John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D. is Professor of Theology Emeritus at the Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, California, and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies there. His many books currently in print include: Reclaiming the Church (1997); with Herman Daly, For the Common Good; Becoming a Thinking Christian (1993); Sustainability (1992); Can Christ Become Good News Again? (1991); ed. with Christopher Ives, The Emptying God: a Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation (1990); with Charles Birch, The Liberation of Life; and with David Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (1977). He is a retired minister in the United Methodist Church. His email address is email@example.com..
This essay was one of two lectures given at Bangor Theological Seminary, January 26-27,2004. The second essay is entitled “Beyond Pluralism.” This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
The essayist compares Christianity and Buddhism, suggesting both can learn from each other.
In my previous lecture I talked about the need to consider separately every other religious tradition and how as Christians we should understand and relate to each. We must consider the history of our past relation to it, its strengths and weaknesses, and the practical effects of taking particular actions. We may end up with some generalizations, but we should move from the particular to the general, not from ideas about religion in general to the understanding of and response to particular traditions.
In that lecture I talked first about what we could contribute to others, and then about what we might learn from them. But I also noted that, at least in today’s world, after centuries in which we talked far more than we listened, it is time to put listening first. After we have learned from the wisdom of the other tradition and been transformed by what we learn, we are in much better position to be heard when we speak.
Although I illustrated my point of the need to accept diversity in many ways with reference to Judaism, Hinduism, and Shinto, and spoke of what we might offer them and learn from them, all my comments were very brief. The reality, on the other hand, is that we need to wrestle with these questions profoundly and extensively, much as the Church Fathers wrestled with the wisdom of the Greek tradition. This is a major task for theology in this twenty-first century. It was begun in the twentieth, but only begun. It will require the joint work of many people.
My own small contribution to initiating this work has been in relation to Buddhism. There are several reasons that I have focused on the relation of Christianity and Buddhism.
First, because I lived in Japan as a boy, I have had more contacts there than in countries where other religious traditions prevail. Religiously thoughtful Japanese are typically interested in Buddhism, and many of them are devoted Buddhists. I have had opportunities to talk with a number of them. From there our Buddhist-Christian dialogues spread to include Buddhists from other regions, especially Tibet and Thailand.
Second, among my mentors, teachers, and friends several were especially interested in Buddhism. This was true of both Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne, and also of Thomas Altizer. This interest reflected not only the specifics of their religious concerns, but also a wider cultural phenomenon. Buddhism has fascinated Christians for centuries.
Third, one reason that Whitehead and Hartshorne were interested in Buddhism also affects me directly. In a remarkable way, such Buddhist thinkers as Nagarjuna anticipated the insights of the contemporary process philosophical movement. Western process thought did not derive from Buddhism, but it cannot but recognize that it adopted its views for some of the same reasons two millennia later.
Fourth, whereas Westerners have come to these philosophical conclusions rather recently, Buddhists have lived with them for many centuries. Whereas Westerners have done so in a context in which philosophy and religion are considered quite distinct, Buddhists have lived with them in a context where no such walls of separation existed. For them, the questions are: What are the existential or spiritual implications of these insights? How can they support the quest for enlightenment? Apart from the influence of Buddhism, Western process thinkers have hardly asked these questions, much less answered them. They have obvious importance for a theologian.
It is evident that my judgments as to what Christians can learn from Buddhists are greatly affected by the congeniality of its basic insight with my own beliefs. That means that the judgments I will offer in this lecture are more directly dependent on my philosophic views than was the case in my previous lecture. Yet I would not like for those of you who do not want to be dependent on a particular philosophy to shut me off. Accordingly, I will discuss the problem in Christian theology to which process theology gives an answer first, before describing the answer given in the Whiteheadian process tradition. Many theologians not committed to the specificities of the answer of process theology agree that Christianity has had a problem with substance thought.
In my previous lecture I expressed my admiration for the work of the Church Fathers in the Hellenization of Christianity. Without this indigenization of Christianity in the Greco-Roman world, the movement would have failed. But, even so, Christianity has paid a high price. The Fathers did not abandon the biblical story in order to make the faith understandable to Greeks, but they did impose a conceptuality in deep tension with it.
The Bible is chiefly written in story form. That is, it is about events. It tells what people did. One can tease out of the way the story is told some ideas about the structure of human beings: body, emotions, will, soul, spirit, and so forth. But no biblical author attempts to describe this anthropology. We can say more, on the basis of the Bible, about relationships among people than about the nature of the people who are related.
Similarly the Bible speaks a great deal about what God does, and it provides many images and descriptive adjectives. But it tells us almost nothing about the nature of the divine existence in itself. Since the stories are told over a period of a thousand years or more, their depictions of the divine character vary. It is very difficult to reconcile some of the stories with some of what is said about God’s character.
Sophisticated Greek audiences felt these gaps keenly. They could not believe that God acted in the barbaric way portrayed in some stories. Other stories presented God as all too human. In general the questions the Greeks asked required answers at what we might call the ontological level. What is the nature of God? How does God affect what happens in the world? Their answers required them also to judge that many of the stories should not be taken at face value. They decided that they were in the text as a source of moral and theological lessons rather than in order to satisfy curiosity about ancient events. Broadly speaking cosmology replaced historical narrative as primary. The anthropomorphic God of the Bible was replaced by a new doctrine that wove together elements from the Bible and from Greek philosophy in a new synthesis.
The new synthesis replaced temporality and history with a nontemporal eternality. For the Greeks, to be divine was to be eternal in the specific sense of being above or beyond time. One of the major attributes of God became immutability. In the Bible we are told that God is faithful to God’s promises and that God’s character never changes. But this new synthesis went far beyond that. Strictly speaking what happens in the world cannot make any difference to a God who cannot change in any way.
The only alternative to this denial that God know what happens in the world was to say that time is unreal for God, so that the whole course of events affects God eternally. Even when time is sacrificed in order to acknowledge God’s knowledge of the world, God was not really allowed to care. That would introduce negative feelings into God, and that was thought to be incompatible with God’s perfection. This whole pattern of thinking was antithetical to scripture. For the Bible, we are called to serve and please God. But the new doctrine of God renders that idea meaningless.
Another problem came from the new doctrine of divine omnipotence. Many suppose that this is biblical. It is not. Certainly the Bible speaks a great deal about God’s amazing power, but it does not deny some lesser degree of power to other spiritual entities and to human beings and other animals. God is the most powerful being, but there is no reason to say that God has all the power. One problem was that, in the Septuagint, “Cosmocrator“, ruler of the cosmos, replaced Shaddai, the proper name for God in part of the Pentateuch and in Job. In translation into Western languages, beginning with Latin, this was again mistranslated as almighty. Cosmocrator means ruler over all, but it does not deny power to those who are ruled. The Cosmocrator has to be very powerful to control the powerful forces within the cosmos. To say the ruler of the cosmos rules over powerless beings actually reduces, even dissolves, the affirmation of God’s power. Also, Christianity has suffered immensely from having to explain how there can be evil in a world in which a good God has all the power. Formulated in that quite non-biblical way, the question has no possible answer, as the long history of theodicy makes quite clear. The Bible tells a dramatic story of many actors in which God plays the primary and ultimate role. If God is the only actor, there is no real drama.
Of the many other problems introduced into Christian thought by the relation of the new synthesis to scripture, I will mention only one more. In the Bible, boundaries are somewhat fluid. This is important for understanding the way God acts in the world and the human experience of God’s presence. Paul is particularly interesting here. He speaks of our participation in Jesus’ faithfulness, suffering, death, and burial. He speaks of Christ in us and our being in Christ. He speaks of the indwelling of the Spirit. He speaks of how we in the church are members one of another.
Substance thought cannot make sense of any of this. Instead of the Spirit working righteousness in the hearts of the faithful, the interpreters could speak only of God’s acquitting believers of sin after the manner of a judge. Instead of the faithful participating in the life and death of Jesus, they can at best imitate. Instead of the faithful being ‘en Christo” at best, God treats Jesus as a substitute offering.
Equally important for the development of Christian theology was the idea of the incarnation derived from the prologue of the Gospel of John. Here the Word of God is said to become flesh. That this had occurred became the hallmark of orthodox Christology. Just what it means became the topic of generations of debate and mutual recriminations. I am an enthusiast for the idea of God’s incarnation in the world and especially in Jesus, but you will not be surprised to hear me say that the idea became an acute problem because of the Hellenistic categories in which it was discussed.
If the discussion had continued in biblical terms, ontological precision would not have been sought. The Bible talks often enough about the Word coming to someone, and sometimes of its operation within them. Similarly God’s presence in the world can be spoken of in terms of God’s Spirit, God’s Wisdom, and God’s glory. That these are present from time to time in people is part of biblical understanding. That such presence is affirmed of Jesus is to be expected. That it is affirmed in stronger language of Jesus than of others does not surprise or occasion intellectual puzzlement. The language of Antioch, where biblical images played a larger role than in Alexandria, was of the Word indwelling Jesus.
But for those who could think only in Greek philosophical categories, this was not clear or sufficient. For them the world was made up of entities that were identified as ousia. This was translated into Latin as substantia which, of course, becomes substance in English. There were philosophical debates among Greek philosophers as to exactly what this word means, but common to their usage was the idea expressed in the adage, “two substances cannot occupy the same space at the same time.” If one takes this for granted as a fundamental principle, one entity, even a divine one, cannot indwell another. The incarnation becomes incomprehensible. The doctrine requires that Jesus be both fully human and fully God, but God and humanity cannot occupy the same space at the same time.
Those who were strongly shaped by this conceptuality proposed that some feature of Jesus’ humanity was replaced by the presence of the Word. Those who were more concerned with the biblical story, and those whose theology required Jesus’ full humanity, insisted that Jesus was not lacking in any human feature. The creeds ended up in paradox and stalemate. But later, after the time of the creeds was passed, it came to be considered orthodox to think that Jesus selfhood or person or “I” was only divine. This is surely a wholly unbiblical idea developed because of substance thinking.
These were by no means the only places where Greek philosophy, based on the ontology of ousia, blocked the more natural expression of biblical ideas, but they should suffice to indicate the problem. Even though the Reformers tried to liberate the Bible from philosophical thinking, they hardly began to deal with the deep hold of substance thought on theology. Sadly, if one is unwilling to think philosophically, one will be the servant of its existing form.
Modern theology was founded with an even sharper focus on substances than had characterized medieval thought. Perhaps just because it was so explicit and so emphasized, it came under serious question for the first time in Western history. It gradually became clear that when substances were clearly distinguished from their changing attributes they could not be thought at all. Finally, Hume was brave enough to reject them out of hand. Kant tried to restore substance as a necessary category for human thought, but for the most part Western philosophy has simply bypassed the discussion. It learned from Kant that we should abandon metaphysics and think instead about human thinking.
This opens the door for the reappropriation of more biblical modes of thought. For example, there has been much talk of narrative theology. Others have reduced theology to language. If language is no longer thought to refer to something beside itself, we are free to use biblical language quite uncritically. However, we should recognize that when we do so, we are speaking quite differently than the biblical authors who naively thought they were talking about actual events.
I have summarized the story quite independently of the process conclusion that I myself draw from it. I hope that it makes clear why the encounter of Christianity with Buddhism is important. It is a movement of thought and spiritual life that for thousands of years has rejected the idea of substance. For the West, thus far, the recognition that there are no substances has led primarily to the idea that talking about what is or what is not is a mistake. If there are no substances, it is assumed, then there is no reality beyond our experience or our language. There is no meaning in asking about the existence or nature of God. We can only talk about our symbols, our language, or our experience of God. This abandonment of realism by the educated elite has driven a deep wedge between a great deal of theology, on the one side, and the actual piety of the church on the other. This is not a healthy situation.
There have been many philosophical and theological responses. One family of these responses undertakes to continue the discussion of reality by replacing substances with events. There are no substances, but this does not mean that nothing happens. It simply means that the events are the reality. There is not another type of entity underlying the events and acting through them. I subscribe to this view. After trying so long to think of events as simply the product of matter in motion, it is time to think of matter as a pattern of events. In a very general sense this is the triumph of biblical historical thinking over Greek ontological thinking. But it is not really that, because it asks and answers many of the same questions that constituted Greek philosophy. Instead of abandoning ontology or metaphysics, it proposes a different one.
Sadly, from my point of view, this option is viewed with great suspicion in intellectual circles. Hume and Kant continue to shape the discussion. They emphasize what cannot be done, and what cannot be done is to develop a new metaphysics. They do not find it necessary to criticize the new philosophy in detail, since it is the enterprise itself they reject. It is, from the dominant point of view naively realistic and unrealistically ambitious. The time for such grand schemes has, in their perspective, long past. They can even appeal to Buddhism in support of this rejection of the constructive enterprise.
Nevertheless, we do encounter in Buddhism an alternative to substance thinking that does not simply bypass the issue of what is. And this introduces Buddhism, or more precisely multiple Buddhist voices, into the present discussion as fruitful contributors. I will make no effort to describe the diversity within Buddhism, which is vast. I focus only one doctrine that is widely held. In place of substances, Buddhists speak of pratitya samutpada. This is translated as dependent origination. This means that what there is is always a coming into be out of what is other. Therefore, nothing exists in itself, as a substance is thought to do. Each thing is what it is in any moment in derivation from what it is not.
Buddhists illustrate this in many ways. I will illustrate it in the way that I find most convincing. I can say, at least, that when I have used this illustration, Buddhists have not objected. Substance thinking has typically asked us to think about a stone, or a tree, or a star. When we begin with these sorts of entities and generalize about them we are likely to end up with a metaphysics of substance, or, if we dissolve the substance as Hume did so brilliantly, we end up with nothing but our own sense data. Ultimately we must be able to show that these sorts of entities are also instances of dependent origination, but when Buddhists begin with them, it seems to me, they are often not so convincing.
My example, then, is a moment of human experience. What is that? It is quite apparently something than happens. In itself one is not tempted to think of it as a substance. If one insists on substance thinking, one will posit a subject who enjoys such experience. Ordinary language encourages this. One says, I see the dog; so there is a subject separate from the experience who might be seeing a cat instead. My point is that one can begin with the event and then be led by ordinary English language to posit a substantial subject and a substantial object outside the experiential event.
However, once we have recognized that analysis of the given in terms of postulated substances does not work, we may be willing to simply examine the experience itself. Of what does it consist? I will identify only a few elements. There are feelings of bodily events, perhaps an aching back. There are memories of past events, perhaps a delicious meal recently enjoyed. There are feelings about other people, perhaps a beloved child who is in danger. There are relations to the environment that express themselves in colors and sounds.
Now comes a further question. Is there first of all an experience that then relates to the body, the past, other people and, the physical environment in these ways? That would introduce a new substance, the experience as such. But that analysis fails. We find in experience no experience as such. The only experience there is is the experience of other things. The experience in its concrete actuality is the togetherness of these other things. The aching back, the tasty meal, and so forth originate the experience. It is an instance of dependent origination. This momentary experience ceases to be and shares in giving rise to a successor experience.
Attending to human experience is important for Buddhists, because central to their teaching is the idea of no-self. This means, what we have already noted, that there is no substance underlying the flow of experiential events. The events themselves are all that there is. This does not mean that there are not other events, in the brain, for example, that contribute to the dependent origination of human experience. But there is no self to be distinguished from the events.
Many Christians find this disturbing and offensive. They feel that human beings are reduced or demeaned by this idea. Buddhists do not think so. They find the idea in principle liberating, and they hope to realize, existentially, its truth. If they doe so, they are convinced, they can attain a serenity that it otherwise eludes human beings.
The Buddhist doctrine of no-self is no doubt in tension with Christian thought, but it was not developed to counter it. It must be understood in its Indian context. We noted in the previous lecture that a major strand of Hindu thought celebrates the identity of Atman with Brahman. Here Atman is the human self and Brahman is ultimate reality. In the Hindu context, these are typically, although not always, thought of as substances.
This standard Hindu analysis moves in the opposite direction from the Buddhist. When the Hindu reflects about experience, it dissolves into the world of appearances. This is much the same as happened to Hume. But Vedantists are convinced that the reality of the Atman is not affected by the play of appearances. The real self is not the empirical self that appears in that play. The reality underlying human experience is timeless and without differentiating qualities. Similarly the reality that underlies the play of appearances objectively, which means the underlying reality of all things, is also without any differentiating qualities. It is Brahman, the ultimate. It could also be called Being Itself. This Being Itself is the Being Itself of all that is including the self. Hence Atman and Brahman are one.
Agreeing to this analysis may have some intrinsic value, but for the Vedantist the task is to realize its truth existentially or mystically. Particular yogic disciplines are designed to do so. There is no doubt that they can lead to extraordinary states of consciousness.
Nevertheless, it is this analysis against which Buddhists have argued. They do so, as we have seen, in a purely theoretical way, denying that Atman or Brahman underlies the flux of events. They also see this theory as leading people to depreciate that actual events of the world viewing them as appearance and the appearance as illusory. The Buddhist seeks to realize the existential meaning of the fact that there is no Atman rather than of the unity of Atman and Brahman.
Many Hindus think that Buddhist exaggerate their difference from this form of Hinduism. It is possible to think of Atman and Brahman as dynamic such that they name an always coming into being rather than a static underlying Being. Then the realization of the identity of Atman and Brahman is not so different from the recognition that every event including the event of human experience is an instance of dependent origination. In some such way it may be possible to get past the sheer contradiction that seems, from the Buddhist side, to be entailed.
Nevertheless, there are important differences between typical Buddhist and Vedantic practices. I like to tell about an experiment I read of many years ago. Sadly I do not now have the report, so that my description is based on failing memory. Nevertheless, I believe the basic point is safe.
At a Catholic university in Tokyo, experimenters hooked up their subjects to instrument measuring brain activity. There were three groups involved. The first were people who prayed or meditated with no specially developed discipline. The second was a group of yogic practitioners. The third group was composed of practitioners of Zen disciplines.
All were asked to meditate or pray. After a few minutes the experimenter sounded a raucous buzzer. Then after a pause repeated this several times. Afterwards the brain waves of the different participants were studied.
The first group responded in the expected way. The unpleasant sound interrupting their prayers led to significantly heightened activity the first time. Its effect was less the second time and continued to diminish as it was repeated.
The yogi practitioners, on the other hand did not respond at all. Presumably they had shut out the external world and moved deeply into their interior. What happened externally did not matter to them.
The Buddhists, however, responded moderately to the first buzzer and similarly to each succeeding one. I want to use this response as a way of clarifying the implications of the no-self doctrine.
Buddhists judge that as long we understand our experience as being grounded in enduring selves, we will live in our past and future. We have regrets or feel pride in past acts and anxieties about what the future will bring. When we break with this erroneous view, we can live moment by moment in the present. Living in this way, we can be fully present to just what is, not interpreting it in terms of its harmfulness or benefit to ourselves, but letting it be. We experience it and then let it go. If it happens again, we will again experience it, and then let it go.
Buddhist meditational discipline, therefore, does not separate practitioners from ordinary life. It enables them to live that life in full immediacy moment by moment being fully present to whatever or whoever is there. There is no denial or pain or suffering, presumably the buzzer was unpleasant. But the response to the unpleasant sound was simply the recognition of the fact that it occurred. It was not viewed as an interruption of something else that was more important or a negative portent of what would happen in the future,
There is surely much in this that is interesting and attractive to Christians. If letting go of self leads to this kind of serenity, one need not dread it. It is not clear what positive role this self would play in Christianity.
I am not trying to say here just how Christians should respond to the few features of Buddhism I have highlighted. I hope I have said enough to show that one cannot quickly say that we have nothing to learn or that appropriating anything from Buddhism would be contrary to our faithfulness to Jesus Christ. We may on reflection decide that we cannot agree with the ideas or consider the goal the right one for Christians. But even if this is the decision, Christians who have come to it in response to Buddhism will be changed in the process. We cannot deal seriously with new issues, whatever the outcome, without being broadened. If we reaffirm our inherited answers, we now understand differently the questions to which they respond.
My own judgment, as I have said, is that Buddhists are basically correct in their understanding of reality, and that we can learn from them the positive consequences of realizing this. This is a major contribution that Buddhists can make to us. It will take us a long time truly to learn it and be reshaped by it. Until we have learned this, it will be difficult for them to listen to us.
To explain this let me talk about what I think we have to teach. Most Buddhists have no place for God in their thought. Originally, they denied the reality of Brahman, as of Atman. They did not deny that their were superhuman beings who were worshipped by some people, but they taught that that was a mistake. What was truly important was enlightenment and these gods were distractions. At that time they knew nothing of the God of the Abrahamic traditions; so their denial was not directed at this kind of monotheism. However, when they encountered the belief in this deity, either in its Muslim or its Christian form, they rejected it too. Let us consider why.
My previous discussion should provide at least part of the answer. An all powerful deity is completely incompatible with an understanding of dependent origination. This doctrine requires that everything be partly determined by everything else. That attributes power to all things. Further the idea of substance played a large role in the doctrine of God. Indeed, God was generally viewed as the ideal embodiment of substance, totally self-contained and self-sufficient, incapable of being affected by anything. Such a way of thinking closely associated the God of Abraham with Brahman.
The only kind of deity a Buddhist could seriously consider would be one who is an instance of pratitya samutpada. Such a deity would be arising dependently from all other entities and would be part of that from which all other entities arise dependently. Although many Buddhists have no interest in speculating about such a deity, their basic vision of reality is not undercut by it.
Now we must ask whether such a deity could be understood as the one whom Jesus called Abba. My view is that it would fit much better than the traditional divine substance. In Jesus’ understanding there is interaction between God and the world. God cares what happens in the world. Indeed there are indications that he thought that God knew every event in the world. Since the biblical understanding of knowing goes far beyond the merely cognitive we might say that every event in the world affects God, even participates in constituting the divine experience. He certainly thought that God acted in the world, and it would not be upsetting of his thought for God to be said to be participating in or informing every event whatsoever. A Buddhized formulation would be close to the one Jesus called Abba.
On the other side, despite the desire of many Buddhists to avoid any entanglement with the idea of God, there are developments in Buddhism that suggest an openness to the kind of deity of which I have spoken. Many Buddhists long for compassion and help. They turn to Buddhas for this. These Buddhas are not just enlightened human beings. They may be understood to continue to exist and to act mercifully in the world. To them can be attributed a cosmic role.
Of course the very fact that there are many Buddhas of this sort limits the similarity. But in Pure Land Buddhism, one Buddha, Amitabha is depicted aas encompassing the work of all the others. Amitabha acts cosmically for all.
True, according to the myth this is a story of one who became a Buddha after many lifetimes. It is not about an everlasting being essential to the operation of the cosmos. It is not yet God in the sense an Abrahamic monotheistic could recognize or allow.
Still, another step is possible for some Buddhists. There is a widely held Buddhist Trinity. It consists of the three bodies of Buddha. One body, the Nirmanakaya, is the manifest body, that is, if one wishes, the incarnation. It is Gotama, and, in principle anyone else who attains enlightenment. What is incarnated is the universal principle of pratitya samutpada, here called the Dharmakaya. It is beyond the distinction of good and evil. Hence it is more like Being Itself or Brahman, than like the Abrahamic God. But then there is also the Sambhogakaya, the Dharmakaya experienced by human beings as compassionate – we might say pure grace. This body of Buddha does not need to be understood as having come into being at some point. It can be seen as cosmic and everlasting. It provides a point of contact within Buddhist thought for speaking of the Christian God.
One can begin my noting the similarity. Buddhists rightly identify compassion as central to the divine. Christians know this compassion in and through Jesus Christ, but Buddhists have found it through the Buddhas. In that case, what is there left for Christians to teach.
I believe that we know God in a fuller way. Just as Buddhists can teach us a great deal about the existential meaning of realizing that there are no substances, that all things are dependently arising, so Christians can teach about the existential meaning of the fact that at the heart of the universe is compassionate understanding. Buddhists draw from this comfort and assurance. This is surely important, and Christians share in it. But we are surprised that there is so little talk of reciprocity. The question is entirely what the deity is doing and will do for us. There is virtually nothing about how we should respond beyond faithful acceptance.
For Christians God’s gracious work within us is also directive. God not only comforts us, God also calls us. Buddhists clearly are often in fact responding to God’s call. But there is an advantage in identifying what we are doing. Buddhists can learn intentionally to listen to the call of God.
Further, we believe that the God who comforts and calls also deserves our supreme loyalty, a loyalty that transcends that to any creaturely reality. This note of loyalty or commitment is lacking in Buddhism. In my previous lecture I spoke of how state Shinto promotes the worship of the emperor and how the Japanese Christians oppose this. They have little support from Buddhists. Buddhists as Buddhists do not promote ethnic nationalism, but they do not understand their religious thought and practice to deal with issues of this sort. In response to divine compassion they may recognize that they should place the love of the divine lover and the extension of that love to all others above national loyalty. The can come to see the worship of the divine lover as contrary to the worship of one people through that of their leader.
Buddhists are often averse to talk about justice. To them it sounds like repaying evil with evil. Alternately it may involve social engineering to make all people equal. Their interest is far more in social harmony. Nevertheless, we Christians believe that what we mean by justice has an important place in the response to God’s love. There has been much that has been damaging in our quest for justice, and on this point our Buddhist partners can be very helpful. But it is quite possible that this conversation cam be a two-way street. Already, partly in response to dialogue with Christians, Sulak Sivaraksa had organized a successful movement of socially-engaged Buddhists. They are teaching Christians a great deal about how to be engaged in compassionate work without treating those with whom we disagree as enemies.
In the Jewish scriptures, the response is primarily in terms of obedience to the law given by God. Buddhists for the most part live in societies that are bound my many rules of contact. In their religious practice they seek something quite different. Christianity offers what is much more acceptable. As recipients of God’s love we are called to love God and our neighbors, especially the least of these. This is not alien to Buddhism.
I have probably gone too far in suggesting just how God can come to play a part and then an enlarged part in Buddhist thought and life. The fact is that we cannot control how our message is perceived and what in it will stimulate rethinking on the part of the other. But much of what I have said comes close to my experience thus far. The steps I have described are not impossible.
The need for more careful thought about social responsibility has not expressed itself only the establishment of the movement of engaged Buddhists. I have had the ;privilege of supervising two dissertations by Buddhists on Buddhist approaches to social ethics. One was written by a Zen Buddhist. The other by a Pure Land Buddhist. They differ markedly from each other as each rooted the proposed social ethics inm the specifics of his tradition. I should say that neither followed the simple pattern I have suggested here.
One of my Pure Land Buddhists friends has become an avowed theist, much along the lines I have outlined. He sees no conflict between Buddhist teaching as understood in this tradition and the further development of its theistic tendencies. He agrees with me that Buddhism in principle is open to viewing Jesus Christ as a Buddha who revealed and taught the compassion of God.
If Christianity can give up its lingering commitment to substance thought and learn the existential meaning of the Buddhist doctrine of no-self, it will be creatively transformed. If Buddhists can recognize that the compassion they crave and experience is from God, and that the compassionate God is also one who calls us to compassionate action and to whom ultimate loyalty is due, Buddhism will be transformed. I believe that such transformation is already taking place at the periphery of each tradition. During this century it could go much further ant change the nature of the two traditions and of their relations. Taking part in this is an exciting opportunity and challenge.