This past week we had a special event here at Payap University. The Institute of Religion, Culture, and Peace hosted an interfaith dialogue between the Reverend Marjorie Thompson, author of Soul Feast and former student of Henri Nouwen and the Venerable Dhammananda Bhikkhuni, who is the first Thai woman to become a fully ordained Buddhist nun in the Theravada tradition.
The three nights of lectures were part of the Sinclair Thompson Memorial Lecture Series, in memory of a former missionary to Thailand who died tragically in a train accident. During his time in Thailand as a missionary, Sinclair Thompson believed vehemently in the importance of deeply understanding Thai history, culture, and religion.
The main focus of the lectures was on spiritual practices and it was very interesting to hear both parties share about such important aspects of their lives and faith. There was talk of getting Buddhists and Christians together to practice some of these spiritual disciplines together, which I thought was intriguing.
When I studied comparative religion in my undergraduate degree, we used the classic World Religions by Houston Smith, a mystical and literary account that essentially argues for the classic “Different paths up the same mountain” paradigm of world religions. In my classes at Payap, I use Smith but I’ve become more attached to God Is Not One by Stephen Prothero at Boston University who sees the mountain argument as “dangerous, disrespectful, and untrue.” I’d say it can be helpful to think about similarities and differences but we should work to embrace, not dissolve, the complexity and reality of religious expression.
One thing I really liked from the lectures came from Ven. Dhammananda when she talked about many Buddhists having lost sight of the goal and purpose of Buddhism, i.e. attaining enlightenment and freedom from suffering. Buddhism, she argued, had devolved into outward practices of gaining merit and superstition with no real vision for Nirvana.
I think this idea is relevant for Christians today. What is the purpose and end goal of Christianity? It can’t just be going to church, giving offerings, and praying before meals, can it? I don’t think so. I think it has something to do with bringing the Kingdom of God here on earth – working towards peace, truth, and life in Christ.
One particularly memorable line of Rev. Marjorie was that God’s unconditional love has become an “intellectual axiom instead of a real experienced truth.” Perhaps that’s what the Kingdom of God is all about: experiencing the truth of God’s unconditional love in Christ. And it is the practice of spiritual disciplines – as both Rev. Marjorie and Ven. Dhammananda maintained – that opens the door to experiencing this perfect love.
…the journey continues,