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Christianity and the Encounter of the World Religions by Paul Tillich

Paul Tillich is generally considered one of the century's outstanding and influential thinkers. After teaching theology and philosophy at various German universities, he came to the United States in 1933. For many years he was Professor of Philosophical Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, then University Professor at Harvard University. His books include Systematic Theology; The Courage to Be; Dynamics of Faith; Love, Power and Justice; Morality and Beyond; and Theology of Culture. Published by Columbia University Press, 1963.

Chapter 3: A Christian-Buddhist Conversation

In the first chapter we drew a panorama of the present encounters of religions and quasi-religions in many areas. We did it with a particular emphasis on the quasi-religions, their nature and their superior historical dynamics. It was the encounter of nationalism, communism and liberal humanism with the religions proper which was at the center of our interest, because it is decisive for our present religious situation. In the second chapter Christian principles of judging non-Christian religions were discussed and the universalism of Christian theology in most centuries was shown. We illustrated with examples from the history of the Church the Christian belief that revelatory events underlie all religions and quasi-religions, but also the theological idea that the revelatory event on which Christianity is based has critical and transforming power for
all religions.

On the basis of this judgment of the non-Christian religions and quasi-religions on the part of Christianity, I intend now to discuss a concrete encounter of Christianity with one of the greatest, strangest, and at the same time most competitive of the religions proper -- Buddhism. The discussion of this encounter will not be merely descriptive; it will be presented in a systematic way as a dialogue about the basic principles of both religions. In order to do this it is first necessary to determine the systematic place of both Christianity and Buddhism within the whole of man's religious existence. Such an attempt is perhaps the most difficult one in the comparative study of religions, but if successful it is the most fruitful for the understanding of the seemingly incomprehensible jungle which the history of religion presents to the investigating mind. It is the attempt to erect signposts pointing to types of religions, their general characteristics, and their positions in relation to each other.

The establishment of types, however, is always a dubious enterprise. Types are logical ideals for the sake of a discerning understanding; they do not exist in time and space, and in reality we find only a mixture of types in every particular example. But it is not this fact alone which makes typologies questionable. It is above all the spatial character of typological thinking; types stand beside each other and seem to have no interrelation. They seem to be static, leaving the dynamics to the individual things, and the individual things, movements, situations, persons (e.g., each of us) resist the attempt to be subordinated to a definite type. Yet types are not necessarily static; there are tensions in every type which drive it beyond itself. Dialectical thought has discovered this and has shown the immense fertility of the dialectical description of tensions in seemingly static structures. The kind of dialectics which, I believe, is most adequate to typological inquiries is the description of contrasting poles within one structure. A polar relation is a relation of interdependent elements, each of which is necessary for the other one and for the whole, although it is in tension with the opposite element. The tension drives both to conflicts and beyond the conflicts to possible unions of the polar elements. Described in this way, types lose their static rigidity, and the individual things and persons can transcend the type to which they belong without losing their definite character. Such a dynamic typology has, at the same time, a decisive advantage over a one-directed dialectics like that of the Hegelian school, in that it does not push into the past what is dialectically left behind. For example, in the problem of the relation of Christianity and Buddhism, Hegelian dialectics considers Buddhism as an early stage of the religious development which is now totally abandoned by history. It still exists, but the World-Spirit is no longer creatively in it. In contrast, a dynamic typology considers Buddhism as a living religion, in which special polar elements are predominant, and which therefore stands in polar tension to other religions in which other elements are predominant. In terms of this method, for example, it would be impossible to call Christianity the absolute religion, as Hegel did, for Christianity is characterized in each historical period by the predominance of different elements out of the whole of elements and polarities which constitute the religious realm.

However, one may point to the fact that we distinguish between living and dead religions on the one hand, and between high and low religions on the other hand, and ask: Does this not mean that some religions did disappear completely after the rise of higher forms, and could not Buddhism be considered, as it is with Hegel and in neo-orthodox theology, as a religion which is, in principle, dead? If this were so, a serious dialogue would be impossible. But it is not so! While specific religions, as well as specific cultures, do grow and die, the forces. which brought them into being, the type-determining elements, belong to the nature of the holy and with it to the nature of man, and with it to the nature of the universe and the revelatory self -manifestation of the divine. Therefore the decisive point in a dialogue between two religions is not the historically determined, contingent embodiment of the typological elements, but these elements themselves. Under the method of dynamic typology every dialogue between religions is accompanied by a silent dialogue within the representatives of each of the participating religions. If the Christian theologian discusses with the Buddhist priest the relation of the mystical and the ethical elements in both religions and, for instance, defends the priority of the ethical over the mystical, he discusses at the same time within himself the relationship of the two in Christianity. This produces (as I can witness) both seriousness and anxiety.

It would now seem in order to give a dynamic typology of the religions or, more precisely, of the typical elements which, in many variations, are the determining factors in every concrete religion. But this is a task which by far transcends the scope of this book, which may be considered as a small contribution to such a typology. The only statement possible at this moment is the determination of the polarities of which Christianity and Buddhism occupy the opposite poles Like all religions, both grow out of a sacramental basis, out of the experience of the holy as present here and now, in this thing, this person, this event. But no higher religion remained on this sacramental basis; they transcended it, while still preserving it, for as long as there is religion the sacramental basis cannot disappear. It can, however, be broken and transcended. This has happened in two directions, the mystical and the ethical, according to the two elements of the experience of the holy -- the experience of the holy as being and the experience of the holy as what ought to be. There is no holiness and therefore no living religion without both elements, but the predominance of the mystical element in all India-born religions is obvious, as well as the pre~dominance of the social-ethical element in those born of Israel. This gives to the dialogue a preliminary place within the encounters of the religions proper. At the same time it gives an example of the encounter and the conflict of the elements of the holy within every particular religion.


Buddhism and Christianity have encountered each other since early times, but not much of a dialogue resulted from the encounter. Neither of the two religions plays a role in the classical literature of the other. Buddhism made its first noticeable impact on Western thought in the philosophy of Schopenhauer, who with some justification identified his metaphysics and psychology of "will" with. Indian, and especially Buddhist, insights. A second influx of Indian, including Buddhist, ideas occurred in the beginning of our century when Buddhist sources were published in attractive translations, and men like Rudolf Otto, the Marburg theologian and author of the classical book, The Idea of the Holy, began a continuous and profound personal and literary dialogue between Christianity and the Indian religions. The discussion has been going on ever since both in the East and the West -- in the East not only from the side of Indian Hinduism, but also from the side of Japanese Buddhism. This points to a third and more existential encounter, the missionary attack of Japanese Zen Buddhism on the Western educated classes, both Christian and humanist. (The reason for the success as well as the limits of this Buddhist invasion in the West will be discussed later.)

Is there a corresponding impact of Christianity on Buddhism? To answer this one must distinguish, as with respect to all Asiatic religions, three ways in which Christianity could have influenced them -- the direct missionary way, the indirect cultural way, and the personal dialogical way. Missionary work has had a very slight impact on the educated classes of the Asiatic nations, although the conversion of outstanding individuals proves at 'least a qualitative success of the missions. But in a nation like Japan, where superior civilizing forces have shaped almost all classes of society, missionary success is very limited. In Indian Hinduism the masses are more open to Christian missionary work, as the South Indian church shows, but in the upper classes it is rather a Christian humanism which has taken hold of important individuals. For in all Asiatic religions the indirect civilizing influence of Christianity is, for the time being, decisive, and not its missionary work. There is a third way, the dialogical-personal, of making inroads into Buddhist spirituality. It is immeasurable, quantitatively as well as qualitatively, but it is a continuous reality and the basis of the dialogical material to be given here.

If we look at the mutual influences between Christianity and Buddhism as a whole, we must conclude that they are extremely small -- not comparable with the impact of Christianity on the Mediterranean and Germanic nations in the far past, and on many religiously primitive nations in the recent past, or with the impact Buddhism once had on the lower classes as well as the cultured groups of East Asia, for example in China and Japan. And, certainly, the mutual influence of the two religions cannot be compared with the tremendous influence the quasi-religions have had on both of them. So it may happen that the dialogue between them, in a not too distant future, will center on the common problems which arise with respect to the secularization of all mankind and the resulting attack of the powerful quasi-religions on all religions proper. But even so the interreligious dialogue must go on and should bear more fruits than it has up to now.

A dialogue between representatives of different religions has several presuppositions. It first pre supposes that both partners acknowledge the value of the other's religious conviction (as based ultimately on a revelatory experience), so that they consider the dialogue worthwhile. Second, it presupposes that each of them is able to represent his own religious basis with conviction, so that the dialogue is a serious confrontation. Third, it presupposes a common ground which makes both dialogue and conflicts possible, and, fourth, the openness of both sides to criticisms directed against their own religious basis. If these presuppositions are realized -- as I felt they were in my own dialogues with priestly and scholarly representatives of Buddhism in Japan -- this way of encounter of two or more religions can be extremely fruitful and, if continuous, even of historical consequence.

One of the important points which is valid for all discussions between representatives of religions proper today is the unceasing reference to the quasi-religions and their secular background. In this way the dialogue loses the character of a discussion of dogmatic subtleties and becomes a common inquiry in the light of the world situation; and it may happen that the particular theological points become of secondary importance in view of the position of defense of all religions proper.


The last remark leads immediately to the question to which all types of religions proper and of quasi-religions give an answer, whether they in~tend to do so or not. It is the question of the intrinsic aim of existence -- in Greek, the telos of all, existing things. It is here that one should start every interreligious discussion, and not with a comparison of the contrasting concepts of God or man or history or salvation. They can all be understood in their particular character if the particular character of their concept of the telos has been understood. In the telos-formula of the Greek philosophers their whole vision of man and world was summed up, as when Plato called the telos of man "becoming similar to the god as much as possible". In the dialogue between Christianity and Buddhism two telos formulas can be used: in Christianity the telos of everyone and everything united in the Kingdom of God; in Buddhism the telos of everything and everyone fulfilled in the Nirvana. These, of course, are abbreviations for an almost infinite number of presuppositions and consequences; but just for this reason they are useful for the beginning as well as for the end of a dialogue.

Both terms are symbols, and it is the different approach to reality implied in them which creates the theoretical as well as practical contrast between the two religions. The Kingdom of God is a social, political, and personalistic symbol. The symbolic material is taken from the ruler of a realm who establishes a reign of justice and peace. In contrast to it Nirvana is an ontological symbol. Its material is taken from the experience of finitude, separation, blindness, suffering, and, in answer to all this, the image of the blessed oneness of everything, beyond finitude and error, in the ultimate Ground of Being.

In spite of this profound contrast a dialogue between the two is possible. Both are based on a negative valuation of existence: the Kingdom of God stands against the kingdoms of this world, namely, the demonic power-structures which rule in history and personal life; Nirvana stands against the world of seeming reality as the true reality from which the individual things come and to which they are destined to return. But from this common basis decisive differences arise. In Christianity the world is seen as creation and therefore as essentially good; the great Christian assertion, qua esse bonum est, is the conceptualization of the Genesis story in which God sees everything he has created "and behold, it was very good." The negative judgment, therefore, in Christianity is directed against the world in its existence not in its essence, against the fallen, not the created, world. In Buddhism the fact that there is a world is the result of an ontological Fall into finitude.

The consequences of this basic difference are immense. The Ultimate in Christianity is symbolized in personal categories, the Ultimate in Buddhism in transpersonal categories, for example, "absolute non-being." Man in Christianity is responsible for the Fall and is considered a sinner; man in Buddhism is a finite creature bound to the wheel of life with self-affirmation, blindness, and suffering.


It seems that here the dialogue would come to an end with a clear statement of incompatibility. But the dialogue goes on and the question is asked whether the nature of the holy has not forced both sides to include, at least by implication, elements which are predominant in the other side.  The symbol "Kingdom of God" appears in a religious development in which the holiness of the "ought to be" is predominant over the holiness of the "protesting" element of the holy and is predominant over the "sacramental" one. The symbol appears in prophetic Judaism, in the synoptic type of early Christianity, in Calvinism, and in the social type of liberal Protestantism. But if we look at Christianity as a whole, including the types just mentioned, we find a large amount of mystical and sacramental elements, and consequently ideas concerning God and man which approximate Buddhist concepts. The esse ipsum, being itself, of the classical Christian doctrine of God, is a transpersonal category and enables the Christian disputant to understand the meaning of absolute nothingness in Buddhist thought. The term points to the unconditional and infinite character of the Ultimate and the impossibility of identifying it with anything particular that exists. Vice versa, it is obvious that in Mahajana Buddhism the Buddha-Spirit appears in many manifestations of a personal character, making a nonmystical, often very primitive relation to a divine figure possible. Such observations confirm the assumption that none of the various elements which constitute the meaning of the holy are ever completely lacking in any genuine experience of the holy, and, therefore, in any religion. But this does not mean that a fusion of the Christian and the Buddhist idea of God is possible, nor does it mean that one can produce a common denominator by depriving the conflicting symbols of their concreteness. A living religion comes to life only if a new revelatory experience appears.

This dialogue leads to the general question of whether the controlling symbols, Kingdom of God and Nirvana, are mutually exclusive. According to our derivation of all religious types from elements in the experience of the holy, this is unthinkable, and there are indications in the history of both symbols that converging tendencies exist. If in Paul the Kingdom of God is identified with the expectation of God being all in all (or for all), if it is replaced by the symbol of Eternal Life, or described as the eternal intuition and fruition of God, this has a strong affinity to the praise of Nirvana as the state of transtemporal blessedness, for blessedness presupposes -- at least in symbolic language a subject which experiences blessedness. But here also a warning against mixture or reduction of the concrete character of both religions must be given.

The dialogue can now turn to some ethical consequences in which the differences are more conspicuous. In discussing them it becomes obvious that two different ontological principles lie behind the conflicting symbols, Kingdom of God and Nirvana namely, "participation" and "identity." One participates, as an individual being, in the Kingdom of God. One is identical with everything that is in Nirvana. This leads immediately to a different relation of man to nature. The principle of participation can be reduced in its application to such a degree that it leads to the attitude of technical control of nature which dominates the Western world. Nature, in all its forms, is a tool for human purposes. Under the principle of identity the development of this possibility is largely prevented. The sympathetic identification with nature is powerfully expressed in the Buddhist-inspired art in China and Korea and Japan. An analogous attitude in Hinduism, dependent also on the principle of identity, is the treatment of the higher animals, the prohibition to kill them, and the belief, connected with the Karma doctrine, that human souls in the process of migration can be embodied in animals. This is far removed from the Old Testament story in which Adam is assigned the task of ruling over all other creatures.

Nevertheless, the attitudes towards nature in Christianity and Buddhism are not totally exclusive. In the long history of Christian nature-mysticism the principle of participation can reach a degree in which it is often difficult to distinguish it from the principle of identity, as, for example, in Francis, of Assisi. Luther's sacramental thinking produced a kind of nature-mysticism which influenced Protestant mystics and, in a secularized form, the German romantic movement. It is not Christianity as a whole, but Calvinist Protestantism whose attitude towards nature contradicts almost completely the Buddhist attitude. In Buddhism the controlling attitude to nature increased with the migration of Buddhism from India through China to Japan, but it never conquered the principle of identity. Every Buddhist rock garden is a witness to its presence. The statement I heard, that these expressively arranged rocks are both here and, at the same time, everywhere in the universe in a kind of mystical omnipresence, and that their particular existence here and now is not significant, was for me a quite conspicuous expression of the principle of identity.

But most important for the Buddhist-determined cultures is the significance of the principle of identity for the relation of man to man and to society..One can say, in considerably condensed form, that participation leads to agape, identity to compassion. In the New Testament the Greek word agape is used in a new sense for that kind of love that God has for man, the higher for the lower, and that all men should have for one another, whether they are friends or enemies, accepted or rejected, liked or disliked . Agape in this sense accepts the unacceptable and tries to transform it. It will raise the beloved beyond himself, but the success of this attempt is not the condition of agape; it may become its consequence. Agape accepts and tries to transform in the direction of what is meant by the "Kingdom of God."

Compassion is a state in which he who does not suffer under his own conditions may suffer by identification with another who suffers. He neither accepts the other one in terms of "in spite of," nor does he try to transform him, but he suffers his suffering through identification. This can be a very active way of love, and it can bring more immediate benefit to him who is loved than can a moralistically distorted commandment to exercise agape. But something is lacking: the will to transform the other one, either directly, or indirectly by transforming the sociological and psychological structures by which he is conditioned. There are great expressions of compassion in Buddhist religion and art, as well as -- and here again I can witness -- in personal relations with friends, but this is not agape. It differs in that it lacks the double characteristic of agape -- the acceptance of the unacceptable, or the movement from the highest to the lowest, and, at the same time, the will to transform individual as well as social structures.

Now the problem of history comes into the foreground of the dialogue. Under the predominance of the symbol of the Kingdom of God, history is not only the scene in which the destiny of individuals is decided, but it is a movement in which the new is created and which runs ahead to the absolutely new, symbolized as "the new heaven and the new earth." This vision of history, this really historical interpretation, has many implications of which I want to mention the following. With respect to the mode of the future, it means that the symbol of the Kingdom of God has a revolutionary character. Christianity, insofar as it works in line with this symbol, shows a revolutionary force directed towards a radical transformation of society. The conservative tendencies in the official churches have never been able to suppress this element in the symbol of the Kingdom of God, and most of the revolutionary movements in the West - liberalism, democracy, and socialism - dependent, whether they know it or not. There is no analogy to this in Buddhism. Not transformation of reality but salvation from reality is the basic attitude. This need not lead to radical asceticism as in India; it can lead to an affirmation of the activities of daily life -- as, for instance, in Zen Buddhism -- but under the principle of ultimate detachment. In any case, no belief in the new in history, no impulse for transforming society, can be derived from the principle of Nirvana. If contemporary Buddhism shows an increased social interest, and if the sectarian "New Religions" in Japan (some of them of Buddhist origin) are extremely popular, this remains under the principle of compassion. No transformation of society as a whole, no aspiration for the radically new in history, can be observed in these movements. Again we must ask: Is this the end of the dialogue? And again I answer: Not necessarily. In spite of all the revolutionary dynamics in Christianity there is a strong, sometimes even predominant experience of the vertical line, for instance in Christian mysticism, in the sacramental conservatism of the Catholic churches, and in the religiously founded political conservatism of the Lutheran churches. In all these cases the revolutionary impetus of Christianity is repressed and the longing of all creatures for the "eternal rest in God, the Lord" approaches indifference towards history. In its relation to history Christianity includes more polar tensions than Buddhism, just because it has chosen the horizontal, historical line.

But this is not the end of the dialogue. For history itself has driven Buddhism to take history seriously, and this at a moment when in the Christian West a despair about history has taken hold of many people. Buddhist Japan wants democracy, and asks the question of its spiritual foundation. The leaders know that Buddhism is unable to furnish such a foundation, and they look for something which has appeared only in the context of Christianity, namely, the attitude toward every individual which sees in him a person, a being of infinite value and equal rights in view of the Ultimate. Christian conquerors forced democracy upon the Japanese; they accepted it, but then they asked: How can it work if the Christian estimation of every person has no roots either in Shintoism or in Buddhism?

The fact that it has no roots comes out in a dialogue like the following: The Buddhist priest asks the Christian philosopher, "Do you believe that every person has a substance of his own which gives him true individuality?" The Christian answers, "Certainly!" The Buddhist priest asks, "Do you believe that community between individuals is possible?" The Christian answers affirmatively. Then the Buddhist says, "Your two answers are incompatible; if every person has a substance, no community is possible." To which the Christian replies, "Only if each person has a substance of his own is community possible, for community presupposes separation. You, Buddhist friends, have identity, but not community." Then the observer asks: "Is a Japanese democracy possible under these principles? Can acceptance of a political system replace its spiritual foundation?" With these questions, which are valid for nations all over the non-Western world, the dialogue comes to a preliminary end.

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