By now, many of us will have seen the familiar Christmas images in advertisements, on billboards, and behind the glass windows of shops. The scenes invoke a cozy warmth and merry conversation, from the fireplace before which couples snuggle to the dinner table around which family members gather, or the snowy town square where old friends catch up. These motifs all share the common theme of encounter, of old and new meetings alike. It is through new or renewed encounters that our world expands, our horizons broaden, and our context deepens into new textures and layers that would never have been discerned had we not met that new “Other.”
The word encounter actually has a rather unfortunate origin. It emerged in Middle English with the meaning of “meet as an adversary,” which in turn was drawn from the Old French verb and noun of encontrer or encontre and the Latin contra, “against.” The word “meeting” has a more neutral connotation: “to come upon,” from the Old English mētan. Although it certainly bodes better than encountering an enemy, this etymology is not very enthusiastic either.
These words may reflect a shared reality of violence and fear that perhaps will never disappear as long as greed, delusion, and enmity remain fundamental to the human condition. When we meet someone new and unfamiliar, especially in a hostile environment, we are more likely to feel aggression and anxiety rather than friendly curiosity. The primal, survivalist part of our brains has room for the fight-or-flight mode, but none for an embrace-or-chat mode.
Many of our tribal ancestors might have assumed that meeting the Other was more likely to lead to violence and pillage than respect and kindness. It is also a tragic and shameful truth that the encounters between great religious traditions have too often looked more like encounters between adversaries. Wars, invasions, colonization, and oppression are bungled encounters between cultures and civilizations on an intolerably large scale.
While we cannot change the words we use, we can imbue them with renewed meaning. While Christmas holds particularly important meaning for Christians around the world, the global significance of the holiday has come to provide other world religions with an opportunity to remind all people of all nations (and from our Buddhist perspective, all beings) of the need for good-natured encounters. Only through the initial step of reaching out and talking to one another is there any hope of dialogue.
Dialogue is not a luxury. It is something that we owe to each other, particularly as Christmas approaches and households around the world are reminded of Silent Night’s “Sleep in heavenly peace.” Dialogue is the means through which we can make peace with our differences, and indeed make some kind of peace that can transcend those differences. There will never be perfect peace, but a fragmented peace, much like Japanese kintsugi pottery, is far more beautiful and useful than a shattered jar.
Dialogue also needs to be conducted in good faith. It is not about assimilation, or conversion by stealth. It is about understanding one another and, most importantly, co-existing with our differences, not stamping them out. Interfaith dialogue and comparative theology have long moved beyond the idea of perennialism, which attempts (with good intentions) to subsume all the divergent traditions into one “Ur-faith.” The greatest challenge is learning how differences can be embraced, even while ensuring nobody is hurt or harmed by a will to violence or domination.
There is an extraordinary convergence between Buddhism and Celtic Christianity, an informal tradition that draws on the medieval Christianity of Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. Both share a love of the natural world and the monastic way of life, and when Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh published his book Touching The Earth more than a decade ago, Rev. Ray Simpson, an Anglican priest and Celtic Christian, declared that it strongly resonated with his faith. This is no surprise, given Thich Nhat Hanh’s increasingly pantheistic writing, in which Mother Nature is presented as the cosmic expression of the Buddha’s Dharma. Two vastly different faith traditions are therefore able to encounter each other through Mother Nature and discern each other’s affinities through its cosmic body.
It is tragically fitting that nature is the common ground on which Buddhism and Celtic Christianity meet, since the natural world is in more peril than ever before and our survival is predicated on the global ecology’s wellbeing. Nevertheless, this is a sobering connection between dialogue and the future of humanity. Simply put: if we do not find diverse and compassionate ways to encounter each other in peaceful dialogue, we will all be in for a very unhappy and painful future.
Connections can only be built by more encounters and more dialogue. The more dialogue there is, the more empathy and compassion that can be shared between as many as possible. These fragments of love and mutual fellowship can hopefully help soothe the tenderness and vulnerabilities of sentient beings adrift in a broken world.
May all beings be happy, at ease, and comforted this festive season!
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