- The Prospects for a Mahāyāna Theology of EmptinessA Continuing Debate
Two articles in recent issues of Buddhist-Christian Studies—Lai Pan-chiu’s “A Mahāyāna Reading of Chalcedon Christology: A Chinese Response to John Keenan” 1 (2004) and Thomas Cattoi’s “What Has Chalcedon to Do with Lhasa? John Keenan’s and Lai Pan-chiu’s Reflections on Classical Christology and the Possible Shape of a Tibetan Theology of Incarnation” 2 (2008)—discuss my book The Meaning of Christ: A Mahāyāna Theology (1989),3 prompting me to add my voice to the conversation.
In “A Mahāyāna Reading of Chalcedon Christology: A Chinese Response to John Keenan,” Lai Pan-chiu reads from the perspective of a Chinese Christian thinker my formulation of a Christology informed by Indian Mahāyāna philosophy. He would prefer to configure a rather different Mahāyāna theology, wherein the polarity expressed in traditional Chalcedonian theology would be reinvested in a Chinese Mahāyāna dynamic, with its ability to hold in creative tension what are often seen as exclusionary opposites. Lai proposes to take as leitmotif for this project the Chinese Mahāyāna theme of Buddha Nature (C. fóxìng ) and its Indian precursor of Tathāgatagarbha (Skt. “matrix of the Buddha”) thought. Although—for reasons I will discuss below—I would not myself choose this approach in writing Christology for a western audience, I certainly would commend Lai Pan-chiu’s effort to do so for a Chinese audience and beyond.
In “What Has Chalcedon to Do with Lhasa? John Keenan’s and Lai Pan-chiu’s Reflections on Classical Christology and the Possible Shape of a Tibetan Theology of Incarnation,” Thomas Cattoi contends that Lai has not gone far enough in responding to The Meaning of Christ. Cattoi himself then proceeds with a critique of Mahāyāna theology that reveals both his own unwavering commitment to traditional ontological theology and his apparent disinterest in engaging Buddhist Mahāyāna philosophy in depth. He makes little or no reference to the Mahāyāna philosophical themes that I discuss in detail in The Meaning of Christ—themes that I then employ to enunciate a Mahāyāna Christology. Moreover, the alternative “Tibetan Christology” that Cattoi proffers in this article also appears to avoid any deep or detailed engagement [End Page 3] with Mahāyāna thought. He seems satisfied to employ Tibetan Buddhist terminology simply to reaffirm what we have long affirmed in the Greek, emphasizing the embodiment of Christ as the unicum, the one and only embodiment of God, and the transformation of the very fabric of the universe effected thereby.4 His Christology functions as a description of that transformation and, to my lights, leaves scant room for any Trinitarian theology of the Spirit. He argues against the notion that any discourse can empty the ontological claims of “the Christian position.” For him, only the ontological theology of our Greek ancestors is adequate—apparently culturally privileged because providentially inspired.
I will address herein some of the many, often convoluted, issues raised, for these issues are basic to Mahāyāna theology and to critiques against its viability. I choose not to detail the many instances in which Thomas Cattoi misreads, mischaracterizes, and misrepresents my work; I must only trust that those who have read The Meaning of Christ are well aware that Cattoi’s characterizations of that book reflect neither its content nor its tone.5 I shall use this space instead to further clarify the shape of a Mahāyāna theology that employs the principal themes of Mādhyamika and Yogācāra, and will discuss in a more general way Cattoi’s fundamental inattentiveness to those themes and to the manner in which they inform Mahāyāna theology.6 I shall also discuss Lai Pan-chiu’s very interesting proposal for a Chinese Mahāyāna theology.
Ontology and MahĀyĀna Realms of Understanding
Mahāyāna theology is not Cattoi’s “Mādhyamika dualism.”7 Mahāyāna theology does not represent a Buddhist “position,” but rather the emptiness of all...