A New Direction for Comparative Studies of Buddhists and Christians: Evidence from Nagarjuna and John of the Cross

By de Cea, Abraham Velez | Buddhist-Christian Studies, Annual 2006 | Go to article overview

A New Direction for Comparative Studies of Buddhists and Christians: Evidence from Nagarjuna and John of the Cross


de Cea, Abraham Velez, Buddhist-Christian Studies


Is Nagarjuna's emptiness a means to point out the inadequacy of logic and concepts to express the nature of the Ultimate Reality? Similarly, are John of the Cross's concepts of nothingness and emptiness examples of the apophatic path to God? In sum, is emptiness in Nagarjuna and John of the Cross comparable to the Christian via negativa and the apophatic path to God?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, I believe you might be interested in reading this article carefully. You are not alone; in fact most if not all previous discussions of Nagarjuna and John of the Cross in the field of Buddhist-Christian studies have assumed an affirmative answer to the former questions. The comparisons of D. T. Suzuki, Thomas Merton, and the Kyoto school between the Christian God and Buddhist emptiness, as well as the comparisons of members of the Masao Abe-John Cobb group, have greatly contributed to this apophatic interpretation of emptiness. The enormous contributions of D. T. Suzuki, Thomas Merton, the Kyoto school, and the Abe-Cobb group to the field of Buddhist-Christian studies cannot be sufficiently praised and appreciated. However, the future of Buddhist-Christian studies and Buddhist-Christian dialogue requires a new comparative direction, a shift from comparative theory to comparative praxis, from doctrinal comparisons to more ethical and spiritually relevant comparisons.

This new direction provides Buddhist-Christian studies with a more practical orientation necessary for the urgent needs of our planet as well as for the needs of a growing number of members of different religions with pluralist attitudes. By pluralist attitudes, I do not mean a relativistic standpoint, but rather an attitude of intellectual humbleness and dialogical openness toward other religions. That humble and dialogical openness seeks neither to proselytize nor to create a new religion. Rather, the objective is to build bridges of understanding and solidarity among religious communities and to be personally enriched by the contributions of all religions.

In order to justify the need for this new and more practically oriented comparative direction, it is imperative to review previous scholarship in the field of Buddhist-Christian studies. A comprehensive analysis of all past scholarship would be too ambitious a goal for the purpose of this article. Thus, in the first part of this article I limit myself to reviewing those questionable hermeneutical tendencies that I have identified in former Buddhist-Christian discussions of John of the Cross and Nagarjuna. In the second part, I continue the justification of this new direction for Buddhist-Christian studies by providing a specific example, namely, a comparison of the instrumental ethical function of emptiness in Nagarjuna and John of the Cross.

HERMENEUTICAL TENDENCIES IN PREVIOUS BUDDHIST-CHRISTIAN STUDIES OF JOHN OF THE CROSS AND NAGARJUNA

Hermeneutical Tendencies in Comparisons of John of the Cross and Buddhism

In the case of John of the Cross, I have identified three questionable hermeneutical tendencies. The first one is to exaggerate the similarity between John of the Cross and Buddhism. Take, for example, what Thomas Merton--whose pioneering work on Buddhist-Christian dialogue deserves careful study--said in 1968: "Frankly, I would say that Zen is nothing but John of the Cross without the Christian vocabulary" (quoted in Nugent 1996: 53). This comparison suggests that the teachings of Zen and John of the Cross are virtually identical, neglecting important differences between them.

Similarly, Christopher Nugent compares John's experience of one's own true self to the experience of Buddha-nature, and describes satori as a fusion of all and nothing, and the coincidence of opposites. For Nugent, John of the Cross is not only a Zen master, but also "more Taoist than dualist" (1996: 62-64). These comparisons of John of the Cross to Zen and Taoism concepts fail to bring justice to his ideas. …

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