The Dialogue of Life as the Locus of Non-verbal Interreligious Dialogue

Resources »Eapr »East Asian Pastoral Review 1999 »Volume 36 1999 No 3 »The Dialogue Of Life As The Locus Of Non Verbal Interreligious Dialogue

J. Mark Hensman

J. MARK HENSMAN has just completed a doctoral thesis on interreligious dialogue for the Melbourne College of Divinity. Author of several geography textbooks for high schools, Mark has combined his background in geography skills with his earlier theological training in conducting participant-observer research in two villages in western Thailand. Since completing his research, he has established a high school in Chiang Mai, Thailand, which includes interreligious dialogue in its curriculum.

INTRODUCTION

There are two villages, 3 kilometers apart, on the edge of a lake in western Thailand. For 17 years they have been neighbors. They call each other family.1 Over the 17 years they have worked together on at least 5 projects and have attended each others religious ceremonies on a regular basis. For 17 years they have verbally communicated about common interests, problems, and successes. Over the same period they have communicated about their religious beliefs and faith while never speaking a word about it. In fact they have deliberately avoided talking about it. One village, Hadtang, is comprised of Catholic and Buddhist villagers. The other, Phutakrit, is Buddhist.2

James H. Kroegers (1992:264) taxonomy of interreligious dialogue provides a helpful outline of the interreligious dialogue context.  His four components can be further categorized. The dialogues of action, theological exchange and religious experience have tended to occur in formally organized and planned events. They have in common then a degree of predetermination. They have been the direct and sometimes indirect outcomes of policies and strategies particularly of the Vaticans Secretariat for Non-Christians established in 1964 (redesignated the Pontifical Council on Interfaith Dialogue in 1989) and the World Council of Churches Sub-Unit on Dialogue with People of Living Faiths and Ideologies established in 1971.

The Dialogue Of Life, on the other hand, is of a different nature (Dretke 1979:139; Borrmans 1981:29; Fernandes 1990:206; Kimball 1991:100; Kroeger 1992:253-269). It was always there. It was unearthed, recognized, acknowledged rather than constructed. It is about how people live: alongside each other, against each other. They rub shoulders. Sometimes concertively, sometimes abrasively.  The dialogue of life can be messy. It does not easily fit into agendas. It simply happens. In Hadtang and Phutakrit, it happens.

Kroegers taxonomy can be further reformulated. If interreligious dialogue is essentially a conversation about religion, then it is essentially about communication. If it is about communication then it can occur verbally and/or non-verbally. The conversation about religious beliefs occurs in the dialogue of theological exchange, predominantly verbal. In the dialogue of action, however, while the planning and strategizing related to common action over a particular issue occurs verbally, the conversation about religious beliefs and values occurs as a second conversation, non-verbally. The dialogues of religious experience and of life stand apart again, the conversation occurring predominantly non-verbally. At Hadtang and Phutakrit, most of these conversations are evident.

What can the experience of the people of these two communities, who communicate faith without talk, yet communicate so effectively about common problems and celebrate at each other’s ceremonies, contribute to our understanding of interreligious dialogue? Could it also add something to our understanding of what it is to be religious as expressed in the dialogue of life that occurs in this religiously pluralistic environment?

SETTING: HADTANG AND PHUTAKRIT VILLAGES

Thailand is a predominantly Buddhist country with 95% of the population Buddhist compared to the 1.5% of the population who are adherents of Christianity (Sakolrak 1995:151). Relationships between the two have rarely been fractious3 and mostly of little note owing to the place Christianity has posited for itself in the Thai milieu and Christianity’s relative insignificance. Conversions have often been secondary to population increase as the source of growth and converts have tended to be found among the marginalized (Hughes 1994:35-36). The Thai Buddhists, however, have remained largely off-limits and uninterested. The latter reflects the unique history of Thailand in the Asian context being the only country not to have been colonized. Consequently there was little socio-economic or political incentive to convert. By and large, the Buddhist populace remained resistant to the diffusion of Christianity and except for the odd outbreak, relations between the two remained largely non-existent, a record described by Pro Mundi Vita (1973:29) as“almost blank on both sides” being characterized by “a deep and persistent mutual ignorance.” This is not the case at Hadtang and Phutakrit.

The villagers of Hadtang and Phutakrit migrated to the west from Esarn4 over a period of time between 1977 and 1982. Hadtang was established in 1981 and Phutakrit in 1982. The core of the Hadtang residents came from the same village in the eastern province of Srisakat. Most were at least second generation Catholics. Having lived in the Buddhist world that is Thailand, relations with Buddhist neighbors had been an everyday occurrence. As a religious minority the Catholics were used to interacting with Buddhists. The same is not true for the villagers of Phutakrit. They came from a variety of villages in the Northeast and had never had contact with Christians before moving from Esarn and meeting their new neighbors. Given the national context and their own backgrounds, the situation that has emerged over the last 17 years is unusual. How did these distinctive groups become so comfortable with each other that they can now call each other family?

INITIAL DIALOGUE

They got off to a good start. Khun Koon (leader of Hadtang) encouraged five other Catholic families to move with him to the west. He hired workers to assist in clearing the forest from his land. He encouraged one of them to bring his friends and relatives from Esarn and buy land there also. This occurred and some of them settled in Hadtang and others established a new village, three kilometers away in the same valley. Phutakrit was the result. The establishment of the villages then was based on personal relationships.

Furthermore, while the people of each village came from different areas of Esarn, they shared a common culture and language. People from each village reported that their lifestyle was essentially the same since moving from Esarn. They also shared poverty as a way of life in Esarn and shared the expectation of a better standard of living in their new location. The only cultural difference they could identify between the two villages was religion. In short, they had a common background, common experience and common goals. They had a common identity and even where this identity diverged in one aspect, they remained comfortable.

Communication theory would indicate that an environment such as this, with a reasonable degree of homogeneity, should be conducive to effective communication. The most effective form of communication is called transactional5 whereby both participants are partners in the dialogue process interacting verbally and non-verbally, simultaneously. Randall Harrison is quoted by Halloran (1983:43) as suggesting that “in face-to-face communication no more than 35 percent of the social meaning is carried in the verbal message.” Pertinent to our study is Griffin’s (1997:96) use of Watzlawick’s interactional model of communication to assert that“relationship is communicated primarily through non-verbal behavior.” Halloran (1983:43) goes further, suggesting that the latter actually takes precedence when the two contradict each other.

Meaning then is transferred primarily through non-verbal channels. The flow of this meaning furthermore, whether verbal or non-verbal, can be enhanced if the context6 or the attitude of one or both participants reduces barriers. Barriers can be physical, semantic or psychological (attitudes, values and beliefs), the latter being “the most common cause of difficulties with interpersonal communication”(Burton and Dimbleby 1988:82). Barriers then can be expected to intensify in interreligious contexts.

In the Hadtang-Phutakrit dialogue of life, the motivational, historical, geographical, cultural and language contexts were relatively similar both past and present, and similarly in terms of expectations of the future. A “homophilous”(Rogers 1983:18) environment of this nature is highly conducive to effective communication. The only potential barrier to effective communication was the religious difference.

ENVIRONMENTAL DIALOGUE

Within a relatively short period of time both villages were facing a crisis. They had left Esarn because of the harsh climatic conditions, which made cultivation very difficult and increasing production above subsistence almost impossible. They had migrated to a region rich in forest and with a high rainfall. The land Khun Koon bought, he cleared, to earn money to establish himself, to provide timber for buildings and to gain access to the humus rich soil waiting to be cultivated. The trees at Phutakrit had already been removed by logging companies and all that remained were scattered bamboo groves. Production in the first 2 - 3 years was very good. They experimented with hardy crops and then began to diversify. Quickly, however, production began to decline as the nutrients in the delicate humus layer, no longer fed by the forest litter, lost fertility. Worse, rainfall became erratic, moisture retention in the soil decreased and erosion accelerated.

When interviewed, no one from either village recognized any relationship between environmental deterioration and their respective religious beliefs. Khun Koon indicated some sense of responsibility but easily rationalized it as a choice between saving the trees or feeding his family. Neither Buddhism nor Christianity in this setting seem to have provided their adherents with a sense of environmental responsibility. Ecophilosophers are distinguishing between the instrumental and intrinsic value of the natural environment. For the people of Hadtang and Phutakrit, there has been no religio-philosohical foundation laid for an intrinsic sense of environmental responsibility but the ecosystem itself was teaching them the hard way, to respect its instrumental value.7

The timely arrival of two “change agents” (Rogers 1983:343) facilitated a reversal in the environmental deterioration at Hadtang and Phutakrit. A government agricultural officer, Khun Toon, and Fr. Wicharn, a young Catholic priest, began to visit the villages regularly.8 They visited the two villages independently of each other but gave a complementary message. They discussed the problems with the villagers. They explained the causes of the accelerated erosion and the reduction in water retention. Khun Koon was invited to attend seminars on the topic and to visit farms where the same problems were being addressed. In turn, he talked to the people of both villages and shared the solutions with them. Communication was effective. It was facilitated by common need. There were few barriers. This was about survival. This was the dialogue of life. Khun Toon and Fr. Wicharn were the change agents; Khun Koon was the “opinion leader” (Rogers 1983:29). He initiated and role-modeled the strategies.

Others in Hadtang followed his lead as did some of the villagers at Phutakrit. They planted trees, trees around the boundaries of their fields and trees scattered through their fields. They turned the remnants of moist-tropical rainforests on the hilltops into reserves. They grew their crops in-between the trees. We call it agro-forestry or integrated farming. The erosion slowed down. The soil began to rebuild. Birds and insects returned. Water retention improved. Agricultural production began to improve again.

Today trees are widely dispersed throughout Hadtang and its environs and, to a lesser extent, at Phutakrit. The agricultural officer worked with both villages but Hadtang had the advantage of an additional change agent (Fr. Wicharn and later Fr. Antonio) and an on-site opinion leader (Khun Koon). Communication between the two villages had clearly operated effectively related to this common problem: verbal, as they discussed it; non-verbal as opinion leaders provided the role model by getting on and doing it. The environmental issue had provided a common denominator for facilitating communication. Furthermore, it facilitated a growing instrumental value in the natural environment: if we look after it, it will look after us. Non-verbal communication was also operating effectively in another, somewhat surprising context.

ATTENDANCE AT RELIGIOUS CEREMONIES

People from the two villages began attending each other’s religious ceremonies. In 1987 the abbot of the local Buddhist sangha9 convinced the local Buddhist communities to build a wat10 with the intention that the complex would eventually be developed to become the community center for the area. Khun Koon heard that they were short of manpower and assisted with the building of the wat. From this time he began attending their ceremonies. He felt that as leader11 of the village this was part of his duty. Given his experience in Srisakat, this was not an entirely unfamiliar thing for him to do.

Attending another religion’s ceremonies is a powerful non-verbal message of goodwill and trust both for the visitor and the host. It is likely that the regular nature of this pattern initiated by Khun Koon has been a significant factor in building and maintaining the climate of goodwill, respect and trust that has consistently characterized relations between the two villages, reflected in the interpretation of one of Phutakrit’s elders, Khun Boon. Khun Koon attends their ceremonies because he said, “we are family, for closeness and unity.”

This initiative of Khun Koon’s precipitated two further developments. The Buddhist villagers of Phutakrit in particular began attending Hadtang’s religious ceremonies and they, in turn, assisted the residents of Hadtang in the construction of their church in 1988. Fr. Wicharn also encouraged the Christians to attend the Buddhist ceremonies and attended them himself. Furthermore, he encouraged the Buddhist villagers to attend their own ceremonies. I would prefer them to be good Buddhists than bad Catholics was his approach.

This surprising attitude seems to have had two sources. First, he refers to the impact of Vatican II in opening up relations between Catholics and the adherents of other religions. This changed attitude has been noticed by others also, so that Buddhist writer Phyra Rajavaramuni12 (1990:90) can claim that “since the Council, the attitude of the Christians towards Buddhism has changed. This is evident in Thailand where the policy of cooperation and assimilation has been adopted to replace hostility, aggressiveness, contempt and harsh verbal attacks on the Buddhist teachings.” Secondly, Fr. Wicharn points to the weakness of development models which aim “to continually improve the standard of living and accumulate wealth” compared to the spiritual development model which aims “to maintain a quality of life that protects the balance between material and spiritual needs” (Hensman 1998:7). In encouraging both, his hope has been that the latter’s values would moderate the former’s tendencies to excess.

RESULTS OF THE DIALOGUE

A sustained period of development, then, has proceeded in the villages since 1982. Working together on development projects has facilitated material growth and attending each other’s ceremonies has probably facilitated spiritual growth. This process has involved an upward spiral of cumulative trust-building. Have there been any converts either way? There have been no converts, reports Fr. Wicharn. Do you ever talk about your religious beliefs to each other? Why would we do that?answered Khun Boom. Khun Koon reflects this sentiment. It would be too threatening. These are sensitive things. We accept that our beliefs are different. We don’t need to agree.

At the same time some members of the Phutakrit community express that they have thought about converting to Christianity. The reason? Everyone respects Fr. Antonio. He has given us so much, like the water pump. He gives more than he takes. He gives us the potential to become Christians. We believe him, so we believe in Christianity. They also reflect on Khun Koon’s example. He is interested in us and helpful. ... Actually respect is the key. We respect each other. Religion is not a problem. We live to support each other.

Underlying these sentiments regarding Fr. Antonio and Khun Koon is the belief that to be true to one’s religion means being a good person, and being a good person has something to do with caring for others selflessly. For the Buddhist villagers of Phutakrit, these sentiments are based on what they have observed, non-verbally, not on what they have been told. This is the role model that they, somewhat bereft of their own change agents, are responding to when they say that Fr. Antonio gives them the potential to become Christians. Their respect and trust reduce the barriers to effective communication and are based solely on the non-verbal communication that arises out of the dialogue of life. Also arising from what they observe non-verbally is perhaps the source of a mixed motive. It is not difficult to see that the villagers of Hadtang have progressed significantly towards achieving their material development objectives since the arrival of Fr. Antonio. The non-verbal osmosis in the dialogue of life cannot be controlled by the encoder. Only the decoder has the power of selectivity.

Through 1988 when the two villages established a joint shop; 1990 when they started a combined credit bank account; and 1995 when they built a water scheme together, attending each other’s ceremonies has continued consistently. They have communicated openly and easily in the course of planning and implementing these projects. Need, survival and the desire to rise above these, have consistently kept communication barriers at bay. Meanwhile, a whole raft of interreligious consultations have come and gone in various corners of the globe, and the Buddhist and Catholic residents of Hadtang and Phutakrit have not talked about their religious beliefs. But, they have been observing.

The residents of both villages have observed each other in their fields, in their homes, at local meetings, at worship and at play. They have communicated their faiths to each other, not in words but in actions. “It is much more than verbal communication.... Respectful attendance at one another’s worship may open up new and deeper levels of communication undreamed of before” (Samartha 1996:81). Their actions and their attitudes have revealed their inner persona,13 the essential them. The Christian them. The Buddhist them.

Based on their observations, each has concluded of the other that they are good people. They are good because they help without expecting anything in return. They are good, so their religion is good. “It is commonly believed in Thailand that all religions teach people to be good” (Hughes 1984b:212). Christianity teaches them to be good, says Khun Boom, Buddhism teaches me to be good and respect the Lord Buddha. He continues, a good person is one who works hard, doesn’t cheat, is honest and helps others. Hughes (1985:34), in his survey of Buddhist and Christian students, interestingly identified that “Christian students affirmed even more strongly than Buddhists that if we do good, we will receive good, and if we do evil, we will receive evil. Christianity is seen as a set of teachings about how one can do good. Thus, by following religious teaching, one will receive the benefits of doing good.” Perhaps then the Buddhist villagers measure what they observe of the Catholic villagers’ lifestyles using their Buddhist criteria of what is good, and determining on this basis that they are ‘good’, can be open to these Christians and their beliefs.

Common need has been the motivation, an improved standard of living the goal. These have been the keyhole through which effective communication has been channeled, reinforced by, and at the same time fed by, a deep respect and trust based on what they observed of the other’s faith life expressed through living life, through the dialogue of life.

CULTURAL SYMBIOSIS

There is another way to view this process. There is the distinctive way that Buddhists and Christians view history. Koyama (1970:12-13) calls the Thai Buddhist view ‘anti-historical empirical realism,’ characterized by a passive attitude. This attitude is based on the natural rather than the historical or personal dimensions. It reflects a natural environment where the seasons are cyclical and predictable and generate a ‘pathy-anthropology.’ The only way to escape is to break out of the cycle. Meditation is the channel taught by the Buddha, but popular practice in reality perpetuates the cycle, placing faith in merit-making and “doing good to receive good” (Hughes 1984a:316-317) as a means of delaying this confrontation with a life of denial to future, reincarnated lives.

Koyama (1970:13) contrasts the Buddhist view of history with that of Christianity, which he suggests expresses a ‘pathos-anthropology’ based on the saving God who breaks in to the history of Israel and rescues her from the natural and human enemies that surround her. History is linear rather than cyclical and repetitive. One person can make a difference. Just as God continued to break in through Christ, so this ‘break-in’ continues today through Christ’s followers. Hence the more pro-active attitude of the Christian community.

At the interface between apathy and pathos, the Christian community seems to have become dominant at Hadtang and Phutakrit. The Catholic community is being true to its pathos-anthropology identity: responding by caring to make a difference. And the Buddhist community is being true to its apathy-anthropology identity: change is part of the natural cycle of life. It is not be resisted, but accepted. Perhaps both in fact are being true to themselves.

Herein lies a danger. It is this very anthropocentrism, as it has been labeled by the ecophilosophers, that has created the alienation between people and the natural environment, sufficient to cause environmental deterioration. There could be latent in this osmosis of worldviews at Hadtang and Phutakrit, the potential for one to develop and the other to adopt by observation, a lifestyle detrimental to their natural environment and ultimately to themselves. Such is the nature of the dialogue of life. What is observed can appear to be only good, but what is adopted carries with it what is latently bad. Such is the nature of life.

The imperative to claim and own one’s position, characteristic of the praxis of formal interreligious dialogue consultations, becomes a compromise in the dialogue of life at Hadtang and Phutakrit. The Catholic community softens its imperative to convert, its desire to have them experience what I have experienced because Christianity has been so good to me. On the other hand, indications in the Buddhist community that Fr. Antonio makes it possible for us to become Christians suggests that the overriding value is respect and on the basis of this respect they can work together on common projects, attend each other’s celebrations, and call each other family. They trust each other because they recognize that the value of a good person is a value they hold in common, and they respect each other’s religion because they recognize that this is from where the value originates. These‘interpersonal channels,’ proposed by Rogers (1983:198) as the most effective means of changing strongly held beliefs, act as the pull factor for change.

THE PUSH FACTOR OF NEED AND THE PULL FACTOR OF ROLE MODEL

In contrast, the push factor of need operating sometimes in tandem, and often in juxtaposition, conspires to mix motives and compromise intentions. Perceived needs now include electricity, a better road and a car. Twelve months ago, in answer to the same question, Khun Koon’s needs were a little more perhaps over a period of time. My family makes me happy. There is evidence of increased litter around his house now that he has set up a store under his house. The store has become the family’s personal pantry and the 20 baht so carefully saved and banked once a month in the Credit Bank account is now spent daily on sweets and soft drink. Khun Boon’s perceived needs have also changed. He now‘needs’ electricity, electric light, a fridge, TV and a larger water pump.

Competition between the villages is now a possibility as both communities strive to increase their standard of living. A new irrigation project initiated and resourced by Fr. Antonio but available only for the Catholic villagers has the potential to create a new dynamic in the relationship between the two communities.

The building of a small wat near Phutakrit is likely to create a greater level of religious independence also as the Buddhist residents of both villages are able to perform merit more regularly and seek advice from the monk now resident there. A greater sense of confidence is expressed by Khun Arun, a Buddhist resident of Phutakrit when she says, We feel that the village is a more complete community. The village is bigger. It has a greater role or function. We are proud of the village. Now we feel more equal with Hadtang. This enhanced sense of self-esteem could create a new period in which the relationship between the two communities is re-negotiated.

Such is the reality of life in rural third world communities. Such is the nature of transactional communication. Such is the reality of the dialogue of life. To date however, trust and respect remain intact, the legacy of what is even more real: the non-verbal communication of what they are. They are still family. They are still good.

Then there is the pull factor of a role model and the push factor of need. Perhaps complementary forces in the dialogue of life, achieving an osmosis not unlike Pannikar’s “cultural symbiosis” (1989b:xviii) which he likens to lovers who must learn each others’ languages through loving, helping and finding each other“in practical ways” (1989a:487). Even in the messy reality of everyday life they are still family. And perhaps it is in this family that they find Chung Hyun Kyung’s (1991:232) “compassionate God who weeps with us for life in the midst of the cruel destruction of life.”

This model is not new. Some call it incarnational, incarnational because just as Jesus lived among us at a particular time, in a particular place, so we live in ours, attempting to walk his talk. The Word is made flesh. The Dhamma is made flesh. Actions speak louder than words - it is better to preach with the hands than with the mouth, says Fr. Wicharn. In their everyday situations people can make a difference despite the differences: by communicating about the things that matter on a day-to-day basis. In so doing they communicate what is central to their world view; they communicate themselves by being themselves.

NOTES

  1. All references to the two villages and associated quotes (presented in italics), are based on fieldwork notes taken by the author over a period of participant-observation that commenced in April 1997 and is continuing.
     
  2. The villages are located in the western Thai province of Kanchanaburi. The province is adjacent to the border of Myanmar and its capital is also called Khwae Noi and Khwae Yae rivers. The two rivers run parallel to each other from their headwaters in the north of the province where both are dammed for hydro-electric purposes forming two large lakes. The Khao Laem lake flows into the Khwae Noi and the Sri Nakharin lake into the Khwae Yae. It is on the banks of an inlet on the western side of the latter that Hadtang and Phutakrit are situated.
     
  3. Thai Christian tradition claims martyrs: in 1566 and 1569 (two Dominican Fathers) and in 1869 (two Siamese Protestants).
     
  4. Esarn refers to northeastern Thailand, although it is a description of the dominant ethnic and cultural characteristics of the people living there rather than a term identifying the geographical region. The geographical region where the Esarn people live is the plateau region east of the Chao Phrya plains extending to the Laos-Cambodian border.
     
  5. This is one of a number of terms used by communication theorists to describe the communication process in a way that captures the simultaneous two-way exchange that it involves.
     
  6. Each individual or group involved in the communication process brings its own history, experience and personality to the encounter just as the setting and circumstances surrounding the encounter itself provides the immediate context. Both influence the nature and outcomes of the encounter.
     
  7. Nature is valued instrumentally when it is valued for its usefulness to people. If, on the other hand, people value it for itself or in its own right, irrespective of its instrumental value, this constitutes an intrinsic value. Ecophilosphers have been debating the merits of both approaches for the future of the environment.
     
  8. Fr. Wicharn is currently the coordinator of the Catholic Council for Development in Thailand (CCTD).
     
  9. The community of Buddhist monks, included by Buddhist tradition in the ‘Triple Gem’ comprising the Lord Buddha, the Dhamma (teachings of Buddha), and Sangha (the community of monks who role-model the Buddhist lifestyle).
     
  10. A Buddhist religious site including temples and monasteries and associated buildings such as housing for the sangha, and the land on which they stand.
     
  11. Khun Koon’s leadership is recognized informally by Hadtang and Phutakrit in his capacities as the first settler in the area the largest land owner the most innovative and successful farmer, probably the‘wealthiest’ villager, a senior elder of the parish. He earns a high level of respect and trust owing to his generosity and thoughtfulness. Recently his leadership has been acknowledged formally by his election to the position of orbortor which is an official government position whereby he represents both villages at monthly meetings with the area’s government official.
     
  12. Phyra Rajavaramuni is more commonly known as Phyra Payutto.
     
  13. For the purposes of this study, inner persona is defined as those beliefs, values, attitudes and their associated behaviors that are the most private and strongly owned by individuals and communities. Consequently they are revealed reluctantly in the communication process and are the most difficult to change.

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