Chapter One: Reality Itself as Criterion of Religious Truth
Romano Guardini surmised that the Buddha is “the last one whom Christianity will have to confront. What he means in Christian terms, no one has yet said…. He is free; but his freedom is not that of Christ. Perhaps it signifies only a final fearfully-dissolving knowledge of the nothingness of the fallen world” (360). One might equally say that Buddhism stands before the Western philosophical tradition as its last challenger, and that what Buddhism means in philosophical terms has not yet been clarified. The easiest course, for both Christianity and philosophy, is to dismiss Buddhism as an irrelevance. Yet the Buddhist questions and analyses, bearing on such hallowed themes as self, time, being and nothingness, conceptuality and language, are too probing and too unsettling to be shaken off. They remain an insistent presence on the landscape of our thought, perhaps holding out a perilous invitation to skepticism and nihilism, nominalism and relativism, or perhaps graciously opening toward an integral wisdom rooted in lucid insight into reality itself.
In this book, building on essays written over the past twenty years (listed in the bibliography), I attempt to assess, or to undergo anew, the philosophical and theological impact of Buddhist thought in its Indian Mahāyāna form, as represented by a handful of well-known texts: the Heart Sūtra, the Vimalakīrti-nirdeśa, the Lotus Sūtra, and Nāgārjuna’s Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (MMK) or Root Stanzas of the Middle Way, the founding document of the Madhyamaka philosophy of emptiness. (“Madhyamaka” refers to the school, “Mādhyamika” to its adherents.)
First let us take up this thread of reflection: Religions are false and valueless when they are not in accord with reality itself, when their texture is pervaded by fantasy, illusion, or escapism. Indeed the whole point of religions is to being us into contact with reality itself, in its deepest and most universal sense. So we can use the notion of reality as a criterion for distinguishing what is true from what is false, what is living from what is dead, what is important from what is less important, within religious discourses, representations, and practices.
At first sight such a criterion may seem completely useless, since there is no universally agreed-on account of what reality is. A materialist or positivist might say that reality is nothing more than the cold, hard facts. Since religion commonly leaps beyond mere facts and since it often uses imagination in doing so, projecting grandiose mythic universes, its claims to be grounded in the real would be disqualified from the start. But one may counter that even the natural sciences reveal the texture of reality to be infinitely more subtle and mysterious than what talk of cold hard facts suggest. Philosophical reflection may overcome such a reductive account of the real and win through to the secure perception of metaphysical realities, such as being, truth, freedom, personhood, the ethical good, the natural law, conscience, and the God that reason may find itself obliged to posit as the foundation of all things. Why should philosphy not then ensconce itself securely in that vision and dispense itself from taking account of religions, with their various messages of salvation which distract from calm reasoning? The systems that metaphysical thinking at its most ambitious will set up seem to offer a refuge for the troubled mind that is more secure and impregnable than any religion, since it is founded on reason and can be criticized and improved by reason, without any appeal to unverifiable and unreliable supernatural agencies. Many will find their sense of reality fully satisfied within a metaphysical system such as that of Plotinus, Spinoza, or Hegel, and will feel no urge to look further afield, especially if as in the case of Hegel their system has already rationalized and integrated the challenges and insights the religions offer.
But there are strong movements within modern thought that would contest the adequacy of the metaphysical notion of reality. The arts seem to light up the world in a way that cannot be recuperated by metaphysical arguments and concepts, and they give rise to a kind of reflection that stays closer to concrete existential reality than metaphysics does. Existentialism since Kierkegaard and Nietzsche and phenomenology since Husserl and Heidegger take their cue from the kind of perception developed in the aesthetic realm as they seek to bring “the matter itself” into view. It’s an easy and shallow game to then go on to discredit metaphysics as bloodless and remote from reality. Better to say that religion, if it is to prove its worth, must satisfy both the metaphysical and the phenomenological sense of reality. More than that, religion must disclose an original dimension of reality not already adequately dealt with in philosophy and the arts.
The real may emerge in the form of trauma, and may be experienced as shattering one’s comfortable sense of reality. When religion integrates that dimension, as in the many traumatic scenes in Scripture, it is likely to be accused of papering over the cracks in reality. The religious sense of the real is always tried and tested by traumatic shocks, which ultimately purify and deepen it. It might be more threatened by the quiety trauma inflicted by the disparity between a world experienced as totally foreign to its categories and sovereignly indifferent to them. Can religion claim to provide the master-key to the interpretation of reality, when the world it would explain blithely ignores its discourse, marginalizing it as an obsolete fantasy? Faith feels itself to be in contact with an inward truth that the ordeals of trauma and of secularity cannot crush, and it finds allies in that sense of reality not only in reaching out to other religions but in scrutinizing the ethical and aesthetic experiences and achievements of humankind, even at their most secular.
Can religion meet the challenge to be real, and to be real in an original and irreducible way, and not merely as a secondary formation parasitic on bedrock human experience? Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud thought not, but religion would claim that the reality it discloses will show up the limits of the mental frameworks of these masters of suspicion. With any religion one steps into a realm of thought and feeling that goes beyond common secular perception. That step beyond is justified only if it signifies a fuller and deeper grasp of reality itself, such that not to take the step is to have a truncated grasp of reality. The Christian faith, for example, claims to apprehend with a new concreteness the themes of metaphysics listed above. The goodness of being is more radiant when embraced in trust in a loving Creator; truth is no longer what reason laboriously discerns but is also something revealed by a divine Word; freedom is raised to a new level by Grace; personhood is grasped anew as the image and likeness of the supreme divine Personality; the ethical good is concretely situated within the existential drama of sin and redemption; the natural law is revealed as a divinely granted order; conscience becomes the inner voice of a God who is nearer to us than we are to ourselves, as Augustine stresses; and finally the philosophical image of God is powerfully surpassed by divine self-manifestation culminating in the Incarnation.
Is the step from the world of common experience and reason into the world of faith a plunge into delusion or a step to fuller reality? This question can be resolved only when one has already succumbed to the attraction or authority of a religion. Philosophy and art take us toward the religious dimension, as far as the threshold of faith, and many people will be satisfied to go that far and no further. They might even say that they embrace Buddhism, in the sense of a commendable philosophy that demands no investment of faith. Or they might even say that they embrace Christianity as a philosophy, but without its creed or its worship.
Even when one fully subscribes to the Christian message as true, as liberative, and as transformative, the quarrel about reality does not cease. Theologians are ceaselessly sifting the vast bulk of biblical and Christian tradition so as to make more salient its most authentic core and to overcome obsolete elements. The critical tending of the tradition is necessary in order to bring it into fruitful dialogue with the contemporary sense of reality and to prevent it from hardening into an archaic traditionalism or an aggressive fundamentalism. Then the question of reality takes a new sharpness when one’s faith-world is exposed to that of another religion that at first sight seems to be working with a totally other sense of reality. This is more puzzling than the challenges of a blank secularity, for it advances under the guise not of skepticism but of a conviction every bit as firmly held as one’s own. To the skeptical gaze this encounter of rival religions confirms the unreality of religion; yet the world of science and philosophy has its own vast range of rival paradigms. Religious pluralism, it may be argued, is no more anomalous than pluralism in philosophy or the arts. Yet how can a religion, whose sense of reality is predicated on the conviction that it has grasped ultimate truth, tolerate another religion claiming the same certitude for a totally different account of ultimate truth?
In the past, religious pluralism prompted theological battles or actual wars between rival creeds. Even in cultures where different religions lived together peacefully, as in China, there were occasional outbreaks of sharp polemic or actual persecution.
Now the ideal of warm ecumenical understanding between religions is gaining ground, and people are managing to practice this without abandoning criteria of truth and reality. The new dialogal space in which the Christian Gospel engages not only with Western modernity but equally with Eastern religious wisdom has its own coherence and lasting power, irrespective of doctrinal claims and counterclaims. It forms a plateau for future dialogal developments, among which the dialogue with Buddhism is likely to play the most central role. In this process, if we wish to keep reality itself in view as its criterion and goal, we should forgo speculative chit-chat or merely desultory involvement with the religious other. Only when one is really gripped by some elements in the other religion does dialogue move toward the real. The interplay with the other then becomes “a loving strife about the matter itself” as Heidegger would say.
The historian of religions, mulling around in the shadowy lumber-room of extinct mythologies, may not share this optimism. Perhaps a defense of living religions today should be complemented by a defense of dead religions, an effort sympathetically to retrieve the vital perceptions they once conveyed. For instance, to retrieve the glories of Greco-Roman religion, so often denigrated in the early Christian centuries, is not necessarily a revolt against the Christian dispensation but can actually enhance it by clarifying the anthropological roots of religious imagination and praxis. After snubbing them for millennia, we could now perhaps initiate a friendly dialogue with long-forgotten religious ancestors, unfolding in a more appreciative key the religious adventures of humankind. In that dialogue, too, we can apply the criterion of reality itself, treasuring especially those elements in ancient religions that vibrate with our sense of reality or challenge it.
Interreligious Space as a New Context for Thinking God
The incarnational vision of Christianity embraces all of human experience and the whole cosmos, and Buddhism for its part claims to communicate a vision of things as they really are. As the two religions stretch themselves out anew to match the contemporary horizons of awareness, each realizes more effectively its own universal scope. Each is challenged to “get real” as it becomes sensitized to the credibility gaps, or the mismatch in regimes of truth, between its traditional lore and modern questions and perceptions.
Buddhism is often embraced by those who want a religion without God, or without a personal God, creator and judge, on whom we depend totally. One can argue that the renewed sense of divine possibility and presence emerging in post-metaphysical Christianity (and which finds resonance in traditional apophatic theology) is something quite other than any god that Buddhism rejects. Moreover, the openings on ultimacy in Buddhist tradition are incompatible with a watertight atheism. The divine in Buddhism does not give itself the strong profile of the monotheistic God, but is broken down into such elements as absolute reality and universal compassion, justice, mercy, grace, personality (of bodhisattvas and helpful devas or gods), eternity (the ultimate reality of buddhahood and nirvāṇa transcends all temporal categories), which are dispersed in partial form across the field of Buddhist representations. But more than that, the lived practice of Buddhism, as of Christianity, is an opening up to the real, a growth in compassionate responsiveness and penetrating insight, bringing the two religions into communion with each other.
Some might say that Buddhism has won the battle about true religion, so that a Christianity without God can be sublated without remainder into Buddhist wisdom. Or it might be claimed that when Buddhist wisdom is added to biblical tradition the result is that the strong identity of the monotheistic God is traded in for the more nebulous concept of “the divine.” But such expectations are premature. The Christian partner in the dialogue does not come with a set of non-negotiables, for doctrine is not immune to processes of change, development, and reinterpretation that can undercut efforts to state stark differences between Christianity and Buddhism. Even the doctrines of God’s simplicity, omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, may take on a very different hue if reformulated in terms of a Buddhist ontology of emptiness rather than the Western ontology of being.
The possibilities of a Buddhist interpretation of the doctrine of God have still not been fully explored, above all at the level of immersion in classic Buddhist texts, meditatively appropriated. Not only the content of doctrine is affected, but also its status and function. If we take seriously the Buddhist critique of attachment to views, it must have consequences for the way we hold Christian doctrinal views. So rather than pit doctrine against doctrine, we learn from Buddhism how to interrogate the original purpose of doctrines.
But the core of Christian doctrine is a person, Christ, our cipher of divine and human reality, who quite eclipses the shadowy salvific figures of Buddhism. Yet if we see the figure of Christ as pointing beyond itself to reality in its broadest scope, the reality of the divine and the human, cosmos and history, we launched in a directions that the other religions are following as well, since all claim to seek reality itself, though all confess to falling short of it. We should not stress too heavily that the singularity of Christ as historical Savior distinguishes Christianity from Buddhism, since the Christ-event, like the Buddha’s wisdom, is ultimately coextensive with reality itself; that is, opening out to the universal illumination of the “Logos” to which it gives an incarnate impact. Christ is “the savior of the world” (Jn 4:42) because he is the light that enlightens all minds (Jn 1:9); both the revelation and the salvation are universal. That means that the Christian message is not just a practical one of salvation from sin, though it begins there, but it extends to an illumination of the very nature of reality, so that nothing eludes its light. Buddhism, likewise, begins with the problem of dukkha (pain), closely connected with ignorance (avidyā), but as the implication of its salvific path unfolds it becomes a vision of reality itself that is absolutely comprehensive. Because of this outreach to reality, both religions must constantly think beyond their inherited forms in order to become themselves.
If we are living through a change in the nature and function of theism, then atheism ceases to have a clear target. To deny “the existence of God” becomes as difficult as to deny the ocean of being or of emptiness. A sense of divine presence at the heart of things, at the ground of being, persists, even if it has become difficult to correlate with the classic language a knowing, willing, acting personal agent and his providence, or into the scholastic attempt to translate that language into well-clarified and well-defended metaphysical terms. Christian language about God only rarely dwells on the notion of God-in-Godself in abstraction from the incarnate “divine milieu” (Teilhard de Chardin), an all-embracing, sense-surround presence, from which one cannot cleanly extract a set of experiences or ideas that focus purely on God and abstract from the rest of reality. The divine emerges as a qualitative dimension of being itself, its transcendent depth, and the traditional doctrines are refocused in function of this horizon.
The Buddhist notion of conventional or screening truth (saṃvṛti-satya) makes of all religious language a play of mobile traces, through which the ultimate truth (paramārtha-satya) is communicated only as an elusive presence best attested by silence, when all conceptual and linguistic fabrications are brought to rest. Thus the very key of dialogue is changed and the distinct views that are brought into play can be relied on only as provisional supports. The give and take must not degenerate into a desultory intellectual game, but should be grounded in prayer and meditation, which are a plumb-line that ensures the moorings of religious life and thought in contact with reality itself. Satya means truth, a situational teaching posture, and wise handling of the two registers of conventional and ultimate truth guides us to reality, tattva, how things are, and to tathatā, suchness or thusness, that quality that makes things be how they are.
Affirmation of God does not require projection of a macro-substance, an impregnable identity, a secure foundation, to which one must cling, and which constricts the freedom of the spirit. The Buddhist deconstruction of such a God could be a service to biblical faith, overcoming a God who is substance for a God who is Spirit, and who is thus more, not less real. Buddhist “atheism” thus becomes a voice in Christian theological reflection, as does the radical monotheism of Islam. All of these religions are wrestling with ultimate unfathomable mystery, before which they fall silent. Historical controversies between them come into view as different hermeneutical slants on the one shared situation of religious questioning and finding, and they change today into a relaxed dialogue where none seeks to refute the others.
If under Buddhist influence we talk of an “empty God” the implications are comparable to the talk of God as Being that the contact with Greek philosophy enabled. The biblical God did not disappear into Being but asserted its irreducible identity in regard to the language and categories of Being. Similarly, today we may expect that the biblical God will not disappear into Emptiness, but will assert its identity in a fresh way. Buddhism in any case urges that our conventional talk of God should have the vibrant effectiveness of a skillful means, conducing at every point to spiritual liberation, and that the ultimate paramarthic reality of God is accessible to us only in and across the play of conventions. This might allow Pascal’s “abêtissez-vous” to be read in a more positive key: “If you want to know the living God, join in the practices that transmit divine presence, without anxious searching after metaphysical defnitions and certitudes.”
We must let our too narrow conceptions of God be solicited and shaken by the new horizons that have emerged—solicited not by speculative gyrations but by a “reality check” that tests them against reality itself. Buddhism, with its astringent vision of reality, based on an intensive analytical empiricism, provides an effective check on the inflatedness of so much Christian discourse. The interreligious space in which such mutual critique and correction is possible is becoming more and more the obligatory horizon of all religious thought, the milieu that mediates and inflects all our efforts to talk of God or of grace and salvation. As we cultivate that milieu, with greater attention to the earth and to the texture of human community, our inherited biblical conceptions of God and even the texture of our prayer will broaden to match the contours of the world in which we actually live.
Theologians may insist that even if we posit divine existence merely as a hermeneutical wager, forgoing any effort to establish it by reasoning, and even if we sketch the divine essence in phenomenological terms by exploring the God-event of mystics, artists, and activists, as the current “cultural turn” in theological studies urges (Kearney/Clemente 2018), making of God a vibrant space of possibility, we need a criteriology to decide when what we call “God” in these contexts can safely be received as “God.” But the unfathomable depths of the divine, abstracted from the totality of the concrete incarnational milieu, are not the most promising or practicable topic for analysis. Rather the total texture of a religious culture is what theology should be assessing, a texture within which words such as “God” may figure skillfully or unskillfully. Christian doctrine affirms the unity, simplicity, infinity, eternity, omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence of the Creator, but these definitions have a largely negative thrust, and their positive upshot remains ineffable and incomprehensible. They are negative in a double sense, as forbidding discourse that makes God weak, passible, finite, mutable, and as stressing the apophatic status of all discourse about God. A modern religious vision may be very reserved about speaking of God in classical terms, yet if it proscribes reference to a transcendent Creator, then no matter how “skillfully” it evokes the divine it falls into the immanentist or pantheist tradition in which God is confined to the role of a dynamism pervading nature, a life-force, or Matthew Arnold’s version of the biblical God as “the not ourselves, which is in us and all around us,… adorable eminently and altogether as a power which makes for righteousness” (Arnold, 25).
This shift of focus has been anticipated by countless theologians and religious thinkers who have registered or promoted a softening of tight definitions of God’s being in favor of a poetic and phenomenological horizon in which God cannot be clinically disengaged from the totality of existence and life. Schleiermacher’s location of God in terms of the sense of utter dependence, or Tillich’s location of God in terms of “ultimate concern,” are characteristic examples of this movement. Steep doctrines on the divine nature remain authoritative, and even necessary, but their status has become that of a secondary defense of the rich primary language of faith. In Buddhism, likewise, what counts above all is the milieu of liberation. The doctrinal foundations—theories of Buddhahood and of ontology—are constantly bent back to their pragmatic, functional, liberative context.
This implies a reconversion of all religious terms into indications of concrete life-orientations. Thus creedal utterances such as “I believe in a gracious God, creator of all” is “cashed” as an embrace of life itself as gift, as creatively purposed, as opening out infinitely. “I believe in the Holy Spirit” can carry the same weight of comprehensive life-affirmation. Doctrinal tenets change their meaning and become a series of poetic or transforming phenomenological responses to the lived world. Yet this phenomenological reduction easily passed over into an immanentist metaphysics, for it will implicitly postulate some metaphysical understanding of the divine, that when spelt out may be revealed as closer to the God of Spinoza or Whitehead that to the God of the Creed.
Bearing in mind the impossibility of isolating the idea of God from the full context of the divine milieu in which God is known in a wide web of experiences of grace and love, the metaphysical debate can be relocated as answering a concrete, contextual question: “This God that you always refer to, is it real or just a convenient imaginative symbol?” Making fully explicit the nature of the ultimate reality postulated in Christian experience and doing the same for the Buddhist conception of ultimate reality, one could set up a friendly dharma-battle between the two ways of thinking. The debate would soon shift to the plane of ontological presuppositions. For Christian metaphysics all beings exist in total dependence on the divine source of all being. For Buddhist metaphysics all beings are radically impermanent, dependently co-arising formations. Christians see divinization as the goal of beings; Buddhists speak of nirvanic release from the painful realm of impermanence. But these oppositions soften as we recognize that the Buddhist analysis of samsaric existence applies quite well to the Christian experience of created being in its finitude and contingency. Meanwhile, Mahāyāna Buddhism in its paradoxical claim that the samsaric is already nirvanic comes close to the Christian vision of the transformation of the creature through union with the divine. This metaphysical discussion may never come to a definitive conclusion, but it should not be discouraged as a distraction. The intellect and its questions are also an integral element in the Christian and Buddhist life and cannot be expelled from the divine milieu. The pursuit of debate with Buddhists about the existence and nature of God could become a precious spiritual exercise, as Christian ardor blends with Buddhist serenity, overcoming the centuries in which that ardor turned sour in fanaticism and in which that serenity may have favored an entrenched indifference to the question of God.
Reality as Theme of Dialogue
Interreligious dialogue may focus on such items as God, the self, grace, or salvation. But it could also rise to a more abstract level by asking about such transcendental quantities as truth or reality. Questions such as “What is reality for a Buddhist?” or “What is reality for a Christian?” would first prompt a dogmatic reply, such as “that to which the Four Noble Truths point” or “the presence of a loving God.” But the question rebounds reflexively on any such answer, probling its claim to be really real. Indeed there is an arsenal for such meta-questioning in both traditions—in the Christian tradition of negative theology and the Buddhist thinking about conventional truth. As a dogmatic proposition the Four Noble Truths are conventional, not ultimate; and to say “the presence of a loving God” is to be too complacently cataphatic about a reality that eludes clear definition and leaves even mystics floundering. In thematizing the question of reality we push religious discourse to face a faith before faith, that is, to express the sense of the real that precedes and underpins the formal religious propositions. Would this pre-denomational faith be a saving faith? For Paul the faith of Abraham is saving faiths, even though it comes before Moses, Judaism, or Christianity. Today we should aim to get back down to this primordial level, and the shock of encounter between Christianity and Buddhism is a catalyst for this. Christians and Buddhists are moving together in the same direction, using their respective complex traditional equipment, which can sometimes look like “shabby equipment always deteriorating” (T. S. Eliot), as a skillful means in their shared creative task of thinking anew about matters of ultimate concern.
We must of course remember that a vision of reality as gracious is by no means self-evident. The real often invades people’s lives in a form that shatters their previous calm acceptance of reality as secure and good, and experiences of pain, bereavement, disappointment, can light up the world as a dark and meaningless place, as tragic literature has often shown. The Buddhist and Christian quests for reality integrate this negative dimension in their fundamental references to dukkha and to sin, *
Faith and religion have not emerged unscathed from the ordeal of modernity; rather their meaning is radically altered, through a critical step back from doctrinal affirmation to this prior level of engagement with the real. Faith is less a matter of subscription to tenets than of an orientation in regard to reality itself; religion becomes a repertory of skillful means for engaging with reality itself. Christianity, like Buddhism, is not primarily subscription to certain local tenets, but an empowering vision of reality as such. In each religion, one performs religious acts and affirms religious propositions in order to grow in a rooted and creative engagement with reality. Both are explicitly concerned with the same matter, that is, with processes of liberation and salvation that are afoot in the living present. Both see materialism as an amputation of consciousness and a source of suffering and point out that at every step we run into invisible realities—conscience and morality, truth, love, reason itself—that dislodge the materialistic or naturalistic outlook and keep it from being the last word. Beyond defensive apologetic both religions enact a richer vision of the world, which is not imposed by doctrine but emerges from the texture of human life itself. The scriptures of both religions can be read as an exegesis of everyday life, and even their most dazzling epiphanies or theophanies lodge at the heart of the human life-world. Each religion has its own distinctive convictions but both share allegiance to reality itself, as the condition of validity of all convictions. On this platform Buddhists and Christians are one, and the recognition of their shared goal frees them to draw on each other’s resourses of belief and practice.
Here “religious identity” takes on a new meaning, pre-Buddhist and pre-Christian, and our belonging to either or both of the constituted traditions should be opened up to a deeper belonging, that we share with all human beings. Our belonging to “reality itself” sets the basic context of all dialogue, in which one talks to the other not as Christian to Buddhist or vice versa, but as one person to another sharing basic human questions. Could we imagine someone born into the unchartered condition of this basic pre-denominational faith, who would discover at one and the same time the Buddhist and the Christian traditions, cultivating them both and growing in them? This would be an exemplary achievement of double belonging, but it would be grounded on the prior belonging to the gracious reality accessed in a more basic openness of faith.
We stand, perhaps, at an evolutionary threshold in human consciousness, which spells not a collapse of religious traditions but their salutary mutation. As the different traditions, each with their own rich charge of faith or insight, engage non-defensively in the vital adventure of dialogue, bringing a cascade of healing effects, the question, “but is it all ultimately true?” falls away. Theologians put on the back burner the quest for metaphysical verification and definition and turn instead to a total life-world pervaded by attention to the signs of grace that emerge on every side. This rejoins Buddhism, which stresses the processes of enlightenment and compassion rather than cultivation of correct views, and which is on its guard against the risk of setting up fixed certitudes in place of skillful responsiveness to the experiences that draw forth one’s energies of wisdom and compassion.
The exchange between Buddhism and Western philosophy is currently far more vibrant, at least intellectually, than the Buddhist-Christian dialogue, because it focuses not on esoteric theological claims but on the question of the nature of reality, a question that haunts every human being in one way or another. To restart the interreligious dialogue, Christians need to foreground an understanding of faith that sees it as the embrace of reality itself. “Reality itself” is of course a rather indeterminate notion. If we accept that reality is the judge of religion, not religion of reality, just as “the sabbath was made for humanity, not humanity for the sabbath” (Mk 2:27), then each religion is faced with the task of determining what reality itself is and of aspiring to be adequate to it. Though setting out on this quest from very diverse starting points there is nothing to prevent the different religions from saluting one another as colleagues in one and the same quest. Of course the religions are already fully engaged with reality itself, but the engagement can be brought more clearly to consciousness and thus purified. Applying this to Christian piety, one could say that someone who recited the Rosary every day, meditating on fifteen New Testament events, is ultimately attuning to reality itself, under fifteen different colors. To draw on Buddhism in one’s practice is to multiply the colors, so that one might meditate on reality itself under the rubric of the Buddha’s enlightenment along with meditating on it under that of Christ’s resurrection. One could have prayer that Buddhists and Christians could both recite with equal conviction: “I place myself this day in the presence of reality itself, and I pray that all my beliefs and actions may be rooted in reality, judged by reality, and conducive to a full embrace of reality in all its splendor.”
Buddhists might find such a prayer more immediately congenial than Christians, for Buddhism teaches a doctrine about the nature of reality as such, in its account of the marks of existence (impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, non-self), of dependent origination, of emptiness, and of “thusness” or “suchness.” Such statements about the nature of reality as such are implicit in Christianity, in its serene praise of the created order: “Consider the lilies of the field” (Mt 6:28), and of course in its defense of the goodness of being in opposition to Manicheanism. Both religions cover the same field, but in different ways. The conundrums of “dual religious belonging” are defused when one places the accent on the shared concern with reality as such and with the whole of reality. To adopt both religions is to practice seeing reality as such from two different perspectives, attaining a more all-round perception of reality as a whole. On the practical level, both religions urge a contemplative mindfulness that is attuned to the splendor of reality, or the goodness of being, and a compassionate responsiveness that engages with the suffering neighbor here and now.
If both religions are an embrace of reality, a vision of reality, and an affirmation of reality, and if their particular tenets and claims are to be taken as skillful means stretching out to that universal embrace, then it is counter-productive to start opposing them as contrary belief-systems. Both share reality itself, and the different inflections or styles of their address to reality are complementary. Even such terms as “theism” and “atheism” indicate nuances of vision rather than stark theses. An infinite, incomprehensible, ineffable divinity on the one side cannot be simply opposed to the empty thusness of reality on the other. The real is not opposed to the real; on both sides there is the same sense of ultimacy, the same movement of freedom. Buddhists and Christians share the same boat, that of human beings adrift on the ocean of reality. They descry together the contours of that mighty ocean, using languages that are mutually challenging and mutually enlightening. Their traditions have a functional role, as guides to navigation, and they lose meaning unless they are serving the present living adventure of navigating the sea of the real.
The secular philosopher will say, “Well, we all know what reality is, so why do we need religion to tell us?” And most people seem satisfied with the corners of reality that they know best and which familiarity has made comfortable to them. Religion stands or falls by its claim that true reality is elusive, eluding even the clutches of metaphysical reason. Buddhism and Christianity are two methods for waking us up to that true reality. All arts and sciences are concerned with reality itself, but religions maintain that concern in a more ultimate sense, since they live by the conviction (and experience) of reality as numinous and graced in a sense not explicitly envisioned elsewhere.
Doctrine Revised in Light of Reality
Study of Buddhism throws new light on Christianity by showing it to be a religion of awakening to reality. It focuses the attention of Christians on what is most essential in their faith and yields a new way of affirming Christian identity, such that this no longer means obsessing over church claims or lifestyles, but rather a return to the basics of the outlook on reality taught and lived by Jesus Christ.
Buddhism begins by dismantling the Brahmanist idea of a securely substantial God, whereas Christianity is firmly rooted in Jewish monotheism and even reinforces it by Platonic structures of transcendence wherein God is located as supreme eternal being. But even within Platonizing Christianity the notion of God has many traits of Buddhist emptiness: God as an infinite act of being is stripped of all limiting finite and substantial attributes—everything about him is infinite, absolutely simple (no differentiations in the divine being), incomprehensible or ungraspable. Going beyond this metaphysics, we encounter the dynamic Johannine and Pauline conception of God as an event of Spirit, light, love. Here again is a reality that it is quite difficult to set up in opposition to Buddhist teaching. The thorny doctrine of the divinity of Christ can be translated back into these phenomenological terms, so that it too becomes an opening up to reality itself.
To be sure, the Buddhist sense of reality and the Christian sense of reality differ in style, and Christians would say that they “live by faith” (Rom 1:17) or “walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7) in a sense that has no Buddhist equivalent. But this nuance should not be hardened into a black and white opposition. All religions have faith in the sense of generosity of vision and existential trust that goes beyond the warrant of narrow empiricism and implies a relation to gracious ultimacy. Positive claims about the election of Israel and the saving role of Jesus Christ are put in perspective when interpreted as notes within the opening up to reality itself that is the essential action of faith. Subscription to creedal articles of faith is secondary to this. Faith is something like the adhimukti of which the Lotus Sūtra speaks, an opening up to a divine life and light and grace pervading the whole of reality.
Credibility is strained by the startling particularity of the Christian claim that the salvation of the entire world, including all of humanity stretching back to its ancient evolutionary origins, has been decided by an event that happened on an afternoon in Jerusalem in 30 CE. The scandal of the claim is lessened when we remind ourselves that the event of grace encountered here reveals the ultimate nature of reality itself. The particular event has a universal meaning, and ceases to be that event unless experienced in its universal horizon. The sinner who is “ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven” by the power of Christ’s death and resurrection encounters not a past event but ultimate reality as active here and now.
The categories of classical dogma have a role in orienting Christian towards reality, if they are skillfully deployed. But they are less central than the orientation given by the Gospel itself: the primacy of love, the superiority of the life-giving Spirit to the letter that kills, the abundance of grace and of divine mercy, justification by faith in Christ, the assured triumph of the eschatological Kingdom. These are mysterious indications, and to make full sense of them they should all be interpreted as coterminous with reality itself; that is, love lights up the essential nature of reality; the Spirit is the transcendence of limiting conceptual regimes to an experience of freedom, that demands ongoing contemplative perception and that cannot be reduced to categories; grace and justification offer release from the stress generated by a delusive ego anxious to shore up its identity and fearful of letting go; as to the Kingdom of God it cannot be anything less than reality itself: the world in which we breathe here and now must be affirmed as the place of the Kingdom.
Vatican II urged Christians to read “the signs of the times,” that is, to tune in to here and now realities and to rearticulate the Gospel in response to them. Buddhism, in its exercise of discernment and compassionate action, reads the very same signs. For instance, both religions are cultivating awareness of the ecological crisis and emphasizing “care for the earth.” This has a retroactive effect on their understanding of their respective traditions, leading to a new emphasis on the earth-friendly dimensions to be found in tradition and a critique of rhetoric or philosophical outlooks that denigrated or undercut the value of earthly realities. Buddhist-Christian collaboration on ecological projects thus brings the two religions together not only on the plane of praxis but also in critical querying of their doctrinal foundations. The two religions cannot pursue their self-critiques or self-reinterpretations separately, for the entire method and process of rethinking an ancient tradition in light of contemporary problems and insights is common to all religions that undertake it. Modern Buddhist thinking from D. T. Suzuki to Critical Buddhism is clearly influenced by Christian hermeneutics, and Christian theology is being influenced by a Buddhist sensibility to the conventional fabric of religious discourse as skillful means.
For many Christians Buddhist meditation has the effect of bringing the Gospel message of salvation into clearer perspective, by training the mind to focus on the essential or vital aspect of this message rather than on theoretical or doctrinal dimensions. Salvation is of course an unconditional gift that lies beyond the machinery of religion (Rom 5:1-17); it “is coming into the world (Jn 11:27), reaching us right where we are, and is not something we reach up to; but in so far as that “machinery” can impede or aid perception of this gift, then Buddhism may play a key role in improving the functioning of the Christian machinery, clarifying how it can be a skillful means. A Christian can thus embrace Buddhism wholeheartedly, albeit as a complement to Christian faith.
Doctrinal differences can be a theme for interesting discussion, but they should not become a blockage to spiritual wisdom or engaged compassion. Rather, the debate should itself be guided by the overarching question of how these ancient traditions serve the human quest for truth and salvation today. Dialogue should not be a matter of negotiation between specific religions but should seek to create a new configuration, letting it take shape through the conversation itself. Extended to those who have no religion, or who reject religion, dialogue can reach down to a level of faith that subsists when one peels away all the religions, a primordial embrace of the goodness of reality, which is not achieved by academic, theoretical discussion but in a non-verbalized encounter.
The way to save religions from themselves is to take seriously their claim to universality. If Christ and Buddha are speaking to and for the entire world, then it must be possible to “cash” their words as indicating universal reality. The more we seek to draw out the implications of this, the more the narrowness, stuffiness, and stubborn sectarianism of so much in-house religious talk becomes apparent. Theologians in their talk of “God” and “grace” and “salvation” are often merely moving pawns on a chessboard of theory. If their terminology were stretched at every point to be adequate to what it must intend to denote, the entire fabric of theological discourse would change. Buddhist-Christian dialogue has somewhat slumped recently, because people got tired of the speculative language used by so many of its proponents. Drawing on the decadent speculation of the alleged “Trinitarian renaissance,” interreligious theologians sought to map the places of other religions in light of the doctrine of the Trinity (or rather of a modern speculative image of the Trinity), sometimes invoking metaphysical tenets of German Idealism or Process Thought for good measure. A Buddhist-Christian encounter rooted in a shared apprehension of reality itself would have to proceed in a very different style, beginning with a renunciation of unreal speculative constructions in favor of a return to the phenomena, a return to where we always already are.