In reflecting upon the most popular in the Pali tradition The Questions of King Melinda, the first Century largely Theravada Buddhist writing and the Wisdom of Royal Glory Turko-Islamic, there are a number of inroads towards the nurturance of a personal expression of religiousness whereby one can pursue contemporary interfaith dialogue. These texts, along with mystical Islamic traditions, the Qur’an, Buddhist insights, and wisdom, there is availed a path towards personal responsibility that is fueled by a wisdom that exemplifies humility and compassion. Amidst the tension that arises between the individual life and human sociality, students of ancient wisdom literatures may become aware of the overlapping of these ‘two’ spheres of experience and negotiate the middle ground of ethics.

            An individual’s ethical and political responsiveness in meeting the tension between political ideals and spiritual enlightenment will determine the quality of any interfaith dialogue that they may undertake. A first step to entering a place of ethical relation is the requisite reflection upon one’s own presuppositions. One such presupposition that is often found within those who interact with individuals of other faiths is to conflate the cultural expression of some who identify with a faith tradition with the tradition itself. Muslims must never be taken as representative of Islam; Christians with Christianity and so forth. Even a cultural expression of many within a faith is still particular to a time, geography, and the accidentals of surrounding that cultural milieu. The presupposition which holds a religion as a coterminous with the lived practices of its adherents must be dissolved for one to engage in virtuous contemporary interfaith dialogue. Recalling a paraphrase of Bayazid Bastami, “if your religion is of the saints’ lives, I could not attain it. If it is of the majority’s lives, I would not want to attain it” draws the distinction for one to individually interact with a tradition on its own terms to find the lived reality of it.

            In the Eleventh Century CE, ‘mirror for princes’ writings emerged more prominently as its own genre in the Muslim world. Along with The Questions of King Melinda, these texts reveal the interactions of wise and saintly individuals sharing in divergent perspectives and value systems. The features of these two texts, from Turko-Islamic and Theravada Buddhist traditions are similar in the methodical dialectic of saintly religious figures interacting with wise autocratic leaders, but the question must be raised of how other texts from various religious traditions may also function as within the parameters of ‘mirror for princes’. Of the Jewish Tanakh, it can be reasonably asserted that historically, its origins and use were largely within the elite cultures of priests and kings. The holy writings’ rediscovery by King Josiah and the Hebrew priest Hilkiah as detailed in the book of II Kings may serve as exemplary of the writings’ function as training leaders in ways of justice and service to the larger masses. Due to ancient illiteracy, cultures of oral transmission, and the control of texts by the ruling and the elite, ancient texts are subject to critical lenses with class and hegemonic power in mind. However, in much of the contemporary world, literacy and political access have increased and the ‘mirror for prince’ genre and a variety of scriptural traditions are opened to revitalized meaning and application.

            With the example of The Questions of King Melinda, we find the King, ‘Rising Sun’ is held in tension between the political world of sociality and the ascetic life illustrated by the apocalyptically minded monk ‘Wide Awake’. Unlike the Buddhist Bodhisattva, the Queen or King does not have the freedom to choose their service to humankind and enactments of justice. The rulers’ position of power is fraught with tension; for while their individual spiritual quests to enlightenment may be supported by the benefits of a monastic life as described by al-Ghazali, including being free for worshipful devotion, free from the social sins arising from bad company, free from conflict, free from the harm of others, free from envy, and avoiding the dull witted, they cannot retreat to asceticism. This experience is one that many in contemporary contexts may understand. The social pursuits of family, education, employment, all can make asceticism a difficult if not unattainable goal. This coupled with the experience of expanding political freedom opens the ‘mirror for princes’ to powerful relevancy to religious adherents of many stripes. Although the genre is associated with autocratic rule and conservative tradition, it has impact accessible to many. With increased power, access, and influence, there arises greater need for personal responsibility, guided by wisdom built upon humility and compassion.

            To be human is to be cultural; to have one’s body and existence intimately tied to the social world. The existential human experience is one bound in intersubjectivity, and the bodily experience where there is in Judith Butler’s terms a shared corporeality. Blanchot writing of a subject without subjectivity and the radical sociality and ethics depicted within these approaches are supported in the individual dimension of religion as revealed in the ancient wisdom literature. For our individual corporeality is yet exactly that which enables one to access into the wisdom granted through our mortality. The ascetic Wide Awake lists the great saints and figures of the past including Pharoah, Moses, Alexander the Great, Muhammad, and others to remind Rising Sun that all experience change and will die. Our shared embodiment and sociality is informed by our own death and vulnerability to corruption; in one sense, our ethical engagement in interfaith dialogue and wise living can be likened to Heidegger’s description of authenticity in the purview of death.

            The lives we lead in the social world will never be perfect. Wisdom literature informs us that instead of disqualifying us from sharing wisdom, our faults, weaknesses, vulnerability, and losses aid us in our spiritual quests and empower us to share wisdom. This is the great truth of the Prodigal Son motif in wisdom literature. Those who have wandered in the world, the beggars, the broken, have much light to share in their return to those who have never left the safety of their palaces. We can use Gautama Buddha’s chariot ride from his princely palace as demonstrative of this motif. The knowledge (gnosis, jna) that brings wisdom is one of humility, borne in our corporeality before that which is timeless. Compassion is an alignment of radical connection all that springs forth from the Prajna, as it is on its own terms beyond the limitations of words. This brings in closing the consideration of the Buddha’s silence when faced with unwise questions and Jesus’ silence before Herod. The place of silence in one’s personal religiousness, whether directly and intentionally engaged in interfaith dialogue or in any social interaction is pivotal. Words in themselves are already divergent from the formless light (Phos) in that they give form. Our words can obstruct the sharing of wisdom for as Seneca writes, “Nothing is more odious to wisdom than wit.” Our words can become weapons of our ego also, as Christoph Martin Wieland writes, “Proud poverty which by wit assumes the air of wealth.” When in compassionate silence one may simply live among another in reverent silence, their dialogue may become most rewarding.

Advertisements