We’re not called to merely tolerate the religious minorities in our midst.
“Coexist” bumper stickers abound in Portland, where I work. Like car bumpers that provide cushion from crashes, these stickers signify a desire to cushion people from religious intolerance. We place a high premium on tolerance in places like Portland, though tolerance often masks indifference. We don’t seem to have many religion-related confrontations in our region, though tensions over religion do erupt on occasion. (A Buddhist monk was mistaken for a Muslim and attacked in Hood River.)
The Bible tells us to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Its application is not limited to a particular region or religion. Thus, as a Christian living in the Pacific Northwest, I am called to love my diverse religious neighbor—including the Buddhist, Muslim, and Hindu. This often appears easier than it is; especially if we view love as far more demanding than tolerance.
We may be well aware of tensions between Muslims and the general populace across the country, including Christians. Given the associations many people make between Islam and terror, it is not surprising that Americans view Muslims less favorably than they do other prominent religious minority groups. Generally, Americans view Buddhists neutrally. However, white Evangelicals, on average, view Buddhists and Muslims less favorably than any other religious demographic does. The Pew Research Center found that “Jews, Catholics and evangelical Christians are viewed warmly by the American public … Buddhists, Hindus and Mormons receive neutral ratings on average, ranging from 48 for Mormons to 53 for Buddhists. The public views atheists and Muslims more coldly.”
There are no doubt sociological as well as religious reasons for their wariness. While we should not discount moral intuitions that promote what social psychologist Jonathan Haidt labels “in-group/loyalty,” “authority/respect,” and “purity/sanctity,” often championed by conservatives, we must also account for those moral intuitions often cherished by liberals, such as “harm/care” and “fairness/reciprocity.” (See Jonathan Haidt’s TED Talk: “The Moral Roots of Liberals and Conservatives”.) More recently, Haidt and his colleagues are giving consideration to other intuitions and emotions that may function as “candidates” for moral “foundationhood.” One that comes to the foreground is liberty. (See MoralFoundations.org.)
Given that membership in many Buddhist communities is not regimented, many fail to realize the Buddhist community is one of the larger religious minority groups in the Pacific Northwest.
I have a longstanding partnership as an evangelical leader with the Buddhist community in Portland. Given that membership in many Buddhist communities is not regimented, many fail to realize the Buddhist community is one of the larger religious minority groups in the Pacific Northwest. Here’s what George Draffan, Executive Director of Northwest Dharma Association, had to say in response to my question about the size of the Buddhist population in the region:
No one knows exactly how many Buddhists there are in the region. Our Association knows of more than 400 Buddhist groups in Oregon, Washington, Montana, Idaho, and British Columbia, but our list surely underrepresents the tens of thousands of Vietnamese, Cambodian, Chinese, and other Asian Buddhist immigrants in the region, as well as the growing number of informal meditation practice groups. In national surveys Buddhism is often counted as the fourth largest religion in America, after Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.
An Oregonian article states, “Mormons could be the largest faith tradition in Oregon after Catholics and Protestants, but so could Jews or Muslims or Buddhists.”
Given that Buddhism is one of the larger religious minority groups in the Pacific Northwest, it behooves us to devote consideration to what it means concretely to love our Buddhist neighbor. What does such a goal entail in places like Portland and Seattle?
Loving our Buddhist neighbors as ourselves requires approaching them in a spirit of inquisitiveness.
Loving our Buddhist neighbors as ourselves requires approaching them in a spirit of inquisitiveness. Having an inquisitive spirit moves us beyond mere tolerance, which, as I noted above, often masks indifference. We should seek out opportunities to get to know them. For all our differences, we might find that we have much in common. For example, parishioners of Dharma Rain Zen Center along with their affiliates and participants of The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins of Multnomah University, have met for years to talk about our respective experiences and convictions over potluck meals.
For all our differences, we have been surprised at our shared interests and values. Sallie Jiko Tisdale wrote of our initial gatherings:
As we have begun getting to know each other, we are a little surprised. We [Buddhists] surprise them by being ordinary. (One young man was startled that we served fruit salad at the potluck. ‘We eat fruit salad, too!’ he said.) They surprise me by being more than ordinary—by being well-educated, intelligent, and funny.
One Buddhist monk even remarked,
It occurred to some of us over the course of the evening that in some ways Zen is an evangelical form of Buddhism . . . We make a point of deeply exploring and manifesting the truth in our daily lives. We expect to have a personal experience of Truth.
Loving our Buddhist neighbors as ourselves also requires accounting for their particular teachings and practices rather than stereotyping them. We need to know what Buddhists believe and how they live, just as we would hope that such interest would be applied to us as well. Being taken seriously is a foundation for authentic exchange. Just this month, our Buddhist-Evangelical dialogues involved a rich dialogue on the Buddhist doctrine of impermanence and how it compares with the historic Christian teaching of the self and permanence.
Moreover, loving our Buddhist neighbors as ourselves requires that we take seriously our distinctive Christian teachings and practices rather than discount them for the sake of engaging the religious other.
Moreover, loving our Buddhist neighbors as ourselves requires that we take seriously our distinctive Christian teachings and practices rather than discount them for the sake of engaging the religious other. After all, loving “your neighbor as yourself” in the Bible does not entail disowning your beliefs. As noted above, the Bible accounts not simply for what Haidt labels “harm/care” and “fairness/reciprocity,” but also “in-group/loyalty,” “authority/respect,” and “purity/sanctity.” All too often, interfaith discourse minimizes differences between traditions. Such minimization, while pursuing much-needed peace, often shrouds key moral intuitions as well as distinctive features and qualities that enrich conversations and even relationships for the sake of a truly common good.
Loving our Buddhist neighbors as ourselves requires reciprocity in hospitality. We must not simply be hospitable toward them; we must welcome their hospitality, too. It is easy to play the card of benefactor rather than shape the relational dynamic in terms of mutuality and reciprocity. Our monthly potlucks over the years have involved going back and forth between our communities for the gatherings. Such reciprocity can assist with safeguarding against power imbalances.
In addition, loving our Buddhist neighbors requires a listening ear and empathy. Many of my Buddhist friends were raised in Christian settings, and had negative experiences growing up that make it difficult for them to enter into dialogue with Christians. Only by listening empathically to their concerns and fears of Christians, especially my tribe of Evangelical Christianity, have we been able to move forward toward constructive and mutually beneficial dialogue.
Author Note: I invite you to join George Draffan of the Northwest Dharma Association and me at Elliott’s Bay Books at 1521 10th Avenue in Seattle on Saturday May 7th from 7:00-8:30 PM. We will read and discuss my latest book, Evangelical Zen: A Christian’s Spiritual Travels with a Buddhist Friend (Patheos 2015; with a foreword and responses from the late Abbot Kyogen Carlson of Dharma Rain Zen Center, Portland). We will highlight the values that have shaped Dharma Rain Zen Center’s and my community’s approach to cultivating the beloved community as Buddhists and Christians.