Monday, March 30, 2009

Christian and Buddhist Devotion: Mutual Respect and Appropriate Boundaries

In light of the anomie brought to light in the case of the so-called "Buddhist" bishop-elect of Northern Michigan, I thought it might be helpful to share a more balanced approach to relations between Christians and Buddhists. The following passage comes from a talk given at the House of Saints Gregory and Macrina in Oxford, England on May 20, 1983 by Lakshman Wickremesinghe, Bishop of Kurunagala in Sri Lanka. Here's a brief biographical sketch of the bishop:

Lakshman Wickremesinghe (1927-1983) was from a high-caste landowning Sinhalese family. He studied at the University of Ceylon, and subsequently at Keble College, Oxford, and Ely Theological College, followed by ordination and curacy in Poplar, London. He was Bishop of Kurunagala in Sri Lanka from 1962 until his early death in 1983, which left the churches in Asia bereft of one of their finest leaders. A distinguished contemporary described him as 'churchman, mystic, evangelist, human rights activist and reconciler, prophet, pastor, and theologian' [Love's Redeeming Work: The Anglican Quest for Holiness (Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 737].

In the the following passage (first published in
Christianity Moving Eastwards), Bishop Wickremesinghe shares memories of a journey he made with Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie to a Buddhist holy site in Sri Lanka. I think it's particularly instructive to note how he mentions the ways in which they showed respect to their Buddhist hosts, but also maintained appropriate boundaries so as not to even give the appearance that they were abandoning the Christian faith or making a statement that Buddhism and Christianity are really just saying the same thing in different ways. What a striking contrast to recent forays into Buddhist territory in The Episcopal Church!

The other example relates to the visit of the Archbishop of Canterbury to the Temple of the Tooth, the central sanctuary of the Sinhala Buddhism. It has ceremonies which include both ritual acts and the chanting of scriptural texts to signify the meaning of these acts. It contains images of the Buddha, and also his tooth which is venerated as a supreme relic, and is encased in a reliquary in an inner shrine. There is no worship in Buddhism except among the superstitious. The relic, the sculpture and painting are visual aids; the placing of good before the reliquary is a manual aid, and the chanting of texts an auditory aid for the act of anamnesis. The aim is to remember the Buddha as if he were alive and present in the midst of life. Gratitude and renewed resolution to follow his path are linked. There is a numinous atmosphere, since the Buddha is viewed as the supreme example of history of the realised transcendental goal of human life.

The closest parallel in Christianity would be the ceremonies, including the ritual acts and chanting along with the use of incense, in a numinous atmosphere, before the reserved sacrament on the altar. All these are aids for the act of anamnesis, so that Jesus Christ, the supreme revelation of the transcendent Father, becomes alive and present in the midst of believers. Thanksgiving and inspired commitment to imitate the exalted Lord are linked to this anamnesis.

I took the Archbishop to visit this Buddhist sanctuary at the invitation of the custodian chief monk (who was the equivalent in status among the monks of Sri Lanka). We made certain gestures. We removed our footwear as is the custom. For us it was an act of reverence to Gautama the Buddha as a religious leader of spiritual insight and moral stature, whose relic was a continuing symbol of historic personality and acknowledged saintliness. Even Clement, when referring to the barbarian philosophers, says that 'Some too of the Indians obey the precepts of the Buddha, whom on account of his exceptional holiness, they have raised to divine honours' (Stromateis 1.15).

Following some of the early Fathers like Clement, Origen, Augustine, and Niceta, we viewed Gautama as one of the 'just persons being made perfect' who belonged to the company of those who will be included within the heavenly Jerusalem. In that sense, his shrine was a sign and vehicle to us of the God whom we worshipped, who indwelt the saintly Gautama, whatever his erroneous views; and so we paid him due reverence. We also permitted the monks to chant blessings upon us, which they wished to do out of respect and goodwill to an international religious leader. However, we did not place our folded hands in front of our breasts with bowed heads as the Buddhists among us did, because we did not accept the interpretation of this blessing in the texts they chanted. We received the blessing as from God whose presence we acknowledged there; and the Archbishop wished them God's blessing in that very place where we were received officially. Like the Samaritans who offered sacrifices through their rites and ceremonies in Mount Gerazim, the monks and the Buddhist laity sharing in these rites and ceremonies in Kandy did not know the significance of what they were doing. We knew before Whom these cultic acts were being performed, and we conveyed this understanding by our presence and the gestures we made and did not make.

We were asked whether we would place a tray of flowers before the relic; we declined. We might have done so, and not followed it by another act of holding our folded hands above our bowed heads, as Buddhists do, following the Eastern tradition. The first act would have been a mere act of reverence before a saintly person's statue. The second act, which implies supreme veneration to the highest realisation on earth of the Transcendent, we could not do under any circumstances. But we abstained from the first ritual act to avoid misunderstanding and offence. Christians in Sri Lanka also offer flowers as a ritual act, as is done before the altar in our Cathedral and elsewhere. We do this to offer thanks and adoration to the Creator, whose unfading beauty is the source of the finite beauty of the flowers we offer. But when Buddhists offer flowers before the relic with accompanying manual act, they say, 'As these flowers fade, so fade I; such is the transience of life.'

This ritual act of placing a tray of flowers as an offering has different meanings for Christians and Buddhists. Thus, to do so in the inner shrine room before the relic would have cause confusion among many. The simple Christian would have thought that the Archbishop was doing something idolatrous; the simple Buddhist would have thought that the Archbishop was acting out of insincere motives. St Paul's admonition about not offending the weaker brother and sister seemed the advice that the Archbishop and I, as Christian leaders, had to follow. That is why we abstained.

But we did not consider that the ceremonies performed at this sanctuary were being offered simply to demons, or that the sanctuary itself was simply the abode of demons. Those who performed these ceremonies did not do something intentionally maleficent, nor were they subject to maleficent influences afterwards. We recognised that whatever good was done there was acceptable to God as we know Him in Jesus Christ, and whose Presence is everywhere in degrees of hiddenness. What was erroneous or done with an evil intention or deluded mind was due to the deception of the evil one. So, we acted according to our understanding of what was and what was not idolatry. Seeing what Clement said about the Buddha, I do not know how else we would have acted in the circumstances.

Quoted in Love's Redeeming Work: The Anglican Quest for Holiness
(Oxford University Press, 2001), pp. 739-741.


The Postulant said...

The striking thing about this is the ease and clarity with which the bishops determined how to behave by having recourse to first principles. They should teach this in Bishops' School as a case study.

Bryan Owen said...

I agree with you, Postulant. Clarity about first principles resolves any number of issues, and also makes it possible to be in respectful relation with those whose religious commitments are quite different from our own.

Joe Rawls said...

This was very helpful and clarifying, since I am quite Buddhism-challenged. Now if only the bishop-elect of Northern Michigan could become less Christianity-challenged!

Bryan Owen said...

Preach it, Joe!

Anglican Ecumenical Bible Study in Second Life said...

Excellent and very timely analysis and reminder of the importance of discernment in inter-cultural practice. Beautiful example and explanation.