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Buddhist-Christian Studies 24.1 (2004) 159-169

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Using Three-Vehicle Theory to Improve Buddhist Inclusivism

Thiel College

Inclusivism has significant appeal nowadays among religious people concerned with the question of how to respond to religious others. Many seek to justify inclusivistic attitudes using the resources of their respective traditions. Yet even though the body of theoretical work analyzing Christian inclusivism is by now quite extensive, surprisingly the same is not true for Buddhist thought. As the late Paul Hacker, a respected German Indologist, wrote, "Die Inder selber haben, soweit ich sehe, keinen Terminus dafūr. Sie haben nicht darūber reflektiert . . . Ferner wird ein Beweis dafūr . . . meist nicht unternommen." That is, Indians [or, better, thinkers whose religious roots stem from India] seem to have no term for inclusivism, they have not reflected on it very much, and they tend not to justify their inclusivistic moves.1

The questions arise of what strategies and resources Buddhists have used, and ought to use, in the service of inclusivism, and of whether inclusivism is doctrinally and philosophically justifiable according to Buddhist traditions. In the discussion that follows, there are two patterns of Buddhist inclusivistic moves that I want to identify and criticize before suggesting a resource for developing a new and improved form of inclusivism for Buddhist contexts.

For my purposes, inclusivism is willingness to include the other (or something of the other's) while keeping one's home religious system primary. For example, one might accept as true or valuable a doctrine or practice (or many doctrines and practices) from a foreign religious system. Or, one might believe that a religious other could attain ultimate fulfillment or salvation as conceived by the home tradition despite—or even through—membership in an alien tradition. Nevertheless, the home tradition is somehow privileged. For instance, the home tradition might be thought to contain more or more important truths than alien traditions, or to teach them better. For another example, the home group may contend that practicing within the home tradition is an advantage for ultimate fulfillment, though not a necessity for it.

An inclusivist is open to the presence of truth and value in other traditions and uses her own system as a filter for selective adoption of something from the outside, with concern to maintain a coherent self-identity and reject what is incompatible or [End Page 159] hindering with regard to it. This is a theoretical, conscious approach to others and thus differs from the sort of forced or unconscious influencing that occurs during historical diffusion of a tradition over the course of its evolution. Note that the term "inclusivism" in use here is quite broad; it covers many possible methods and justifications for inclusions and allows that the other tradition might be included as a whole or only in part. Thus, different kinds and degrees of inclusivism may be specified, but a view will qualify as inclusivistic here if it self-consciously recognizes a provisional, subordinate, or supplementary place within the home religious system for (some elements from) one or more alien traditions.

I provide selected examples of inclusivism in Buddhist contexts from a range of time periods, schools, and regions, but in no way do I mean to suggest that Buddhists as a whole have been or mostly are inclusivists. There is, of course, no singular Buddhism, and the complexities and varieties of Buddhism, like those of Christianity, make it possible to support a range of positions toward religious others, all in the name of "Buddhism." Relatedly, I provide minimal historical contextualization and idealize types, but that is because I am concerned with the question of whether a certain stance in response to other religions is justifiable, not with historical questions and explanations of Buddhist behavior. I write having been heavily influenced by the work of certain Christian thinkers who, though referencing historical examples, focus their efforts on justifying philosophically and theologically a particular approach toward non-Christians. So, at bottom, my principal interests are not historical but rather critical. The provided instances of behaviors serve...