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  • European Network of Buddhist-Christian Studies
  • John D'Arcy May

The European Network of Buddhist-Christian Studies met at Samye Ling, Scotland, 16-19 May 2003. The theme of the meeting was "Buddhists, Christians, and the Doctrine of Creation."

Samye Ling, founded in 1967 by Dr. Akong Tulku Rinpoche and now under the guidance of his brother, the Venerable Lama Yeshe Losal, is one of the oldest and largest Buddhist monasteries in Europe. Ven. Yeshe, in welcoming conference participants, told how the monastery has both materially and spiritually reinvigorated what had become a depressed area around the town of Lockerbie in southwest Scotland. Despite the inclement weather, it was thus an appropriate venue for the fifth conference of the European Network of Buddhist-Christian Studies on the topic of creation. As Perry Schmidt-Leukel (Glasgow), who organized the conference, pointed out in his opening remarks, creation in view of ultimate redemption is the quintessentially Christian doctrine. Yet Buddhism certainly did not see samsara as the ultimate reality, and even if the origin of the world was ultimately an unanswerable question, Buddhism too was confronted by the problem of evil.

Ernst Steinkellner (Vienna) opened the conference proper with an account of Buddhist critiques of Hindu doctrines of creation. The absolute Brahman was not a creator, but in the course of doctrinal evolution (the masculine Brahman becoming the post-Vedic Brahma) the world came to be seen as the work of a kind of demi-urge, leaving open the question of why. Buddhism, restricting itself to the realm of the finite, mocked Brahmin ideas of the cause of the world, but still had to account for the existence and nature of the world. By the time the Madhyamaka had developed theories of momentary creation, these had become part of the common logic of Buddhists and Hindus.

This was followed by a presentation on contemporary Buddhist critiques of creation and creator doctrines by José Cabezón (Santa Barbara), who pointed out certain affinities between modern theories of many universes without beginning or end and traditional Buddhist ideas. Buddhism, he maintained, has an aversion to cosmological uniqueness, whether spatial, temporal, causal, or personal, but it does [End Page 237] regard the causal law of karman as ineluctable. Despite the critiques of Buddhist thinkers such as Gunapala Dharmasiri of Sri Lanka, who are under the misapprehension that Buddhism is on a par with science whereas Christianity is merely religion, this lays the basis for a metaphysics. The site of both suffering and liberation is the cocreativity of all beings. Buddhism is concerned not with being, but with consciousness.

Eva Neumaier (Calgary) suggested that in fact Buddhism does have conceptions of creation, but in narrative form, represented in the cosmological structure of the world as the product of the Buddha's meditation rather than as a cosmogony. Creation is not ex nihilo, because nature predates any act of creation, yet the "emptiness" of shūnyatā is also the "swollenness" of fulfilled potential. The Buddha has been represented as the all-creating sovereign, and pure mind has been interpreted as the gender-neutral mother-father of all Buddhas, the "primordial basis." The "original enlightenment" objected to by Critical Buddhism enabled Buddhists to adapt pre-Buddhist ideas such as the Tao, even to the extent of tolerating animistic polytheism.

If this presentation surprised some participants, it provided the perfect counterpart to the paper on Christian ideas of creation by John Keenan (Middlebury College). The Jewish and Christian conceptions of creation arise out of events in history, the exodus from Egypt being the originating metaphor. For Christians, liberation from the bondage of sin was the legacy of Israel's tribal warrior God. The Genesis accounts of creation are essentially liturgical, not cosmogonic. Creation is simply assumed as the evidence of divine transcendence; God is not a benevolent parent. The pagan critics who mocked the Jewish and Christian creation stories were just as misguided as the Buddhists who ridiculed the Vedic myths. God was eventually conceived as ipsum esse, the "to be" of things, a nonsubstantialist account that does not purport to answer the question "why." According to the logic of Buddhism, the complete enlightenment of all would mean the...