Talk given at the meeting of Asian Ambassadors to the Holy See at the Pontifical Urban University, 18 June 2019

by Peter Baekelmans, CICM

Asia has a long-standing tradition of respect for other religious traditions. This peaceful coexistence of different religions is partly thanks to certain teachings that have promoted unity and harmony among these religions. We think here, for instance, on the Indian continent with its many religious expressions of Hinduism living peacefully together. This unity has been taught from the Rig Veda, the oldest Hindu scripture, up to modern times:

“To what is One, sages give many a title.”


“However men approach me, even so do I welcome them, for the path men take from every side is mine.”

(Bhagavad Gita)

“Hinduism is a living organism liable to growth and decay and subject to the laws of nature. One and indivisible at the root, it has grown into a vast tree with innumerable branches.”

(Mahatma Gandhi)

Also in China, the Three Teachings of Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism exist in harmonious relationship. So much so that when upon entering a temple, one does not know immediately to which religion this temple is dedicated. These religions live in such a harmonious elationship that one wonders how this came about. The reason can be found in the Chinese mind that has been moulded through the years by the teachings of their wise elders.

“There are two particular features of Chinese thought, which might be summarized by the words ‘harmony’ and ‘tradition’.”

(Mel Thompson)

Also in Japan, Buddhism and Shintoism have accepted each others deities, which is called shinbutsushugo, a syncretism of kamis and buddhas. The theory behind this way of life is known as Honji Suijaku, a theory that originated in the 9th century according to which Japanese Shinto gods (kami) were considered to be emanations of buddhas, bodhisattvas or devas who mingled with human beings to lead them to the Buddhist Way. Kukai Kobo Daishi, the Founder of Shingon Esoteric Buddhism in Japan, was one of the first to promote this pen attitude towards other religions. He prayed to the local Shinto god at the foot of ount Koya to allow him to start his Buddhist center on the top of the mountain. His eaching was also in this line:

“Kukai, while respecting the religion of every person, taught the important source of salvation, hidden in their teachings.”

(Ryuko Oda)

This open attitude (“positive syncretism”) towards the divinities, teachings, and theologies of other religions, positively furthers the dialogue among the different religions. For instance, freedom of religion is better understood; people are more ready to accept the presence of different religious traditions among their kin; scholars are more interested in comparing the different religious leaders and religious teachings; it furthers dialogue and peace among religions.

With Vatican II the Roman-Catholic Church started on the same lines to open, on a theological level, to other religions with the famous saying: “The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions.” (Nostra Aetate, n. 2). The Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together, signed by Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, in Abu Dhabi, 4th February, 2019, strengthens this view:

“The pluralism and the diversity of religions,colour, sex, race and language, are willed by God in His wisdom, through which He created human beings.”

The interreligious dialogue meeting for peace in 1986 in Assisi has encouraged Buddhist schools in Japan to take initiatives. Shingon took this dialogue for peace a step further in 2005 by initiating a theological dialogue with the Theological Faculty of Central-Italy for one week in Florence, followed by another one in Koyasan in 2006. However, differences of culture and language present a great stumbling-block in theological dialogue.

The Roman-Catholic Church is graced with many theologians, especially missionaries who have been set free to deepen their knowledge of other religions in view of dialogue.
However, besides the study of another religion, some practice of, and even faith in the other religion is needed, as it is for ours too.

History of Religion (study)

Phenomenology of Religion (practice)

Theology of Religion (faith)

As the dialogue among religions is deepening, a theological encounter is unavoidable. Asian scholars and theologians are taking the lead in this spiritual adventure. More initiatives are needed to make this theological dialogue possible and fruitful. Theology of Religions is the Church’s contribution to this.