Can Buddhism save? Finding resonance in incommensurability.
Thirty years ago, before I began the study of Zen, I said, "Mountains are mountains, waters are waters." After I got an insight into the truth of Zen through the instruction of a good master, I said, "Mountains are not mountains, waters are not waters." But now, having attained the abode of final rest [that is, Awakening], I say, "Mountains are really mountains, waters are really waters."(1)
Zen master Ch'ing-yuan Wei-hsin presents Zen as the means to attain "the abode of final rest." His phrase evokes biblical references to God's Sabbath "rest,"(2) and suggests that Buddhism, like Christianity, is a way of salvation. The passage as a whole, however, functions within a different soteriological framework. Salvation for Ch'ing-yuan Wei-hsin entails not the restoration of right relation between God and humanity, so much as a profound shift in the manner in which things are seen. This brief saying indicates that, while Christian redemption is rooted in history and narrative, Buddhist "awakening" is a sort of ahistorical gnosis into the true nature of things.
Such fundamental differences preclude direct conflict, at least on a theoretical level. Instead, I would argue that these two religious outlooks are simply incommensurable. Each embodies a distinct grammar, or set of linguistic and doctrinal rules, leaving little basis for common reference between the two. One looks in vain for point-for-point correspondences. While parallels seem to present themselves, the divergent frameworks within which they occur make direct correlation a questionable undertaking.
Even so, Christians and Buddhists have been talking to one another for some time, ranging from the "Great Dispute of Panadura" in Ceylon in 1873 to the proliferation of inter-religious conversations of the present day. But if these two ways of salvation are truly incommensurable, on what basis can dialogue take place, and what can be gained by such an enterprise?
I propose that dialogue entails a provisional bracketing of one's own point of view in order to enter into a sympathetic understanding of the other religious outlook. The result is nothing so tidy as the discovery that Buddhists and Christians are engaged in the same basic project, using different words to say the same thing. This is precluded by the incommensurability of the two traditions. I suggest, rather, that in the encounter of one tradition with another, there emerges something more modest, what I would like to call "resonance."
This essay consists of three parts. The first offers a methodological basis upon which Christians might engage in dialogue with another religious tradition. This approach is not uniquely specific to the Buddhist-Christian encounter. It presumes all religions to be incommensurable to a degree, although Buddhism, in relation to Christianity, presents a particularly strong case of incommensurability, in contrast to, say, Judaism or Islam.
The second part attempts the provisional "bracketing" described above, and introduces the Buddhist doctrine of "emptiness," assuming that most readers will have only a sketchy understanding of this notion. This section presents Buddhism in own terms, giving the non-Buddhist reader the chance to "inhabit" an alternate way of looking at things, and at least partially to "try it on" from the inside.
In the third part of this essay, I assess the Buddhist notion of emptiness from within a specifically Christian framework, and explore the concept of "resonance."
Dialogue in Incommensurability
In his essay "The Strange New World within the Bible," Karl Barth argues that the Bible confronts us as startlingly other. The Bible "drives us out beyond ourselves" and invites us into a "new world."(3) Barth, of course, conceived the "strange new world" within the Bible to be utterly distinct and without parallel. Nevertheless, it suggests an analogy for conceiving the encounter with a religion other than one's own, in-sofar as such dialogue invites us to venture "out beyond ourselves" and explore a "strange new world" from within.
This attempt to "inhabit" another outlook is necessarily partial and provisional. Obviously we cannot entirely bracket our native way of conceiving the world. Only conversion, involving a permanent shift in outlook, offers a complete grasp of another religion. The results of dialogue are more modest. One becomes a sort of tourist, rather than permanent resident, seeking not conversion but simply a degree of sympathetic understanding that is greater than what one had before.(4)
What I am suggesting is akin to the task of the cultural anthropologist in which, as Clifford Geertz puts it, the social scientist attempts to
uncover the conceptual structures that inform [the] subjects' acts . . . and to construct a system of analysis in whose terms what is generic to those structures, what belongs to them because they are what they are, will stand out against the determinants of human behavior.(5)
The anthropologist seeks to understand a culture as much as possible from within, by a sort of "thick description" that employs terms generic to its internal structure. In much the same way, we may treat religions as cultural systems, attempting to "find our feet" within the particular conceptual structure of another religion rather than imposing our own conceptual structures from without.
While this approach may be "an unnerving business which never more than distantly succeeds,"(6) it maximizes the possibility of understanding another religion on its own terms, while retaining the integrity of one's own religious convictions. I would contrast this approach, based on the presumption of incommensurability, with two others that have gained prominence in recent decades.
Karl Rahner's "Anonymous Christianity" extends the possibility of salvation to those who have not embraced the Christian faith, while retaining the conviction that Jesus Christ is the unique mediator of salvation. Rahner's position is rooted in a densely conceived theological anthropology in which he makes two basic theological moves. First, he contends that the movement of grace and its acceptance by faith may operate on a "non-thematic" level apart from explicit verbal objectification.
It is possible . . . to envisage a [person] who is in possession of that self-imparting of God called grace as the innermost heart and center of [that person's] existence, one who has accepted this in unreserved faithfulness to [one's] conscience, one who is thereby constituted as a believer in a form which, while it is not objectified in words is nonetheless real. . . . I cannot see why we should not call such a [person] an anonymous Christian.(7)
Rahner's next move is to formulate a Christology in which an "obediential potency" or human openness to God's self-communication is uniquely and fully actualized in the person of Jesus. Hence a non-Christian's quest for fulfillment "possesses a relationship to Jesus, even if [that person] does not know how to call him by his proper name," since that person's search is directed to Jesus, "who in reality is its proper goal."(8)
Despite Rahner's efforts to widen the franchise, some have objected that the assessment of other religions as anonymously Christian is demeaning and imperialistic.
[I]t would be impossible to find anywhere in the world a sincere Jew, Muslim or atheist who would not regard the assertion that he is an "anonymous Christian" as presumptuous. To bring the partner to the discussion into our own circle in this way closes the dialogue before it has even begun. This is a pseudo solution which offers slight consolation.(9)
Moreover, the notion of an "unthematic" and "anonymous" divine self-bestowal that attains its final actualization in Jesus Christ places the Christian in the peculiar position of claiming to know the real truth of another religion better than an actual adherent of that tradition.
Equally odd is a concept of a religious truth that is abstracted from the concrete content of actual religions. In this regard, Rahner's notion of religion betrays a Gnostic and ahistorical streak that devalues the historical actuality of non-Christian religions. Would it not be more in keeping with the Christian value placed on history and incarnation to allow each tradition to speak for itself, and opt for a genuine pluralism?
John Hick endeavors to present a pluralist corrective. Hick distinguishes himself from the exclusivist who asserts simply that "salvation is confined to Christians,"(10) and from the inclusivist who includes non-Christians within a Christian soteriology by positing an implicit or anonymous Christian status. Hick's pluralist position assumes that no one religion is definitive, but that each attempts to articulate an ineffable ultimate reality that Hick calls "the Real."
Yet Hick's pluralistic hypothesis harbors a curious inconsistency: he does not allow various religions simply to coexist. Instead, he imposes an additional global meta-theory about "the Real" that entails specific theological claims of its own. Hick contends that the various conceptions of the absolute - Trinity, Allah, Brahman, Sunyata - refer to a different "persona" or "impersona" of the Real. In Kantian terminology, they are all "phenomenal manifestations of the noumenal real-in-itself."(11) Hick thus demythologizes each religion, or "phenomenal manifestation" of the Real, on the basis of his meta-theory of "The Real," which becomes the privileged account of ultimate reality.
This pluralist scheme imposes the task of doctrinal revision on particular religions. As a theologian, Hick seeks to "contribute to the on-going development of Christian thought in the light of [his] knowledge of the wider religious world."(12) This development entails a "reopening of the Christological question,"(13) and an adjustment of classic claims about the uniqueness and definitiveness of Christ. This move undermines Hick's claim to be a genuine pluralist. A truly pluralistic outlook would allow each religion to retain the coherence of its own internal grammar, without forcing the theoretical adjustments required by an additional religious meta-theory.(14)
To engage in inter-religious dialogue on a presupposition of incommensurability allows for a genuine pluralism that imposes neither an anonymous Christian status, nor a meta-theory that transcends all particular religions. Such genuine pluralism is possible not merely for the disinterested commentator, but specifically for the Christian who embraces traditional claims about Jesus of Nazareth as God incarnate, and his death and resurrection as the definitive salvific event of human history. It requires only the ability to distinguish between, and yet continue to practice, two different discourses. One is the discourse of faith, in which a believer permanently inhabits the Christian faith and posits reality claims within the context of that faith. The other is a methodological discourse in which one declines to make reality claims at all, and simply considers how religions work as cultural systems.
This point of view owes a debt to Geertz's notion of culture, as well as to the linguistic philosophy of the later Wittgenstein, and is intriguingly consistent with the methodological presuppositions that underwrite the Buddhist doctrine of Sunyata. But most directly, the notion of religions as distinct and incommensurable webs of meaning, each with its own doctrinal grammar, borrows from George Lindbeck's "cultural-linguistic" theory of doctrine.
Lindbeck argues that doctrines function as rules within distinct webs of discourse. He contrasts this approach with a propositional view, or correspondence theory, in which doctrines make straightforward truth claims and provide discursive information about objective realities.(15) But Lindbeck also rejects an experiential-expressive model, in which doctrines derive from experience as "noninformative and nondiscursive symbols of inner feelings, attitudes, or existential orientations,"(16) and in which competing religions are "diverse expressions of a common core experience."(17) From a cultural-linguistic perspective, doctrines are regulative. Neither informative, nor symbolic, they provide the grammar that recommends and excludes certain ranges of utterance. A religion thus becomes "comparable to a cultural system . . . a set of language games correlated with a form of life."(18)
A cultural-linguistic model does not privilege one religion over another, just as "one language or culture is not generally thought of as 'truer' than another."(19) This approach is frankly nontheological. Because it does not posit truth claims, "it is not the business of [such an approach] to argue for or against the superiority of any one faith."(20)
One does not look for an ontological correspondence between a religious statement and the object to which it refers. Nor does one judge a religion's "symbolic efficacy" in giving expression to an inchoate experience of the divine. Instead, one explores the "categorical adequacy" of a religion. Adequacy is a matter of the fit within a particular grammar of religious faith. It does not guarantee truth as such. Religious doctrines are comparable in terms of the manner in which their respective categories function within their generic grammar. It is in such comparisons, according to Lindbeck, that religions and the categories that they employ are found to be "incommensurable." One cannot adjudicate their truth or falsity because they are simply not talking about the same thing.
Hence, different religions may "regard themselves as simply different and . . . proceed to explore their agreements and disagreements without necessarily engaging in the invidious comparisons that the assumption of a common experiential core make so tempting."(21) One religion does not seek its anonymous counterpart in the other, as Rahner proposes, since they are conceived not as diverse expressions of a common pre-linguistic experience of human transcendence, but rather as patterns of language, ritual and ethical practice that "constitute, rather than being constituted by . . . their existential understanding."(22) Language determines experience, and not the other way around.
This candidly non-theological approach does not preclude theological predication. It simply recognizes it as a different mode of discourse. Theological predication occurs within a particular religious framework, and according to its own categorical and grammatical norms. John Hick describes this intentional shift of discourse when he speaks of being "a philosopher of religion on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays [when] propos[ing] the pluralist hypothesis, and . . . a Christian theologian on Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and . . . particularly on Sundays."(23) But Hick conflates these two discourses when he attempts a programmatic revision of Christian doctrine to bring it in line with his pluralistic philosophy of religion. By contrast, Lindbeck's approach would keep these two discourse separate, and while not excluding the possibility of development, would retain the doctrinal coherence of each religion.
To speak theologically is to make reality claims. Everyday faith does not qualify every assertion with the caveat that it only applies to a particular language game. Even if, within one discourse, we decline to adjudicate religious claims from a neutral position outside of our cultural-linguistic location, we continue to live within another discourse, according to which we embrace the claim that "Jesus is Lord" with the core of our being.
In the intersection of these two distinct discourses, a certain form of propositional predication becomes admissible even within a cultural-linguistic framework. Such predication entails a correspondence to reality that extends beyond the question of categorical coherence. Truth, in this case, is not conceived merely in intellectual terms, but rather "by a set of stories used in specifiable ways to interpret and live in the world."(24) Such truth is "performative." Statements of faith do more than convey information - they provide warrant for behaving in particular ways. When one makes an authentic theological statement,
that sentence becomes a first-order proposition capable of making ontological truth claims only as it is used in the activities of adoration, proclamation, obedience, promise hearing, and promise keeping which shape individuals and communities into conformity with the mind of Christ.(25)
Recourse to this performative dimension of theological statements is Lindbeck's way out of the epistemological fly bottle, and echoes the Kantian shift from metaphysics to ethics. Theological truths are not grounded in a foundational metaphysic that transcends cultural-linguistic location; they are embraced by a faith that is lived out in particular patterns of life.
The interplay of two discourses, one methodological and one theological, allows for the co-ordination of an "inclusivist" theological discourse with a "pluralist" theory of religion, without revising the Creed or abandoning basic Christian practices such as proclamation and evangelism. This view has an appeal to those for whom classic Christological claims remain compelling, but who also wish to maintain an openness to those who are located extra ecclesia.
The Buddhist Concept of Sunyata
In the opening quotation, Ch'ing-yuan Wei-hsin describes his progress in the practice of Zen as a transformation in the manner he sees the world. In the beginning, his perception of the world is a naive realism in which "mountains are mountains, waters are waters." Through the instruction of a master, he gains an insight into the "truth of Zen" that involves a radical critique of the ordinary perception of reality. He now realizes that "mountains are not mountains, waters are not waters." Yet in this crucial negation he has yet to reach his goal. He finally attains "the abode of final rest," when once again "mountains are really mountains and waters are really waters." We might call this a "critical realism" :in contrast to the naive realism of the first stage, and the radical negation of the second.
As naive realism gives way to negation, Ch'ing-yuan Wei-hsin realizes that the "thingness" of things is empty. Masao Abe explains this as a sort of differentiation. We initially know a mountain as a mountain insofar as we differentiate it from other things - such as "waters." On examination we realize that we have imposed this differentiation on our reality. In so doing, we not only distinguish these objects one from another, but also from ourselves as perceiving subjects. In Ch'ing-yuan Wei-hsin's initial stage of insight, he realizes that the distinctions we impose are "empty," that things do not exist in themselves in the sense that these distinctions imply. Moreover, this negation is not limited to objects outside of ourselves, but extends even our own sense of "self." With this insight, the subject-object relation dissolves and "the ego-self crumbles."(26) Here lies the soteriological character of this "shift in the way of looking at things," since, in the dissolution of a false self, a person experiences liberation. Yet even at this stage there remains a subtle differentiation between the naive affirmations of sell mountains, and waters, and their negation as empty. This hidden differentiation is only overcome through a "great affirmation consequent to and transcendent over the negation realized in the first stage."(27) At a third final stage, a "negation of the negation" occurs in which once again "mountains are mountains," and "waters are waters."
Though everyday reality is reaffirmed, subject-object duality is now overcome with "the realization of everything being really just as it is, the realization that takes place in the absolute present."(28) Within this absolute present, things are realized as they are, in their individuality, but without "opposing and impeding one another." Such critical realism distinguishes Buddhism from pantheist religions in which subject and object merge in a mystical unity. By contrast, the insight into Sunyata is a dialectical realization that is both critical and affirmative of phenomenal reality.
The Empty Self in Early Buddhism
The term "emptiness" or sunyata is rarely found in early Buddhism. The soteriology of early Buddhism, preserved in the Pall scriptures of the Theravada school, turns on the notion of the cessation of suffering. In the his first sermon at the Deer Park, the Buddha expounded upon The Four Noble Truths. He declared all existence to be dukka or suffering.
Birth is painful, old age is painful, sickness is painful, death is painful, sorrow, lamentation, dejection, and despair are painful. Contact with unpleasant things is painful, not getting what one wishes is painful.(29)
Suffering arises from desire, continually thwarted by the transience of reality. Having inherited the prevalent Brahmanistic concept of reincarnation, Buddha asserts that it is "that craving which leads to rebirth."(30) By adhering to the ethical and contemplative praxis of the "Eightfold Path,"(31) a person attains cessation of desire. One attains Nirvana, or "extinction," and leaves the painful cycle of rebirth, or Samsara.
The Brahmanistic soteriology of the Upanishads had hinged on the identification of the self, or Atman, with Brahman, the absolute. With the realization that "Brahman and Atman are one" the enlightened self rests in a monistic oneness, no longer impelled to rebirth by Maya, or the illusion of separateness. Early Buddhism swept this aside, rejecting both the unifying monism of Brahman, as well as the notion of self. Early Buddhism stressed the transient, composite nature of reality. Suffering is rooted in the fact that desire clutches at permanence, when there is none. Even the "self," driven inexorably from one incarnation to the next by a blind volitional force, is merely an insubstantial composite of five psycho-physical constituents or skandas.
The early doctrine of anatman or "no-self" anticipated the later Mahayana understanding of emptiness in germinal form. As Buddhist teaching became increasingly systematized in the scholasticism of the Abhidharma philosophy, this element was increasingly obscured, which elicited the rise of the Mahayana teaching of "emptiness" as a corrective. Because the self was seen as an aggregate, the Abhidharmika developed an elaborate "psycho-epistemology" in order to subject these composite elements or dharmas(32) to a careful analysis. This lead to a new realism, which, though denying Atman or the personal self, nevertheless attributed an inherent existence - a functional selfhood - to the constituent dharmas. As a result "the realistic dharma-theory, that was devised for the sake of proving anatman, had within it a sense of setting back the anatman doctrine."(33)
The Mahayana Doctrine of Emptiness
With the emergence of the "Great Vehicle," or Mahayana, between 100 B.C.E. and 100 C.E., the notion of emptiness latent in the early anatman doctrine, and obscured by Abhidharma scholasticism, is made central and explicit in new scriptural texts such as the Prajna-paramita Sutras. Characteristic of these early Mahayana texts is the expression, "matter is emptiness and the very emptiness is matter," in which the negation expressed by the concept of anatman extends far beyond the denial of the self of persons. The selfhood of all dharmas is radically negated. While the insight, "matter is emptiness," negates the selfhood both of persons and things, it also includes an unexpected, positive affirmation in the recognition that "emptiness is matter." It is this dialectic of negation and affirmation that Ch'ing-yuan Wei-hsin seeks to convey when he speaks of the transition from his initial realization that "mountains are not mountains, and waters are not waters," to his rediscovery that "mountains are mountains, and waters are waters."
The logic of this dialectical realization of Sunyata gives rise to the distinctly Mahayana notion of the bodhisattva. A bodhisattva is a Buddha-to-be, who has all but attained the final realization of Nirvana, but remains in the midst of cycle of rebirth in order to relieve the suffering of other sentient beings. In forestalling Nirvana, the bodhisattva embodies the "demythologization" of the traditional dichotomy of Samsara and Nirvana implicit in the notion of sunyata. Because "matter is emptiness and the very emptiness is matter," Nirvana is already present in the midst of Samsara; the two states are no longer fundamentally distinct.
The Middle Way of Nagarjuna
While the Prajna-paramita Sutras introduce this new understanding of sunyata, it is the second century philosopher, Nagarjuna, who presents the systematic explication of the doctrine. Nagarjuna's philosophy, known as Madhyamika or the "Middle Way," offers a dialectic that steers between the extremes of nihilism and a sort of "naive realism."
Nagarjuna's Madhyamika-Sastra asserts,
There absolutely are no things, Nowhere and none, that arise [anew], Neither out of themselves, nor out of non-self, Nor out of both, nor at random.(34)
The statement that "there absolutely are no things" rides on a distinction between absolute and empirical reality. What is negated is the absolute status of a thing, its "own-being" or svabhava. Hence, "although things in the phenomenal world appear to be real and substantial on the outside, they are actually tenuous and empty within."(35)
Nagarjuna bases this negation of "own-being" on one of the foundational notions of early Buddhism, "dependent origination" or pratityasamutpada. In the earliest Pali language texts, the Buddha rejects the extremes that on one hand things have being, and on the other that they have no being. Instead, nothing exists by itself; each thing depends upon another. Hence, in regard to the Second Noble Truth of the arising of suffering, the sequence of ignorance - karma, consciousness, name and form, organs of sense, contact, sensation, desire, attachment, existence, birth, age and death, sorrow, lamentation, misery, grief and despair- are all linked in a causal chain.(36)
Inasmuch as it is dependently on each other and in unison and simultaneously that the factors which constitute dependence originate the elements of being, therefore did the Sage call these factors dependent origination.(37)
Nagarjuna explicitly equates emptiness with this notion that all things are radically interdependent. He concludes his Vigrahavyavartani, for example, by paying respect to the Buddha "who taught emptiness, dependent origination, and the middle path as synonymous."(38)
The Madhyamika teaching of "emptiness" asserts not the nihilist claim that there is nothing at all, but rather that all things are fundamentally relational. This is a truism of empirical reality; causality is no secret to ordinary experience. But Nagarjuna wants to say that ordinary experience harbors a contradiction. On one hand, we recognize causality and interdependence, but on the another, we proceed as if each object of our experience had a distinct reality (svabhava) of its own. In actual fact, however, "own-being" and causality could not possibly co-exist; one would cancel out the other.
. . . if a phenomenal thing is real, a svabhava (self-being or self-existent thing), then we cannot understand the world of causality and change in terms of arising and ceasing- which we are constantly experiencing.(39)
On a non-reflective level we make the same mistake as the followers of the Abhidharma school. We break our reality down into causal and constitutive components, but fail to follow this process to its logical conclusion. Everyday experience assumes that once we have identified the causes or constituents of a thing, those components exist as such. But we really know that if we were to press the analysis further, those components and causes would recede into further components and causes in an infinite regress.
For an Aristotelian like Thomas Aquinas, of course, a causal regress had to stop somewhere, leading him to posit God as the uncaused cause, or the unmoved mover. Nagarjuna, however, does not allow this regress to come to an arbitrary halt with God. He looks in vain for an absolute being in which contingent things participate, and from which they derive their own being. The being of a thing is
dissolved into the conditions of its happening. . . . Any "own-being" that would, by contrast, be something of its own is seen to be no more than an abstraction, an empty spot covered by a word. Neither produced or maintained by itself, a thing by itself is nothing at all.(40)
To say that a thing is "dissolved into the conditions of its happening" is not to say that it is dissolved into some "void." Sunyata is not a nothingness that can be objectified and contrasted with something. Both existence and non-existence represent the extremes that are negotiated by Nagarjuna's Middle Way. Nagarjuna's Treatise on the Middle Way declares,
"existence" is holding to permanence. "No existence" is a view of nihilism. Therefore, the wise do not abide in either existence or no existence.(41)
And according to his Precious Garland,
The extinction of the misconception Of things and non-things is called nirvana . . . Because "is" and "is not" are destroyed by wisdom.(42)
The Two Truths
The key to negotiating the extremes of "existence" and "no existence" lies in the notion of the "Two-fold Truth." Madhyamika posits the ultimate truth (paramartha) of the emptiness of self-nature. But it also speaks of another truth, known as samvrti. Samvrti is usually characterized as "conventional truth," though it is also classically defined as "concealer of truth" and "interdependence."(43) All three definitions point to the truth of ordinary experience. T. V. R. Murti characterizes samvrti as "truth as conventionally believed in common parlance . . ." and identifies it with the "categorizing function of the mind." It is the everyday truth of naive realism "that does not do any violence to what obtains in our every-day world, being in close conformity with linguistic conventions and ideas."(44)
The two truths do not refer to distinct entities, or different spheres. They represent a reality per se, as seen from two standpoints. Says Murti, "the absolute, looked at through the categories of Reason (thought forms), is the world of phenomena; and phenomena, devoid of these falsifying thought-forms, are the absolute."(45) Though "mutually exclusive," says Newland, "[the two truths] are a single entity because emptiness (ultimate truth) is the mode of subsistence of conventional phenomena (concealer truths)."(46)
Of the twin extremes rejected by Nagarjuna, the view of "existence" attributes an inherent existence to things which, from an ultimate perspective (paramartha), they lack. The nihilist view of "non-existence" refuses to admit the conventional reality of everyday existence, which Madhyamika never denies. The practical implications of this are ethical. The nihilist, according to Nagarjuna, denies that there is moral continuity to human action.
In brief the view of nihilism is that actions bear no fruits; without merit and leading to a bad state, it is regarded as the wrong view.(47)
From an ethical standpoint, samvrti, though deceptive, retains significance. It is not to be negated out of hand. Says Murti, "the Madhyamika appears as a champion of the empirical reality of substance, universal and relational mode of perception etc. as against the Abhidharmika who had rejected the reality of these even empirically."(48) Samvrti remains a truth, however qualified, even to an enlightened Buddha; it is not simply swallowed up in the realization of sunyata. In their "omniscience," the Buddhas "simultaneously, explicitly, and without confusion know all concealer-truths and all ultimate truths."(49)
The Linguistic Character of Conventional Reality
The realization of emptiness reveals "own-being" to be, as Conze puts it, "an empty spot covered by a word."(50) As "conventional" truth, Samvrti is a web of linguistic designations. Says Nagarjuna, "Because the phenomena of forms are only names, space too is only a name. . . ."(51) Similarly, in the process of death and rebirth, declares another Madhyamika text, "no one acts and no one experiences the result of action, except by verbal convention."(52) According to the Meeting of Father and Son Sutra, "The destruction and arising of the earth constituent are also empty of inherent existence . . . the earth constituent, except for being a designation, should not be viewed as an earth constituent." And according to the Tibetan commentator, Jam-yang-shay-ba, "the meaning of this sutra is that [the constituents and so forth] do not exist, except as only nominal imputations."(53) We also recall Murti's statement that samvrti is "truth as conventionally believed in common parlance . . . in close conformity with linguistic conventions and ideas."(54) The consensus of these texts is that samvrti, the truth of conventional reality, is linguistically constituted, and the claim that things lack "self-nature" is not an ontological but a grammatical determination.
The claim of Nagarjuna that things have no intrinsic nature, svabhava, is a grammatical rather than an ontological statement. To say that things have svabhava is to say that one can coherently speak of them apart from their everyday language, that a word has a referent, which is to say that a word is more than a convenient designation. It is precisely this naive conception of language that Nagarjuna is negating. . . .(55)
Some scholars take issue with "this and other Wittgenstein-influenced interpretations of Madhyamika."(56) Since much of this essay rides on the validity of the "linguistic" interpretation and its affinity with the notions of pluralism and incommensurability expressed above, these objections need to examined. Guy Newland offers three arguments which we may label: cosmological, hermeneutical, and exegetical.
The first argument contends that the linguistic interpretation "contradicts basic Buddhist cosmology."(57) If we interpret samvrti as "a particular theory about language,"(58) we fail to account for those who do not use language, such as infants, or animals, but who remain caught within cyclic existence. Do we really want to say that "cows have a 'naive conception of language?'"(59)
But it is a misconstrual of the linguistic interpretation to say that a "particular philosophical theory about language" binds to cyclic existence those who hold to it. A "philosophical theory" is not what binds. The theory merely accounts for the way in which language works. What is "binding" is the manner in which language on a non-reflective level shapes experience and obscures the "truth" of emptiness. It is not the theory of a "naive conception of language" but the naive use of language that binds.
Cows lack a naive conception of language as such. But does Newland really want to claim that non-verbal creatures experience their reality directly, unmediated by a representational mechanism within the brain of the creature? A cow does not have a word for grass, but it is able to differentiate grass from that which is not grass. Whatever neural encoding allows for such a process, it functions in place of language though on a more rudimentary level, insofar as it objectifies phenomenal experience.
The hermeneutical argument criticizes the practice of "matching concepts."
As Madhyamika becomes more and more familiar to Western philosophers, the technique of making it intelligible and "legitimate" via comparison with Wittgenstein, Derrida, etc. should become obsolete . . . comparative philosophy must increasingly focus on and appreciate, without mystifying or absolutizing, nuances of difference.(60)
In the interpretation of the religious and philosophical ideas of non-western cultures, one should naturally be as attentive as possible to "nuances of difference." Simply labeling Nagarjuna as a proto-Wittgensteinian Wittgensteinian does not advance understanding, and risks a certain cultural imperialism. But one cannot assume ipso facto that a linguistic interpretation of samvrti is an Anglo-American philosophical introjection into ancient Sanskrit texts. To the extent that careful analysis locates such ideas within the texts themselves, it seems legitimate to acknowledge a cross-cultural parallel. As the result of just such an analysis, Robert A. F. Thurman has concluded that there is indeed "a near total similarity between Wittgenstein as mature critical philosopher and the Prasangika-madhyamika philosophers ranging from Candrakirti (India, sixth to seventh centuries) to Tson Khapa (Tibet, 1357- 1420) in their treatment of the philosophical questions related to the 'private language problem.' "(61)
Finally, Newland contends that Candrakirti, author of the classic definition of samvrti, taught that samvrti refers to "expression and object expressed,"(62) and hence that samvrti consists not merely of the linguistic description, but also the objects described. But how is the phrase, "object expressed," to be understood? From the point of view of convention? Or from an absolute point of view? Within the sphere of conventional reality, one recognizes and delineates objects as well as the terms with which one refers to them. But surely Candrakirti does not mean to suggest that an object is ultimately anything but empty, and hence, in Conze's phrase, "an empty spot covered by a word." To impute any other status to "objects of expression" would be a reversion to the Abhidharmika.
Objections not withstanding, there seems sufficient warrant to identify the "conventional truth" of samvrti as a linguistically determined reality. The verbal "expressions" that shape this reality are every bit as empty as the "objects expressed," but this does not change the fact that "emptiness" of these "objects" lies in the fact of their being linguistically determined - "empty spots covered by a word."
The soteriological consequences of Nagarjuna's doctrine of emptiness represent a departure from early Buddhism. No longer is the Dharma (meaning in this case, "saving teaching"(63)) a soteriology of exit, or escape. Nagarjuna expands upon the identification of Nirvana and Samsara found in the Mahayana sutras,
If every thing is relative no [real] origination, no [real] annihilation, How is nirvana, then conceived Through what deliverance, through what annihilation? . . . There is no difference at all. Between nirvana and samsara?
Enlightenment is found within phenomenal reality. The everyday truth of convention is neither transcended, nor annihilated, but simply revealed for what it is, "empty." With this recognition of the emptiness of phenomenal reality, the debilitating effect of desire falls away, and in its place is "the bliss [of] . . . the cessation of all thought, in the quiescence of plurality."(65) And yet, says Nagarjuna, "No [separate] reality was preached at all."(66) Nirvana is not found elsewhere than in the midst of one's own unenlightened suffering and desire. The realization of sunyata is no quietistic escape from the everyday, but quite the reverse: it propels the enlightened back into the world as a liberating presence. Surely one can perceive in this robust "incarnationalism," if not a strict correlation, certainly a compelling "resonance" with the proclamation of the "Word made Flesh."
Buddhist Emptiness and the Triune God
There are obvious differences between Christianity and Buddhism. Some are mutually exclusive, such as contradictions between Christian and Buddhist cosmologies. Buddhism speaks of an endless cycle of rebirth terminated only by the cessation of Nirvana, whereas Christianity teaches a single life that opens into an eschatological future. Buddhism admits to innumerable Buddhas, whereas the biblical logos is made flesh once and for all. But are all differences mutually exclusive? Even the obvious contradiction between the personal God of the Bible and the Buddhist denial of God admits to surprising nuances. One finds numerous elements in one teaching that "resonate" with the other.
On the other hand, much about Buddhism is neither parallel nor contradictory to Christianity, but simply different, occupied with different questions, speaking a different language, and giving rise to different experiences. But even as distinct webs of language and culture, religions are not abstract and impermeable forms. They are living and fluid, and when they come into contact, new questions arise. Hence, the encounter of Buddhism and Christianity leads not just to mutual understanding, but a to a deeper religious self-understanding as well - and this too is a sort of "resonance."
The Question of Theism
The Bible opens with the declaration, "in the beginning, God." Buddhism rejects the notion of God from the start. But it was not the biblical God that Gautama Buddha originally rejected. The closest parallel to Yahweh in ancient Brahmanism was Ishvara, a personification- and penultimate expression- of the absolute Brahman. At the same time, the Upanishads identified Brahman with the Atman or the true self. Brahman, says the Mundaka Upanishad, "is the Inner Self of all."(67) Yet this inner self of all is not ultimately distinguished from individual phenomenal selves. By knowing the self, and transcending the delusion of the ordinary ego-self, one realizes Brahman.
. . . The arrow is the Self (Atman) Brahman is said to be the mark . . . In the highest golden sheath Is Brahman, without stain, without parts. Brilliant is It, the light of lights- that which knowers of the Self (Atman) do know.(68)
While Brahmanism links the ultimate Brahman with the self, Buddhism's rejection of God is linked to the doctrine of anatman, the radical denial of self. The self and the absolute being that Buddhism deny are not only identified ontologically; semantically, they are companion concepts. Both denote timeless, non-contingent realities that are discontinuous with the world of causality and relationality. Both lack a foundation in a radically relational universe that is determined by the principal of dependent origination.
This dual polemic against God and self does not refer directly to biblical notions of God and the self. In fact, the biblical understanding of God and self is fundamentally relational, suggesting something of the notion of dependent origination. Christian thought over the centuries, however, does not speak with a single voice in this regard. The Buddhist critique exposes fault lines within Christian tradition. Ever since Adolf von Harnack characterized the Christian dogma as "the work of the Hellenistic spirit upon the gospel soil,"(69) the effect of Greek philosophy on the interpretation of the biblical proclamation has been widely recognized. And insofar as Hellenistic influence has tied Christian notions of God and the self to a "metaphysics of being" it has rendered them vulnerable to the Buddhist critique.
There is little dispute today that the Christian appropriation of the notion of the "immortal soul" from Greek philosophy entails a departure from the fragile psycho-somatic unity that constitutes the self in the Hebrew Bible.(70) On the other hand, with the continuing vitality of the Thomist legacy, and the influence of Heideggerian ontology, there is a bit more debate about the validity of the Hellenistic influence in attempts to identify God with Being.
Patristic thinkers made much of the Septuagint translation of the Divine Name in Exodus 3:14, [Greek Characters Omitted]. Similarly, Thomas Aquinas identified God as the one in whom essence and existence are the same, in whom the causal chain of contingent reality comes to rest. As a result the analogia entis, or "analogy of being," became a key strategy in the effort to relate God and the phenomenal world. Though Thomas' Aristotelian foundations have not survived the transition to modernity, one could argue that his project of correlating God with Being lives on in the theological anthropologies of such theologians as Tillich, Rahner, and Macquarrie.
But all along there have been counter-voices. The Hebrew prohibition of idols suggests a rejection of the "God of the philosophers" in favor of a God who resists objectification. One could point to Luther's theologia crucis, and to the Lutheran tendency to opt for a "God of faith" who is beyond metaphysical determination. Karl Barth's rejection of natural theology, his insistence on revelation as the sole basis for theological predication, and hence, his critique of religion, all rest on a sustained polemic against the Thomist analogia entis in favor of his own analogia fidei.
In recent years the French theologian, Jean-Luc Marion, has pursued a similar course. Marion seeks to "bring out the absolute freedom of God with regard to all determinations, including . . . the fact of Being."(71) God is prior to Being, and the "bedazzlement" of the identification of God with Being is an "idol." Instead Marion focuses on the "icon" of God's excessive self-disclosure as "love." God does not give himself to be known "within a horizon of being," but rather within the horizon that is far more radical- the "horizon of the gift itself." Hence,"God does not fall within the domain of Being, he comes to us in and as a gift."(72)
A Kenotic God
Masao Abe proposes a rethinking of the Christian notion of God that has affinities with Marion. Although a Buddhist, he makes a serious effort to "inhabit" the thought world of Christian theology, thereby exemplifying the "bracketing" that I have proposed. Reflecting on the Christological hymn in Philippians 2, Abe treats the self-emptying of Jesus as a clue to the nature of God. The homousia of the Son with the Father indicates not merely a static unity of "substance," as traditionally understood, but rather a single, dynamic, kenotic nature in which Father and Son share "'one function' or 'non-dual function' of self-emptying."(73) Does not the self-emptying of Christ "have its origin in God 'the Father?'"(74) It originates in the will of God to forgive the sinner who rebels against God, and hence, is "implied in the original nature of God, that is love."(75) This kenotic God
opens up for Christianity a common ground with Buddhism by overcoming Christianity's monotheistic character, the absolute oneness of God, and by sharing with Buddhism the realization of absolute nothingness as the essential basis for the ultimate.(76)
It is not clear what Abe means by "absolute nothingness." To the extent that it designates an actual "void" or objectification of emptiness, its seems incongruent with Nagarjuna's refusal to objectify "nothingness" along with his rejection of "substance," or "being." On the other hand, insofar as "absolute nothingness" designates the dynamic act of God's "self-emptying," it suggests a surprising resonance between the Christian God and Buddhist Emptiness, and echoes Marion's notion of God who comes to us not as Being but as pure gift.
In God's self-emptying, "God is each and every thing."(77) Yet this, Abe insists, is not a variant of pantheism, since pantheism posits an identity between God and the empirical world in which God is an impersonal absolute, without the intentionality required of an act of a "self-negation." But in God's identification with all things, there is no self-withholding on God's part. God gives himself completely and is absolutely accessible. Indeed, God is most truly God in this self-emptying. Herein lies presents a paradox: in God's self-emptying, God is not God; and precisely because God is not God, God is truly God. But not only is God most truly God, God is also "truly . . . [and] deeply personal"(78) in God's self-emptying identification with the world, since this self-emptying is an expression of God's unconditional love to save everything without exception.
Kenosis and the Triune Relations
In speaking of God's self-emptying, Abe admits that Christian theology has been cautious about identifying the suffering of Christ with God the Father. He quotes Hans Kung's warning that one "should not of course speak of a 'crucified God.' This would imply that God the Father, and not the Son, had been crucified."(79) Nonetheless, Abe forges ahead, convinced that the concept of the kenosis of God (not the Son only) affords the "new and deeper religious dimension" required by the times. Not surprisingly, Kung criticizes Abe precisely at this point. "The Philippian hymn only speaks of a kenosis of Jesus Christ . . . God the Father does not give himself up, but his Son (the Church condemns the monophysitic 'patripassianism.')"(80) Abe answers that Kung has reverted to the problematic notions of impassability and immutability characteristic of the early church. Kung's concern, however, is primarily exegetical. In his view, Abe's position is inconsistent with the scriptural distinction between God's Son and God the Father. Wolfhart Pannenberg agrees.
Nowhere is it said that the Father emptied himself, and in no way is it a logical implication of the self-emptying action of the Son. To the contrary, this kenotic action on the part of the Son is described as obedience to the Father and thus presupposes the identity of the Father and his commission to the Son.(81)
The problem is that Abe, for all his desire to rethink "Christianity's monotheistic character, the absolute oneness of God," tends to reinforce the understanding of God as a unitary (albeit, self-emptying) reality. In failing to take into consideration scriptural markers that define distinctions between Jesus and "the Father," he overlooks the aspect of relationality that governs Christian understanding of God as triune. This is a curious omission, considering that the crux of Nagarjuna's doctrine of Sunyata is precisely the contingency, and hence, relationality, embodied in the concept of pratitya-samutpada.
Jurgen Moltmann addresses deficiencies in Abe's trinitarianism. He is untroubled by Abe's generalizing of the kenosis of Jesus to "the Father"; after all, Abe relies heavily on his own famous notion of a "crucified God." But Moltmann contends that Abe "has taken up the Christian doctrine of the Trinity only in the rudimentary form of the well-known statement of Tertullian: Tres personae- una substantia."(82) This is "insufficient," says Moltmann, because it places divine substance at the center, rather than the notion of a perichoretical community. God is not subject, but community, the inner life of which is kenosis.
Affirming the notion of divine kenosis, while correcting the "insufficiency" of Abe's trinitarianism, Moltmann addresses the Buddhist critique of Christian theism. The Christian notion of God can only be described as "monotheistic" in a highly nuanced and qualified sense. This God is not the unitary absolute self that Buddhism rejects. A Buddhist might respond that this triune God is a composite, but that like the Abhidharmika, Christian trinitarianism still accords a self-nature to the (in this case, three) constituents. But classic trinitarian terminology denies that there are three distinct substances. As Augustine and Gregory of Nazianzus insist, they are relations that somehow share a single substantia. And while contemporary theology doesn't need Madhyamika to remind it that "substance" is an awkward concept to apply to God, Moltmann finds it sufficient to say that the three are kenotic relations within a oneness of community.
At the same time, a kenotic God cannot be simply identified with Being.
This divine kenosis is being as well as non-being. It is neither being nor non-being. It is the unfathomable secret of love, which one cannot comprehend, but rather only worship in amazement. Because all our notions create idols, only amazement understands the secret of reality.(83)
In speaking of kenosis as being and non-being and neither being nor non-being, Moltmann echoes Nagarjuna, who arrives at Sunyata by a fourfold dialectic that denies (1) that a thing is so, (2) that it is otherwise, (3) that is both so and otherwise, and (4) that is neither. Moltmann, proposes a paradoxical combination of affirmation and negation, rather than a fourfold negation. But the outcome is a conception of absolute reality is not to be identified with "being," and in its paradoxical character confounds ontological predication.
The Incommensurability of God and Sunyata
The Buddhist critique of theism reveals "fault lines" within Christian discourse, exposes what Marion suggests are "idols" within Christian theism, reinforces an "indigenous" Christian theme of relationality, and elicits the retrieval of a kenotic doctrine of God that significantly addresses this critique. But while theistic idols may have been smashed, the icon of a triune personal God remains. Even if this God, in kenotic self-emptying, draws all that is other to God into his inner life, even if "the mutual perichoresis of the Father and the Son is so deep that it is wide open for the entire community,"(84) one suspects that Buddhist commentators such as Masao Abe would find this conception overly "dualistic." Thus, for example, while commending Rahner's affirmation of Jesus' death as the death of God, Abe faults him for "still leav[ing] behind traces of dualism, a dualism of God and the other."(85)
The "dualism" of an infinite qualitative distinction between God and the created order remains a non-negotiable feature of Christian faith. Says Pannenberg, "in a Christian view, the ultimate reality of God is clearly different, though not separate, from the finite reality of creatures."(86) This leads us to ask whether Buddhism genuinely offers an account of "ultimate reality," or just a different way of talking about the reality of everyday existence. Pannenberg questions whether the Sunyata entails any real notion of transcendence.
The issue is whether beyond the finite things and processes and beyond their universal interrelatedness there is an ultimate reality distinct though not separate from the fleeting world of finite phenomena. . . . Abe in fact "posits this world as the locus of ultimate reality." In that case, there would be no genuine transcendence to ultimate reality, however related to the world of finite existence.(87)
Hans Kting has less difficulty correlating Buddhist emptiness and the transcendent God of Christian theism. Kung suggests that the "function [of emptiness] is analogous to the term 'God,'"(88) although this function is shared with related concepts of nirvana and dharmakaya (the transcendent aspect of the Buddha as absolute reality that underlies all phenomena).
Would it, then, be wholly impermissible to conclude that what Christians call "God" is present, under very different names, in Buddhism, in so far as Buddhists do not refuse, on principle, to admit any positive statements.(89)
Kung, however, is overly hasty in identifying the Buddhist account of ultimate reality with God, and does so at the expense of an unwarranted objectification of Sunyata. Pannenberg's reading of Sunyata is closer to the mark, insofar as the Buddhist ultimate reality is not "something else" that is "distinct" from phenomenal reality, and thus not easily identified with "what Christians call 'God.'"
Yet Pannenberg fails to recognize the extent to which the Madhyamika dialectic is directed against the linguistic practice of predication, thereby undermining any sort of objectification. While Sunyata entails a shift in the way things are seen, it not accurate to claim that Sunyata is merely this world seen in a different light. If Sunyata cannot be identified with transcendence, it cannot be identified with immanence either - which is what Pannenberg seems to suggest. Sunyata cannot be objectified. Its realization shows the assertion both of transcendence and immanence to be empty, and any act of ontological predication to be an expression of a sort of "false consciousness." Instead, "its bliss consists in the cessation of all thought, in the quiescence of plurality. No [separate] reality is preached at all, nowhere and none by the Buddha!"(90)
One must conclude that Buddhist and Christian characterizations of absolute reality are neither contradictory, nor complementary, but simply incommensurable. Their "grammars" simply do not correspond. As Lindbeck puts it, "no equivalents can be found in one language or religion for the crucial terms of the other."(91) This does not mean, however, that they have nothing to say to each other.
Emptiness and Problems of History and Will
George Lindbeck suggests that interfaith dialogue take the form of an inquiry into "categorical adequacy." Adequacy is not determined by an external standard. Rather "adequate categories are those with can be made to apply to what is taken to be real [within that particular grammar or language of faith]."(92) The fact that categorical adequacy rests on the degree of coherence of a religion's internal grammar might suggest that there is little point in making inter-religious comparisons, especially if respective categories are deemed incommensurable. Masao Abe's reflections on kenosis and emptiness, however, demonstrate that this is not the case. Abe does not establish a simple categorical correspondence between the two religions. He does not propose that the "Kenotic God" is identical to "Dynamic Sunyata." Instead, he attempts to enter into the linguistic world of Christian faith and proceeds to draw conclusions consistent with its internal grammar. As result, when he is criticized, it is for alleged exegetical errors, i.e., for misreading the grammar. This attempt to theologize within the categories of a particular language of faith emerges from its encounters with another external tradition. Though governed by norms of internal consistency, religious webs of language and symbol are not fixed and hermetically sealed. One religion's encounter with the fresh ideas embodied in another language of faith may prompt further reflection within the operative categories of that initial religion.
Masao Abe provides an example of this cross-fertilization in his response to the Christian critique of the role of the will and history in Buddhism. Christianity posits a God who acts within a history that moves in linear fashion toward its consummation. As a result, history becomes the stage for an ethical - and even political - praxis. By contrast, Buddhism, with its cyclical and non-linear notion of time, is "relatively weak in its view of history."(93) Similarly, Buddhism "has never taken the notion of will positively."(94) Because it treats the will as an aspect of karma that is to be overcome, Buddhism does not consider the will positively as a locus of ethic decision. Moreover, without a personal deity, it lacks an "the ultimate criterion of value judgment."(95)
Abe argues that Buddhism can address these problems and "develop its own view of history if [it] takes seriously the compassion aspect of Sunyata."(96) Just as he had worked within the logic of Christian categories in his discussion of kenosis, he now attempts to rethink sunyata in terms of the internal grammar and logical consequences of the governing Buddhist categories of prajna and karuna. If Buddhism appears to manifest quietistic tendencies, it is because sunyata is all too easily misunderstood as something static. But Sunyata is not merely the static absence of self-nature. Sunyata is dynamic, "a pure and unceasing function of self-emptying, making self and others manifest in their suchness.(97) Sunyata is a movement.
It is a dynamic identity that is to be grasped only in an unobjectifiable and pre-representational manner - through the pure activity of emptying. In the realization of true Sunyata, form is ceaselessly emptied, turning into formless emptiness, and formless emptiness is ceaselessly emptied and forever freely taking form. This total dynamic movement of emptying, not a static state of emptiness, is the true meaning of Sunyata.(98)
This dynamic self-emptying manifests itself as compassion with regard to "unawakened" beings, and is made concrete in the role of the bodhisattva who seeks not to escape from Samsara, but chooses to remain in time on behalf of suffering beings.
Operating within the categorical logic of Sunyata, Abe concludes that the compassion aspect of Buddhism contains resources for a Buddhism that is profoundly engaged in history, and a historically motivated ethical practice extending even to the sphere of society and politics. Thus while "traditional Buddhism lacks a traditional program of social transformation . . . it is an urgent task for Buddhism to actualize the Bodhisattva ideal in a concrete plan for social transformation within the contemporary human predicament."(99)
While Buddhist and Christian conceptions of absolute reality cannot be directly correlated, when these two webs of language are juxtaposed, interesting things happen. Elements emerge that bear a surprising "resonance." I chose this rather loose term to avoid more explicit terms of comparison that are prohibited by the principle of incommensurability. "Resonance" in this context is to be understood analogously. Its technical meaning derives from the field of Acoustics, in which it is defined as an "intensification and prolongation of sound, especially of a musical tone, produced by sympathetic vibration."(100) Resonant elements in different religious traditions vibrate sympathetically - like distinct strings on an instrument. Without trying to circumvent their basic incommensurability, differing religions may not only coexist, but, as we have seen in Masao Abe's reflections on history and ethics, even affect one another in a creative fruitful manner.
Can Buddhism Save?
At some point a Christian must ask the soteriological question: Can Buddhism save? Having explored the doctrinal grammar of Buddhism and learned something of the liberating character of sunyata, how are we to assess this notion once we have relocated ourselves within the framework of Christian faith?
The retrieval of the Hebrew category of "Wisdom" offers one possibility. We have seen that "wisdom" (prajna) plays a crucial role in Buddhism. In the Bible, wisdom is the portion of the canon that derives most from the traditions of Israel's Middle Eastern neighbors.(101) Hebrew wisdom literature does not so much witness Yahweh's saving acts in history as address practical and existential questions. Buddhist prajna, with its disciplined inquiry into the emptiness of self-nature, and its recognition of the constructed nature of conventional reality, might be considered a variant of this sort of practical and existential wisdom. There are points where Hebrew wisdom texts even sound like Buddhist wisdom, such as the Preacher's testimony that "I have seen everything that is done under the sun; and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind."(102) It is not difficult to perceive a semantic "resonance" between notions of "vanity" and "emptiness." Moreover, Prajna offers no counter claim to the prophetical kerygma, because like Hebrew wisdom, it is not concerned with the historical notion of redemption.(103)
While a Christian assessment of Buddhist teaching as a sort of wisdom teaching offers interesting possibilities, some problems arise. Guy Newland has criticized attempts to disentangle the philosophical elements of Buddhism from their native religious context.(104) And there is something slightly presumptuous about the annexation of the breadth and complexity of Buddhism under a category of wisdom, which, while integral to the Hebrew canon, still represents something of a sideline to the prophetic kerygma.
Finally, to say that biblical religion and Buddhism both share this category of "wisdom" begs the important question: what is the role that wisdom plays within the soteriology of each tradition? For Buddhism the acquisition of prajna is salvation itself. By contrast, salvation in the Bible has to do with the mighty acts of Yahweh accomplished in history, and communicated by sacred narrative. At best, the biblical category of wisdom might be stretched to include the manner by which this salvation may be subjectively appropriated, but wisdom in itself is not salvific. Still, the notion of wisdom offers at least a point of departure within a Christian theological framework - and one with canonical precedent - for coming to terms with another religious tradition.
In the end, Christians are not in a position to adjudicate the salvific status of Buddhism. Once one has entered into the sympathetic reading of Buddhism, the traditional rejection is hard to justify. But so is the attempt to press the two into an artificial convergence, or to coordinate them within a broader scheme of absolute reality. Can we do any more than recognize differences for what they are, and let each religion rest in its own distinct linguistically determined web of meaning?
The fact is, one must stand somewhere. One must inhabit a particular religious world of meaning. Even the attempt to coordinate a variety of religious outlooks does not stand "over and above," but is just another religious point of view. So is a secularist stance that claims to reject all religions - even if it represents a sort of "empty set," or limiting case.
Why does a person inhabit one religious universe rather than another? It is no simple thing to adjudicate competing truth claims and then make a choice. One cannot dispense with the task of examining the rationality and internal consistency of religious claims. But there is no objective tribunal from which to weigh their relative truth value. Any such position, to use Nagarjuna's language, is empty.
Within the grammar of Christian doctrine, we know absolute reality by faith. Faith alone can privilege one linguistically determined, religious web of meaning over another. If it is objected that another person just as legitimately privileges a different religious outlook, the following dialogue ensues:
"Yes, that may be."
"Well, they can't both be right, can they?"
"I suppose it depends on what you mean by 'right' - and how is 'right' determined."
"So all are views are equally 'correct'?"
"I didn't say that."
"What are you saying?"
"I am unable to speak to the truth value of other views - except in as much as they explicitly contradict or affirm the proclamation that 'Jesus is Lord.'"
"You are just saying that because you happen to be a Christian."
If one wishes to call this Wittgensteinian fideism(105) - so be it. But it is not an abdication of rational inquiry. One continues to submit religious claims to scrutiny - including one's own. It should be said, however, that a faith claim such as "Jesus is Lord" embodies a distinct "performative" mode of rationality.(106) Says Lindbeck, "it is only through the performatory use of religious utterances that they acquire propositional force."(107) "Performatory" use involves the living out of religious claims in patterns of life consistent with the logic and grammar of faith.
Jean Luc Marion suggests that the rationality of faith is discovered in seeking to "absorb the discourse of faith into the logic of charity,"(108) in which the validity of faith claims is located in the "passage from predication to performance."(109) The predicative statement, "Jesus is Lord," lacks empirical verification. Since it belongs to "the domain of a radically religious titulature, itself practiced in a sort of private language,"(110) it fails to satisfy general norms of meaning. Legitimacy does not lie in the utterance so much as in the speaker and in the speaker's way of life. Yet even the speaker disclaims the mastery or competency to give faith claims any validity. The claim of faith "passes through the one who speaks, but it comes from much further away and it goes much further."(111) In disclaiming the competency to validate utterances of faith, the one "who confesses that Jesus is Lord nevertheless already performs an act of love and nevertheless already predicates of the Word that he can love."(112) Hence, as in the performative logic of Madhyamika, one ceases entirely to seek objective grounds for assertions in the liberative "self-emptying" of love.
Faith, in contrast to metaphysical predication, has the character of humility. To invoke faith locates the source of one's conviction outside of oneself, while recognizing that convictions cannot be vindicated by an objective tribunal so much as by the manner in which they are lived out. To invoke faith is to recognize the fact of another's faith, even if one cannot speak to its truth or falsity.
Faith can even say, "I believe that the redemption that Christ has accomplished is reflected in your way of acting and speaking," and allow others to say the same thing from their perspective, as Rahner allows the Buddhist to perceive a Christian interlocutor as an "anonymous Buddhist."(113) The problem with Rahner's "Anonymous Christianity" lies not in his Christocentrism, so much as his assertion of a universal, pre-linguistic revelation and his attempt to link a meta-account of religion with a privileged linguistic narrative. I argue that one cannot privilege a religious narrative on metaphysical grounds, and that it is "imperialistic" to do so on any other ground than by faith.
Can Buddhism save? Within the context of Christian faith, one cannot say. But one can offer a modest theological suggestion, i.e., according to the grammar of faith, that Buddhism may be compared with those creaturely "lights" located beyond the boundaries of the Church, which as Karl Barth puts it, reflect the "light of Christ."(114) Having identified aspects of "resonance" between Buddhism and Christianity, one can shift to a theological discourse within the context of Christian faith, and ask if these are reflections of the "light of Christ" through which God can speak and act in grace. Who is to say whether in God's grace the Buddhist realization of emptiness is not a tacit participation in the salvific kenosis that takes place on the Cross? Incommensurability does not allow us to say for sure; but resonance leaves us open to the possibility.
1. Masao Abe, Zen and Western Thought, ed. William R. LaFleur (University of Hawaii Press, 1985), 4.
2. God's day of rest after creation (Gen. 2:2) becomes a figure for the "rest" promised on Israel's return to Canaan at the time of the Exodus (Ps. 95:11, Heb. 3:16-18), which is then taken up as way of characterizing the fulfillment of promise in Christ (Heb. 4:1-9, 12:22-24), and the arrival of the heavenly City (Heb. 11:10).
3. Karl Barth, "The Strange New World within the Bible," in The Word of God and the Word of Man, trans. Douglas Horton (Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1978), 34.
4. Clearly, there are limit cases in which intuitions about an alternate worldview would lead us to decline to enter into a sympathetic understanding "from within," such as Satanism, or the White-supremacist "Christian Identity" movement.
5. Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures, (New York: Harper Collins, 1973), 29.
6. Ibid., 13.
7. Karl Rahner, "Observation on the Problem of the 'Anonymous Christian,'" Theological Investigations, XIV (New York: Seabury Press, 1976), 290.
8. Rahner, "The One Christ and the Universality of Salvation," Theological Investigations, XVI (New York: Crossroad, 1983), 222.
9. Hans Kung, On Being a Christian, trans. Edward Quinn (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1976), 98.
10. John Hick, A Christian Theology of Religions (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), 19.
11. Ibid., 46.
12. Ibid., 43.
13. John Hick, God Has Many Names (London: Macmillan, 1980), 6.
14. I am not suggesting, however, that religions are static and do not change, nor that theological critique and revision is not an inevitable feature of their development. I am simply questioning the systematic revision of doctrine to enable a "fit" within a pluralistic scheme.
15. Students of the history of philosophy will recognize a kinship between the propositional model and the Common Sense philosophy of Thomas Reid. Church historian George M. Marsden has demonstrated the debt owed to Scottish Common Sense Philosophy by the early 20th century orthodox Calvinists who typify the propositional approach in Lindbeck's typology.
16. George A. Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal age (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1984), 16.
17. Ibid., 31.
18. Ibid., 51.
19. Ibid., 47.
20. Ibid., 46.
21. Ibid., 55.
22. Ibid., 62. Lindbeck specially states that "the notion of an anonymous Christianity present in the depths of other religions is from this perspective, nonsense, and a theory built upon it seems thoroughly unreal."
23. Hick, A Christian Theology of Religions, 43.
24. Lindbeck, Nature of Doctrine, 64.
25. Ibid., 68.
26. Masao Abe, Zen and Western Thought, 7.
27. Ibid., 15.
28. Ibid., 17.
29. Samyutta-nikaya in A Sourcebook of Indian Philosophy, ed. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Charles A. Moore (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1957), 274.
31. In Samyutta Nikaya the Buddha tells the five ascetics at the deer park at Varanasi, "What, O monks, is the Middle Way which gives sight? - It is the noble Eightfold Path - right views, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration." Ibid.
32. The term "dharma" carries a variety of meanings depending on context. Its literal meaning is "that which is established" or "law." It is frequently used to refer to the Buddha's teaching or saving truth. It also has an ethical sense, meaning "duty" or "proper conduct." Finally the term can denote, as it does above, an aggregate or composite element of reality.
33. Gadjin M. Nagao, Madhyamika and Yogacara: A Study of Mahayana Philosophies (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991), 167.
34. Radhakrishnan, A Sourcebook in Indian Philosophy, 341.
35. Garma C. C. Chang, The Buddhist Teaching of Totality: The Philosophy of Hwa-Yen Buddhism (University Park and London: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1971), 6.
36. Radhakrishnan, A Sourcebook in Indian Philosophy, 278.
38. Nagao, Madhyamika and Yogacara, 173.
39. Masao Abe, "Buddhism," in Our Religions, ed. Arvid Sharma (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1993), 115.
40. Conze, Buddhist Thought in India, 240.
41. Quoted in Jam-yang-shay-ba's Great Exposition of Texts. Excerpted and translated by Jeffrey Hopkins in Meditation on Emptiness (London: Wisdom Publications, 1983), 635. Hopkins adds the bracketed explanatory words, "[inherent]" to the term "existence," and "[conventional]" to "no . . . existence."
42. Nagarjuna, Precious Garland, 42, 45, in Nagarjuna and Kaysang Gyatso, The Seventh Dalai Lama, The Precious Garland and The Song of The Fourfold Mindfulness, trans. Jeffrey Hopkins and Lati Rimpoche with Anne Klien (New York: Harper and Row, 1975), 23.
43. These three definitions traditionally derive from Candrakirti's Clear Words. For a contemporary treatment of the term, samvrti, see Nagao, Madhyamika and Yogacara, 13-22, and Guy Newland, The Two Truths (Ithaca, New York: Snow Lion, 1992), 76-89.
44. T. V. R. Murti, The Central Philosophy of Buddhism (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1973), 244f. While this text has long been a classic introduction to Madhyamika, Murti's reading of Madhyamika is not unchallenged. According to Paul Ingram, Murti "falsities" Madhyamika by reading it "through the philosophical assumptions of Advaita Vedanta," meaning, presumably, that he tends to objectify sunyata into a monistic absolute. See Ingram's "Buddhist Shunyata and the Christian Trinity: A Response to Michael von Bruck" in Buddhist Emptiness and Christian Trinity: Essays and Explorations, ed. Roger Corless and Paul F. Knitter (New York: Paulist Press, 1990), 70f. Guy Newland regards Murti's interpretation of samvrti as overly intellectual, thus reducing it to a philosophical error, rather than treating samvrti as an "innate misconception of inherent existence." See The Two Truths, 79.
I am inclined to agree with Ingram's critique, but am not convinced by Newland's argument, especially since it seems governed by his own polemic against a "Wittgensteinian" reading of Nagarjuna and its supposed inconsistency with certain Buddhist cosmological ideas.
45. Ibid., 251.
46. Newland, Two Truths, 3.
47. Nagarjuna, Precious Garland, 43, 23.
48. Murti, Central Philosophy of Buddhism, 250. Murti shares Nagao's view that the Abhidharmika prompted the Mahayana, and in particular, according to Murti, the Madhyamika school, as a reaction. "The entire Madhyamika is developed by a trenchant criticism of the one-sided modal view of the Abhidharmika system, by being alive to the other side of the picture equally exhibited in the empirical sphere," 249.
49. Newland, The Two Truths, 3.
50. Cf. note 43, above.
51. Nagarjuna, Precious Garland, 99, 31. Emphasis mine.
52. Wm. Theodore de Bary, ed. The Buddhist Tradition in India, China and Japan (New York: The Modern Library, 1969), 99. Emphasis mine.
53. Jam-yang-shay-ba. Great Exposition of Texts. Excerpted and translated by Jeffrey Hopkins in Meditation on Emptiness. Emphasis mine.
54. Cf. note 44, above.
55. Nathan Katz, "Nagarjuna and Wittgenstein on Error" in Buddhist and Western Philosophy, ed. by Nathan Katz (New Delhi: Sterling Publishers, 1981), 319.
56. Newland, The Two Truths, 81.
57. Elizabeth Napper, Dependent Arising and Emptiness (Boston; Wisdom, 1989), 93.
59. Newland, Two Truths, 82.
61. Robert A. F. Thurman, "Philosophical Non-Egocentrism in Wittgenstein and Candrakirti in Their Treatment of the Private Language Problem." Philosophy East and West, 1980, Vol. 30 (3), 321. This is a much disputed question. Agreeing with Thurman are Chris Gudmunsen, Wittgenstein and Buddhism (London: Macmillan, 1977); Ives Waldo, "Nagarjuna and Analytic Philosophy," Philosophy East and West, 1975. Vol. 25(3), 281-90; Frederick J. Streng, Emptiness: A Study in Religious Meaning (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1967; also by Streng, "The Buddhist Doctrine of the Two Truths as Religious Philosophy," JIP, Vol. 1, 1971, 262-71; and J. E. White, "Is Buddhist Karmic theory False?" Religious Studies, 1983, Vol. 19(2), 223-28.
Sharing Newland's position are Tyson Anderson, "Wittgenstein and Nagarjuna's Paradox," Philosophy East and West, 1985, Vol. 35 (2), 157-69, and Hsueh-Li Cheng, "Nagarjuna, Kant and Wittgenstein: The San-lun Madhyamika Exposition of Emptiness." Religious Studies, 1981, Vol. 17(1), 67-85.
62. Newland, Two Truths, 82.
63. Cf. n. 32, above.
64. Nagarjuna, Madhyamika-sastra, xxv, 1 and 19, in A Sourcebook in Indian Philosopity, 342f.
65. Ibid., xxiv, 24, 345
67. Mundaka Upanishad, II. i. 4. Sourcebook of Indian Philosophy, 52.
68. Ibid., II.ii. 4, 9, 53.
69. Adolf von Harnack, Outlines of the History of Dogma. Excepted in Adolf von Harnack: Liberal Theology at its Height, ed. Martin Rumscheidt (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991), 110.
70. It is interesting that patristic writers did not appropriate from the Greek philosophical tradition the one idea that provides a bridge to a Buddhist cosmology, Plato's transmigration of souls.
71. Jean-Luc Marion, God without Being, trans. Thomas A. Carlson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), xx.
72. Ibid., 3.
73. Masao Abe, "Kenotic God and Dynamic Sunyata," in Divine Emptiness and Historical Fullness: A Buddhist Jewish Christian Conversation with Masao Abe, ed. Christopher Ives (Valley Forge, Pa.: Trinity Press International, 1995), 33.
74. Ibid., 37.
76. Ibid., 39f.
77. Ibid., 40.
78. Ibid., 40f.
79. Hans Kung, Does God Exist? An Answer for Today (New York: Random House, 1981), 690-91.
80. Hans Kung, "God's Self-Renunciation and Buddhist Emptiness: A Christian Response to Masao Abe," in Divine Emptiness and Historical Fullness, 213.
81. Wolfhart Pannenberg, "God's Love and the Kenosis of the Son: A Response to Masao Abe," in Divine Emptiness and Historical Fullness, 248.
82. Jurgen Moltmann, "God is Self-Emptying Love," The Emptying God: A Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation with Masao Abe on God, Kenosis and Sunyata, ed. John B. Cobb and Christopher Ives (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1990), 119.
83. Ibid., 120.
84. Ibid., 120f.
85. Abe, "Kenotic God and Dynamic Sunyata," 38.
86. Pannenberg, "God's Love and the Kenosis of the Son," in Divine Emptiness and Historical Fullness, 245.
87. Ibid., 245f.
88. Hans Kung, Christianity and the World Religions, 392.
90. Nagarjuna, Madhyamika-Sastra, xxv, 24, A Sourcebook in Indian Philosophy, 345.
91. Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine, 48.
92. Ibid. Emphasis mine, as are the words in brackets.
93. Abe, "Kenotic God and Dynamic Sunyata," in Divine Emptiness and Historical Fullness, 85.
94. Ibid., 61.
95. Ibid., 62.
96. Ibid., 86. Emphasis mine.
97. Ibid., 87.
98. Ibid., 51f.
99. Masao Abe, "Transformation in Buddhism," Buddhist Christian Studies, Vol. 7 (1987), 13.
100. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 3rd Ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1992).
101. It has long been recognized, for example, that certain sections in the Book of Proverbs are virtually identical with passages in the Egyptian Wisdom text, "The Instruction of Amen-em-ope."
102. Ecclesiastes 1:14.
103. I do not want to overstate my point. The historical narrative about Gautama Buddha is crucial to Buddhist lore. Buddhist cosmology has a notion of incarnation in which Buddhas appears at various junctures in time. But time is cyclical. It is not ultimately linear and purposeful in the Western sense of history that is, as Thomas Cahill puts it, a "gift of the Jews." Moreover, while Buddhas appear within time, Buddhist soteriology is nevertheless ahistorical in the sense that liberation is correlated neither to a divine act in the past, nor to a consummation that looms proleptically in the future.
104. Newland, Two Truths, 82.
105. Fideism maintains that so far as knowledge of God is concerned, faith precedes reason, and that reason is metaphysically incompetent. The term is generally used to convey a pejorative implication of irrationalism.
106. Cf. 28, above.
107. Lindbeck, Nature of Doctrine, 66.
108. Marion, God Without Being, 186.
109. Ibid., 189.
110. Ibid., 184.
111. Ibid., 196.
113. Responding to Keiji Nishitani's question as to how he, as a Christian, would feel about being treated as an anonymous Zen Buddhist, Rahner replied, "certainly you may and should do so from your point of view; even if I am obliged to regard you as being in error or if I assume that, correctly understood, to be a genuine Zen Buddhist is identical with being a genuine Christian." "The One Christ and the Universality of Salvation," Theological Investigations, XVI, trans. David Morland, O.S.B. (New York: Crossroad, 1979), 219.
114. Barth contrasts the human project of "religion" and divine revelation in Christ. All religions, even Christianity, are an expression of pride and rebellion that attempt to "anticipate what God in His revelation wills to do and does do." (CD I/2, 302) Grace, however, enables scripture and the Church to speak "true words" that reflect and conform to the one "light" and "Word," Jesus Christ. At the same time, there are "other words" and "other lights" that lie beyond the boundaries of the Church. These words and lights manifest themselves in the artifacts of human culture, and not the least of which, in religions. Barth insists that we should expect such lights to appear on the basis of Jesus' completed work on behalf of the world. Such lights, which God "does not withhold from his creatures," stand in "a positive relationship to the light of life." (CD, IV/3.i, 165)
CHRISTOPHER A. BROWN is a priest in the Episcopal Church. He is completing his dissertation in Systematic Theology on Justice and Justification at Union Theological Seminary.
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|Date:||Jun 22, 1999|
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