One of my friends at work is a classically trained imam, a leader in the black and Muslim communities of Boston with whom I have coffee and conversation on a wide range of spiritual topics. Our talks are deep and life-giving, and center upon our respective traditions (Tibetan Buddhism and Sunni Islam) and the common realities between them. We open ourselves and share much, yet are careful not to fall into shallow perceptions of the other. In these times of heightened political and religious strife, such talks may seem impossible in certain contexts, yet training in learning to really see the other can help us to navigate the rich opportunities and possible obstacles of interfaith dialogue and deep mutual learning, leading from “I-it” relationships to “I-thou” relationships in Buberian terms.
True interfaith learning is built upon a foundation of receptivity and trust. Through radical openness to the fullness of each person in the eyes of her spiritual tradition, the spirit of the “I-thou” relationship can be established. In this deep recognition of the full humanity of others, one opens oneself to experiencing the deep truths that they hold and that may inform one’s own path of study. In the words of Pierre Claverie, the former archbishop of Oran and an inspirational figure for me, “I not only accept that the Other is Other, a distinct subject with freedom of conscience, but I accept that he or she may possess a part of the truth that I do not have, and without which my own search for the truth cannot be fully realized.” In this sense, communing across faiths can only be achieved in a mutualistic framework, and contemplative practice (in which one recognizes the full “truth” of the “other’s” deep spiritual potential) can further open our eyes to this possibility.
Within this process, obstacles may arise, particularly when practitioners fall out of “I-thou” and into “I-it” frames of thinking, states in which others are viewed (often subconsciously) as mere objects that reinforce one’s individual narrative. In my own experience, reducing others to one’s limited perceptions of their faith, rather than entering into authentic dialogue and learning based on deep exchange, can occur subtly and without much conscious thought. When other faith traditions are treated as curiosities or purely academic exercises rather than living, breathing paths, shallow illusions of understanding arise that can serve as roadblocks to communing with others in their full humanity. Careful attention to these implicit biases is critical in interfaith exchanges, and a compassionate sense of mindfulness of them in ourselves can be achieved through practice.
Through sustainable compassion practices in which we learn to commune with others, the openness of the “I-thou” will replace the tightness of the “I-it,” and a loving and honest interfaith community can be fostered in which communal action is possible. Now more than ever, such profound work is critical as we mobilize across groups for a kinder and clearer world.
 Pierre Claverie, quoted in Jean Jacques Perennes, A Life Poured Out: Pierre Claverie of Algeria (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2007), 148.