Can Buddhism Save? Finding Resonance in Incommensurability

By Brown, Christopher A. | Cross Currents, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

Can Buddhism Save? Finding Resonance in Incommensurability


Brown, Christopher A., Cross Currents


Since religions such as Buddhism and Christianity have fundamentally different grammars, how can they have anything to say to each other?

Thirty years ago, before I began the study of Zen, I said, "Mountains are mountains, waters are waters." After I got an insight into the truth of Zen through the instruction of a good master, I said, "Mountains are not mountains, waters are not waters." But now, having attained the abode of final rest [that is, Awakening], I say, "Mountains are really mountains, waters are really waters."(1)

Zen master Ch'ing-yuan Wei-hsin presents Zen as the means to attain "the abode of final rest." His phrase evokes biblical references to God's Sabbath "rest,"(2) and suggests that Buddhism, like Christianity, is a way of salvation. The passage as a whole, however, functions within a different soteriological framework. Salvation for Ch'ing-yuan Wei-hsin entails not the restoration of right relation between God and humanity, so much as a profound shift in the manner in which things are seen. This brief saying indicates that, while Christian redemption is rooted in history and narrative, Buddhist "awakening" is a sort of ahistorical gnosis into the true nature of things.

Such fundamental differences preclude direct conflict, at least on a theoretical level. Instead, I would argue that these two religious outlooks are simply incommensurable. Each embodies a distinct grammar, or set of linguistic and doctrinal rules, leaving little basis for common reference between the two. One looks in vain for point-for-point correspondences. While parallels seem to present themselves, the divergent frameworks within which they occur make direct correlation a questionable undertaking.

Even so, Christians and Buddhists have been talking to one another for some time, ranging from the "Great Dispute of Panadura" in Ceylon in 1873 to the proliferation of inter-religious conversations of the present day. But if these two ways of salvation are truly incommensurable, on what basis can dialogue take place, and what can be gained by such an enterprise?

I propose that dialogue entails a provisional bracketing of one's own point of view in order to enter into a sympathetic understanding of the other religious outlook. The result is nothing so tidy as the discovery that Buddhists and Christians are engaged in the same basic project, using different words to say the same thing. This is precluded by the incommensurability of the two traditions. I suggest, rather, that in the encounter of one tradition with another, there emerges something more modest, what I would like to call "resonance."

This essay consists of three parts. The first offers a methodological basis upon which Christians might engage in dialogue with another religious tradition. This approach is not uniquely specific to the Buddhist-Christian encounter. It presumes all religions to be incommensurable to a degree, although Buddhism, in relation to Christianity, presents a particularly strong case of incommensurability, in contrast to, say, Judaism or Islam.

The second part attempts the provisional "bracketing" described above, and introduces the Buddhist doctrine of "emptiness," assuming that most readers will have only a sketchy understanding of this notion. This section presents Buddhism in own terms, giving the non-Buddhist reader the chance to "inhabit" an alternate way of looking at things, and at least partially to "try it on" from the inside.

In the third part of this essay, I assess the Buddhist notion of emptiness from within a specifically Christian framework, and explore the concept of "resonance."

Dialogue in Incommensurability

In his essay "The Strange New World within the Bible," Karl Barth argues that the Bible confronts us as startlingly other. The Bible "drives us out beyond ourselves" and invites us into a "new world."(3) Barth, of course, conceived the "strange new world" within the Bible to be utterly distinct and without parallel. …

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