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  • What Christian Liberation Theology and Buddhism Need to Learn from Each Other
  • John Makransky

Both Christian liberation theologians and engaged Buddhists seek to empower the deepest personhood of people by liberating them from conditions of suffering that hide their deeper identity and impede their fuller potential.1 Christian and Buddhist liberation theologies differ in what they identify as the main conditions of suffering, and in the epistemologies they use to disclose those suffering conditions and to address them. Through their differences, I argue, each tradition points out an epistemological weakness in the other that would otherwise have remained unnoticed and, by exposing it, helps correct it.

In terms of Christian liberation epistemology, even taking into account the historical situation that liberation theologians speak from, one weakness is a tendency to construct and reify a duality between those who are preferred by God and those who are not, a duality that makes it difficult, practically speaking, actually to love each person unconditionally in the way that Jesus taught. This is exacerbated by insufficient attention to layers of suffering in people that drive their unjust actions against others. I draw on Buddhist epistemology to uncover these problems by critically analyzing some of the language of a few liberation theologians.

On the other hand, Buddhist epistemology lacks the concept of a God who chose to incarnate uniquely among the most marginalized and rejected, and the related Christian concept of social sin. This focus of liberation theology can sharpen Buddhist attention on “nonpersons” in our midst and to the social forces behind their marginalization and suffering. Christian liberation theology thus informs and helps reframe Buddhist understandings of compassion and its cultivation, and stimulates new insights into current social implications of ancient Buddhist teachings of karma, interdependence, and bodhisattva practice.

This essay begins with Buddhist ideas, but it is not a religious studies analysis of them concerned with their diverse developments through history. Rather, this essay is the Buddhist equivalent of an exercise in comparative, constructive theology, which speaks from within a specific location in a Buddhist tradition to explore how dialogue with part of another religious tradition, here Christian liberation theology, may stimulate fresh insights. [End Page 117]

buddhist epistemological principles relevant to christian liberation theology

In what follows I will briefly summarize and draw on elements of Tibetan Buddhist theory and practice from the Nyingma tradition, the most ancient Tibetan Buddhist tradition. According to the theory and practice of this tradition, all of our experiences of self, others, and world possess two essential qualities: emptiness and cognizance. The mind’s cognizance is the knowing, aware quality within each experience. The mind’s emptiness is the basic space in and through all experiences that permits everything we experience to be as impermanent as it is. Emptiness is also described as the basic space of dependent arising that permits each thing to arise in dependence upon, and as an expression of, other things. Emptiness is thus also the lack of any isolated, autonomous being in anything we experience. The essence of enlightenment dawns when the mind’s cognizant quality recognizes the emptiness of all experiences, the basic space of dependent arising in and through all things. Emptiness then becomes the space of freedom for our cognizance, much more fully, to express its latent capacities of loving connection, compassion, and wisdom. These are qualities of a Buddha’s enlightenment.2 Please note, therefore, that the term “emptiness” should not be misunderstood to imply that we do not exist. Indeed, to have insight into the emptiness of our being is to have insight into our deep interdependence with others, permitting our fuller humanity to manifest: our underlying capacity for much greater love, care, discernment, courage, and creative responsiveness to the world. Such insight recognizes that our limiting thoughts of self and other, which we tend to mistake in the moment as fully defining persons, are merely relative, limited constructs, not fully defining of anyone.

The Buddha disclosed this possibility of enlightenment because we are, by and large, not enlightened in this way, but caught in an entrenched delusion that affects everything we think, feel, and do, a delusion that binds us into layers of individual and social...