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  • European Network of Buddhist-Christian StudiesSalzburg, Austria, June 8–11, 2007
  • John D’Arcy May

Is it a problem for Buddhists that what is generally regarded as religion can be profoundly different from tradition to tradition? Is it appropriate or even desirable to speak of a Buddhist “theology of religions”? Does Buddhism have its own ways, however subtle, of affirming its superiority over all else that claims the name “religion”?

The European Network of Buddhist-Christian Studies set out to find answers to these questions at its seventh conference, held at the splendid Catholic conference center of St. Virgil on the outskirts of Salzburg, Austria.

Given the demographic realities in Europe, the network has inevitably tended to be a group of Christians discussing Buddhism, as far as possible with the participation of Buddhist guests but without really providing a platform for a thoroughgoing Buddhist discussion of religious plurality. This time, more Buddhists than ever before, including significant scholars from America and Asia as well as Europe, participated in the conference. We were thus treated to a discussion of Buddhist attitudes to the religions that broke new ground and presented a vivid picture of Buddhism’s own internal diversity.

In his introductory address the president of the network, Prof. John May, paid tribute to the University of Salzburg’s newly established Centre for Intercultural Theology and the Study of Religions, whose director, Prof. Gregor Maria Hoff, welcomed participants on behalf of the university. Dr. Ulrich Winkler contributed substantially to the organization of the conference.

Dr. Kristin Kiblinger (Winthrop University), author of the first systematic treatment of Buddhist “inclusivism,” opened the conference proper by distinguishing between “open” and “closed” forms of inclusivism. She suggested a parallel with George Lindbeck’s “experiential-expressive” paradigm of religious doctrine in order to make clear that Buddhists, like Christians, have ways of privileging their own positions, though these generally remain unacknowledged.

“One vehicle” (ekayāna) theories of Buddhism have something in common with “common core” theories of Christian pluralism in that they presuppose a “single end” [End Page 149] inclusivism. Whether the “positionless position” derived from Buddhist “emptiness” (śūnyatā) is a better guarantee of genuine pluralism than the Christian notion of “self-emptying” (kenōsis), as suggested by Masao Abe, remains an open question. The Buddhist doctrine of “two truths,” one expressed in the “higher” language (paramārthasatya) accessible only to Buddhist practitioners and the other in the “lower” language (samvrtisatya) of discourse with others, does not hold out much promise of true mutual respect between traditions.

Prof. John Makransky (Boston College), an ordained lama and meditation teacher as well as a renowned scholar of Tibetan Buddhism, took up the challenge of developing a Buddhist “theology” that avoids the claim to superiority. What matters to the Buddhist practitioner is to cut through all subconscious clinging, even to approved teachings and spiritual results. “Ultimate truth” can be known, directly but nonconceptually, yielding a “nonconceptual compassion” comparable to what Christians call “totally undivided oneness with God.” Lacking historical consciousness, however, teachers have tended to project their understanding of skillful means back on to Śākyamuni Buddha, each school assuming that other schools are merely preparations for itself. The same pattern is evident in the integration into Buddhism of indigenous religions such as Shintō, which enriched Buddhism but also assimilated it to themselves. Prompted by his contacts with Christian colleagues to venture beyond practice into Buddhist self-reflection, Makransky is now prepared to see in conceptions such as the Dharmakāya (“Dharma body” of the Buddha or ultimate reality) an equivalent of what Christians understand by God. The Body of Christ, with its implications for ecclesiology, could open up a further avenue for comparison.

Existing under the conditions of late or post-modernity, Buddhism is forced to come to terms with pluralism and ecumenism. Prof. Kenneth Tanaka (Musashino University, Tokyo), an ordained Jōdo Shinshū priest, sees himself as incapable of saying to a non-Buddhist, “You’re not saved,” because the practice of prajñā and karunā (wisdom and compassion) is not restricted to Buddhists. Even within traditions, however, levels of spiritual attainment are not equivalent, nor are all religions equally valid. “Prophets can’t be pluralists,” but like...