I have something of a soft spot for the Church of England. Given that all religious institutions are far from perfect, the Anglican Church contains some impressive people.
I attended a Christian – Buddhist dialogue at the Buddhist Society in London on Monday. Our guest was Archbishop Rowan Williams - a highly articulate, warm and knowledgeable speaker. And someone who proved easily able to make meaningful connections between Buddhist and Christian ideas, practices and doctrines. He mentioned his close friendship with the late John Crook of the Western Chan Fellowship.
A range of ordained Buddhist speakers from Theravada and Mahayana traditions spoke about topics arising mostly from the Metta Sutta and the Heart Sutra. Speakers were:
Ajahn Amaro, Amaravati Buddhist Monastery
Venerable Chueh Ru Shih, London Fo Guang Shan Temple
Geshe Tashi, Jamyang Buddhist Centre
Rev Prof Kemmyo Taira Sato, Three Wheels Temple
So, we heard about mindfulness, loving-kindness, emptiness and form, dependent origination and the trikaya doctrine. Apart from loving-kindness, these are probably some of the most abstract concepts in Buddhism. Ironically, emptiness seemed to get most air-time – at least from Mahayana contributors. Dr Williams admitted that emptiness was a challenge for Christians, but when we spoke about conditions being empty of a solid enduring essence – or looked at from another perspective of all that we experience as being process and movement – a fullness - then this was easier to appreciate.
I was pleased that Dr Williams emphasised that God is not a thing or object among other objects and that he said that much talk by Christians about God was 'a little ambitious' - a wonderful understatement - since God was a mystery. There was discussion as to whether ‘Dhamma’ as in the ‘truth of the way things are’ which supports or permeates all that is, could be considered as ‘God’. Perhaps yes, if only we could get theistic faith traditions to agree what the word ‘God’ refers to, and to avoid using it quite so indiscriminately.
Dr Williams referred to a range of early Christian teachers and mystics, and some Greek terms for types of knowing. I am afraid I failed to note these, but I was again struck by the wealth of knowledge represented in European philosophical, scientific and religious history – much of it little read or known to us today – and which appears to be both very interesting and potentially helpful to those investigating or enquiring into our human condition, the nature of suffering and liberation, and what makes for a gracious life.
Perhaps those on the Buddhist path would do well to investigate our own culture and history a little more to seek out the resonances with Buddhist insight that undoubtedly exist. Since the Buddhist path is based on an honest and pragmatic enquiry and assumes that truth is inherent in our human experience and available to all, the wisdom of other seekers, scientists, and philosophers is likely to have something to teach us.