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1997

Aesthetic Challenge of Interfaith Dialogue as Exemplified by Meditation

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Introduction

Much has been written about interfaith dialogue. However little attention seems to have been given to what might be called the aesthetics of the 'space' in which such an encounter takes place. The focus in what follows is on the space in which participants share whatever is to be understood as spiritual experience, namely beyond the verbal dialogue which occupies most time and attention on the occasion of the encounters.

The reason for focusing on the aesthetics of dialogue is that in many ways it can be usefully seen to symbolize the core of the interfaith challenge -- possibly even to a greater degree than the doctrinal differences which may be evoked in dialogue. In this sense, ability to respond creatively to this challenge may prove as productive in advancing the cause of interfaith dialogue as any concern with verbal content and the quality of interpersonal interaction. What follows does not presume to provide an answer to this challenge, it endeavours to clarify the question.

The point of departure here is the assumption that there is no universal aesthetic in spiritual practice. Different aesthetic manifestations are characteristic of different faiths. In a very real sense people may even be attracted to, or alienated by, the aesthetics of a particular faith -- as with the doctrine of that faith. The interfaith movement aspires to some common understanding between faiths. The question is how this is catalyzed or undermined by the aesthetic challenge of any representation of this shared expression. The concern in what follows goes beyond the willingness to briefly experience the spiritual practice and expression of other faiths in a spirit of tolerance. It endeavours to address the issue of how people of different faiths can engage in ongoing spiritual work together -- as might become necessary in any attempt to design a World Parliament of Religions.

The space in which the most profound expression of shared aspiration takes place is variously understood as one of 'prayer' or 'meditation' -- whether or not this is a period of time in the physical space in which verbal dialogue takes place. It is important to be aware of the following challenges, whether or not they can be addressed in any way. It is unhelpful to assume that they can be ignored or denied.

Aesthetic dimensions

1. Decor: Some traditions emphasize magnificent expressions of colour. Others emphasize sobriety. The former may be seen as a celebration or as an unwelcome distraction; the latter may be experienced as conducive to inner focus or as cold and alienating. In some cultures, particular colours have strong positive connotations -- but in others, those same colours may be experienced as jarring and even unharmonious.

It is very difficult to ensure that the decor of a physical space reflects the style of all faiths. It is difficult to be aesthetically 'neutral' without creatingan impression of 'soullessness'.

In a Web environment, provision may of course be made for each participant to select amongst a variety of decors, or possibly to include a user-designed decor. This is however an electronic solution which does not address the important symbolic challenge of shared physical space.

2. Iconography and symbolism: This dimension is very important to many faiths. Again some faiths have a strong preference for a particular rich iconography central to the origins of the faith, others are strongly opposed to any iconography or to the representation of persons. Some iconography carries strong doctrinal messages which are antithetical to those of other faiths in ways which may be offensive.

One common approach to this challenge is to ensure the presence of a multiplicity of symbols from a number of faiths. Unfortunately this can never be totally inclusive, so some will necessarily feel excluded. Some faiths will feel that their relative importance is misrepresented by the aesthetics of the display.

In the future, design of purpose built interfaith environments, consideration could be usefully given to modern graphics facilities. Just as screens are being built into airplane seats, they could be built into dialogue seats. Participants could then each select independently the iconography most supportive of their presence -- whether their own, or that of another faith. In other contexts, seats could be designed (with ledges and hooks) so that people could display iconography brought by themselves for that purpose.

Again in a Web environment, this difficulty can be readily addressed, but with the same reservations.

3. Music and song: These are very important to many faiths, although their absence is important to the spiritual expression of some. However such aesthetic expressions are most often specifically designed in support of particular faiths, notably in terms of their origin in particular cultures. Typically the music (especially use of bells and other instruments) or song of one faith will contain elements which are jarring to some people of other faiths, especially when they are used as a background to any shared meditative practice.

One approach to this dilemma is to vary the music from one meditation to the next. Whilst this is a sign of sensitivity to the issue, it does not respond to the fact that some people will always be alienated some of the time, and some may still be alienated all the time.

Again special provision may be made in purpose built environments. Many meditation environments already make use of sound equipment of some form (whether organs or cassette players), so 'technology' is alreadyaccepted. It is common in multi-lingual international conference environments to have channels for interpretation into different languages. Such technology can be very easily adapted to carry a range of music and song supportive of a variety of faith expressions. Technically there is however the question whether the number of such channels is adequate to the range of faiths represented. A simple alternative is to encourage people to bring their own meditation music on a walkman. Both these options raise the question of sound 'leakage' to neighbouring participants which may be vital to those who attach value to silence and the absence of supportive music. Of potentially greater concern is that solutions raise the issue of how present participants are to one another when they are wrapped in the sound of their own faith.

Again this challenge can be readily solved in a multi-media Web environment by allowing users to choose music from their own faith, from that of other faiths, or simply substitute their own music. But it still raises the question of how present people are to each other.

4. Scents and incense: For some faiths these may be considered very conducive (if not essential) to meditation, for others they may represent an unwelcome and exotic distraction and even be proscribed. People respond very differently to scents, and cultural factors may be a major determinant in this.

For participants for whom this issue is vital, it is possible to envisage inviting them to 'bring their own', just as people may select a personal perfume. However, this obviously creates difficulties of 'leakage' to neighbouring participants who may find it distracting.

It is interesting to note that despite the explosion of interest in multi-media electronic environments, no attention has been given to this dimension.

5. Invocations: For some it is considered appropriate to mark the opening or closing of a period of meditation with an invocation of some kind. In an interfaith environment this is typically selected from the writings associated with one of the faiths represented. This selection is made to reinforce understanding that valuable insights and wisdom are associated with all faiths. The question to be asked is whether the perceived need to reinforce this understanding is not also to be understood as a sense that participants may not necessarily believe in this and may need to be reminded of it. This insecurity detracts from any sense that participants may already have this understanding. Irrespective of the content, especially for generations forcibly exposed involuntarily to such invocations by their parents or in educational or religious environments, the politics behind the selection and presentation of an invocation raise suspicions about who is being empowered to convey what to whom and why.

For those participants who value such invocations, the procedure suggested for music and song can usefully be adopted. Although there is a tendency to assume that interfaith encounters can be successfully conducted in one language, it should not be forgotten that the real challenge is to ensure meaningful encounter beyond the constraints of language. Multi-lingual conference environments provide technology for this. An invocation presented in one language is not meaningful to those who do not understand that language.

Again the Web environment offers many opportunities for circumventing this challenge, but with the same reservations.

6. Guidance: One of the significant differences between the faiths is the importance attached to the role of a guide in any practice of meditation or prayer. For some, a guide is highly desirable, if not essential, to ensure that the practitioner does not wander or become distracted. For others, meditation is the time when the practitioner acts alone, inspired and guided by whatever has been learnt outside that context. Although it may be argued that, at least in some interfaith encounters, the participants involved will anyway be people with a long-established practice (whether or not its quality is appreciated from any particular faith). For some of them, the implication that their meditation may need to be led may be experienced as a lack of respect.

The question on the occasion of an interfaith encounter is whether meditation is then to be understood as a teaching context, or whether the participants are to be understood as working together (whatever their insight and quality of practice). If the former, then clearly the meditation should be 'led', 'guided' or 'conducted' by a person recognized for their role as spiritual guide. If the latter, then participants should be free to act in their personal capacity, whatever their limitations.

Clearly providing such guidance raises a number of issues on an interfaith occasion. From which faith should the guide be selected? What style of guidance should be provided? This dilemma is normally resolved by ensuring that a different faith is responsible for each meditation period, with the guidance being provided by a recognized person from that tradition. Depending on how many meditation periods there are, if there are more faiths than meditation periods, this creates a political problem of which faiths should be so privileged. For the faith in question, there is also the dilemma of which person should provide that guidance and what kind of meditation should be offered.

For some faiths, this selection may necessarily result in the selection of a person of a particular gender. For participants, meditation guidance by a person of an unaccustomed gender may be a distraction, and possibly an unwelcome one. The selection may result in a person of a particular age group, whether old or young. This too may prove to be a distraction to participants accustomed to guidancefrom those of a particular age group. The selection may give rise to a person robed in a particular way, again with the possibility of alienating those concerned with messages carried by such symbolism.

Beyond the above concerns, each faith favours particular styles of collective meditation. Guidance may be provided on a moment by moment basis, or with periodic indications between (or building up to) periods of silence. The guidance may provide detailed content for the meditation or encourage participants to discover particular kinds of content for themselves.

For the success of an interfaith encounter, it is vital to be clear on the objectives of any period of meditation. Is it to be seen as an opportunity to introduce participants to the practice of another faith, as an opportunity for such a faith to present its practice, as an occasion for participants to benefit from the guidance and insight of skilled practitioners from such a faith, as an opportunity for participants to engage collectively whatever their level of insight or quality of practice, or some combination of all these? Since some of these are mutually exclusive, at least for some participants, this constitutes a real challenge in the furtherance of the interfaith initiative.

One approach is to distinguish between led meditations and those in which participants gather together in silence. The difficulty here is that those stressing the value of led meditations may be concerned at the lack of focus of unlead meditation.

Using the facilities of sound technology noted above, one alternative is to allow participants to access different kinds of meditation guidance (in a language of their choice) by selecting an appropriate audio channel. This might then be interwoven with music, if that is consistent with the style in question. Those preferring silence, could then abstain from these facilities. To the extent that visual queues are vital to a guided meditation, which is often the case in some traditions, this too could be offered as a selection with appropriate multi-media facilities. The question of the degree to which people are present to each other, even though present in the same space, then remains.

7. Type of seating: It is to be expected that people have a preferred posture in meditation, whether on a chair, kneeling, using a prayer stool, a cushion (even their own), or nothing at all. This may be partly determined by culture, by age, by the clothing worn to the event, by current state of health, by the perceived comfort of different seating options, or by the desire for an occasional change of posture. Allowing people to choose a preferred style of seating is however a very clear indicator of flexibility and sensitivity on the part of the organizers of interfaith encounters. The presence of chairs of different dimensions or quality, especially when these are effectively reserved for particular people, sends a very clear message which may be counter-productive in an interfaith context.

It is helpful to allow participants to choose freely between these options. This may however be complicated by any need to offer access to technology, if it is not wire-less (whether battery operated, or based on infrared or radio technology). In older conference environments, the presence of standard, unmovable, seating may further complicate any solution.

8. Orientation of seating: This tends to carry the most important symbolic message at an interfaith encounter. Clearly seating focused on a podium (where the meditation leader would tend to be positioned) is making a statement quite different to one in which seating is arranged in a circle (notably when the centre is kept empty or is occupied by a plant). Fixed seating sends a message quite different to one in which seating is mobile. Since, as noted above, meditation may have to be held in spaces which are not purpose designed, compromise is usually required. It should not be forgotten that the relative elevation of seating in relation to distinguished people may send a message of (dis)respect to some cultures, especially if the event is video-recorded. Whether or not any distinction is made between seniority or gender may also be important to some cultures and their faiths.

There are no easy solutions to all these dilemmas in face to encounters.

9. Seating separation: Psychological comfort when meditating may be partly dependent on adequate distance between seats. This will vary between people, and may be partly culture dependent. Acceptable separation may be dependent on whether neighbours distract by heavy breathing or other sounds, including those associated with technology (as noted above), use of perfumes, or nervous movements.

In fixed seating environments, people may be invited to ensure an empty seat between neighbours. Mobile seating may be adjusted as preferred. The question of how distant people can be and still be experienced as part of a group calls for enquiry.

10. Duration: There are of course varying preferences and tolerances for the duration of meditation. For some a few minutes is more than enough, for others a minimum of half an hour (or even an hour) is considered desirable, if not essential. Marking the passage of time may be important to some (to avoid any sense that they are trapped for eternity), but how it is done may be very disruptive to others. Clearly what ever format is chosen, many will find it inappropriate and uncomfortable.

One solution is to fix the starting or stopping time and to allow people to enter or leave during the meditation. This can be disruptive, unless the seating is appropriately spaced and moving over the floor can be done silently. Alternatively such movement can be encouraged at five, ten orfifteen minute intervals (with a door signal to that effect). Marking the time is best done with a carefully chosen harmonious note at the appropriate intervals, avoiding the tedious ticking of a clock (which may however be visible).

11. Movement: For some faiths meaningful meditation may not be associated with a static posture. It may require movement, even constant changes of posture. Integrating such movement into a context where many are adopting a static posture (and are distracted by movement) is a challenge.

Most helpful to developing a solution is a space where the floor is thickly carpeted to absorb sound and where seating is moveable to allow space for people needing to move.

12. Vocalization: Meditation may for some be intimately associated with vocalization, whether in the form of prayer, chanting, or occasional exclamation. Unless this can be done through sub-vocalization, it may be experienced as extremely disruptive.

Possible solutions, which merit reflection because of their symbolic significance, include erection of a transparent, sound-proof partition between 'silent' and 'vocal' participants. Also possible is to structure the meditation period into alternating periods of silence and 'sound-tolerance'.

Reflections

The above issues raise a number of challenging questions about the organization of interfaith initiatives. These include:

(a) Each religion is effectively a celebration of a different aesthetic. Any initiative to unite religions in an interfaith context, can usefully be examined in the light of the aesthetic challenge as explored above. The challenge is especially clear in the case of efforts to embody a 'universal' perspective. Incorporating a diversity of aesthetics into a single framework design, must necessarily privilege some aesthetic options at the expense of others.

(b) The aesthetic challenge highlights the difficulty of doing anything 'right' in an interfaith context by adopting what is perceived as best practice in any particular faith. This is especially difficult when such a practice is offered as a sincere gift which can only be refused by creating offence. The emphasis of interfaith encounter then becomes an exercise in exploring and accepting the diversity of responses to spiritual insight, rather than working with others in the light of their insight -- in silence.

(c) It is intriguing that interfaith encounters tend to exhibit what might be interpreted as a fear of collective silence. When it is allowed, it is often precededby extensive commentary and often only occurs to the accompaniment of music. This is despite the fact that many of those central to these initiatives have a long-established personal meditation practice. Many others are attracted to religion because of their encounter with themselves -- often in isolation and in silence. Is religious community practice to be understood as a remedy for the awful experience of such silence? The ability to meet in silence might emerge as the royal road to the resolution of many interfaith issues. Silence might even be understood as the first language of God. The need to occupy that silence with particular practices, might be seen as part of the dynamics undermining interfaith initiatives and reducing their potential appeal to those weary of manifestations of traditional doctrinal differences -- notably the young.

(d) How is the presence of people to one another to be maximized in interfaith encounter, and by extension in any structure such as that explored in the 'parliamentary' model? How can extremes be integrated without both disrupting others and offending those bringing alternative insights? Again the aesthetic challenge, and the difficulty of circumventing it, points to the viability and power of the option offered by silence.

(e) Responses to the aesthetic challenge will, under present circumstances, necessarily ensure that some faiths will exclude themselves from interfaith initiatives. Until their aesthetic dimension can in some way be included, or until they can operate within a comfort zone of tolerating aesthetic alternatives, there is little hope that they will venture to expose themselves to more fundamental encounters. Again the aesthetics of silence may offer a window of opportunity to circumvent these difficulties.

(f) Whether in dialogue or meditation, what is the appropriate design for the space of an interfaith encounter? Given the influence of the 'parliamentary' model, what would be the appropriate design of any kind of 'parliament of religions' in the light of the above constraints?

(g) In the case of the United Nations, or such international assemblies as those of the European Union, a very large proportion of the budget is devoted to language interpretation to ensure effective communication. Is it not to be expected that the effectiveness of interfaith encounter at the 'parliamentary' level would call for a corresponding investment of resources? In this case however the situation is complicated by interpretation across both natural languages and doctrinal languages. How does a statement from the Buddhist faith get translated into one that is meaningful within the Christian faith, or vice versa? Again should not the particularities of what is said in such assemblies be recognized as secondary to the power of collective silence.

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