Here are two dialogues between a Christian mystic and Buddhists. They are not shared as an attempt to define either religion or to hold one up as superior to the other. What is important to me is the fraternal meeting of minds, the exposure of mystical and non-dualist perspectives in Christianity, and the achievement of greater understanding between people of significantly different traditions.
Dialogue #1: The Ultimate Personal Relationship
They were discussing the nature of the Ultimate, beginning at what seemed to be a classic impasse: The Christian spoke of the Ultimate as a personal God, and the a-theistic Buddhist spoke of the Ultimate as the impersonal principle of Being that gives rise to all things, yet is not contained by all things.
In their discussion, the Christian typically asserted that God is all-knowing, all-powerful and all-loving. The Buddhist countered that if this is so, then God would be impossible for a human being to understand, that God must also be all-mysterious. The Christian agreed, yet held that while God could not be understood, God could still be experienced as the great mystery of life itself. The Buddhist smiled, apparently thinking that he now had the upper hand in the debate. He asked the Christian how, if God is all-mysterious, one could rightly refer to God as “personal.”
The Christian had two responses: First, he clarified that when many mystical theologians speak of God as a person, or a trinity of three persons, they are speaking in metaphors that only address ways God can be experienced by human beings. Second, he said that since we are persons, it only makes sense that one of the most powerful and meaningful ways of experiencing God is as a person too. So, while speaking of God as a person may be understood to be a metaphor, speaking of one’s experience with God as a personal relationship is entirely fitting.
Well, the Buddhist furrowed his brow for a moment, looking like a chess player trying to salvage his gambit from an unexpected move. Suddenly he looked up with an idea. He said that if experiencing God as a person is only a way of experiencing the Ultimate, then wouldn’t a purer, simpler way to experience the Ultimate be as the impersonal principle of Being?
The Christian asked if the Buddhist was one who thinks of the Ultimate as beyond all oppositions and thus non-dual. The Buddhist said that he did. Then the Christian said that if we are going to regard the Ultimate as non-dual, it is just as inaccurate to speak of It as impersonal as to speak of It as personal. He said that personal and impersonal fall into the categories of either/or, neither/nor as well as both/and when speaking of the Ultimate, or God, and that what makes the difference is simply the kinds of experience one is open to.
The Buddhist was nodding with a blank face for moment, and then he laughed. He said that now he could finally understand Christianity, but he wondered how many Christians do. The Christian asked how many Buddhists really understand Buddhism, and they both laughed together.
Dialogue #2: If You Meet the Dharmakaya on the Via Negativa….
Zen Buddhist (ZB): “I would be very grateful if you could explain your interest in Zen.”
Christian Mystic (CM): “Zen is of interest because of its acceptance of this moment, right here, right now, just as it is. The interconnected complexity of everything is permeated by this simplicity. This explanation isn’t adequate.”
ZB: “Very interesting. The shift of consciousness, from that of the periphery, to that of the ‘central’ position of the Mind, is, as I understand it, the essential thrust of the Ch’an-Zen teaching – a Buddhism, without the requirement for ‘Buddhism’, so-to-speak.
“In a sense, the Buddha’s own teaching, even within the Pali Canon, advocates the ‘letting go’ of even the method that gets one to the destination – the Dhammapada uses the allusion of a ‘raft’, and another shore being reached, etc. One question that intrigues me is this; is it possible to reconcile the teaching of ’emptiness’ (sunyata), with that of the existence of a theistic entity creating and controlling all things?”
CM: “Yes, Zen [and Christian mysticism, for that matter] may be thought of as a tool. About letting go of the raft, the limitation of this metaphor is the notion of a destination, which is not to say that such a notion is not useful.
“The teaching of sunyata can be likened to the Via Negativa of Western mysticism, in which it is acknowledged that the concept of God as a supremely active and intentional intelligence is only one way to think about and relate to God. In the Via Negativa we continually strip our minds of such concepts to abide in the utter mystery of God, knowing that such thoughts are only limited creations of the mind or, if you will, fingers pointing at God. In effect, we acknowledge the emptiness of such notions. One effect of this practice can be to return back to simple awareness of this passing moment.
“So it is that, among many Western mystics, words about God have much in common with the Buddhist concept of Dharmakaya, which suggests a non-duality that is at once empty and full, no-thing and every-thing, impersonal and personal, unintentional and intentional, etc. [In essence, “God” is the word we use for the Great Mysterious Truth of reality.] For one in such a position, relating to God as a theistic entity can become a kind of artistic experience and expression of life. [It is a way to express our love of the Great Mystery.]”
ZB: “Interesting, and well thought out.
“I am reminded of Matthew Fox, and his Original Blessing book, which deals with concepts such as ‘via negativa’, (as juxtaposed with ‘via positiva‘). In that sense, a binary system that reconciles into an experiential ‘whole-ness’, realised within the spiritual being. Allusions to similar systems, such as ‘Heaven’ and ‘Earth’, ‘yin’ and ‘yang’, are obvious.
“Of course, a ‘reconciliation’ does imply some kind of ‘third’ other, that actually realises the ‘reconciliation’. The Dharmakaya (body of truth) is one candidate, and this is often presented in the Mahayana as part of a triad – (usually in conjunction with the nirmanakaya and the sambhogakaya). Whether it could equally be said to be representative of a theistic entity, is problematic. As none of the bodies of the Buddha originate ‘outside’ of the Mind.
“And this, (I sense), is where the breakdown of language raises its head! God can not possibly be ‘God’, if God is in any way ‘real’. As ‘God’ is a construct of the human Mind. What lies beyond the construct, would in theory, also lie beyond the dualistic schemes that attempt to organise and explain nature in one, convenient philosophical presentation.
“The practice of Zen would eventually require the ‘giving-up’ of notions of ‘God’, and ‘Zen’, as well as any idea of ‘inner’ and ‘outer’. As you say, a ‘timeless’, and ever ‘present’ moment of perfect being – free from discursive thinking and emotional over-lay.”
ZB: “Peace to you also.”
And when you speak of “non-dualistic perspectives”, are you talking about a lack of subject/object duality wherein the knower becomes one with the known (i.e. “my eye and God’s eye are one and the same eye”) or do you mean that there is a lack of division within the Godhead, something like “there is no shadow of turning with thee”?
Yes. 😉 The first is the mystical realization, and the second is the theological realization. Said another way, there is no real disconnect between creation and God, in which “we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:24-28) None of this denies the Trinity as a valid experience or expression of how we can know the One.