradition to bolster their views. (Incidentally, these three positions occur also among theologians of other religions, including Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikhism.) The official teaching of the Catholic Church, at least as articulated in Dominus Iesus, favors inclusivism while warning against the dangers of pluralism. It categorically affirms the “fullness and definitiveness of the revelation of Jesus Christ” and the “unicity and unity of the church,” stating that “it would be contrary to the faith to consider the church as one way of salvation alongside those constituted by the other religions, seen as complementary to the church or substantially equivalent to her, even if these are said to be converging with the church toward the eschatological kingdom of God.”

Does this mean that other religions cannot be regarded as “ways of salvation”? The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India gives a very nuanced answer:

Christ is the sacrament, the definitive symbol of God’s salvation for all humanity. This is what the salvific uniqueness and universality means in the Indian context. That, however, does not mean there cannot be other symbols, valid in their own ways, which the Christian sees as related to the definitive symbol, Jesus Christ. The implication of all this is that for hundreds of millions of our fellow human beings, salvation is seen as being channeled to them not in spite of but through and in their various sociocultural and religious traditions. We cannot, then, deny a priori a salvific role for these non-Christian religions.

Does comparing Dominus Iesus with the statement of the Indian bishops merely show a distinction without a difference? Or do the Indian bishops provide a ground for saying that non-Christian religions are also in a certain sense “ways of salvation,” without thereby jeopardizing the universal relevance of Christ and the church? Is it not likely that the Indian bishops could arrive at this conclusion only as the result of their dialogues of life, action, and religious experience with peoples of other faiths?

Another way of approaching the issue is to ask whether religious diversity is simply an accidental fact of history-a de facto religious pluralism-or something willed positively by God. In Christianity and the Religions, Jacques Dupuis (whose earlier work Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism was censured by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) holds that members of non-Christian religions may be saved through the “elements of truth and grace” found in their religions, and that these religions have a positive meaning in God’s single overall plan of salvation. They are, in Dupuis’s words, “gifts of God to the peoples of the world.” Strong parallels exist between Dupuis and the Indian bishops, and Dupuis himself says, “If I had not lived in India for thirty-six years, I would not preach the theology which I am preaching today.”

Comparative theology & dialogue

Theologians such as James Fredericks have suggested that the ideas developed by Dupuis and others, variously dubbed “fulfillment theology” or “inclusive pluralism,” test the limits of faithfulness to the twin doctrines of the uniqueness and universality of Jesus as savior and the universality of God’s saving grace in the Holy Spirit. Fredericks also argues that this theology of religion, though “faithful to the depth and scope of Christian tradition,” is not useful to the Christian community today as it seeks “new forms of social and religious solidarity with those who follow other religious paths.” In Buddhists and Christians, Fredericks maintains that this theology distorts other religious traditions, minimizes the significance of religious differences, and actually hinders interreligious dialogue.

This critique misses the point. First, it is premature to call for a moratorium on this theological discussion-as if the “inclusive pluralism” of Dupuis were already a common doctrine, or a sententia communis, as we used to say in the old scholastic days. But more important, blaming inclusive pluralism for hindering interreligious dialogue is a little like blaming a chainsaw for messing up a juicy sirloin. This theology was never intended as a tool for interreligious dialogue. The attempt to understand how non-Christian religions may disclose “ways of salvation” is not part of an interreligious dialogue but of an intrareligious one; it is Christian theologians talking to other Christian theologians in a necessary discourse about a matter of great significance. A pluralistic theology serves as a strong reminder to Christians that non-Christian religious traditions may and indeed do contain teachings and practices that will help Christians know and love God more faithfully-and encourages them to enter into interreligious dialogue with a great veneration for those traditions.

The call of theologians like Fredericks and Francis Clooney for “comparative theology” as a form of interreligious dialogue is nevertheless well taken. A theological exchange deeply rooted in the dialogues of life, action, and religious experience is one in which all doctrinal and religious differences must be honored and all attempts at homogenization resisted. It is only by means of a patient and painstaking investigation of particular texts, doctrines, liturgical practices, and moral precepts that both differences and similarities between Christianity and other religions may emerge. Only in this way can there be a mutual understanding, full of challenge, correction, and enrichment, for both Christians and non-Christians. For even if Christ embodies the fullness of God’s self-revelation, the church’s understanding of this revelation remains imperfect, and its practice of it remains partial, at times even sinful. Pope John Paul’s repeated begging for forgiveness was no empty charade. Might it not be precisely through interreligious dialogue that the church comes to an awareness of its errors and sins-and, with the assistance of people of other faiths, sets out on the path of renewal?

Interreligious dialogue can be practiced by people of faith, irrespective of educational level, social standing, and religious status, and is urgently needed in the conflict-ridden political and religious climate of the post-9/11 United States. Such dialogue is not merely a preparatory step toward peacemaking and reconciliation; it constitutes the very process of peacemaking and reconciliation itself, a process that occurs precisely in the acts of living together, working together, and praying together. These dialogues are powerful means to correct biases, erase deep-seated hatreds, and heal ancient wounds. By promoting communication, grassroots activism toward peace and justice, and above all, shared experiences of the Divine or the Absolute in spite of religious differences, such dialogue helps forge a new way of life.

Finally, it should be noted that openness to other religions is not a modern invention. As early as the third century, Clement of Alexandria, a father of the church, wrote: “Among the Indians are those philosophers also who follow the precepts of Boutta [Buddha], whom they honor as a god on account of his extraordinary sanctity” (The Stromata, Book I, Chapter XV). Later, in the Middle Ages, the Christian calendar began to mention a Saint “Josaphat” or “Iodasaph.” Historians now acknowledge that, like “Bodisav” in sixth-century Persian texts, “Budhasaf” or “Yudasaf” in eighth-century Arabic documents, and “Ioasaph” in eleventh-century Greek texts, “Iosaphat” or “Josaphat” in Latin documents are garbled forms of “Bodhisattva”-that is, Gautama the Buddha. The story of how the Buddha became a Catholic saint is, for interreligious dialogue, a curious but felicitous one. I wonder if my mother had an intuitive inkling of all this when she was praying to the Buddha in that pagoda in Vietnam years ago, and afterward explained to her son the theologian, “the Buddha is a holy man.”

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About the Author

Peter C. Phan, a Vietnamese American, holds the Ignacio Ellacuría Chair of Catholic Social Thought at Georgetown University. He has written or edited more than twenty books and three hundred essays. His latest work includes a trilogy: Christianity with an Asian Face, In Our Own Tongues, and Being Religious Interreligiously (Orbis Books). This essay has been funded by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.

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