Chapter 16: On Inter-Faith Dialogue


This chapter deals briefly with a practice which is growing and will continue to grow in significance - the practice of Inter-Faith Dialogue. The inter-mingling of many races and cultures, encouraged by ever-improving communication facilities, now makes such dialogue of paramount importance. The stakes are high in terms of spiritual development and, perhaps more urgently, in terms of future war or peace which will be determined by the degree of mutual trust and understanding.

So what is Inter-Faith Dialogue? Here is a standard definition:-

Definition: Inter-Faith dialogue: discussion between representatives of one or more Faiths with the aim of increasing understanding of the Faiths concerned.

So the aim of dialogue is to understand better not just the Faith which is unfamiliar, but also one's own.

The Importance of Dialogue

Why does one travel abroad on holiday? To explore other cultures in order to enrich one's own. What is the heart of a foreign culture? People. What shapes the culture of these people? Their spirituality, and in particular their expression of Faith. So if one desires to engage in fruitful relations with another country, then one should dialogue with careful attention to matters of Faith. This is a constructive outlook for dialogue; through dialogue there is much to gain.

Making such a positive effort is often too much to ask it seems; only when one's survival is threatened does one really leap into action. So now let me impress upon you its compelling necessity, its saving importance.

It is a well-accepted fact that some of the world's most bitter conflicts are caused by disputes 'in the name of religion.' Why do such disputes arise?

  1. From a lack of wisdom there is ignorance, so misconceptions arise unwittingly, most notably regarding one's own Faith.
  2. The less the wisdom, the more rigid the attachment to superficial concepts.
  3. The more rigid the attachment to such concepts, the more blindly fundamental one becomes, seeking truth at increasingly superficial levels.
  4. In consequence, there follows inevitably a lack of understanding of other Faiths - one cannot see beyond mere words. A false dualistic view is cemented.
  5. A strongly enforced false dualistic view leads to conflict.

Can you feel the constricting process? It is evidently unhealthy. Alas, this is a prominent feature of past and contemporary communities. If it carries on, then there may well be a global catastrophe for while humans have evolved little, the weaponry has magnified enormously. Without dialogue there is much to lose. There must be a conscious effort and drive to understand and pass on understanding of other Faiths; it will not be enough to merely tolerate other Faiths.

Importance for the Missionary - An Analogy

Imagine a tap which releases water droplets onto the surface of a lake on which buoys are dotted around. In so doing, concentric wavelets are generated which radiate from their source, passing through the locality and gradually fading as they reach out further and further. The buoys respond to the waves as they pass through. The more powerful the source, the higher they rise up above their position of rest.

The tap denotes a missionary, the water droplets the message proclaimed, and the buoys on the lake the people listening to the message. The height of displacement above the usual place of rest represents the degree of spiritual inspiration attained by the listener, and subsequent peaks at regular intervals indicate sustained Faith.

Once upon a time there were various makes of taps which had established by and large mutually exclusive spheres of influence - the wavelets they generated were often at opposite ends of the lake and travelled without much hindrance.

Many years later this had changed: the lake was full of wavelets generated by various makes of taps and they were interfering with each other. The resultant wavelets, depending upon to what extent the tap sources were synchronised were often irregular and perhaps all but neutralised; hence the buoys' motion was confused. Yet, if the taps could have been synchronised, the buoys could have reached for the skies!

The metaphorical moral of this tale is that the taps must operate in unison; so from the analogy we draw the real-life conclusion that there should be appropriate communication between the missionary sources, i.e. dialogue!

Questions facing those who dialogue

Dialogue presupposes a standpoint of the representatives in terms of some religious baggage. With what are you conducting the dialogue? Concepts? Scriptures? Doctrines? Experience? Knowing experience? How much importance do you ascribe to each?

When you are speaking, consider as regards yourself: Who is dialoguing? For whom are you dialoguing?

It might seem strange to consider these questions, but it is these two questions which will provide the initial direction of the discussions. The first is significant since many people speak according to a commonly established creed, without really drawing on their own experience. The second is similar, but usually invokes more personal involvement; to draw this into focus, suppose that you will die shortly after the talks. You see?! They should ideally yield the same answer and until they do I feel that something is amiss.

Problems facing those who Dialogue


Faith is distinguishable from humanism by the crucial aspect of transcendence; such transcendence must be with respect to our transient existence on Earth. As such it is liberational (or salvational) in some sense. Dialogue is naturally conducted principally with one's own view of liberation in mind. Therefore one must examine most carefully what these essential views are.

I ask first: Within what framework is the salvation set? I am led inexorably to the overriding importance of how one views 'clock' time and 'organic time.' It is this issue which I perceive to be the greatest stumbling block, which I relate next in the specific context of Christian-Buddhist dialogue.

Perpendicular Views

What is the essence of being a Christian? What is most fundamental? It is to seek to know the reality of Christ. Objectifying, there are two aspects which describe this reality: Christ as a historical figure and the 'cosmic Christ' (the Risen Jesus). They are the aspects in clock time and organic time respectively.

First and foremost, Christians have to determine for themselves the significance of Christ's resurrection. To what extent has Christ saved people by the historical act of his resurrection? How important is it to believe that this event in clock time is salvational in itself, as a ransom for our sins? On the other hand, should a Christian focus rather on the cosmic Christ as a source of inspiration, in whom salvation is only achieved through one's own efforts in organic time? In this latter case, the resurrection is a symbolic echo of the cosmic Christ - but what of this echo ... ?

It may be contended that anywhere near equal weighting between the two represents some shortfall in commitment, some dilution of purpose. At some stage one or the other must be the fulcrum, otherwise one's Faith is not clear.

As a logical consequence one must then consider: either you believe that, having accepted 100% that Christ has atoned for your sins on the cross, your experience in Christ in organic time merely affirms this; or, you believe that, having accepted 100% that Christ died on the cross so that we may have in him a focus, we share his cross symbolically, by our own efforts to find forgiveness of sins in organic time, with Christ's help. It would seem that you have to decide between a yawning dichotomy.

With such a conception, a Christian who holds the former belief will find it irrelevant to dialogue with a Buddhist for the idea of liberation from Samsara is besides the point. Conversely, a Buddhist, who has the eternal round as the central focus, will be at a loss as to how the actions of someone else can bring about their liberation. These appear to be conflicting views. They can never be resolved as they stand. I fear that in this instance dialogue is very restricted.

The above contrast, which I've posed as a question, is commonly emphasised as critical, and in early drafts of this work I acquiesced to it myself, but the viewpoint is flawed! The problem is that we cannot compare like with unlike as we have tried to do here.

I perceive (with great relief) views which are not conflicting but perpendicular! You can take and retain the 'cosmic view' whilst finding yourself drawn more closely to that echo and discover purpose that is unique in human history. On the other hand, it may be that you focus on the historical acts and find transcendence ..."

Once again we see the complementary aspects of conditioned and transcendent that have already been discussed at length. Yet it took so long for me to integrate them in this instance, probably due to my reaction to some of the most strongly held dualistic convictions that I know.

Awareness of this perspective can give an impetus to a Christian who has any leaning to the view of 'self-help'. He or she will find it more relevant to dialogue with a Buddhist, and a Buddhist will respond by expressing interest in the life and meaning of Christ. Dialogue may start to flow, but it will be unbalanced.

Christians will affirm most encouragingly the use of Eastern meditation techniques to bring themselves closer to God - the benefits for them may be very significant. On the other hand, Buddhists look for philosophy cum psychology and workable methodology. The latter is more important - the proof of the pudding is in the eating! Christians will have a tremendously hard time to persuade Buddhists of the worth of Christian prayer dependent upon some historical context; though they may acknowledge the other forms as useful mantras, none of this is likely to hold their attention.

Instead the Buddhist will look to the life of Christ, see the wisdom expressed and acknowledge his great compassion. They will smile and return happily to their centres and temples, and may well conclude that Christ was fulfilling the role of a Bodhisattva, expressing well-established Dharma.

Frankly, the Christians face an uphill battle to persuade the Buddhists to become interested in their wares. A Buddhist perceives that the only thing which Christianity has which the Buddhist hasn't is the unique historical succession of events ('Revelation'); and that for the Buddhist is next to nothing. This is a pity since there is far more in Christianity than most Buddhists realise. There are, as mentioned elsewhere, extraordinary healing powers which far exceed the current abilities of many of the Buddhist meditators I have met!

There are other problems, most notably the issue of God (which I've already discussed in earlier chapters). I think that these aren't as intractible.

On How to Approach and Conduct Dialogue

At the outset, one should commit one's whole being to a purposeful encounter. As to what form the encounter takes I shan't specify, but it must treat effectively whole mind.

As far as the guidelines for the encounter are concerned, I'm not experienced enough to make definitive statements. However, I like the sound of the following suggestion which I first saw in 'The Mirror Mind' by William Johnston, S.J., viz: 'The Five Transcendental Precepts', originally put forward by Bernard Lonerghan.

The first precept is: 'Be attentive', that is listen. The second is: 'Be intelligent', so keep enquiring. The third is: 'Be reasonable'. The fourth is: 'Be responsible' - acknowledge others. The fifth is: 'Be committed' - this provides the motivation for the previous four.

Nevertheless, I wish to add a cautionary note. The essence of Eastern religion is overwhelmingly the introspective scientific study of the mind. Although most Easterners can ostensibly assimilate well Western culture and religion through its more externalised nature, the converse is not the case. To emphasise, the interior nature of Eastern religion is more subtle than most Westerners appreciate.

As an example, it is apparent that Japanese companies know exactly what the British consumer will like, through knowledge of the Western mind; but the British are stuck as to a reasonable explanation! For instance, it is puzzling to the British how Japanese business folk, armed only with a tiny briefcase and a poor knowledge of English, can make such effective trips to the U.K.

The criteria for conducting the dialogue may thus not be as effective as one optimistically expects. Fortunately, there is scope within the precepts to find this out and then make improvements.

Dialogue: Who and How many at a time?

Who should be sent as representatives? The head of a community, a small team, or whole congregations? Once again, I shall only offer ideas, and restrict my attention to dialogue between two Faiths.

Suppose you have a certain quantity of water which you want to boil. You have a kettle which has capacity for the full amount, an unpredictable electricity supply, and only a limited time allowed. Assuming that filling and emptying a kettle take next to no time, which would be more productive - boiling in succession two kettles half-full or boiling one kettle which is full? One is most concerned that the water is indeed boiled - tepid water is not much use!

The simplistic analogy I make is that the water denotes the people engaged in dialogue, the kettle the venue, the amount of water per kettle the size of the discussion groups, and the boiling of water the spiritual energising of dialogue. The variable electricity supply represents the changeable level of effort among those who dialogue, and the limitation of time is self-evident.

If a given congregation is split into two dialoguing groups, they must take it in turns to dialogue, so two sessions will be required. However, the smaller groups should, I maintain, be fruitful more quickly as it will be easier to get to know each other and overcome the constraint of collective conditioning, allowing one's whole mind to speak. With small groups, the gap is narrowed very quickly between who dialogues and for whom one is dialoguing.

Large groups take a long time to get going, requiring a concerted effort from everyone; and just as there is developing meaningful exchange, a halt has to be called to proceedings. (Clock time rules again). Just as tepid water is hardly refreshing and thus left to cool, so it is that dialoguers who remain little inspired will not bother to carry on dialoguing for some while. It could all be a waste of energy.

There is a much greater likelihood of success, albeit amongst fewer people, in small groups - here dialogue has definitely been achieved.

On the Nature of Conversion

An understanding as to exactly how one has 'converted' from one Faith to another will yield a sharpened focus as to obstacles in dialogue. Here in the U.K., I know people who declare that they have converted from Christianity to Buddhism; in Thailand and other Asian countries, there are those who state that they have converted from Buddhism to Christianity.

What do they mean? I find it fishy to hear people say, "Christianity left me with questions unanswered," without defining what they mean by Christianity. If by Christianity they mean mainly the institutionalised religion (including concepts of God), then the 'conversion' is, I assert, of no substance in spirit. If the conversion is at a deeper level, then in what way do you think that this conflicts with Christ? At this level, to say that you are not a Christian requires that you know (the Risen) Christ! Do you know the Path he trod, the Path which cannot adequately be recorded in words? How do you know that Christ did not practise your methods of meditation? Be very careful how you declare yourself.

If there wasn't such a fixation with labels, then the practice of Inter-Faith dialogue would be so much easier. Being free of such a constraint, I see a wealth of possibilities opening up: for instance, I challenge Buddhists who have left the Christian churches to return and 'spread the Good News' of their meditation techniques! The deeper the superconscious insight therein, the deeper the experience of God and the closer the coming of His Kingdom. And then look afresh at the Gospels. Do you see that their message is becoming clearer? Aren't you becoming closer to Christ in spirit?

I've packed together and interchanged a lot of traditional language from Scripture. You might find this a heady concoction, but once one realises how dualistic language can express non-duality, then problems melt away.

Where will all of this dialogue lead?

I have in effect already spelt out the product of years of Inter- Faith dialogue between Christianity and Buddhism, though it took me a long time to notice! This has been carried out within myself, through my privileged background. I conclude that there is no conflict provided I find and follow a well-centred path (otherwise frustrations do arise). When faithful to this path, I've found no hang-ups and never have had them in my Faith, a Faith which has evolved without superficial hops from one notion to another. I think this would be the same for anyone else.

I'm quite confident that this book indicates some likely directions in which formal dialogue will proceed in due course. Regarding my own experience though, I've found that informal dialogue has been far more productive - the less said about specific religions the better! This works fine amongst those whose Faith operates in organic time, but not amongst those who still cling to clock time - one sniff of religion, and their minds will be flooded with hindering concepts. In such instances perhaps only spiritual presence may remove their sceptical doubt.


A Wish

Let there be an event watched and listened to by the whole world on TV and Radio. Then let there appear together, in a circle perhaps, all the founders of the major religious movements.

Then let us be united in peace.

The next chapter (experimental) is: Perspectives I | Contents

- Paul Trafford 1996,97 Paul's home page