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Buddhist-Christian Studies 23 (2003) 101-116

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Persons and Awareness

Tyson Anderson
Saint Leo University

The aim of this essay is to relate Christianity and Buddhism through a consideration of two key terms, "persons" and "awareness," the first being central for Christianity and the second being central for Buddhism.

The first thing that needs to be noticed is the relatively indefinable character of these words. I of course intend to give as clear an indication as is possible concerning their meaning, but as I considered some of the important concepts that are involved in the topic—language, world, love, understanding—I began to realize that we are surely in the realm of mystery here. By "mystery" I mean something that we can understand somewhat but cannot comprehend, much as Saint Thomas Aquinas thought of God. 1 As is well known, LudwigWittgenstein believed that there is something mysterious even about language itself, that basically what it is can be "shown" but not "said." 2 A certain tentativeness here in regard to propositional adequacy, I might add, is perfectly compatible with strong confidence in one's relation to what Wittgenstein called "the higher." 3 In regard to the truth to be found in the beliefs of others, even a megapandit such as Ken Wilber—not noted for his modesty and circumspection—observes that "the human mind is incapable of producing 100% error." 4 Perhaps some misunderstandings among those engaging in dialogue can be avoided if we remain mindful of the mysterious character of the subject matter and are less confident about the sufficiency of our own articulation of the truth.

As to dialogue itself, it is perhaps well to remember when the issues of "fruit salad" and syncretism arise, 5 that thinking itself has typically a dialogical structure, with the result that "fruit salad" is actually the normal condition of persons as they develop in understanding themselves and their world. 6 In conversation with Laurence Freeman, O.S.B., the Dalai Lama appears to disapprove of mixing traditions—"Do not try to put a yak's head on a sheep's body" 7 —but it would be difficult to conceive of a more syncretistic religion than Tibetan Buddhism or Catholicism. Indeed, if we compare the early Jesus movement to the medieval church, the development of Catholicism might well be described by Luther or Calvin, had they thought of it, as an operation that put a yak's head on a sheep's body. The dialogical and finite structure of thinking is in fact one of the reasons why it is possible to conceive of a "universal religion," contrary to what the Dalai Lama thinks. 8 This is so because, since human understanding is never absolute and completed, there is always the possibility that future [End Page 101] understanding will yield a vision that embraces a multiplicity and diversity of religious insights in a way that is impossible for us to foresee at this time. Moreover, part of the point of American culture, I would think, is the benefits of mongrelization, and so perhaps Americans ought to be less suspicious than some at the thought of having "strange bedfellows." Looking for historical examples of conscious syncretism, one thinks of Mani and Jesuit syncretism exemplified in Matteo Ricci (outfitted first as a Buddhist monk and then later as a Confucian scholar) and the evangelization of New Spain, 9 and more recently, Hazrat Inayat Khan and his son, Pir Vilayat Khan. Also, there is Jesaiah Ben-Aharon, a Jewish thinker who interprets the Holocaust in terms of the Christ. 10 I find such efforts to be commendable, and so although doctrinal and cultural immaculacy has its charms, I believe it to be the call of maya. I will proceed, then, in constructing a mysterious and miscegenational fruit salad, my only justification being that this seems to reflect accurately the truth of the matter and that we really have no other peaceable choice. 11


"Person" is often used in the same sense as "human being." By "person" I mean a being who can love and who, as a human being, is the...


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