Buddhist-Christian Dialogue and Action in the Year of Mercy

Dhammayietra (Peace Walk) 2015

In the face of the enormous challenges and crises of globalisation, people from the different religious communities are asking a question: How can a religious faith with its truth and vision be a source of hope to the contemporary world – and do this not apart from but in collaboration with people of other religions? Pope Francis might have had this question in mind when he decided to declare the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy. He has relentlessly spoken out against the “globalisation of indifference” since the beginning of his pontificate. The point of his message is that we have to be aware of and sensitive to the poor who are suffering from socio-economic, political and ecological injustice. His call for “being merciful as God is merciful” is a prophetic voice challenging Christians to become more effective signs of God’s compassionate love and justice for the poor and the marginalised. He urges Christians to do this in dialogue and collaboration with people of goodwill and beyond religious boundaries. The Pope emphasises that real peace is possible only through our commitment to justice. 

Thomas Merton, Zen, and the Birds of Appetite

Our efforts to build a Buddhist-Christian dialogue should be pursued with this same vision of merciful action for justice and peace.

The original Pali word for mercy (taeja-taebi) is metta-karuna, used by Theravada Buddhists in the Southeast Asian countries. This term refers to the four sublime states of the human mind, fully realised by the Buddha and by Arahants (Buddhist saints) in their final liberation. The Buddha and Arahants are believed to be free from all kinds of selfish desires and negative feelings. They are always ready to help others with loving kindness (metta), take others’ pain and suffering as their own with great compassion (karuna), and be glad for others’ happiness as their own with sympathetic joy (mudita). Their mind is always in perfect balance with equanimity (upekkha). Inspired by these ideals, our Buddhist friends are struggling to overcome greed (raga), hatred (dosa) and delusion (moha) — three unwholesome roots (akusalamula) which lead individuals and societies to enormous suffering. It is interesting to note that the term “mercy” in many Asian languages is rooted in a Buddhist concept. The Chinese and Korean word for mercy is jabi or taeja-taebi which means “great love” (taeja) and “great compassion” (taebi). This term refers to the selfless love of the Buddha and of the Buddhist saints, especially that of Quan Yin, the most venerated bodhisattva in Mahayana Buddhism. East Asian Buddhists believe that Quan Yin, often in a female figure, listens to the cry of all sentient beings with her motherly compassion. Quan Yin is a translation of the Sanskrit Avalokiteshvara, a compassionate bodhisattva who looks down upon the world’s lamentations and appears in various forms to those who call upon his/her name. In Buddhism, a bodhisattva is a person who is assured to become a Buddha. But Quan Yin or Avalokiteshvara bodhisattva resolved to postpone his/her enlightenment until all sentient beings are saved from their suffering. This is why some Asian theologians compare the self-emptying (kenotic) and compassionate love of Jesus to that of Quan Yin.

Msgr Enrique Figaredo Alvargonzalez and Buddhist monks plant trees during the blessing of the Xavier Jesuit school project in Cambodia (2015).

Today, in the world of globalisation, we can see the structural manifestation of greed: economic injustice afflicting not only the poor but also the rich through ever-growing hatred between them. War and violence are the unavoidable outcomes of greed and hatred. The root of all violent conflicts is delusive attachment to “I” and “mine” or “we” and “ours”, separated from others. Indifference to the suffering of others is a passive form of delusion. The dualistic view of “my group” and the “other group” is used to justify killing even innocent others who are perceived as part of the evil enemy. Terrorism and the war against terrorism arise.The original Pali word for mercy (taeja-taebi) is metta-karuna, used by Theravada Buddhists in the Southeast Asian countries. This term refers to the four sublime states of the human mind, fully realised by the Buddha and by Arahants (Buddhist saints) in their final liberation. The Buddha and Arahants are believed to be free from all kinds of selfish desires and negative feelings. They are always ready to help others with loving kindness (metta), take others’ pain and suffering as their own with great compassion (karuna), and be glad for others’ happiness as their own with sympathetic joy (mudita). Their mind is always in perfect balance with equanimity (upekkha). Inspired by these ideals, our Buddhist friends are struggling to overcome greed (raga), hatred (dosa) and delusion (moha) — three unwholesome roots (akusalamula) which lead individuals and societies to enormous suffering.

Nostra Aetate 1965 Against this dualistic delusion, the Buddhist insights of non-self (anatta) and emptiness (sunyata) lead us to the mindful awareness of the inter-dependent reality of all things (paticcasamuppada). There is no separate self and the other; nothing is independent in the universe. We are all related. That is why the Buddha, Arahants and Bodhisattvas cannot remain in the eternal happiness (nirvana) alone, separated from the suffering living beings. Compassionate social engagement is the fruit of the Buddhist wisdom (panna). Inspired by this way of liberation, we Christians recall the biblical insights of God’s love and justice: we are all responsible for his creation and salvation. In our agapeic commitment for the poor who are victims of organised greed (mammon) today, we are called to reconcile all distorted relations in God’s mercy. As the late Cambodian monk Maha Ghosananda said, “Peace is coming step by step” starting with our great compassion for the suffering and walking together towards a more human, more just and more peaceful world.”

Fr In-gun Kang SJ
Coordinator for Dialogue with Buddhism, Jesuit Conference of Asia Pacific

Main photo: Dhammayietra (Peace Walk) 2015