An Encounter : Buddhism and Christianity

REASON AND THE SENSES :
A DIALOGUE BETWEEN BUDDHISM AND CHRISTIANITY

Introduction

According to the last censuses, Christianity is still the world’s largest population, counting more than two billion members and representing about one third of the global population. Christianity is still in a “good shape”, due to reinforced religious vigour in areas like Africa or South America. It is no news, however, that its condition is far from ideal in Europe, and to some extent, in North America, where the new generations undergo a steady distantiation from religions, and in particular, Christianity. This tendency can be traced back to the 17th c. and the birth of a strong spirit of criticism towards religion in the intellectual milieu of the Enlightenment Age. Europe would only have to wait for a few centuries to truly encounter, centuries after Alexander, and through the colonies, a new religion : Buddhism. While the other religions of the orient – Hinduism, for instance – emphasised heavily on rituals, religious authority, etc., that is, on some of the features of Christianity that intellectual Europe had been questioning, Buddhism, on the other hand, displayed particularly attractive points. Yet, we know today that the first analyses of Buddhism by European philosophers were particularly flawed. Hegel, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche would see in Buddhism an exoticised model for the philosophical posture towards which a large part of western philosophy was feeling the pull : nihilism. Shunyata, or emptiness, for instance, a notion best defended by 2nd c. ad Indian Philosopher Nagarjuna, was univocally misunderstood as a complacent reduction of all things to nothingness.

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Buddhism combines a strong appeal to reason, at times used to undermine reason itself, and to the individual experience, thus embracing two key forces of modern western thought : rationalism and phenomenology. Buddhism has all the reasons to attract new westerners, and its ranks keep growing. But in spite of the decreasing attendance to the church, one can only recognise the importance of Christian tradition and thought in the history of the west, all the way down to today’s society debates and struggles, even when and if the latter are supposed to be informed by a secular distance from Christianity.

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Fortunately, more acute scholars, as well as the voices of an emerging critical tradition from Asia, helped correcting that misinterpretation, and contributed to form the image that Buddhism has today : that of a tradition somehow closer to a philosophy of life than to a proper religion, aiming primordially at inner peace, in particular through a specific range of introspective practices of meditation. In return, western philosophy would grow ties till relying strongly on the philosophical contributions of Buddhism, of which the complexity and originality are everyday more surprising and insightful. Buddhism combines a strong appeal to reason, at times used to undermine reason itself, and to the individual experience, thus embracing two key forces of modern western thought : rationalism and phenomenology. Buddhism has all the reasons to attract new westerners, and its ranks keep growing. But in spite of the decreasing attendance to the church, one can only recognise the importance of Christian tradition and thought in the history of the west, all the way down to today’s society debates and struggles, even when and if the latter are supposed to be informed by a secular distance from Christianity. It is this marriage, this encounter, of Christianity and Buddhism, which I shall try to explore in this essay series, bringing a particular attention onto the themes of reason and the senses.

It is important not to reduce Christianity, but also particularly Buddhism, to a few specific philosophical views. Both traditions definitely propagated, or illustrated positions that would also be present in ‘secular’ philosophy, but both of them attempt to share and teach much more than speculative thoughts. Buddhism and Christianity have developed and defended positions that span from cosmological considerations to understandings of history and eschatology and ethical reflections, among many other domains. To do justice to the cultural heritage of any religion, one must not limit the study only to a philosophical enquiry. While philosophy may, as in this series, remain the spinal cord of a reflection on such a topic, one must also open thoughts to domains such as theology, sociology, political thought, history and gender study, among others. The present reflection is, thus, intended as an authentically interdisciplinary exploration of the two traditions, and such, around an angle, once again, which transcends the simplistic barriers of any single intellectual discipline : reason and the senses

These two broad themes, often combining into one, will be explored through a variety of particular singular topics. Through the importance of the authority figure, we will see how the argument of authority affects the practice of reason in both traditions. The opposition of Buddhist and Christian metaphysics will help us discover the sophisticated systems that both traditions have developed at the core of their respective rational understanding of reality. The evolution of morality in Christian and Buddhist traditions will allow us to see how fundamental stances on reason and ethics were actually applied in the development of the communities. I will explore this theme through the Buddhist and Christian positions on sexuality, between severe control and more liberal and benevolent allowance for sexual enjoyment. Finally, the mystics will be a perfect point of juncture both between the two traditions, and between the dual themes of reason and the senses : the mystics transcend classical reason and open human experience to a more comprehensive and inclusive understanding of other faculties, among which are the senses.

In this series, I shall rely primarily and heavily on a remarkable book written in 2007 by French theologian Alain Delaye: Sagesse du Bouddha, Religion de Jésus (Wisdom of Buddha, Religion of Jesus). This is a seminal work within the sub-genre of comparative religious studies. Through this extensive study, Delaye gave access to original sources from Christian and Buddhist traditions, but also to a network of modern scholarly contributions in French or other European languages, many of which are still not translated into English. And as a final note, considering the size limitations of this essay, I must insist that this reflection is not meant as an in-depth study of any of the tackled themes. It will only aim at offering a brief exploration highlighting a number of loci for a possible encounter between the two traditions, in order to show their similarities and compatibilities, towards opening another round of its genuine dialogue.

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References

Image courtesy: Mormon Matters

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  • susanpresley

    This is incredibly exciting, Sam! I look forward to reading as each part of the series is published. –Susan

    • So lovely of you Susan ! Years have passed and you are still bestowing your kind eye upon me…! 🙂

  • Arsh

    this is indeed very interesting Sam, would be eager to follow up on it 🙂

    • Thanks for the interest, Arsh ! The first Part is coming very soon. The texts are ready, finding the right cover image is often what takes time ! 🙂