The Dialogue of Life. The question: "How do we live our lives together?", The answer: "By passing over and coming back."

Resources »Eapr »East Asian Pastoral Review 1999 »Volume 36 1999 No 4 »The Dialogue Of Life The Question How Do We Live Our Lives Together The Answer By Passing Over And Coming Back

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. His article, “Beyond Talk: The Dialogue of Life as the Locus of Non-verbal Interreligious Dialogue” appeared in the EAPR Vol. 36 no. 3.


Douglas Sturm suggests that interreligious dialogue is primarily concerned with answering the question, “How do we live our lives together?”1 Formal dialogue consultations, from a range of perspectives, attempt to answer the question, usually assuming that finding bridges between religious differences will facilitate answers. The dialogue of life, on the other hand, is the already negotiated answer to the question as it pertains to each setting in which people from different religious traditions interact in their everyday lives.

In attempting to identify the dialogue of life, we can anticipate discovering the manner in which multi-religious communities have, over time, negotiated the interface at which they meet. The interreligious dialogue corpus does not, however, provide us with a means by which to identify the answer to the question as it may be found in a multi-religious community. The corpus does however provide clues.

John Cobb, for example, suggests that interreligious dialogue involves “passing over, whereby theological-philosophical belief systems and insights are exchanged, to coming back, facing the task of restructuring our heritage in the light of what we have learned.”2 David Krieger provides a clue to the locus of this process when he writes about an “internal intrareligious dialogue” and an “external interreligious dialogue.”3 He does not, however, discuss how this rather speculative sounding concept actually occurs in reality.

Based on research conducted over the last two and a half years in two villages in western Thailand (see the previous issue of EAPR4), this article will outline the methodology that emerged from the search for a means by which the Buddhist and Catholic residents of these two villages have answered the question, “How do we, as Buddhists and Catholics, live our lives together?”


The Catholic and Buddhist residents of Hadtang and Phutakrit rarely talk about religion: why would we do that? (Rs App 7. 2),5 asks Khun Boon, a Buddhist and an elder of the predominantly Buddhist village of Phutakrit. Despite this, both Catholic and Buddhist villagers display understandings of each others’ beliefs and practices, although to varying extents. Khun Torng, a Buddhist from Phutakrit, identifies the main difference between the two religions as being that the Catholics sing hymns which he enjoys (Rs App 42.17). At the same time, he affirms that he is a Buddhist and has always been a Buddhist (Rs App 42.15). Is this Cobb’s passing over into the experience of the other and coming back to affirm or restructure one’s own beliefs? Khun So and Khun Somsong, husband and wife, are the most recently arrived of the Hadtang residents and are in the process of converting from Buddhism to Catholicism. They describe the differences they observe between the two religions in the following manner:

Q.17 What is the most important difference between going to the wat (temple) and going to church?
The most important difference is that at the wat our behavior is more restricted but when we came here we felt warm and welcomed and our neighbors are our family. We feel equal. There is harmony and unity.
Q.18 Do you notice any differences between Catholics and Buddhists at Hadtang?
We feel that the Catholics are better behaved and listen to each other and have each other as brothers and sisters, as relatives. The Buddhists don’t have any unity. They don’t listen to one another. Fr. Antonio prays that we will love one another and share. (Rs App 39.17-18)

Does this constitute, in Cobb’s terms a passing over from which there is no coming back or alternatively, a coming back in which one’s heritage is not only restructured but replaced? Khun Urng, on the other hand, a Catholic all her life and resident of Hadtang, answers questions regarding Buddhism by stating that she does not know (Rs App 37.6 and 8). Furthermore, she says of her husband, who was a Buddhist and is now converting to Catholicism, that she was not interested in learning anything from him about Buddhism (Rs App 37.13). Does Khun Urng thereby display an unwillingness to even begin to cross over? The interreligious dialogue corpus does not provide us with any mechanism by which to determine the nature of what is occurring in the understandings being constructed by each community about the others’ religious beliefs and practices.

How to Look: A Methodology

Given that the people of the two religious communities rarely discuss religion, it is likely that their understandings of each other have been achieved by means of Krieger’s internal intrareligious dialogue processes. What exactly are they? Cognitive theory examines the way in which people think and more specifically, the way in which they learn. Cognitive theory can help us in three ways.

The Way We Think

First, it can help us identify how people think and thereby to have some gauge as to the extent to which one person can pass over into the religious world of another in the associated intrareligious dialogue. Cognitive theorists have identified that people categorize and store information in their minds according to what they call “cognitive schemata.” Jean Piaget, the father of cognitive theory, called schemata “organized patterns of behavior.”6 More recent cognitive researchers have called schemata “classes of information”7;”the cognitive or mental structures by which individuals intellectually adapt to and organize the environment”; “psychological structures or processes that adapt and change with mental development”; and “concepts or categories.”8

Based on the categories of these theorists, Hensman identifies three levels of schemata.9

Level One: Knowledge
At this level, information is simply recognized. A Buddhist observing the religious ceremony of another religion sees something unfamiliar and new and recognizes it as such. This information is categorized as new knowledge. As such, it is gaining knowledge about another person’s religious beliefs and practices rather than passing over into the other’s religious world.

Level Two: Understanding
At this level, new information is processed to a greater extent. The person observing a new and unfamiliar ceremony might ask questions such as, what is happening?; why is it happening?; what are its effects on those involved?; and what does it mean? There is a desire or motivation to understand the observation to a greater extent than recognition alone involves. At this level, then, the information is processed and classified according to more complex categories and is more likely to involve passing over into the mindset of that person’s religious beliefs and practices.

Level Three: Application
If a person comes to understand and appreciate a religious belief or practice from another religious tradition, it may be possible that he or she may want to apply something of this understanding to his or her own beliefs and practices. Perhaps a particular form of meditation or prayer in one religious context is adapted to another. This, then, would be the most ‘sophisticated’ form of schemata construction because it involves modifying, adopting and adapting one’s own existing religious schemata in the process of coming back to one’s own beliefs and practices.

A person, then, who observes an aspect of another’s religious beliefs and practices and absorbs this information as knowledge without responding to it any way, cannot be deemed to have passed over. Someone who attempts to understand this information, can be said to have passed over. If the person then applies some of this new understanding to his or her own religious beliefs and practices, this person can be considered to have come back. Coming back may, on the other hand, involve a reaffirmation of one’s own beliefs and practices as they are.

The Orientations of Our Thinking

Using cognitive schemata as a means to identify the way people think and thereby, being able to suggest ways in which people pass over and come back in a cognitive sense, suggests a second application of cognitive theory. I have constructed a hierarchy of dialogue based on the three types of schemata. By adapting psychologist, Muzafer Sherif’s attitudinal zones, the latitudes of acceptance, rejection, and noncommitment, I have constructed a hierarchy of dialogue composed of two antithetical hierarchies of dialogue (see Fig. 1).10

Acceptance Orientation

Dialogue of Acknowledgment

Level One

Dialogue of Rejection

Dialogue of Endorsement

Level Two

Dialogue of Self-Endorsement

Dialogue of Adjustment

Level Three

Dialogue of Entrenchment





Rejection Orientation

Fig. 1.  A hierarchy of interreligious dialogue.


One of the hierarchies has a positive orientation towards dialogue and the other constitutes a negative orientation towards dialogue. Within each hierarchy, three levels of dialogue are advanced. In the acceptance orientated hierarchy, there are the dialogues of acknowledgment, endorsement and adjustment. In the rejection orientated hierarchy, there are the dialogues of rejection, self-endorsement and entrenchment. It is suggested that each level is characterized by a particular type of schemata. The dialogue of acknowledgment or rejection being characterized by knowledge schemata; the dialogue of endorsement or self-endorsement being characterized by understanding schemata; and the dialogue of adjustment or entrenchment being characterized by application schemata. These dialogue orientations are defined below according to the hierarchy of schemata.

(i) Schemata of Knowledge

The schemata of the first level of dialogue, the dialogue of acknowledgment, are constructed when an encounter with someone from a different religious tradition acknowledges the existence of that particular tradition. It is the least sophisticated of the schemata  identified as active in interreligious dialogue. There may be occasions when the receiver is not willing to accept any of the new information, therein initiating the dialogue of rejection and, thereby, rejecting the opportunity to pass over.

(ii) Schemata of Understanding

The schemata of the second level of dialogue, the dialogue of endorsement, are constructed when an encounter with a different religious tradition motivates a more sophisticated understanding of this new knowledge. It is the search to understand and it is the recognition that what has been acknowledged in level one, not only exists but has the right to exist in its own right. Distinctions are recognized and attitudes formed about this new information. As such, it constitutes a willingness to pass over into the schemata of the dialogue partner’s religious beliefs and practices.

If a person dialoguing at this level focusses almost exclusively on distinctions between the two sets of religious beliefs and practices, or religious schemata, a predetermined disapproval motive towards dialogue may be evident. The existing schemata of understanding are likely to reject the new information, requiring a new set of understanding schemata to be constructed, thereby preserving the differences between the two religions being examined. The schemata of understanding, therefore, are likely to facilitate a dialogue of anti-endorsement or self-endorsement. In this case, coming back involves reinforcing one’s own beliefs and practices and rejecting the opportunity to apply any insights that may have been gained from the dialogue partner’s beliefs and practices. Consequently, further opportunities to pass over are likely to be rejected.

(iii) Schemata of Application

The schemata of the third level of dialogue, the dialogue of adjustment, are constructed when an encounter with a different religious tradition facilitates the adoption of some of the schemata of the dialogue partner, gained from experience in levels one and two, into one’s own schemata. Choices are made and innovations occur. It is a recognition that there are concepts or practices in the schemata of the ‘other’ that could enhance the understanding and practice of one’s own religious schemata or cognitive schemata. It is a level of dialogue beyond simply recognizing the existence of the other; beyond being interested enough to want to understand the other. It is a level of dialogue that values the dialogue partner to the extent of recognizing qualities that add to the quality of one’s own existence, that may in turn, facilitate a modification to one’s understanding of one’s own knowledge and practices. Such a dialogue orientation is likely to result in subsequent opportunities to pass over being accepted.

As with level two, a predetermined disapproval orientation could facilitate a different kind of outcome. If one or both participants focuses on the differences, the ensuing dialogue of self-endorsement is unlikely to flow into a dialogue of adjustment. Rather it is more likely that application schemata will build on pre-existing concepts or practices, reinforced by the dialogue of self-endorsement, to ensure that these pre-existing concepts or practices are perpetuated without modification. In such a model, one’s original ideas are reinforced in response to the dialogue and there is no mutual construction of meaning as existing in the acknowledgment-endorsement-adjustment hierarchy. Instead, we have a rejection-self-endorsement-entrenchment hierarchy. Further opportunities to pass over are likely to be rejected.

Advanced in this article, is the suggestion that these schemata can be constructed at one of three levels, which represent a hierarchy of sophistication from knowledge schemata to understanding schemata and application schemata. These three levels of schemata and their associated levels of dialogue, will be tested against the praxis of interreligious dialogue at Hadtang and Phutakrit.


Thirdly, cognitive theory can also help us to identify the motivations behind the orientations that people have towards interreligious dialogue. While Piaget introduced the concept of affective schemata, his work was predominantly focussed on cognitive schemata. Cognitive theorists, subsequent to Piaget, have explored the affective schemata in more detail.

More recent research has identified affective schemata as perhaps the major influence in cognitive processing. Loye attributes to affective processes, responsibility for the initial response to stimuli when they first demand the attention of the brain and calls them “the readings of emotion”11 Hatano and Inagaki attempt to define how emotions read the stimuli. They suggest that “only when people experience cognitive incongruity about a target that they value in their lives are they likely to engage in comprehension activity”12 These valued targets, then, provide the motivation for people to construct cognitive schemata. More than this, Laszlo and others attribute to values, a role in the actual construction of cognitive schemata: “by internalizing values, humans build their cognitive schemata, for values encourage repeating behavioral sequences, forming stereotypes, and performing rituals.”13

Along with values, Wadsworth suggests that feelings, interests, desires, and emotions also provide targets or goals that motivate cognitive activity.14 Furthermore, he suggests that in relation to intellectual activity they have “motivation or energizing,” and “selection” functions.15  For these reasons, affective schemata have been described as “the gatekeeper”16 and the “guidance system” of the mind.17 Goleman, referring to the functions of the amygdala in the brain, calls it the “psychological sentinel”18; “the guide”19; “the doorway.”20 Stark and Bainbridge, based on the work of Merton, suggest that values can act as goals and criteria for the achievement of goals.21 Affective schemata are, therefore, likely to provide a window through which we can examine the motivations behind the reasons why people want to live their lives together, or conversely, do not want to and thereby, provide us with the opportunity to understand the motivations behind the various dialogue orientations that people choose to take. Affective schemata may be the key to understanding why some people will choose to pass over and others choose not to.

An examination of extracts from three of the villagers interviewed during the research period will demonstrate the contribution that a hierarchy of cognitive schemata; a hierarchy of dialogue; and affective schemata, can make towards unlocking the nature of the answer the three residents have made to the question, “How do we live our lives together?” If cognitive theory can in this way, help us to identify the varying extents to which the Buddhist and Catholic residents of both villages have passed over and come back between their two religious worlds, we may be in a stronger position to be able to define more clearly the nature of the dialogue of life.


1. Passing Over and Coming Back

Extract One: Khun Boon (Rs App 14)
Khun Boon is a Buddhist from Phutakrit.

Q. 4. What are the beliefs of the Catholics at Hadtang?
The same as Buddhist beliefs. Both are good. Catholicism teaches them to be good.

Q. 5. What is it about Catholicism that helps them to be good?
They do it for God.

Q. 6. As a Buddhist, who do you do it for?
For ourselves and the family.

Q. 7. What have you learnt about Catholicism from the villagers of Hadtang?
Fr Antonio has given us pipes for water. He teaches people to be good.

Q. 8. What does it mean to be good?
A good person is one who works hard, doesn’t cheat, is honest and helps others.

Q. 9. What do they do that is religious?
When we first came here we did not know who at Hadtang was Buddhist and who was Catholic, but Khun Koon told us they were Catholics. The only difference now is that they have a church.

Q.10. Is there any difference in terms of their behavior?
Only that Khun Koon prays (ar-thi tharn) before he eats.

Q.11. Which Catholic ceremonies do you attend?
We go to church once or twice during the year, when Fr Antonio comes. We go to the Christmas ceremony and other special ceremonies such as Palm Sunday.

Q.12. What do you see when you go to the Christmas ceremony?
It looks different and when we go to the wat we have to pray (suat mon) and the monk prays (suat mon). At the Catholic church they don’t pray (suat mon).

Q.13. What do you think is the meaning of the Christmas ceremony?
Christmas is sacred and we are proud that it is like a Buddhist ceremony. It is like going to a family function like the Buddhist New Year.

Q.14. Why do you go to the wat?
Whenever there is a Buddhist ceremony. The wat is a long way from the village so we only go when we want to make a donation. Only when there is a big ceremony. Everyone goes including the small children. Khun Koon goes also.

Q.15. Why does he go?
Because we are family. For closeness and unity.

Khun Boon: Between A Dialogue of Endorsement and Self-endorsement

Affective schemata
Khun Boon demonstrates the possible existence of two gate-keeping schemata. The first, is a value in good people. In response to Questions 4, 7 and 8, he mentions the role religion has in helping to make people good. The second affective schemata is a value in community. It is an emotional as well as value schema, demonstrated by his response to Question 13 when he expresses pride at the existence of the Christmas festival. In the same response and again in response to Question 15, he alludes to the family relationship between the two communities. Given the nature of these two affective schemata, it is likely that Khun Boon’s cognitive schemata will reflect a willingness to pass over, to the extent that his need to be a good person is satisfied and the extent to which relationship with the Catholic community enhances his ability to meet this need and possibly others.

Cognitive Schemata
— knowledge schemata
Khun Boon restricts information classified in his knowledge schemata primarily to historical information about past events. He states that when they first came to Hadtang they did not know the Catholic villagers were in fact Christians (Q.9). Again his knowledge schemata becomes evident when he is describing how often they attend ceremonies at the Hadtang church (Q.11).

—understanding schemata
Most of Khun Boon’s responses appear to emanate from his understanding schemata. They display a high degree of cognitive processing, being able to both provide similarities and differences between the two religions, from which he is able to conclude that both are good (Q.4). The dominance of these schemata indicate a willingness to pass over.

In responses 4-8, Khun Boon is able to state that Catholic beliefs are good; then provide a motivation (for God); a role model (Fr. Antonio); and a checklist of good behaviors (Q.8). He also says that Buddhism teaches people to be good (Q.4). In responses 9-12 he is able to provide examples of distinctions between the two religions: the Catholics have a church; Khun Koon prays before meals (ar-thi tharn is private prayer); and the two communities pray differently at the wat and the church (suat mon is used by also the Catholic community, to describe their liturgies. Khun Boon is distinguishing between the liturgy of the Catholic service and the chanting of the Buddhist ceremony). Throughout the responses Khun Boon’s affective schemata show through, so that he concludes, irrespective of the contrasts between the two religions, that Khun Koon and himself (implied in Q.13), attend each other’s ceremonies for the sake of community (Q.15).

—application schemata
Khun Boon does not concede that any differences between the two communities’ religions make any difference (Q.9). The only point at which he appears to utilize application schemata is when he talks with pride about the Christmas festival. In this case however, he is valuing the celebration because of its similarity to a Buddhist New Year celebration. This reversed application schema has the potential to become a form of retrenchment.

Dominant Dialogue Orientation

Understanding schemata are the most evident in Khun Boon’s responses. The differences and similarities between the two communities and their religions are consistent with his gate-keeping schemata: both religions make people good and the real measure of their goodness is not in their religious loyalties but in their community loyalty. Consequently, Khun Boon passes over to the extent that he can endorse the efficacy of Catholicism and come back, self-endorsing the efficacy of Buddhism because both are good (Q.4). His observations of the Catholic community have been involved in an internal intradialogue with the religious schemata of his own cognitive schemata and, filtered by his affective schemata, have facilitated a mindset conducive to living together with his Catholic neighbors in a spirit of respect and cooperation.


Extract Two: Khun Banrai (Rs App 29)
A resident of Hadtang, recently converted from Buddhism to Catholicism.

Q. 2. What difference does it make to be a Catholic?
There are many new rules. I like it because as a Buddhist anything is OK - there are no rules or regulations. Being a Catholic gives life more purpose - there is something to look forward to. If I don’t go to church for a week I have to make up for this sin. It makes one more responsible to serve God.

Q. 3. Had you met any Christians before you came here?
I met a Christian at Esarn once but not a Catholic. My view of what a Christian is has changed a lot since I first came to Hadtang. When I first came I just observed. I met a boy when I first came - he gave me a cross. I did not know what it was. I lost it because I was not interested. The ceremonies at the church seemed strange. There were many ceremonies. My husband was a Catholic so I started attending the church and made observations. Gradually I became interested and Fr. Antonio asked if I wanted to learn more. He sent Fr. Siriphong in the summer holidays to teach me every day.

Q. 4. What stood out to you as the most significant/meaningful/ special when you first started attending?
I didn’t believe then but one day I lay down and dreamt that there was a man dressed like a priest in white who gave me a cross. It was like a sign to become a Catholic.

Q. 5. You have now been studying for four years. What seems to you to be most special about Catholic beliefs?
The belief in only one God (Phra-jao). This is special because I believe in the highest God - the greatest.

Q. 6. How is Phra-jao (Lord God) different from Phra-phoot-tha-jao (Lord Buddha)?
Jesus Christ was innocent and pure - he had no family or wife. The Buddha had a family and wife. The study of the two religions is different. Buddhists do not study much. Being a Catholic means you really have to know about it. You can become a Buddhist without really knowing anything. It is too hard to become a Catholic, but the process means that once I achieve the goal I am special.

Q.7. Do you still go to Buddhist activities?
Yes, there is no barrier. I have never felt that it is special to be a Buddhist and still do not feel that it is special. I feel it is special to be a Catholic though. I go to the wat to participate.

Q. 8. What do you think about the new wat?
I know about it. It is good for them because going to the wat for them is as important as it is for me to go to church. It is good that they can do whatever is best for their religion.

Khun Banrai: Dialogue of Adjustment

Affective schemata. Khun Banrai has a dominant emotional gate-keeping schema that could be called feeling special. She mentions this in answer to Questions 5 and 6 and three times in answer to Question 7. Furthermore, she reinforces this in response to Question 2 when she says that Catholicism has given her more purpose. Khun Banrai has made the decision to convert from Buddhism to Catholicism and has been receiving religious instruction for four years in preparation for baptism. It is likely that the motivations involved in this decision will be reflected in her gate-keeping schemata and, therefore, the manner in which she classifies information about the religious cognitive schemata, to which she is passing over.

Cognitive Schemata

 knowledge schemata
Khun Banrai uses knowledge schemata in which to classify some events that she describes from the past, such as meeting a Christian in Esarn and being given a cross once (Q.3). She also describes having a dream once about a cross (Q.4).

 understanding schemata
Most of the information relayed by Khun Banrai to describe her interpretations of Catholicism, reflect the understanding schemata she has constructed and reflect strongly, her affective schemata. In response to Question 2 she compares the influence of “rules” in the two religions; in response to Question 6 she compares the family life of the Jesus and the Buddha; in the same response she compares the level of knowledge involved in becoming a member of each religion; in response to Question 8 she compares the importance of the wat and the church for each respective religion. The knowledge that she has of both religions is used to clearly distinguish one from the other. While she acknowledges that much of her earlier knowledge was based on observation (Q.3), it is likely that the comprehensive understanding she displays in this extract is the result of the teaching she has been receiving for baptism in the Catholic church. She is motivated to understand as much as possible about Catholicism because it makes her feel special.

— application schemata
Application schemata are numerous in Khun Banrai’s responses. She classifies in her application schemata, the influence Catholicism has had on giving her life more purpose and achievement of goals (Qs. 2 and 6); on feeling more responsible to God (Q.2); on teaching her (Q.3); and on making her feel special (Qs. 5, 6, 7). Becoming a Catholic makes Khun Banrai feel more special and so she applies her knowledge about both religions to support the distinctiveness which now contributes to her sense of identity. She passes over completely, thereby answering the question, “How do we live our lives together?” by choosing to become part of the other religious community.

Dominant Dialogue Hierarchy

Khun Banrai’s responses are dominated by application schemata. This is not surprising given that she is in the process of converting. For a person to be sufficiently motivated to convert from one cognitive schemata to another, it is likely that the religion to which the person is converting, is perceived by that person as having something significant to offer.

Khun Banrai’s affective schema of feeling special, becomes evident. If the knowledge she has gained is to be efficacious in sustaining this feeling of specialness, she will want to convert. Khun Banrai passes through all three levels of the acceptance hierarchy and adjusts to the ultimate extent: by changing her allegiance from her Buddhist religious schemata to her Catholic religious schemata. Initially by observation and then through verbal instruction, she passes over by constructing new religious schemata at all three levels and by completely replacing her former Buddhist schemata, thereby choosing not to come back. Again, however, even in this extreme example of the dialogue of adjustment, a previously recognized pattern is evident: despite the differences she has intricately identified, she still goes to the wat to participate because there is no barrier (Q.7) and she considers it good that they have a wat because it means they can do what is important for them to do (Q.8). This again, is the affective value of community.

Khun Banrai also demonstrates the initiation of an ‘inverted’ interreligious dialogue. Now that she has converted, she now dialogues with the religion and its community, to which she previously belonged. In this inverted dialogue, she demonstrates self-endorsement tendencies. She says that in Buddhism anything is OK and it does not have rules (Q.2); and that becoming a Buddhist is not difficult (Q.6). Also implied, is a lower degree of purity for the Buddha (Q.6). Catholicism, on the other hand, has more purpose and more responsibility (Q.2); has the highest God (Q.5); and in contrast to the Buddha, Jesus Christ was innocent and pure (Q.6). Furthermore, she implies that Catholics know more and are more special (Qs.6-7). This self-endorsement does not however progress to entrenchment. She comes back to her old religious schemata only to the extent that needs associated with her affective value to live life in community with her Buddhist neighbors, are satisfied. This is demonstrated by her support for the new wat (Q.8).


Extract Two: Khun Urng (Rs App 37)
Khun Urng is a resident of Hadtang and a Catholic.

Q. 6. What do you think is the most important thing that a Buddhist believes?
I do not know.

Q. 7. How do you feel about the new wat?
They should be happy in the same way I feel happy being close to the church.

Q. 8. What do they do at the wat?
I don’t know. It helps them to have faith.

Q. 9. Have you been to the new wat?
I have not been to a ceremony at the new wat but I have helped prepare food for ceremonies there.

Q.12. Were you worried about marrying a Buddhist?
No, I was not worried.

Q.13. Did you learn anything about Buddhism from Khun Sutin?
I did not learn anything. I was not interested.

Q.14. Why has Khun Sutin converted to Catholicism?
I don’t know how to answer that. It is better because we can do more activities together. It is better for the children.

Khun Urng: the Dialogue of Rejection

Affective schemata. 
With regard to Buddhism, Khun Urng’s dominant affective schema is that of disinterest. Disinterest is explicitly stated in answer to Question 13 and implied in answer to Questions 6, 8 and 14 when she says she does not know and in response to Question 12 when she says she was not worried. A second affective schema is evident, however, which appears to stand in contrast to the first: it is a value in being involved. The dominant orientation of her interest is with her own church and family (Qs. 7 and 14) but it does extend to the Buddhist community as expressed in response to Question 9.

Cognitive schemata
knowledge schemata
In her answers regarding Buddhism, Khun Urng displays a predominantly knowledge response. Her replies are mainly descriptive: she has not been; she did not learn; there are more activities. These responses reflect the influence of her disinterested schema. 
— understanding schemata
In response to Question 7, Khun Urng relates the way in which she perceives the Buddhist community to feel about the new wat, to how she feels about going to church herself. In response to Question 8, she recognizes the significance of the new wat for their faith. 
— application schemata
There is no evidence of application schemata in these responses. Given her lack of interest in anything Buddhist, this is not surprising. To the limited extent that she passes over, her coming back is totally orientated towards reinforcing her own religious schemata.

Dominant Dialogue Orientation

A significant proportion of Khun Urng’s responses reflect a lack of willingness to even process information concerning Buddhism at the level of knowledge schemata. Hers, therefore, is a dialogue of rejection. She chooses not to pass over. There is, furthermore, evidence of the dialogue of self-endorsement in her responses to Questions 7 and 14, as she reaffirms what is important to her.

Khun Urng is responding to the information around her concerning Buddhism, with as little involvement as possible. She has little prior knowledge of Buddhism, having spent most of her post-child life at Hadtang. She married a Buddhist but was not interested in learning anything from him about Buddhism (Q.13). Furthermore, his religious involvement has been exclusively with the Catholic community for at least five years and he is in the process of converting. Khun Urng does not in any sense, at an intrapersonal or an interpersonal level, enter into dialogue with Buddhist beliefs or practices and in so doing, displays a rejection orientation towards dialogue. She answers the question, “How do we live our lives together?” by being involved only to the extent that positive relations between the two religious communities are maintained but rejects the opportunity to live together with the Buddhist community at any level beyond this.


We have looked to the relationships between the Catholic and Buddhist communities at Hadtang and Phutakrit as a locus for being able to answer Sturm’s question, “How do we live our lives together?”  We have looked to cognitive theory in order to define the intrareligious locus in which these people pass over and come back in their search for the answer. Based on this study, we can describe what constitutes the dialogue of life.

The Stimuli

There is sufficient evidence to conclude that people rarely talk about religion in the communities studied. Despite this, there is also ample evidence to suggest that members of both religious communities have formed ‘theological’ understandings of each others’ beliefs and practices. Religious communication is occurring by means of observation. The villagers process these observations to the extent that they are willing to pass over.

The Hierarchies of Dialogue

The mutuality involved in the dialogue of life at Hadtang and Phutakrit is demonstrated by the manner in which the hierarchies of dialogue can be identified.

The acceptance orientated hierarchy is dominant and most respondents in the fieldwork display evidence of dialoguing at all three levels. Furthermore, all respondents show evidence of dialoguing in the rejection orientated hierarchy even if momentarily. Most respondents move between the levels and the hierarchies. It is a dynamic and unpredictable process. People may pass over and come back many times in the course of living together in a community over many years.

All respondents acknowledge information received from the other community. All respondents attempt to understand at least something of what they observe. All respondents respond personally in some way to the information they receive. Dialogue, then, is deemed to be occurring because the information has been received over a long period of time and so is likely to have been received in many ‘installments’ and by many senders. It is, therefore, a mutual process involving many sources of stimuli in both communities. Furthermore, it is dialogue because the receiver has passed over by processing the information and responding to it, thereby, creating from the raw material of observation, a mutually constructed meaning that is responded to when the receiver comes back.

Overall, the Buddhist community displays the most positive disposition towards passing over having an orientation towards understanding schemata and the associated dialogue level of endorsement and less frequently, displays movement towards the rejection orientated hierarchy. The Catholic respondents display a more conservative disposition, passing over more frequently at the acknowledgment level and moving more readily towards the rejection level of the rejection hierarchy. The converts display this latter trend to an even greater extent and display a greater disposition towards self-endorsement than any of the other groups.

It can be concluded, based on the responses studied, that degrees of dialogue occur at Hadtang and Phutakrit whereby members of both communities form understandings of the others’ beliefs and practices and even modify their own in minor ways in response to what they observe and come to understand. For the converts this process goes a lot further. For most, however, this process of passing over and coming back is not consistent, nor is it predictable.

Affective schemata

While dialogue can be demonstrated to be occurring at varying degrees of depth and consistency, what is consistently demonstrated is the desire on the part of all three groups, Buddhist, Catholic and converted, to clarify and reinforce their own distinctive beliefs and practices. The dominance of the two common affective schemata, therefore, stand in contrast to this conclusion. The predominant affective schema, the value of community, appears to override this desire to reinforce distinctiveness. It is the dominant factor in determining the way in which people answer the question, “How shall we live our lives together?” It is a schema strongest in the Buddhist responses and the Catholic responses, other than the converts. The primary concern of the latter group, is to justify their decision to pass over, permanently, from one set of religious schemata (Buddhist) to the other (Catholic). Consequently, they show more concern for their new religious community and their own religious identity, rather than that of the whole community, having chosen not to come back.

The value of a good person is more frequently displayed explicitly in the Buddhist community, reflecting the value it has for Buddhism. It is consistently displayed in the Catholic community also, but more implicitly. Goodness is perceived by both to be a moral quality and both generally recognize the other religion as efficacious in achieving ‘goodness’ of this nature, for the adherents of each respective religion. The affective schemata have an orientation towards community and, therefore, enable people from both communities to live their lives together across their religious boundaries in a collaborative manner, while at the same time reaffirming their distinctive religious identities.

While conversions may appear to be a significant outcome of the dialogue of life at Hadtang and Phutakrit, conversion cannot be directly linked to the dialogue process. Six of the eight people who have converted or are in the process of doing so, are married to Catholics. Their decision to convert is likely, therefore, to involve pragmatic rationale rather than to be attributable to the exchange and processing of religious information. While external interreligious dialogue may occur in a marriage relationship, dialogue is more likely to be of an internal intrareligious nature. The Buddhist marriage partner is more likely to be influenced by the relational dynamics associated with a mixed religious marriage and family, than by any religious convictions that the Catholic partner may express. This is demonstrated by references most respondents make to the children or the marriage relationship and to the consistent references in these responses to both religions being the same.

The Motivation

The primary motivation emerging in the chapter is that of needs. Material development is clearly the dominant objective for most people in the two communities. Equally obvious is the significant role of Fr. Antonio and the resources that he has made available to members of both communities. The response to his generosity is genuine and sincere. Irrespective of this, the strong motivation that emerges from the affective value of community, is that of needs satisfaction. Fr. Antonio is perceived to be a good person because he is the dominant influence in enabling the villagers to satisfy these needs. Community is more important than religious distinctions when living together collaboratively, produces an improved standard of living and especially when this can happen, based on the Catholic resources, without any expectation to convert. The value of community is a pragmatic gatekeeper that both allows access to desired resources and, at the same time, controls the degree of ‘transfer’ between religious schemata.

Is the dialogue of life, then, simply a pragmatic tool for manipulating access to resources deemed necessary for needs satisfaction? Sturm stated that dialogue is about answering the question, “How do we live our lives together?”22 The case study would suggest that the living of our lives together has a more holistic locus than material needs only. Kraft suggests that needs of a less tangible, deeper nature also drive human endeavor.23 The second  affective  value would  suggest that the dialogue of life is not a mechanism with entirely material goals in mind. The affective value of a good person, is a value recognized by Thai Buddhists as accessible in all religions:

It is commonly believed in Thailand that all religions teach people to be good. Indeed, this is considered to be one of the most important functions of religion in society. It is also believed that different religions have similar effectiveness and are of a similar value in carrying out this function of teaching people to be good. It does not matter whether one is a Buddhist, a Christian, or Muslim, as long as one has a religion. (Hughes 1984, 212)

For both the Buddhist and the Catholic communities of Phutakrit and Hadtang, Fr Antonio is the epitome of this value. He is compared to the monks; he is attributed with bringing development.

Why is it, given the strong commendation that Buddhists respondents give Fr. Antonio and Catholicism, that only those who are married to Catholics convert? The Buddhist villagers acknowledge that it is hard to convert and it appears as though only those married to Catholics have the level of personal motivation necessary to do so. It may also be, that association with the Catholic community provides sufficient ‘added-value’ in religious terms as well as in material terms, that needs are satisfied at both levels. During the period before the new wat at Phutakrit was constructed in 1998, the Buddhist villagers attended ceremonies at the church. When the wat was built, Buddhist villagers did not say they were happy because now they could be different, but rather, they were now the same. This would indicate that previous to the building of the wat, there was an extent to which the Buddhist villagers associated the meeting of their own religious needs with attendance at the church. It is also likely that the willingness of both communities to help prepare the grounds and food for the others’ religious occasions, relates also to a satisfying of the need to be good people and in Buddhism, being a good person has a lot to do with making merit at the wat: helping the monk and providing him with food; and contributing labor, time and money.

Furthermore, the affective value of community schema reflects a deeper level need, that of identity. Both communities find some degree of identity needs satisfaction in the context of their relationship. In the context of Kanchanaburi, they are Esarn, from the other side of Thailand. They are ‘foreigners’. In the context of their local area, the nearest villages are comprised of Kunchanaburians. In these wider contexts, their commonalities give them identity. In the narrower context of Hadtang and Phutakrit, their religious distinctions provide a micro identity. This is particularly the case for the Catholics who are a minority religion in a predominantly Buddhist environment. By passing over to the extent that collaboration is nurtured and by coming back to the extent that one’s own religious schemata are reinforced, both communities enhance their community identity and at the same time, retain their own distinctive religious identities.

The Predetermined Disposition

From this study, it is suggested that in the dialogue of life, people and even whole communities are likely to ‘negotiate’ over time, a predetermined disposition towards dialogue, that enables them to live their lives together. In the case study, there are exceptions with every group but there are also patterns. The converts display the clearest pattern. The Buddhist and the other Catholic respondents display slightly different tendencies.

The Buddhist community has a more positive disposition, probably conceived in their interaction with Fr. Wicharn, who gave scholarships for their children. The Catholic villagers’ predisposition towards an acknowledgment-rejection orientation emanates from the immediacy of material and spiritual resources available to them: they have their own priest, church and a flow of resources from external Catholic sources. The converts, having decided to change their religious schemata, dialogue in a manner consistent with their needs: identity endorsement.

The dialogue of life, in this sense, reflects real life. It reflects the everyday material and spiritual needs of everyday people and their responses in the pursuit of satisfying these needs. 


The dialogue of life is the exchange of religious information by means of observation in the context of everyday life. Based on observations at ceremonies, joint projects and in neighborly interactions, people from different religious traditions classify their observations in varying degrees of complexity: from knowledge to understanding and application. Depending on the nature of their affective schemata, people pass over to varying levels of dialogue, in response to what has been observed.

The level at which the dialogue occurs appears to be determined, even predetermined, by the perceived ability of the interreligious relationship to meet needs dissatisfaction at the material and spiritual levels. Consequently, they live their lives together in a manner that enables them to meet the dominant material needs in relation to development and their dominant spiritual needs in relation to being good people. Affective schemata create an interface between the two communities at which needs are met cooperatively, while religious distinctions are reinforced. 

The dialogue of life is an ongoing internal intrareligious dialogue fed by observation in the context of external interreligious relationships between people of different faiths living in the same or neighboring communities over extended periods of time. In this manner, the dialogue of life constitutes the locus and the means, by which they pass over and come back in the ongoing search for an answer to the question, “How do we live our lives together?”


  1. Douglas Sturm, “Crossing the Boundaries: on the Idea of Interreligious Dialogue and the Political Question,” Journal of Ecumenical Studies 30, no. 1 (Winter 1993): 2.
  2. John B. Cobb, Beyond Dialogue: Towards a Mutual Transformation of Christianity and Buddhism (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1982), 48.
  3. David J. Krieger, “Communication Theory and Inter-religious Dialogue,” Journal of Ecumenical Studies 30, nos. 3-4 (Summer-Fall 1993): 352.
  4. J. Mark Hensman, “Beyond Talk: The Dialogue of Life as the Locus of Non-Verbal Interreligious Dialogue,” East Asian Pastoral Review 36, no.3, 1999, 323-337.
  5. “Rs App” indicates Research Appendices i.e. the interview notes during the research period.
  6. Herbert Ginsburg and Sylvia Opper, Piaget’s Theory of Intellectual Development: An Introduction (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1969), 20.
  7. Ervin Laszlo and others, Changing Visions. Human Cognitive Schemata: Past, Present, and Future (London: Adamantine, 1996), 9.
  8. Barry J. Wadsworth, Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive and Affective Development: Foundations of Constructivism, 5th ed. (White Plains, NY: Longman, 1996), 14.
  9. These are advanced in Hensman, Sept. 1999. They are based on the various constructs advanced by cognitive theorists such as Cosmides, Griffin, Hofstede, Arno, and E. M. Rogers. L. Cosmides, “The logic of social exchange: has natural selection shaped how humans reason? Studies with Wason selection task,” Cognition 31 (1989): 195; E. M. Griffin, A First Look at Communication Theory (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1997), 126-127; Geert H. Hofstede, Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind (Intercultural Cooperation and its Importance for Survival) (London: McGraw-Hill, 1991), 231; Andrew Arno, The World of Talk on a Fijian Island: An Ethnography of Law and Cumulative Causation (Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 1993), 36; Everett M. Rogers, Diffusion of Innovations, 3d ed. (New York: Free; London: Collins Macmillan, 1983), 173.
  10. J. Mark Hensman “Beyond Talk: The Dialogue of Life, Set in the Context of Two Communities in Western Thailand” (D.Theol. diss., Melbourne College of Divinity, 1999), 187.
  11. David Loye, “Moral Sensitivity and the Evolution of Higher Mind,” in The Evolution of Cognitive Schemata: New Paradigms for the Twenty-First Century, Ervin Laszlo and Ignazio Masulli, eds., with Robert Artigiani and Vilmos Csanyi (Switzerland: Gordon and Breach, 1993), 154.
  12. Giyoo Hatano and Kayoko Inakaki, “Desituating cognition through the construction of conceptual knowledge,” in Context and Cognition: Ways of Learning and Knowing, eds. Paul Light and George Butterworth (Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1992), 124.
  13. Laszlo and others, 6.
  14. Wadsworth, 31-32.
  15. Ibid., 30.
  16. Ibid., 31.
  17. Loye, 156.
  18. Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ (New York: Bantam, 1995), 19.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Ibid., 4.
  21. Rodney Stark and William Sims Bainbridge, A Theory of Religion, ed. Donald Weibe (New York: Peter Lang, 1987), 216; quoting Robert K. Merton, “Social Structure and Anomie,” in Social Theory and Social Structure (New York: Free Press, 1968), 185-214.
  22. Sturm, 2.
  23. Charles H. Kraft, Communication Theory for Christian Witness (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1991), 69.


Arno, Andrew

1993 The World of Talk on a Fijian Island: An Ethnography of Law and Cumulative Causation. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Cobb, John B.

1982 Beyond Dialogue: Towards a Mutual Transformation of Christianity and Buddhism. Philadelphia: Fortress.

Cosmides, Leda

1989 “The logic of social exchange: Has natural selection shaped how humans reason? Studies with the Wason selection task.” Cognition 31: 187-276.

Ginsburg, Herbert and Sylvia Opper

1969 Piaget’s Theory of Intellectual Development: An Introduction. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Goleman, Daniel

1995 Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ. New York: Bantam.

Griffin, E. M.

1997 A First Look at Communication Theory. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Hatano, Giyoo and Kayoko Inakaki

1992 “ Desituating cognition through the construction of conceptual knowledge” in Context and Cognition: Ways of Learning and Knowing, eds. Paul Light and George Butterworth, 115-133. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Hensman, J. Mark

1999 “Beyond Talk: The Dialogue of Life, Set in the Context of Two Communities in Western Thailand.” D. Theol. diss., Melbourne College of Divinity, 1999.

1999 “Beyond Talk: The Dialogue of Life as the Locus of Non-Verbal Interreligious Dialogue,” East Asian Pastoral Review 36, no. 3: 323-337.

Hofstede, Geert H.

1991 Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind (Intercultural Cooperation and its Importance for Survival). London: McGraw-Hill.

Kraft, Charles H.

1991 Communication Theory for Christian Witness. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.

Krieger, David J.

1993 “Communication Theory and Inter-religious Dialogue,” Journal of Ecumenical Studies 30, nos. 3-4 (Summer-Fall): 331-353.

Laszlo, Ervin, and others.

1996 Changing Visions. Human Cognitive Maps: Past, Present, and Future. London: Adamantine, 1996.

Loye, David

1993 “Moral Sensitivity and the Evolution of Higher Mind” in The Evolution of Cognitive Maps: New Paradigms for the Twenty-First Century, eds. Ervin Laszlo and Ignazio Masulli, with Robert Artigiani and Vilmos Csanyi, 151-165. Switzerland: Gordon and Breach.

Rogers, Everett M.

1983 Diffusion of Innovations, 3rd ed. New York: Free; London: Collins Macmillan, 1983.

Stark, Rodney and William Sims Bainbridge

1987 A Theory of Religion, ed. Donald Weibe (New York: Peter Lang,), 216; quoting Robert K. Merton, “ Social Structure and Anomie,”  in Social Theory and Social Structure (New York: Free Press, 1968), 185-214.

Sturm, Douglas

1993 “Crossing the Boundaries: on the Idea of Interreligious Dialogue and the Political Question.” Journal of Ecumenical Studies 30, no. 1 (Winter): 1-19.

Wadsworth, Barry J.

1996 Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive and Affective Development: Foundations of Constructivism, 5th ed. White Plains, NY: Longman.