By Leo D. Lefebure
Buddhist-Christian relations always occur within a broader context that involves followers of other religious traditions as well. Over the last two years I have been in a number of settings where the triadic relations among Buddhists, Muslims, and Christians were significant.
One trajectory of conversations involved academic partners in a dialogue entitled, “Shin Buddhism, Christianity, Islam: Conversations in Comparative Theology.” During 2017 and 2018, this dialogue involved Shin Buddhist scholars from Ryokoku University in Kyoto, Muslim and Christian scholars from the Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität in Münster, Germany, and Christians scholars from Georgetown University in Washington, DC, as well as a number of Buddhist, Muslim, and Christian scholars from other venues. We met at Ryokoku University in February 2017, and then at the Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität in July 201t, and finally at Georgetown University in June 2018. The initial meeting explored Shin Buddhist, Christian, and Muslim perspectives on ultimate reality and the cosmos. The second meeting explored evil and self-awareness in each tradition. The final meeting explored the meaning of saving action in each tradition.
In recent decades Christians have engaged in numerous dialogues with Muslims and in many other dialogues with Buddhists. There have not been as many Muslim-Buddhist conversations and not many triadic Buddhist-Christian-Muslim dialogues. Imtiyaz Yusuf, Director of the Center for Buddhist-Muslim Understanding at Mahidol University in Salaya, Thailand, lamented that even though Muslims and Buddhists have lived alongside each other for centuries in many regions of Asia, they have not yet thoroughly gotten to know each other’s traditions. He is especially concerned about the situation of the Rohingya in Burma/Myanmar, and he repeated an urgent call to all traditions to get to know their neighbors more truly and accurately.
I learned much from each of the discussions, and I was particularly impressed by Dennis Hirota’s lucid presentations of Shinran in relation to his original context, to other religions and to contemporary issues. This inspired me to invite Dennis to share his perspectives on Shinran regarding saving action in dialogue with Christianity at our recent SBCS conference in Denver.
I spent much of August 2018 in Myanmar and the beginning of September 2018 in Malaysia. In each country the triadic relations among Buddhists, Christians, and Muslims are troubled. In Myanmar I repeatedly heard that Catholic and Protestant leaders enjoyed friendly relations with their local Buddhist neighbors, but I also learned of the aggressive Buddhist nationalist movement associated with MaBaTha (the Association for Protection of Race and Religion) and 969, which identifies being Burman with being Buddhist and that views other ethnic and religious identities as inferior. Some Buddhists in Myanmar do not want Christians or Muslims even to use traditional Buddhist terms in any way. A professor of the Myanmar Institute of Theology gave me a tour of the International Buddhist University in Yangon, where he had studied Buddhism; however, he informed me that the University has recently closed its doors to all non-Buddhist students.
I heard from both Buddhists and Christians in Myanmar profound suspicion and distrust of Muslims. Some cited the international fears of the violent jihadists, who in Myanmar are suspected of aiding the Muslims in Rakhine State (known in the outside world as Rohingyas). Many Buddhists and Christians worry that Muslims are planning a demographic assault on the identity of Myanmar and are seeking to unite the Islamic populations of the Middle East, India, and Bangladesh with the Muslims in Malaysia and Indonesia. Few Buddhists or Christians defend the position of the Muslims in Rakhine State. The situation of the Muslims remaining in Rakhine State as well as the Muslim refugees who moved to Bangladesh remains dire. To address the situation, Religions for Peace organized an international, interreligious delegation to visit Rakhine and issue a statement with recommendations. Buddhists from Japan and Myanmar joined with Christian leaders such as Roman Catholic Cardinal Charles Bo, the Archbishop of Yangon, and Muslim leaders such as Al Haj U Aye Lwin, the Chief Convener of the Islamic Center of Myanmar, in issuing a letter for peace on May 24, 2018 (https://rfp.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/Letter-to-the-People-of-Myanmar-Final-Statement-Letter-24-May-2018-2.pdf).
In addition to the conflict in Rakhine, there are numerous other conflicts between ethnic groups and the Myanmar government. I was advised that these are primarily ethnic conflicts, but there is frequently an element of religious identity involved, and some Christians support the military efforts of the Kachin Independence Army on biblical grounds, believing that God gave them their land and they must defend it.
There are some signs of hope. I met Buddhist, Christian, and Muslim women in the Women’s Interfaith Group in Mandalay. These leaders have developed friendships that unite them in concern for relieving suffering, and they do not allow the conflicts elsewhere to interfere with their relationships. I met many courageous people who are working to relieve suffering in Myanmar, but the situation in many areas remains grave, with no long-term solution evident at the moment.
In Malaysia I met with Muslim, Buddhist, and Christian leaders and learned of the assertive Malay Islamic movement that identifies being Malay with being Muslim and that views all other ethnic, national, and religious groups as inferior. When I met with the Buddhist leaders of Kuala Lumpur, I learned of their difficulties in this environment. When they gave me copies of their books, they pointed out the prominent sticker on each cover, “For non-Muslims only,” in order to allay Muslim fears about proselytization. At one point the conversation became very somber, as the Buddhists shared their difficulties in relation to the Malay Islamic movement. I asked them what gave them hope for the future of Malaysia, and they immediately perked up and said, “The goodness of the ordinary Malaysian people.”
Christian leaders described good relations with their Muslim neighbors, but they noted the rise of a more assertive Islamic movement that poses a challenge to followers of all other religious traditions. The recent electoral victory of Muhathir Muhammad gives hope for better relations, but the Christians and Buddhists I met remained wary.