I was thinking back to a time, some years ago, when I was involved in a dialogue with some Evangelical Christian folks. As is often the case, the encounters began with an approach in an attempt to “save” me. This sort of thing used to really bother me. Eventually I came to realize that, unlike some lesser species such as TV evangelists, most Evangelicals are simply trying to do me a favor. They believe in their hearts that my soul is doomed, and they want to help. Viewed that way, it’s hard to remain insulted or angry. Annoyed is, of course, a different matter.
Buddhists don’t proselytize, and most of us agree that it is wrong to attack someone’s belief system. When one takes the risk of dismantling the structure that supports another emotionally, it is cruelty of the highest order to have nothing the person will be able to digest as a replacement. Effective conversions occur over long periods, gently, and it is not my business to make them happen.
My usual response to such advances is to decline as politely as possible under the circumstances, and to do so firmly enough that it sticks. Given the desire to treat others with lovingkindness, that can be a tricky process. In that case, however, I decided to engage rather than not, and it was a valuable lesson to me about both human nature and missionaries.
Those of you who have experienced such things know that the usual approach is a gentle attack. Generally, one is asked to explain one’s own beliefs, which are then related to contradictory “proof” from the scriptures of choice. Carried out skillfully, such an approach can be devastating, especially if the target happens to hold many beliefs that more or less with the doctrine being advanced. That makes it hard to disagree categorically, regardless of your opinion of the underlying dogma.
However, Buddhism does not conflict with Christianity in its basic teachings, although some Buddhist sects might. These folks were prepared to hear the misunderstandings (Buddhists worship Buddha) that they were equipped to refute, and instead heard an explanation of the Buddha‘s teachings (simplify, question, examine reality, be nice to other folks, understand the relative lack of importance of worldly things) with which they found it impossible to take exception.
Once we had a basis for discussion, the adversarial relationship disappeared and the conversation became quite productive. We moved on to a comparison of Siddhartha‘s and Jesus’ teachings, their purpose (reduction of suffering) and so forth. Although I am agnostic, I didn’t argue theology with them. I simply listened, and failed to disagree. I had later conversations with those folks, recommended some books they could read, and one of them showed interest in learning meditation techniques. I’ve no idea if he followed up on that.
So OK, you’re thinking, what’s my point?
Just this: On how many interesting relationships have I missed out by labeling others as — other? How much common ground have I missed because of my inability to hear what others were really saying? When I think of people with prejudices, how much of the judging is mine? How interested am I, really, in learning more about the world and the people in it — eEnough to keep my mouth shut, listen, and then find something I can agree with, rather than automatically disagreeing with those — others? How important is it for me to be right, rather than happy?
Some days I seem to be improving in those areas. Others, not so much. How are you doing?