Focus: Asian Religions in Dialogue
The use of the word 'dialogue' is remarkably elastic. Does this mean that it should be abandoned in favour of a more rigorous concept? Actually, the flexibility of the term might stem from the variety of our experiences of exchange and communication, while finding within them some commonalities.
[dropcap cap="I"]n other words, the determination of 'categories of truth' is intrinsically linked to that of dialogical styles. Let me suggest the way through which categories of truth may be associated with an array of dialogical styles:[/dropcap]- Dialogue understood as a logical exercise will generate propositions that are meant to be universally valid and part of a truth system based on the principle of non-contradiction. It does not differ fundamentally from the soliloquy that a scientist would lead with himself in order to determine the truth of a scientific demonstration.
- Dialogues within philosophical or theological schools work along similar principles except that the reference to 'universal' principles grounded on the natural light is replaced by a reference text - the one accepted by the school. The principle of non-contradiction is exercised within the reading of these texts.
- In contrast, the type of dialogue initiated and exemplified by Confucius’ Analects is first a dialogue of life which seeks to ensure that the disciple’s deeds coincide with his system of moral and cosmological beliefs. Dialogue is the gateway through which to match truth and life.
- The Gospel’s dialogical style is somehow similar to the preceding category, with the difference that the stress is put less on acquired wisdom than on the transformative process through which a decision is to be reached by the one who enters into a dialogue of life.
- We can group together several cultural and literary settings in which dialogue is meant to lead to enlightenment, as shown in the peculiar dialogical styles found in Zhuangzi, in Zen writings and in some Indian schools: the dialogue is pushed to a breaking point that challenges the principle of non-contradiction, bringing one of the participants to a sudden transformation of his consciousness or worldview.
- And there is of course the broad category that gathers variants of 'democratic dialogue', which applies not only to politics but to some models of inter-religious dialogue for example: the point here is that the process of listening is supposed to be mutually transformative for the partners once they enter an empathic understanding of the argument and experiences vis-à-vis the other, this in order to find a position on the basis of which to allow a common decision or, at the very least, ensure continued coexistence.
[dropcap cap="I"]n conclusion, true dialogue is always 'performative'. It does not merely determine one true position among all the ones championed; other procedures might lead to this result better than dialogue does. Instead, dialogue leads to a change in worldviews, practices and situations - and the depth of the change that dialogue generates is the real measure of the 'truth' it contributes in bringing to light.[/dropcap]
Twenty years ago in 1991 Jerry filmed and conducted a documentary Pilgrims in Dialogue, on interfaith dialogue in three separate places in Asia – Sri Lanka, Philippines and Japan. Since then he has worked in TV in Taiwan making many programs which promote religious exchange and understanding. Here he recounts some of his experiences from his years in dialogue.
The remarkable diversity of religious expressions typical of South-East Asia has led to a focus on the interaction between the various faiths operating in the region. Such attention has been also fostered by the various ethno-religious conflicts that have developed, especially in the Philippines and Indonesia. If religious communities had to be agents of peace, the narratives on which they rely would play a role: creative interpretation of canonical narratives can stress peace and reconciliation; in the pluralistic situation of the Philippines’ southern island of Mindanao, some narratives play a mediating role by incorporating elements from different religious traditions; the sharing of stories (especially role-model stories) at the local grassroots level is by itself a factor of reconciliation.
At the theological level, some thinkers nowadays see hermeneutics not as a tool for redefining religious identities in the region but rather as a resource for challenging them. R.S Sugirtharajah says that “the task is seen not as adapting the Christian Gospel in Asian idioms, but as re-conceptualizing the basic tenets of the Christian faith in the light of Asian realities. … There is a willingness to integrate, synthesize and interconnect.” The need to connect with other believers in order to implement justice, peace and environmental concerns also plays a role in the “communication and interconnection” paradigm, which is strongly influenced by theologians such as Michael Amaladoss, Raimundo Panikkar, Paul Knitter and Aloysius Pieris. Of special relevance might be the concept of intra-religious dialogue as championed by Panikkar: one’s religion is very akin to a native tongue, and any religion is as complete as a language is. The discovery of the Other draws us out of our language and leads us to understand what its “words” mean to our religious partner. To enter another's world is a religious experience that engages a dialogue not only with the Other but also within our self.
In this approach, and other similar, the hermeneutics of inter-religious dialogue is not seen as a theological task among others but as the one that determines the future of Christianity in Asia and even the shaping of religious forms, identities and experiences in the world. South-East Asia is a place in which the intermingling and communicability of religious faiths is especially visible, which gives it a prominent role in the continuation of this global endeavour.
Photo courtesy of James Russell
Jerry feels that the best way to understand other's religions is to make friends and wherever possible experience other religions' ways of doing things...whether it's a Catholic priest in white tie congregating with Orthodox Jews at a Synagogue or meditating with his spiritual sister at a Buddhist monastery.
For readers in mainland China:
Whether through choice or destiny, many of our closest bonds are with our family members. Our family members are the ones who we see on a daily basis, the ones with whom we share the tribulations and triumphs of day-to-day life. For most of us, the support, understanding and care provided by family members is the necessary foundation for a happy life. Shared religious conviction can form much of the basis of this stability. When family members have a faith in common, religious dialogue can almost appear to be a given. However, when family members have different beliefs or varying levels of commitment, religious dialogue can become an issue. In the close confines of the family, this can be particularly acute.
In recent decades, religious mobility has become increasingly common, both in Asia and across the world. New religious movements (NRMs) continue to appear, either offering fresh interpretations of established beliefs or something altogether new. And beyond the more organised NRMs, there are the nebulous sectors of new age beliefs, self help and spirituality, concepts that are expounded in books and seminars rather than in more established places of worship.
Not only do religions continue to innovate, people across the world are switching their religious allegiance or modifying their beliefs, often in the face of long-established family tradition. This is enshrined in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, where “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance”.
Such lofty ideals do not necessarily filter down to day-to-day reality. Conversions can cause schisms in the family. When someone—be they parent or child—converts to a new religious belief, the rest of the family can be traumatised. The faith of the convert, something that had always been taken for granted, has changed, calling many things into question. When a member appears to have turned his back on his family, it can be as if they are cutting off the chance for dialogue, rejecting an important part of the family’s identity. In many cases, this is true, especially when the convert conscientiously chooses to distance himself from his family.
[dropcap cap="T"]he reasons for converting are manifold. The once common notion that members of NRMs had unhappy relationships with family members has been debunked. There is just as much likelihood that the convert is from a happy family as from a troubled one.When someone adopts a new faith, it is not always an attack on his family. [/dropcap]While the convert might be more content with his newly chosen faith, family members too can be happy that their kin has found a faith that suits him better. However, such realisations can only be reached through discussion and demonstrating the love that the family members hold for each other, not an inherently easy task.
Religion can be a powerful force for bringing families together. However, if the stability of a family’s religion is shaken by a member either not sharing the same level of devotion or leaving the faith, and possibly converting, then there is a risk of a serious breakdown occurring. For there to be continued coexistence and hopefully a point of agreement, the members must come together through dialogue. For members to challenge, and possibly change, long held (or in the case of converts, newly acquired) beliefs is no simple task. But to help ensure the chances of the family’s ongoing happiness, this dialogue is essential.
Here Jerry tells us how the discourse has changed in interfaith dialogue since he first got involved and how the discourse is adapting to changes in technology.
For readers in mainland China:
As representatives of organisations (the Tibetan Government in Exile and the Catholic Church) with strained relationships with Beijing, this final comment carries some weight. Even more so given the Chinese government’s strongly worded condemnation of the Dalai Lama’s visit to Taiwan. These statements are routinely issued whenever the Dalai Lama visits, or prepares to visit, a foreign country. Given Taiwan’s delicate relationship with China, visits by the Dalai Lama are especially controversial. Ignoring any political statements that the Dalai Lama may make, and most seem carefully worded to avoid antagonising Beijing, his visits routinely involve dialogue with local religious leaders and often luminaries in science, business or human rights. He has even gone so far as to declare that the 21st century should be one of dialogue so as to avoid the bloodshed that typified the 20th century.
The Dalai Lama acts as a catalyst for dialogue among local religious leaders. For the most part, these leaders would not get together too often to discuss matters of faith, community and tolerance. When the Dalai Lama juggernaut rolls into town, all of a sudden the media spotlight focuses on religion. Beyond any sympathy that the general public might have for the plight of the Tibetan people, the Dalai Lama has a huge following, both through those who adhere to Tibetan Buddhism and those who find solace in his advice on life as published in a large number of easy-to-digest books. It can be easy to scoff at these events as feel-good hyperbole. Nevertheless, they are an opportunity for local religious leaders, in the company of a global religious superstar, to search for universal truths, and do so in front of audiences of thousands of people.
In recent decades China has become indispensable to foreign countries, both as a consumer of raw materials and as the world’s factory of manufactured goods. Somewhat mirroring this rise, the Dalai Lama’s constant foreign jaunts have increasingly become diplomatic issues. Foreign governments do not wish to offend China, but at the same time, do not wish to be seen to be denying the Dalai Lama freedom of speech and as being bullied by Chinese threats. Whether or not trade balances suffer will be of concern to leaders, however the civil benefits are also worth considering. Inspiring local communities to seek and recognise commonalities in large public forums is a role that the Dalai Lama has evolved into being rather adept at and one that can offer much to communities across the world.
Indonesia is one of the most religiously diverse countries in the world. Although its over 80% Muslim, there are huge communities of Hindus, Protestants, Catholics, Bhuddists and various indigenous Animist religions. That said, Indonesia is no panacea of religious and cultural harmony, indeed there are many inter-religious and inter-ethinic conflicts ongoing, particularly in the regions further from the centre; however, beneath the questionable reputation abroad, and a sputtering of regional conflicts, there are many admirable examples for other parts of Indonesia and much of the world of how to be united by diversity and plurality with loose common aims of development and peace. Some examples in Indonesia also demonstrate to sceptics the universals present in Islam which allow for a very tolerant framework based on a few less disputable religious values.
The ever popular tourist destination Bali is one example of traditional Hindu culture, which whilst being an integral part of the Indonesian republic maintains a large degree of autonomy from the national government on cultural and religious issues. Huge amounts a of unique cultural resources, accompanied by the help of tourist dollars Bali Island has maintained a strong self-identity and a wealth of cultural resources.
[dropcap cap="T"]he culture of tolerance in Yogyakarta or "Jogja" as the locals call it, is particularly strong. The pillars in the Emperors palace in Yogyakarta represent the three colours of the different major religions which have greatly influenced Yogyakarta and Javanese culture: The Black, Gold and Red symbolise the harmony and synthesis in the old Javan kingdom, of Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism respectively. Jogja is also full of Muslim, Christian and non-affiliated universities, some of them even have their own institutes focusing on inter-religious dialogue, and though other regions aren't always as successful as Jogja at realising a multicultural friendly environment, Jogja sits in the middle of Java as a symbol of a freer, more harmonious future. In fact the only beliefs not so welcome in Jogja are the fundamentalists and anything that tries to make the citizens conform, such as those that apply restrictions on quotidian religious and creative freedoms. Differences are welcomed with interest.[/dropcap]Due to its role in the formation of the Indonesian republic, Jogja was granted a degree of autonomy during the repressive Suharto era (1965–1998). Therefore it found itself assuming the role as the comparatively tolerant liberal hub. The tolerance doesn't just stop with the religious freedoms and it fully embraces various cultural influences and modern arts, preferring to add depth, character and variety to its heritage. If one searches around Jogja just looking at the walls, bridges etc, it never takes too long to notice the political murals and the sheer energy put into expressing ones creativity in this city. The activist, artivist energy, has been providing education and civil resistance through art around the city and activities in the surrounding areas as well as up and down the country where integration isn't always so strong (often with villages or towns divided specifically on religious grounds, usually muslim/christian) from the times of the great poet Rendra standing up to the New Order up until the present day.
Though it is not always the case elsewhere in Indonesia, in Jogja not only does religion fulfill a role in maintaining social order, but it is also a place of abundant intercommunity dialogue. The poor seem relaxed and without bitterness and everyday actions are filled with a set of moral distinctions which tend to be easy to follow. Furthermore their is a sense that they all are all children of God, who through various social and economic backgrounds have adopted slightly different paths in search of the ultimate truths; that there are also universal 'goods' present in all the major religions here.
Religions in East Asia today have undergone transformations similar to the ones happening in other parts of the world. No longer are religious creeds, affiliations and practices taken for intangible realities, be it in metropolis or in rural settlements. At the same time, stressing one’s religious identity can be a way to assert a person’s or a community’s set of cultural, ethnic or social features that once were going unchallenged.
The diversity of creeds and rituals is more and more striking, as new religious movements appear every day. Such diversity also affects traditional faiths and practices as they experience revival and changes induced by external influences. Looked at from a distance, the East Asian religious psyche experiences the tensions that can be noted in East Asian societies as a whole: a strong affinity with contemporary values and technologies mixes with a nostalgia for things past; individual fulfilment meets with a stress on community values and support; the quest for harmony and inner peace goes along with an unceasing curiosity for the hybrid, colourful and ever evolving post-modern culture.
Religious experience derives from and - at the same time - is translated into specific creeds and practices. The content of the faith professed induces fears, hopes, guilt, longings and similar feelings. Large or small-scale rituals nurture a sense of affiliation, exaltation or quieting down. These feelings in turn give their intensity to the creeds and rituals that have produced them. But religious experience is also translated into narratives of various kinds. Mythical tales, hagiographies, the story of one’s conversion, the enacting of certain rituals are all narratives, even if a Taoist ritual or a Catholic mass for instance can also be analysed from alternative angles. Sure enough, “narratives” are multi-layered. A Catholic mass for instance is composed of a set of different narratives – the ones induced by the liturgical readings, the recitation of the Credo (the narrative structure of which has become a topos of contemporary theology), the re-enactment of the last Supper that gives its structure and meaning to the ceremony as a whole. And the recording of a mass on the occasion of a priestly ordination for instance will make it a second-level narrative. In the same vein, an exorcism in far-away Liangshan (the Cool Mountains), Sichuan Province, is based on the recitation of a set of genealogies – those of the healer, of the family, of the ghost and even of the animal killed for the sacrifice - a practice that makes storytelling and ritual one and the same performance.
This is an excerpt of the book edited by Elise A. DeVido and Benoit Vermander, "Creeds, Rites and Videotapes, Narrating religious experiences in East Asia"
Buy the book at the eRenlai online bookstore
We asked the Archbishop Shan-Chuan Hung S.V.D. about examples of religious dialogue in a local setting; after mentioning the meeting between a Taiwanese Cardinal and the Dalai Lama, where Catholicism was creating space for dialogue where the Dalai Lama had otherwise received a cold reception. This is Catholicism’s dialogue with the world.
Indeed dialogue does not come without difficulties. In August of last year his church in Yilan was celebrating its 50th year, the local temple’s sutra-chanting troupe brought some Tudigong idols to the pay their respects to the church. The following day there was accusations that we had been worshiping false idols. However the troupe had first joined in singing some hymns and indeed left before mass formally started. Cardinal Hong was very upset about them being criticised in the media and by some members of the parish as he felt that the sutra-chanters had genuinely wanted to congratulate.
If a Buddhist monk was sat calmly at the back of the room and we forced him to leave, that would mean that the church still didn’t treat all as equals. Jesus said: ‘I love benevolence more than sacrifice’. If they are willing to take part in our ceremonies, who says they won’t be capable of hearing the voice of God, of knowing him.
For me this situation is not a crisis, but a turning point, an opportunity for Christians to be re-educated. To appreciate the good hearts of others is a valuable life lesson. So Catholics should not try to cleanse the church of this type of activity and instead reflect and discuss, as this could be the match that lights the fire, releasing the flame of truth.
[dropcap cap="I"] feel Asian”, Ali said. “We share a territory with other Asians and cultural ties with Asian countries, especially the ones close to us”. Pakistan and India used to be one big and strong power in West Asia, before they parted in 1947. In this sense, Indians and Pakistanis are not different. “I wished there would be less tension between these two countries to build more cooperation”. However, the bigger scale of Asia offers other opportunities of cooperation for Pakistan. Ali said that recently China’s investments became a crucial need for Pakistan to develop its economy. “Above the tensions between the big powers of India and China, Pakistanis rely on these economic ties, so we have a positive view upon China-Pakistan exchanges”. Ali thinks that more economic cooperation between Asian countries, set within the economic structure of an organization, could be a serious help for countries in critical situations like Pakistan. “The last few years, Pakistan made improvements; there is a better access to education for instance. Hopefully, the growing level of education of the population will raise the sense of personal responsibility. I hope the ones who have a chance to travel, like me, will be more concerned to apply what they have seen abroad when they are back in Pakistan”.[/dropcap] [inset side="right" title="Ali Khan"] is a 33 year old Pakistani working in a Taiwanese online trading company in Taipei, for seven months. He comes from Karachi, the biggest city in Pakistan.[/inset]What do you wish for the future of Asia?[dropcap cap="I"] hope people will communicate more with their Asian cousins. I believe communication is a crucial step forward to build links between Asians, and can be more easily achieved within an Asian community. I wish all Asians could sit and discuss their differences, without barriers. It is really important for Pakistanis to create friendships in the world, because we need to give a better image of our country. It is our responsibility when we travel. According to the current political situation in Pakistan, I think we can contribute more by living abroad. We must learn to trust and love each other, like in a big Asian family. These are the basics of a successful cooperation. I hope the construction of a more united Asia will also play a role to help Pakistanis to improve the situation in their country”.[/dropcap]
On December 2nd, 2007 the Ricci Institute organized a roundtable on “Asian Union and Interreligious Dialogue" at Tien Educational Center, Taipei. Moderated by Dr Chen Tsung-ming, executive director of the institute, the roundtable gathered representatives from different religions. What are the prospects for unity and cooperation among Asian nations? And will cohesiveness among Asian peoples be strengthened through religious dialogue, or will religious divisions further nurture conflicts throughout Asia? These were the questions introducing the roundtable.
Mr. Ni Guo-an, president of the Board of the Association of Chinese Islam, stressed the value of friendship in Islamic tradition, pleading for a dialogue form the heart, and distinguishing social and cultural tensions from purely religious ones.
Pastor Lu Jun-yi, Taiwanese Presbyterian pastor of the Dong-men Church, emphasized the importance of grassroots and localization work, giving example of the way the Presbyterian church in Taiwan committed itself to a mission of truth and justice.
While recognizing that Buddhism is a Pan-Asian religion, Prof. Li Zhi-fu, Emeritus director of the Chung-Hwa Institute of Buddhist Studies of Fa-gu shan, also described the diversity of Asian Buddhism, making it difficult to transform it into an unifying force throughout the continent. He also stressed that fact that Buddhism is a religion, while not being merely or first a religion.
Benoit Vermander, director of the Taipei Ricci Institute, insisted on the work of self-examination conducted by Catholicism in the fifties and sixties, seeing in the this opening the roots of European unity. Likewise, he said, capacity for self-examination and trespassing of boundaries pursued by Asian religions could be a driving force for fostering a new style of communication within the continent.
Prof. Tan Yao-zong, Director of the Department of Multicultural and Linguistic Studies of the College of Global Research and Development at Tamkang University, gave a personal testimony on the way his identity, be it cultural or spiritual, had been shaped by the encounter with various religions and a search for inner sincerity going beyond dogmatic definitions of truths to be believed.
The debate that followed the presentations was rich and sometimes heated. Taiwan was a case in point both of the riches brought by inter-religious cooperation and of the difficulties to translate these riches into political and social assets. However, everyone was agreeing that cultural interaction was a way to transform Asia’s future through confidence-building and cross-fertilization. The future of Asia cannot be based solely on economic premises. Especially, taking ecological and spiritual dimensions as a basis for transnational cooperation will help Asia to creatively tackle global challenges.