I’ve recently been involved in a dialogue with some Evangelical Christian folks. The results have been interesting.

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–those worthy of the name–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 a different matter.

Buddhists don’t proselytize, and most of us accept the idea 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 this case, however, I decided to engage rather than not, and it has been 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 “proofs” from the scriptures of choice. Carried out skillfully, by well-trained practitioners, such an approach can be devastating–in the sense of debate–to a less-skilled person, especially if they happen to hold many beliefs that dovetail with the doctrine being advanced that make it hard to disagree categorically.

Buddhism, however, does not conflict with Christianity at all in its basic teachings. 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. At the end of the initial discussion, we all sat there looking at each other with nothing to say. (It was quite satisfactory, which shows that I am far from a state of enlightenment.)

Once we each knew where the others were “coming from,” the adversarial relationship disappeared and the discussion became quite productive. We moved on to a comparison of Siddhartha’s and Jesus’ teachings, their purpose (reduction of suffering) and so forth. I’ve had conversations with them since, recommended books they could read (such as Thich Nhat Hahn’s excellent “Living Buddha, Living Christ”) and both have shown interest in learning meditation techniques.

So OK, Bill, what’s your point?

Several. On how many interesting relationships have I missed out by labeling others as…well…others? How much common ground have I missed because of my unskillful ability to hear what others were really saying? When I think of people with prejudices (pre-judgements), how much of the judging is mine? How many have I pushed away because of what were really superficial differences in points of view? How interested am I, really, in learning more about the world and the people in it–enough to keep my mouth shut and listen, and then find something I can agree with, rather than automatically disagreeing with those…others?

Sometimes I seem to be improving in those areas, slowly but surely, although I have a long way to go. How are you doing?


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