A study of the dialogue between Christianity and Theravāda Buddhism in Thailand: as represented by Buddhist and Christian writings from Thailand in the period 1950-2000

Boon-Itt, Bantoon (2008). A study of the dialogue between Christianity and Theravāda Buddhism in Thailand: as represented by Buddhist and Christian writings from Thailand in the period 1950-2000. PhD thesis The Open University.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.21954/ou.ro.0000fd77

Abstract

There has been little Buddhist-Christian dialogue in Thailand. Thai Buddhists, the majority community, see little need for dialogue. There are, however, two notable exceptions: the Venerable Payutto and the Venerable Buddhadāsa Bhikkhus.

Thai Christians do not realise the importance of dialogue, hence Dialogue has been confined to a few Thai scholars. Historical study has shown that the first Christian emissaries from the West arrived with superior attitudes and hidden agendas, not troubling to understand Buddhism, nor its social context. Their efforts led to a lack of acceptance, even disdain, for Christianity. Thai Christians have not grasped the need to understand Theravāda Buddhism, as this dissertation uncovers, and without realising, they are communicating with Buddhists using Thai vocabulary that is incomprehensible.

Buddhadāsa took a very significant initiative to dialogue with Thai Christians. Through his use of two levels of understanding language, Buddhadāsa reformulates key Buddhist doctrines. In particular his explication of nibbāna, not at or beyond death, but for all in the here-and-now via jitwang (freed-mind) and detachment from I/me-my/mine gives Buddhism contemporary relevance. Buddhadāsa compares his Buddhism to what he sees as the main features of Christianity. ‘God’ he identifies with the Buddhist concept of dhamma; nibbāna with ‘the kingdom of God’; and anattā with the Christian cross, perceiving it as ‘the denial of I’. Payutto’s exposition is more cautious, by contrast. It reflects Buddhist suspicions of historical Christianity and points to the urgency of dialogue.

This dissertation uncovers the weaknesses and strengths of Thai Buddhist-Christian dialogue as it now stands, giving the big picture and uncovering the underlying issues for further research. It provides the crucial groundwork necessary for future work and stresses the need to dialogue and to enter each others’ worldview to overcome the problem of miscommunication through incomprehension. Only thus can fruitful dialogue leading to mutual understanding and social harmony be achieved.

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