The 2004 Gerald Weisfeld Lectures: Buddhism and Christianity in Dialogue

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In May 2004 the Centre for Inter-Faith Studies (University of Glasgow) sponsored the second series of Gerald Weisfeld Lectures, titled "Buddhism and Christianity in Dialogue." The lectures were part of the events leading up to the Dalai Lama's visit to Scotland at the end of May 2004. Over four weeks there were two lectures each week, one read by a Christian and one by a Buddhist--both of them speaking on the same topic and both of them speaking comparatively, but from the background of their own tradition.

The theme of week 1 was "Human Existence in Buddhism and Christianity"--the Christian speaker being Elizabeth Harris of London; the Buddhist speaker being Kiyoshi Tsuchiya, who teaches at Glasgow University. Harris pointed out that in their analysis of the human condition, Buddhism and Christianity show serious commonalities. For both traditions, human existence is ambivalent: on the one hand deeply permeated by the roots of evil (craving and ignorance according to Buddhism; sin according to Christianity), and on the other hand human (existence also offers a way out: there is the possibility of salvation or liberation). However, said Harris, Buddhism and Christianity "converge and diverge." Human self-centeredness is seen at the root of the problem according to both traditions, and there are convergences of their respective ways of salvation, too. The differences are, said Harris, primarily located in the active function of God for the salvific process within Christianity and in the role of reincarnation within the Buddhist analysis of human existence which is without any parallel in Christianity.

Tsuchiya agreed that both traditions understand the self as the major source of the human predicament, but held that they understand this in a different sense. While the self is seen as sinful but nevertheless real in Christianity, Buddhism sees it as an unwholesome illusion. Resulting are two different or even contradictory forms of self-understanding, a "relational," individualistic ego dominant in Christianity, a sort of cosmological ego characteristic for Buddhism, particularly within the Zen-Daoist tradition from which Tsuchiya speaks. He illustrated this point provocatively by a comparative analysis of Kafka's story of Gregor Samsa's metamorphosis into a beetle and Chuang tzu's famous butterfly dream. This difference of self-concepts is, said Tsuchiya, crucial for the rival Christian and Buddhist understandings of transcendence and cosmos: personal transcendence versus cosmological transcendence, anti-naturalism versus naturalism.

In her response Harris raised the question whether Tsuchiya's representation of Christianity is really comprehensive. Are there not dimensions in Christianity supportive of his nondualist approach to nature and human existence? Tsuchiya, in his response, admitted that the ultimate religious goals might converge, but insisted on at least a "possibly contradictory" religious orientation with specific dangers on both sides, so that there is room for mutual constructive challenge.

The debate of week 1 continued through week 2, which was dedicated to "Ultimate Reality in Buddhism and Christianity," the Christian speaker being Karl Baier from the University of Vienna; the Buddhist lecturer Minoru Nambara, professor emeritus from the University of Tokyo. Baier presented an admittedly selective view of Christianity following the line of the neoplatonic, mystical tradition. From here he offered a comparative analysis of the deconstructive efforts of Nagarjuna and Nicolas Cusanus, who both employed the fourfold negation in order to introduce their nondual and nonconceptual view of the relation between ultimate and nonultimate reality. For Baier the obvious affinities between these two (sub-)traditions are getting even stronger in the present situation, for "by means of transformative encounter Buddhism and Christianity cease to be independent bodies of thought."

Sketching the various transformations of Buddhism on its way from India to China, Nambara held that for Chinese Buddhism "this very world is in and of itself the ultimate subject, the ultimate reality. …