Word and Silence in Buddhist and Christian Traditions

Author: Buddhist-Christian Colloquim


Second Buddhist-Christian Coloquim
Concluding Statement

The Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue held its second Buddhist-Christian Colloquium at the Benedictine monastery of Asirvanam in Bangalore, India, from 8 to 13 July. Eighteen persons from various countries took part, seven Buddhists and 11 Christians.

The Bangalore meeting aimed to deepen the friendship and dialogue with Buddhists which began in August 1995 at the Buddhist monastery of Fo Kuang Shan in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. On that occasion the theme was: Buddhism and Christianity: Convergences and Divergences, while the theme of the meeting in Bangalore was: Word and Silence in Buddhist and Christian Traditions. This general topic was divided further into sub-themes: Buddhist Enlightenment and Christian Revelation; Sacred Texts in the Buddhist and Christian Traditions; Meditation and Contemplation in Buddhism and in Christianity; Anatta/Sunyata and Kenosis.

Once again it was desired to hold the colloquium in a monastery, this time a Catholic one. At the end of the meeting, the participants unanimously approved a Final Declaration which it is hoped will be useful for a further Buddhist-Christian dialogue.

1. The Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue organized its second international colloquium at the Asirvanam Benedictine Monastery in Bangalore, India, from 8 to 13 July 1998. A small number of Buddhists and Christians from India, Tibet/India, Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Italy, Germany, Switzerland and the United States were invited for a dialogue on the theme of "Word and Silence in Buddhist and Christian Traditions". This recent encounter was in response to a desire expressed at the Pontifical Council's first colloquium that was held from 31 July to 4 August 1995 at the Fo Kuang Shan Buddhist Monastery in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. At the end of that first dialogue, the participants expressed the desire to meet again in a Christian monastery in order to contribute to the deepening of the modern encounter between Buddhism and Christianity.

2. The agenda of the meeting included four major topics: Buddhist Enlightenment and Christian Revelation, Sacred Texts in the Buddhist and Christian Traditions, Meditation and Contemplation in Buddhism and Christianity, and Anatta/Sunyata and Kenosis. The papers were presented on these four topics in a way that fostered the dialogue process itself. In this process, all participants shared and explored their views of the place of word and silence in their respective traditions leading to a greater sense of mutual understanding and appreciation. This meeting proceeded by each side expressing what their own traditions believe, teach and celebrate. The following points indicate some of the areas that were explored in the dialogue.

3. The authority of the early sacred Buddhist texts was decided during the six great Buddhist councils called for at different periods of time by the Buddha's disciples after his passing into Parinirvana. Theravada Buddhism accepts only the teachings of the Buddha that were declared authoritative during these councils. This early canon includes the discourses of the Buddha (Sutta), the rules for the monastic order (Vinaya), and the higher philosophical teachings (Abhidhamma). While Mahayana Buddhism accepts this early canon, it also accepts and emphasizes other sacred texts, called Sutras, which they believe were also taught by the Buddha. Within Mahayana there arose another tradition called Vajrayana that accepts the canons of both Theravada. and Mahayana and adds a new literature called the Tantras, that present Buddhist esoteric teachings. Common to these traditions are the precepts for living, the teachings of the Buddha, and the authoritative commentaries of the particular traditions. These sacred texts describe the path that leads to liberation from suffering and the nature and qualities of that supreme condition.

In the Catholic tradition of Christianity, it is the teaching authority of the Church that has faithfully received the revealed and inspired texts and has determined their canonicity. The canon of Sacred Scripture was decided over a period of centuries by the early Councils of the Church. This Sacred Scripture consists of two sections: the Old Testament, written in the Jewish tradition before Christ, and the New Testament written by the Apostles and their immediate disciples as witnesses of Christ. Christians believe that in Sacred Scripture God reveals himself and his love fully manifested in Christ, and speaks to us and tells us what to believe, how we should live, and what is needed for salvation.

4. Besides studying the truth (Dharma) conveyed in sacred texts, Buddhists also seek realization of this ultimate and transforming truth in their own experience of enlightenment. The writings of certain early monastics, men and women, who attained this goal and are considered patriarchs, are also thought to be authoritative - but always to a lesser degree than the earlier sacred texts. Enlightened masters are also looked to for guidance in following the Buddhist path. On the Christian side, the tradition of the Church that goes back to the Apostles is also seen as a foundation of faith along with Sacred Scripture. The Church greatly values the teachings of the Fathers and the Doctors of the Church who are canonized saints known for their eminent doctrine. Other saints and spiritual guides also have a role in transmitting an understanding of the word of God for Christian living.

5. Buddhists are respectful of the sacred texts of all religions. While they recognize that there are differences between the teachings of different scriptural traditions, they do not criticize views that are different from their own. They encourage their monastics and scholars to study other scriptures in order to understand their proper meaning. The Church respects the sacred texts of other religions and believes that they contain an impressive heritage of religious teachings that have guided the lives of millions of people for centuries.

These sacred texts of other religions are seen to contain elements of truth in which Christians are invited to discover seeds of the Word which the bountiful God has given to all people.

6. In Buddhism, the study of the sacred texts is considered to be essential for practice and therefore for realization. However, study is not enough; there must be silent meditative practice and a deepening of wisdom that comes from such practice. Here the practice of silence is needed to provide a spiritual condition for purification and thereby growth in inner awareness, wisdom, compassion, loving kindness and joyful sympathy reflected in thought, word and action. In Buddhism, the sacred texts are also used in recitation-practice that contributes to spiritual cultivation. Today, many lay Buddhist movements are teaching the sacred texts to the laity and are helping them live out the teachings of the Buddha in daily life. In this context, recitation-practice is again a powerful tool for mental and moral cultivation.

In Christianity, the word of God is used in community celebration, instruction and personal formation. The word of God carries the power of God to transform human existence in accordance with the mind and heart of Christ. The word of God has a central role in the liturgy of the Church, especially in the Eucharist, and the Divine Office. Christians - especially monastics humbly submit to the vivifying action of the Spirit in reading the word of God in lectio divina: sacred reading of scripture, meditative reflection, personal response in prayer, and - when all words cease - experiencing God's presence in silent contemplation. In the Church today there are new lay movements that read the word of God in prayerful sharing and put it into practice in daily life. Here too there is the use of silence to deepen awareness of, and intimacy with God within. Also, in living the word of God with others, one is called to love them by silencing one's mind and heart in order to be living fully for others.

7. The blending of word and silence in Buddhist practice of morality, meditation and wisdom contributes to a process of purification. This process leads to final liberation either in Nirvana or Buddhahood, depending on one's tradition. It is observed that in Buddhist traditions glimpses of this liberation can be experienced even prior to its full attainment. Word and silence in Christian life both contribute to an ever deeper experience of salvation that includes liberation from evil within and without, and social transformation as well. For Christians, this salvation, offered to all, is understood as taking place in Jesus Christ where the human person is made new and society is renewed as the kingdom of God giving a foretaste of heaven.

8. The practice of Buddhism entails inner silence leading to the wonderful attainment of Nirvana or Buddhahood. In Theravada, this silence - a spiritual restraint of thoughts, words and actions - is the clearly defined practice resulting in the realization of the final goal of the clarity of wisdom. In Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism spiritual attainment also involves silence because of the realization of emptiness which is ineffable. For Christians, salvation begins in this world as God's initiative received through faith and finds its completeness only after death. Baptism introduces the Christian into the paschal mystery of Christ, his Passion, Death and Resurrection. The realization of this free gift of God remains a mystery. The more one approaches God, the more one is aware of God's ineffability. This awareness of God's ineffability can be understood in terms of Christian hope. Hope is rooted in faith in the Trinity - a reality that is always beyond human understanding.

9. Buddhist nirvanic liberation leads one to live non-attached in daily life like a lotus flower that grows up in the muddy water but is not affected by it. Living this new freedom, the liberated person is characterized by service and commitment exercised for the benefit of self and others. In Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism, spiritual enlightenment in following the Bodhisattva ideal is expressed in a life dedicated to the benefit of all sentient beings. This liberated life is achieved by and articulated in Buddhism by the Eightfold Path.

According to the Christian tradition, the person is purified and transformed by the word of God through faith nourished by the Sacred Scriptures and the sacraments so that one reflects in all things the glory of God expressed in Jesus Christ. Since God is Love, this reflection of Christ entails an overflowing of self-giving love towards others. In daily life this means dying to one's self to rise with Christ in a new life of selfless and redeeming love. This selfless life is seen in the example of the saints throughout the history of the Church. Charity for Christians is like a seed sown in the human heart by God where it expresses itself in the indivisible love of God and neighbour.

10. The colloquium concluded with an expression of gratitude to the members of the Asirvanam monastic community. The spiritual atmosphere of the monastery and the gentle hospitality in the good Benedictine tradition provided a setting that was congenial for pondering these deeper realities of word and silence in Buddhism and Christianity. The participants hope that this second dialogue was a further step in the encounter between Buddhism and Christianity. The participants see themselves as fellow pilgrims celebrating their similarities and accepting their differences as friends in the spiritual life. It is hoped by all that this international level of dialogue will continue to be fruitful for the two traditions and for the whole of humankind that today needs greater attention to both word and silence and is seeking the peace and love that these traditions teach and live.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
18 November 1998, page 10

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