Observing the Masters of Interfaith Engagement

It can be challenging intellectual work to take “terms of art” coined in one’s religious and spiritual tradition, time, culture, and language, and re-interpret, reframe, and disseminate the spirit of those concepts to people who are not part of the same tradition, time, culture and language. Likewise, it can also be challenging intellectual work to listen to people from different traditions, generations, cultures, and languages to arrive at a mutual understanding of what is being conveyed. In a pluralistic society where many people’s beliefs and ways of communicating are entangled with their understanding of reality, it is wise to observe some of the “masters” in cross-religious dialogue to help us learn how to improve our cross-religious communication skills. Two masters (and there are more) come to mind:  Buddhist (Shambhala) nun Pema Chodron and Buddhist (Vietnamese Zen Mindfulness) monk Thich Nhat Hanh. Why Chodron and Hanh?

When I think about Chodron’s and Hanh’s popular writings, there are at least five principles they follow when they write about Buddhism for non-Buddhists: 1) Chodron and Hanh live for the well-being of others; 2) Chodron and Hanh hold intentions to offer relief from suffering; 3) Chodron and Hanh choose to communicate to people who are not in their religious traditions; 4) Hanh and Chodron largely eschew terms of art that, given their broad audiences, serve to exclude people who are foreign to their religious cultures; and 5) they re-interpret “generalizably” relevant ancient text into modern discourse pertaining to modern-day issues. Perhaps these five guidelines can help those attempting to engage in respectful and constructive interfaith communications in diverse and pluralistic contexts. Let’s examine how applying these guidelines might work.

Many people in the U.S. are concerned that the U.S. government will force them to do business with members of the LGBTQ community when it is against their religion to do so. Sally is one of those concerned citizens. Many people in the U.S. embrace LGBTQ community members as full citizens with the rights and privileges of others U.S. citizens. Kris embraces people without concern for their sexuality and gender identity. Can Sally and Kris engage in respectful and constructive interfaith dialogue using Hanh’s and Chodron’s five guidelines?

If Sally and Kris are living for the well-being of others, they are off to a great start. If one of them is not living for the well-being of others, the person in the most powerfully transformative position, I believe, is the one living for the other’s well-being. This person is likely to have more patience as the other one’s defenses begin to dissolve in the presence of radical acceptance. Do Sally and Kris have the intention to relieve each other’s suffering? If they do, they have a great foundation for abiding in the dynamic relational tensions until they get to know one another well enough to know what the suffering is and how they might be of help. If only one of them has the intention to relieve the other’s suffering, that intention may be enough to keep the dialogue open until their hearts meet. Building bridges across differences takes time, but need not be protracted.

One attitude, in my experience, that can positively hasten respectful and constructive interfaith engagement in diverse and pluralistic communities is the desire to communicate with people who are not in our traditions. Where does this desire come from? For many Buddhists like Hanh and Chodron, it comes from the understanding that many of us share the same painful existential concerns. For others, it may be the realization that our culture does not hold the truth about everything…or anything. The desire for constructively diverse engagement can come from being bored with the predictable cycles of meaningless activities we feel trapped in, leaving us wanting to be with someone different. I think it is the desire to be with someone different that leads into the willingness to let go of our religious terms of art for the sake of real engagement. When we let go of our attachments to our conventional ways of communicating our religious and spiritual beliefs, we are freer to ask others, “What’s important to you?  How do you express your needs, wants, and desires? How can I make a way for your authentic voice to be heard by those who are not typically listening? Can you help me do the same?” I do not mean to suggest any of this is easy, but one would do well to go through their own process of identifying and modifying their intentions before entering dialogue with others, especially if those others oppose your point of view.

Lastly, it is important to examine what we are religious about. For example, I was recently in a prayer circle where one person said, “Heavenly Father, we know that people on high try to change your words, but all they have to do is read your word and follow it.” The “word,” in this case, involves at least two languages before being printed in English. If reading the word in other traditions and following it was so easy, Hanh and Chodron would probably be in the same Buddhist tradition – but they are not. I think the key here is not to be religiously wedded to words, but to find the “generalizably” relevant ancient text and re-interpret it into modern discourse pertaining to modern-day issues as a bridge to interfaith dialogue and interfaith relationships.

Throughout the years there have been many wise masters contributing the wisdom of their traditions to those outside their traditions, without imposing the dogma of their religions onto others. Many of us who have been gifted with these pieces of wisdom have been able to embrace them while also remaining in the beloved communities that formed us. Can you embrace and incorporate dialogue guidelines similar to Chodron and Hanh? Maybe you’re influenced by Oprah Winfrey and Iyanla Vanzant?  How do they build and cross bridges? Maybe its Deepak Chopra and Eckhart Tolle? Could it be Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Muhammad Ali? In any case, respectfully and constructively engaging in diversity in our pluralistic society can be enhanced through practicing hospitality. Perhaps it is in the practices in hospitality where many of our diverse communities will find our bridge to and for one another.

Image courtesy of ytimg.com

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