Buddhism and Christianity: Advancing the Dialogue

by Niels C. Nielsen

Dr. Nielsen is Rayzor professor of religious studies at Rice University in Houston, Texas.

This article appeared in the Christian Century  April 25, 1984, p. 433. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The general Buddhist lack of interest in Christianity gives us no reason to abandon dialogue. Buddhism grasps some aspects of “ultimate reality” which Christianity does not explicate as fully.

Many church congregations make their first contact with practicing Buddhists when they sponsor refugees from Vietnam and Cambodia. In most American cities, the Buddhist community is not large, although it has grown with the influx of immigrants from Southeast Asia. The situation is very different in Hawaii -- sometimes called the “Buddhist state.” The rate of Caucasian-Oriental intermarriages there is high, and increasing; most of them are Buddhist-Christian. A denominational chaplain from one of the Hawaiian state universities told me that he spends a major part of his time counseling such prospective partners about the adjustments they will have to make. Buddhist-Christian relations are not abstract or theoretical in such circumstances; this chaplain is on the cutting edge of the encounter between the two religions.

The same can be said of the Second Conference on East-West Religions in Encounter, held under the sponsorship of the University of Hawaii’s department of religion on Oahu early this year (January 3-11). The theme suggested by German theologian Hans Küng, “Paradigm Shifts in Buddhism and Christianity,” was addressed by more than 100 Buddhist and Christian scholars from outside the islands. Hajime Nakamura, now retired from the University of Tokyo, was a major spokesman for Buddhism. The last three days of the conference included a Buddhist-Christian dialogue among a group of theologians under the leadership of John Cobb of Claremont.

A Buddhist-Christian dialogue group has existed in Japan for 20 years, largely inspired by Matoshi Doi of the National Christian Conference Center in Kyoto. David Chappell of the University of Hawaii, who directed the conference, held up the Kyoto dialogue group as a model to be followed in the United States, where Buddhist-Christian discussion has been sporadic. Doi was an observer for the United Church of Japan at the Second Vatican Council.

When I visited Doi in Kyoto early in 1983, he arranged several meetings for me. He made my first stop a visit to a modern, air-conditioned Buddhist temple where a group of very impressive, well-preserved statues of Buddha from early Japan was on display. I was sure that Doi, himself a committed Christian, was trying to remind me of the depth and power of the Buddhist heritage in his country; he was trying to say that it cannot simply be replaced by Christianity. At the Honolulu Conference, where Doi was honored for his leadership in dialogue, he spoke of the growing threat of nuclear warfare, pleading that this development alone makes it imperative for Buddhists and Christians to come together in mutual understanding.

The conference’s announced interest in “East-West Religions in Encounter” was symbolized on my arrival at Hawaii Loa College, where the meetings were held: Hans Küng was standing outside the college building surrounded by Tibetan Buddhist monks in their characteristic red robes.

Küng gave the opening and closing addresses of the conference, and participated in discussions throughout the week. The theme of paradigm shifts had already been discussed at an earlier meeting under his leadership at Tübingen in West Germany. European and American scholars reflected on model changes in Christianity in different periods of its history: the early church and the patristic, medieval scholastic, Reformation and Counter-Reformation, Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment periods. The Hawaii conference represented an extension of this theme into the consideration of changing models in Buddhism.

Küng explained his approach to the theme as follows: Often he speaks with a coreligionist who is identified with the same confessional and ecclesiastical heritage as Küng’s; yet they seem to approach matters in radically different ways. Küng has come to describe the difference as one of paradigms. He picked up this theme from Thomas Kühn’s influential book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kühn identifies sudden paradigm shifts as occurring when new scientific models, for example, are accepted -- such as the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions. Küng and his colleagues use this term to explain the history of religions, identifying varying religious paradigms in different ages.

Such analysis, of course, involves a certain historicizing of Christianity, one that Küng and others, like the late Karl Rahner, have used disturbingly in their own church. Can it be applied to Buddhism, a religion which is extremely diverse culturally, has no central authority and possesses a weaker historical consciousness than Christianity does? Hajime Nakamura, an expert on early Buddhism in India and noted for his book on ways of thinking, East and West, was very open to the discussion of diverse historical models as a new approach to East-West encounter.

One of the major achievements of the conference was that it supplied some of the scholarly research necessary for interfaith dialogue. And the proceedings moved beyond preparation for dialogue to actual give-and-take. For example, Küng commented on Nakamura’s opening address, “Buddhism and Christianity Compared,” given at the Central Union Church. In addition, the conference had excellent support and cooperation from the major religious groups in Honolulu; the addresses were well attended by the general public. My intention in the following comments is to identify what might be called the vanguard of the discussion, rather than to give an inclusive report on what was said and done.

The conference invited leaders in the Buddhist movement for social justice in Southeast Asia who are now dealing with problems that have long since surfaced elsewhere. However, most of the Buddhist participants were from Japan, either of Zen or Pure Land background. They face issues of secularization and disestablishment different from those in Thailand and Ceylon.

Perhaps the most “applied” approach at the conference was that of a professor at a southeastern university who simultaneously participates in Benedictine life and Zen meditation, attempting to understand these traditions concretely rather than as an observer. The theological dialogue led by John Cobb discussed the theme of suffering in Buddhism and Christianity. Again, the issues raised were practical as well as theoretical.

Of course, Gotama Buddha himself was concerned with practical matters. He likened the human situation to that of a man shot by a poisoned arrow. The question for Buddha was not where the arrow came from, much less what its essence is -- but how to get it out before it kills the victim. Zen Buddhism has been accused of carrying such a position to an extreme, and of anti-intellectualism, But Masao Abe, now teaching at the University of Hawaii, made it clear that Zen is not a reductionism. His concern is that Buddhist and Christian spirituality stand over against a simply secular approach.

On the other hand, conference members were reminded of the difficulties of Buddhist-Christian dialogue in Asia by the paper of Jan van Bragt of the Nazan Institute for Religion and Culture in Japan. He reported that most Buddhist intellectuals he knows presuppose an impersonal absolute, and hold to this view against any other approach. The Buddhist notion of “voidness’’ is a key reference in this regard. Ultimate reality is conceived of as empty rather than as intentional or substantial in terms of spirit. Christian interest in Buddhism and the attempt to appropriate its insights is far more widespread than Buddhist interest in Christianity Still, the situation is not a simple one in Japan, he said, Much of the vitality of religious life and practice in Japan is in the so-called new religions, some of which draw on Buddhism more than others. These new religions are also active in Hawaii. For most of them, evil is understood in terms of karma (each individual receives the consequences of past deeds in this or another lifetime). The Buddhist idea of dependent origination excludes creation. Causal sequences are recognized within the world of appearance but there is no ultimate First Cause. The new religions which are related to Buddhism refer to a transpersonal Nirvana.

Given the divergence of their religions, what is the point of East-West exchange? In his address. which was open to the public, Küng gave part of the answer, calling attention to the revival of religion going on around the World. Religion, in fact, has not withered away or been superseded, as advocates of scientism and Marxism have long prophesied; it remains a determinative factor in culture.

Küng called for religions to be presented in their modern, not their obscurantist, forms. It is clear that religious models or paradigms need to be examined critically if one is to avoid a fundamentalist approach. The issue becomes crucial in teaching about religion in public education, for example. Buddhism must be included: like Christianity, it ought not to be misrepresented or caricatured, its views of the world and the self stand over against those of Western secularism and Christianity. Buddhism needs to be understood on its own terms.

The two most illuminating moments of the theological encounter group were quite unplanned, and happened during the dialogue. The first was when Langdon Gilkey of the University of Chicago argued that for both Christianity and Buddhism, evil and suffering remain “inexplicable,” Gilkey knew more about Buddhism than many of the other participants, having spent World War II in a prison camp in China. The biblical fall story, he insisted, can no longer be regarded as an explanation of evil, but only as an exemplification of its structures.

A second crucial point came when Gordon Kaufman of Harvard argued that there is a metaphysics implicit in Buddhism, even in Zen. But metaphysics, like modern science, was not discussed at any great length. Of course, many Buddhist apologists argue that their religion fits better with modern scientific cosmology than does Western theism. Such a claim needs to be set over against the fact that modern science developed in the West.

The whole question of the West’s translation of the Greek cultural synthesis of Hellenism and Hebraism is inevitable in any inclusive discussion of the issues of the conference. How much is the Greek way of thinking intrinsic to Christianity? One asks this in particular when one seeks to relate it to a culture which does not share the legacy of Plato and Aristotle. How much can Oriental thought patterns replace these Western modes? John Cobb, as a process philosopher in the tradition of Whitehead, argued for a major appropriation of Buddhist outlook and philosophy as against Greek notions of substance

Cobb’s emphasis on incarnation, in particular, is important. It stands in contrast to that of his colleague at Claremont, John Hick, who turns away from this theme, essentially leaving it out in the dialogue among world religions. Cobb explores it in detail, especially in dialogue with Amida Buddhism. It seemed that all participants wanted to demythologize; the question was, how far? Demythologizing among Buddhists is carried full circle by Zen -- the position which has showed itself most open to dialogue with Christianity in Japan. Members of other schools give larger attention to “Mahayanist metaphysics.” Practically speaking, a religion -- Buddhist or Christian -- that becomes too demythologized may invite fundamentalism in reaction.

Some basic historical questions remained largely on the fringes of the dialogue. For example, the Mahayana revolution (greater than any change in Christianity) and the philosophy of Nagarjuna, its major theoretician, went undiscussed in any detail. These topics remain important in a dialogue situation in which religions need to be taken as wholes. The question is not just what the founder said, but what it meant for the followers.

Amida Buddhist conferees in the tradition of the 13th century Japanese teachers Shinran and Honen seemed closest to Christianity. Viewing Amida Buddha as a savior, they teach salvation through faith in his name. It was interesting to hear the comments of a Buddhist in this tradition who was contaminated with radiation from the American bombing during World War II. He must now be monitored periodically for the rest of his life to measure and control the radiation’s effects on his body. He examined the question of evil and suffering more personally than others. And Cobb’s emphasis on God as the principle or ground of creativity interested him in a question which did not concern Gotama Buddha -- namely, that of deity.

Any responsible dialogue implies willingness to hear and to accept the other. If either side believes that it possesses exclusive truth and defends its own ideas in a “bloc view,” dialogue becomes impossible. The most outstanding feature of the conference was the absence of promiscuous eclecticism. Buddhists are Buddhists, and Christians Christians; yet religions have always borrowed from each other. The question is how and under what circumstances -- on what theological premises. Kong, for example, knows Barth very well; Barth wrote the introduction to his book on justification. Yet he does not accept Barth’s claim that all non-Christian religions are only idolatrous strivings after God. And this Barthian idea certainly does not apply to Buddhism.

Nakamura’s study Ways of Thinking of Eastern Peoples: India, China, Tibet, Japan makes an invaluable, indeed an indispensable, contribution in any exchange of religious ideas East and West. Not just theological presuppositions but life stances need to be probed. This was understood by the Trappist monk and author Thomas Merton, for example, as he attempted to appropriate Zen Buddhist insights. However, Zen is by no means all of Buddhism, but rather an iconoclastic form of Mahayana. It is an open question whether Zen can be thoroughly understood apart from Mahayanist history. The most serious Zen philosophical analysis has taken place in the school of Nishida. Katsumi Takizawa of this tradition was sent to study under Karl Barth and became a Christian. Still trying to appropriate Buddhist insights, he has written of a Buddhist Christianity - Among New Testament scholars, Seichi Yagi, who participated in the theological dialogue, has understood the power of Buddhist ideas and attempts to appropriate them.

The depth of insight of such thinkers makes it clear that the general Buddhist lack of interest in Christianity gives us no reason to abandon dialogue. Doi has shown his amenability in a practical way. His premise always has been that both sides have something to give. Cobb argues similarly that Buddhism grasps some aspects of “ultimate reality” which Christianity does not explicate as fully. The Hawaii conference was effective because the dialogue was fundamentally religious. Both Buddhism and Christianity were viewed as religions that have generated philosophies but that are not merely philosophies.

Whether Buddhism can supply a community ethic of social justice has been debated ever since neo-Confucianisms advent in China. The question surfaced at the conference. Gotaina himself did not have much to say about justice in itself, but spoke of compassion in a transitory world. Of course, Buddhism, as a quest for salvation (like Christianity), was not primarily political. Religions seek ultimate transformation, and their paradigms need to be appraised from this perspective. Buddhist soteriology and ethics initially were set in the very unmodern context of revolt against Hinduism. Like Christianity, Buddhism became identified with monarchy.

Buddhism’s relation to Western secular culture is still being formed. Christians, for their part, need to understand Buddhist paradigms if for no other reason than that they certainly will influence our society more, culturally and educationally, in the future.

Returning from Honolulu, I was reminded of the experience of my home congregation. Two years ago, it sponsored first a Vietnamese, then a Cambodian refugee family. Both projects led to disappointment. The Vietnamese family was Roman Catholic in background and soon stopped attending our Protestant services. The Cambodians never came to church. “Cambodians remain Buddhists,” it was said. I think my congregation might have done better -- or at least might have understood what was happening -- if it had received some of the information that came to the conference participants at Honolulu.