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  • Liberation Theology and Engaged Buddhism:Challenging Each Other, Learning from Each Other1
  • Paul F. Knitter

As John Makransky made clear when he was organizing this panel, our hopes are to carry on and deepen the conversations that a number of us were part of at the international conference at Union Theological Seminary in April 2013, “Enlightenment and Liberation: Engaged Buddhists and Liberation Theologians in Dialogue.”2 My contributions to this continuing conversation come primarily out of my Christian background—though I have been a practicing Buddhist-Christian (a “double-belonger”) for over three decades. So my primary concern will be what Christians might learn from Buddhists. Also, I’ll be speaking as a so-called progressive Roman Catholic theologian and as a student and practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism. Those are the traditions and the communities I will try to speak for and to.

To structure and enliven the conversation between Christians and Buddhists about what they might learn from each other in their shared commitment to do something about the sufferings that afflict our planet and its inhabitants, I have built my reflections around what I believe are four progressively interconnecting questions: (1) What is really going on in this world of ours? (2) Why are we in the mess that we seem to be in? (3) How can we get out of the mess? And finally and more practically, (4) How can we sustain and guide our liberative praxis?

what’s really going on?

The differences in the way Buddhists and Christians understand and go about their work of “fixing this world” are rooted, fundamentally, in their different (but I believe complementary) understandings of what is really real: how they understand and live out the relationship between (in Buddhist terms) the Ultimate and the Relative, or between Emptiness and Form, and (in Christian terms) between the Infinite and the Finite or God and Creation.

Buddhists offer Christians, I suggest, the opportunity to reclaim and deepen the nonduality of their mystical and their philosophical traditions. In saying that, however, I want to put the greater stress on “deepen.” This is not just an opportunity for [End Page 97] Christians to reclaim an already given but neglected nonduality within their own tradition; it is an opportunity to come to a deeper understanding and practice of it. In other words, Buddhists don’t just provide Christians a flashlight to see what is already there in the dark rooms of their own house; rather, they introduce some new furniture—which is compatible with the décor of the Christian home, but still, something new.

I’ve discovered (or I think I have) that my conversation with Buddhists is offering Christians an opportunity to explore a more mystical, a more unitive and non-dual experience of, and therefore understanding of, the reality we call God. This is the result of exploring what Roger Haight calls “functional analogies” between the Mahayana notion of Emptiness and Form and the Christian understanding of God and Creation.3 What such analogies are asking Christians is this: If God, as Christians claim, is truly immanent and involved in the world, can they recognize that the world is just as truly immanent and involved in God? Does the relationship of God and world really go both ways? Is the world as much a part of God as God is a part of the world? Or, to use an image from the Acts of the Apostles, if we “live and move and have our being in God,” can we also say that “God lives and moves and has God’s being in us”? (Acts 17:28).

What I’m getting at is what might be called an asymmetrical reciprocity between God and the world. Through my Buddhist practice and study, I’ve come to feel and affirm a real reciprocity between God and creation, a real give and take, a real “codependence” and need of each other. But the need or the dependence is “asymmetrical,” vastly different on each side. The world needs God/Emptiness in order to “receive” its very being. God/Emptiness needs the world/form in order to actualize or express God’s very being. Neither can...


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pp. 97-108
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