Dialogue and Proclamation
With Buddhism

Fr J. López-Gáy, SJ *


Introductory remarks

The term Buddhism comes from the title ("Buddha", the re-awakened one, attributed to Prince Siddhartha Gautama (d. ca. 483 B.C.), a native of the Himalayan region. Shaken by the presence of suffering in the world, he renounced everything to seek enlightenment. He gained enlightenment (bodhi) under a fig tree, sitting in the so-called Lotus position, with his legs crossed. He gave his first discourse on the "Four Noble Truths": all is suffering, longing and desire are the origin of all suffering, absolute detachment from every form of desire is the destruction of suffering, and the way to attain this destruction is the Eightfold Path (right view, right thought, right speech, right action... right concentration and right meditation). Certainly rather than beginning a ((religion», Buddha wanted to present an anthropological soteriology.

Buddha was a great teacher and a group of followers gathered around him. With time schools or factions were formed: Hinayana Buddhism or "little vehicle", closely related to monks, which strives to attain liberation from suffering through self-discipline, and Mahayana Buddhism or "great vehicle", which is the most widespread form of Buddhism in the world today. It lays great emphasis on compassion, the principle represented by the figure of Bodhisattva, a being who has obtained enlightenment but remains on the threshold of nirvana in order to help others.

Today, Buddhists are the fourth religious community in the world after Christians, Muslims and Hindus. Though 50% of all Buddhists live in Asia, recently they have moved to Europe and the United States. The need for and necessity of dialogue and meetings is more essential than ever. How can we dialogue with them? Where should the proclamation begin? On the Catholic side there are many documents on interreligious dialogue and Buddhists themselves agree that "hostility towards Christianity (or any other Religion) is not, of course, a proper Buddhist attitude".(1) There is also an immense amount of literature on this subject today.

1. The starting point must be the field of knowledge and reason. The act that began Gautama's career was, in fact, an act of knowledge: through mental concentration (dhyana), he reached understanding (prajña). He was called by his followers the Enlightened One (Buddha), who knows everything perfectly.

We must not forget that Buddhism came into being as the result of reflection, becoming a real doctrinal body or law (dharma). Within the three paths (margha) of Indian spirituality — the path of action (rites, sacrifices), the path of goodness, and the path of knowledge whose goal is wisdom Buddhism chose the latter.(2) The first Buddhists appeared in India with revolutionary theses such as the non-existence of God and of the soul, the non-substantiality of things, etc., theses supported in the teaching of Buddha. Buddhas are never presented as saviours, but as "teachers and guides" of gods and men.(3) For Hindus who followed revelation, the words of a Master, though he was enlightened, had no value. But Buddhists looked for reasonable arguments. Ignorance (avidya) is presented by Buddhism as the source of all evils, and it must be destroyed as soon as possible. The first Buddhist communities strived to know the real nature of things. It was a constant quest starting from the teachings of Buddha, which later took concrete form in various philosophical systems.

One of the first books written still in pali is on "right view", the first stage of the Eightfold Path, which means, among other things, overcoming all ignorance and seeing everything according to the wisdom of Buddha. "When, dear friends, a noble disciple understands ignorance, the origin of ignorance, the cessation of ignorance, and the path that leads to the cessation of ignorance, he has already obtained the right view... and he has reached real Dhamma".(4)

All Buddhist writings, in reality Mahayana writings, have this philosophical orientation, from the books on the Perfections of understanding (Prajña-páramitá) to the most famous texts in Chinese, such as the great Sutra on the Eight levels of knowledge characteristic of great beings, preached by Buddha (Pa ten jen kiao king). (5)

In this context we should say a few words about one of the characteristic attitudes of our Buddhist partners in dialogue. And this is adhimukti. This important Sanskrit word in Buddhist texts means mental openness, receptivity. It is the mind's ability to remain open before a new message. The opposite attitude, unsuitable for a Buddhist, is mental closure, which rejects any new idea or schema that is proposed. Disciples must have adhimukti if they are to face up to the new ideas of the doctrines proposed. Thanks to adhimukti Bodhisattvas can know the profound expressions of truth more and more every day. Adhimukti also reaches the realm of the sentiments, the emotions and artistic creation, and it is the foundation for real humanism.(6)

Should we Catholics who are also asked for this mental openness, not cultivate this dialogue with Buddhists in the field of reason and "knowledge"? Those who do not reason become mentally and humanly closed, they fall into liberalism and fundamentalism. It is true that our religion is a religion of the Word (written and we should not forget sapiential literature and handed down), but it has always developed in the philosophical field, in the field of knowledge. It is sufficient to remember the first contacts with gnostics, apologists, and later Scholasticism. In practice we should know the Buddhists texts and their doctrine and be able to use also their same forma mentis. Historically, we should remember that the content of the first encounter of Catholic missionaries, Frs. Xavier and Torres, with Buddhist followers of Zen in Japan, reached us with the title of Disputas (Discussions) in dialogical form on fairly philosophical themes.(7)

2. Dialogue with Buddhism remains open because Buddhism is not a "book" religion. "Book" religions which have to follow the Book faithfully become fundamentalist. The Buddhist doctrine was handed down orally first of all, in monastic circles. For them, the word was heard (sruti) and passed on orally. The memory of this tradition was essential. The need for a written doctrine was one of the subjects discussed in the Council of Pataliputra (247 B.C.). Shortly afterwards, the term lippi or written teaching appears, and in the first century B.C. the Buddhist canon was established with some 30 volumes written in the Pali language. Oral tradition is always the guarantee of authenticity and written discourses begin with the sentence: "I have heard...". The presence of many lay people, the fact that Buddhism spread outside the monasteries, and the formation of Mahayana, led to an immense amount of writings, first in Sanskrit and later in Chinese. Today the critical edition (mainly in Chinese) is collected in the Taishó (Tokyo) and contains more than a hundred volumes. (8)

This fact, which is fundamentally an advantage for dialogue, creates some concrete problems. Problems which do not come from the love of books (though some texts are preserved in the stupa reliquary), but from their interpretation and from the diversity of the texts establishing new sects or factions within Buddhism.

3. As a complement of these two ideas, we should say something about prajña, in Japanese chie, or "understanding, transcendental wisdom", which is "enlightenment", an insight into the ultimate truths. It is one of the virtues or páramitá, and it becomes the principle that guides all other virtues. It is knowledge in its final stage. The path of Buddhism begins with morality, it follows with concentration and meditation (dhyana, in Japanese zen) and rises to understanding. The whole river of the moral, cognitive and meditative path of Buddhism flows into the ocean of understanding.

Understanding is always open to new insights (movement of ascent), and at the same time, it influences our daily social life (movement of descent). Why should we, Christians and Buddhists, not travel part of this path of ascent together? It would be a path of study, reflection (a study which is not limited to a simple knowledge of Buddhism, but being wise, in the Latin sense of the term, sapere, about the contents of Buddhism) and meditation towards the height and the depths, towards perfection. And why should Buddhists and Christians not understand in this world together, bringing the fruits of their wisdom, striving to enlighten our lives and that of others? An enlightenment that becomes a real "!help".

The influence of wisdom in our moral life is decisive. And here we should not forget the five precepts of Buddhism, which are exactly the same as the Christian precepts (refrain from taking life, refrain from taking that which is not given, refrain from misuse of the senses, refrain from telling lies, refrain from self-intoxication with drink and drugs), still similar to the ten precepts of novices and the rules of monks.(9)

But wisdom has a connotation with "meditation", which we have presented with the Sanskrit and Japanese term most used in the West today, Zen. In the Eightfold Path there is one stage, defined as right concentration or mental exercise through successive levels of recollection, which involves four levels of contemplative experience (dhyana, zen) and another four of union (arúpa). Many Christians, not only in Asia, pray in the style of the Asian traditions, in the concrete of Buddhism. And Zen offers a field for experience of the inculturation of prayer, and in actual fact Zen can be practised as a way of dialogue. In this approach, Zen is practised in order to penetrate into the experiences of Buddhist meditation, so that we may understand it not only theoretically but as an experience, and so that we may share the Christian experience of contemplation with Buddhists.(10) It is true that in Buddhist meditation faith is not its basis nor the meeting with the Other its aim. Individuals want to be themselves without any mediation. Immediate psychological-therapeutic answers are expected from meditation, they are anthropologically oriented in that the individual is restored to a more genuine relationship with his world and his own nature. The body and its positions, as a symbol of the whole person, have a special value. It is true that Buddhist meditation is accompanied by words such as emptiness, nothing, silence, etc. Ambiguous terms, which can be accepted because of their ability to free what is within man. So they use expressions such as "fulIness, the real I", etc. These are the fruits and responses provided by Buddhist meditation that we can gather. One thing is true: Buddhists who have had experience, help us to discover how we too can have experience, from which all mysticism comes.

4. Wisdom must also have a necessary influence in the social and human life of individuals. Nâgârjuna, one of the great Mahayana thinkers (3rd cent.), said, "seeking mental concentration and gaining real wisdom would be meaningless if it were not with a view to the salvation of all creatures".(11) From purely mental understanding a horizon opens towards universal compassion, the fruit of wisdom which descends towards everyone, in order to help everyone. And if we think about Christian love, in these ideas we find another point of contact for dialogue. We have spoken about the ten Buddhist virtues, and now we should say that the first of all these virtues is "generosity" (dána), which means not only "giving" but also renouncing everything for others.

The ideal figure of Mahayana Buddhism is the Bodhisattva, the enlightened being who renounces entrance to Nirvana in order to help others. The Bodhisattva develops infinite compassion in order to be the saviour of all creatures. It is a radical unselfishness, and he takes "saving vows" for the sake of all.(12) Among these vows the most well known is the one made by Amida, when he was still a Bodhisattva, to save those who invoked his name. (13)

Thanks to his supreme understanding the bodhisattva is a being of infinite light who knows all the needs of beings, and has deep compassion, vision and love. In iconography, many Bodhisattvas, such as Avolokitesvara or Kannon, are portrayed with eleven swathing bands and a thousand hands open to compassion. The Bodhisattva knows how to use all the means necessary to save men, and here we have the so-called "skill in means" (upáya, in Japanese hóben), which ch. 2 of the book of Lotus speaks of.(14) This aspect of "means" becomes another point of contact between Buddhism and Christianity. At the same time, this ideology of "means" helps us to solve many problems which we find in the philosophy and historical development of Buddhism.

Many of these Bodhisattvas are almost deified. Among the means some offer the sacrifice of their own flesh for the sake of others. "Bodhisattvas even throw themselves into the fire of hell to alleviate the suffering of others" (words of Sântideva, an 8th century Buddhist thinker). (15) Assuredly, the idea of needs and the use of ,means- to save others springs from compassion. "Compassion" appears in the most ancient Buddhist texts. Compassion-kindness (maitri-karuná, in Japanese ji-hi) was also an essential element of early monastic life. Soon the concept of Buddha's "great compassion" appeared, which developed into Mahayana Buddhism where we find the figure of Buddha as father, doctor and compassionate teacher.(16) In some Chinese texts there are not only ideograms for compassion (jihi), but also those for "love" (ai), as in the Lotus. The Bodhisattva's compassion leads to giving. An operative love. Man, the sinner, must have "Faith".(17) Faith presupposes a theology of "helping others" (tariki), in the concrete of Amida's helping others to obtain salvation. Are these not new points that should be developed in dialogue and proclamation?

5. We have suggested some positive points for an encounter and dialogue between Christians and Buddhists. But there are difficulties in this encounter which I would like to point out, stressing the most important differences.

  • For us Christ is not only a "teacher", but a "Redeemer and Saviour". Two difficult concepts to accept in the Buddhist tradition.
  • We have spoken of the reasonable, philosophical, indeed primitive, orientation of Buddhism. But for them, knowledge is intuitive rather than logical, since it is not the conclusion of premises, it departs from the discursive aspect. But it is true that as well as logical knowledge St. Thomas accepted a "iuxta connaturalitatem" knowledge.
  • The concept of analogy does not exist in Buddhist philosophy and this is why they do not and cannot speak of God or of his existence. (This is due to their attitude to the concept of "creation" which is excluded, because "every act is imperfection"). Buddhism is not atheistic, but it excludes these theological themes. It is a somewhat negative, apophatic philosophy and religion. But behind the expression of such a negative religious philosophy there is an obvious experience of God. We, Western Christians, with all our research have often hidden the real face of God. Do not forget that where there is a void, there is God. Silence is God.
  • Philosophically, detachment from the phenomenal world or its negation within Buddhism, become a temptation for us to fall into nihilism or false, wrong interpretations.
  • For us, from the biblical, theological and philosophical point of view, the "word" has a fundamental value. For Buddhists, however, the "word" is not so much a means for communicating a message or a teaching, but it often becomes an obstacle. "Noble silence" becomes a form of communication. Contradictory words, like kôan in Zen, bring light. In Chinese Buddhism, they used to repeat that the truth which one can speak of is not true. From Buddhism we must learn the value of "noble silence".(18)
  • Buddhism has never wanted to have a dogmatic theology and Buddha did not want to found a religion. He discovered that there was suffering in the world, he discovered the origin of suffering and he also discovered the way to destroy this suffering. Suffering is a very rich concept and it leads us to the "poor" of the Bible. But the deposit of faith in Christianity is different because it has a positive content, with concrete truths — certainly truths which can be deepened — which come from revelation, and in this deepening Buddhism can become a help under the guidance of the Spirit. But we must proceed with caution in order not to contradict the faith we have received.
  • Another problematic point in today's dialogue is the diversity of sects within Buddhism and the diversity of texts, which are interpreted in different ways. This was one of the problems Christian missionaries found in their first encounter with Buddhism, to be precise, in Japan. We have already discussed how oral and later written tradition was formed in Buddhism, with thousands of texts, and thousands of Buddha's discourses (more than eight thousand).
  • For Christians the centre of everything is not the "suffering" human person, though he has no existence in himself according to Buddhists, but a Personal-God, and this gives rise to prayer and worship. Christ is the absolute form of the real, historical being, and we must accept the revelation (which is unique and definitive) and Redemption accomplished by a God-Person. In Buddhism there was also a Docetic orientation, which was one of the first heresies the Fathers of the Church found.

In spite of these difficulties, we must consider the possibility of a real dialogue, encounter and mutual enrichment between Buddhism and Christianity. And it seems that the time has arrived.


Professor of Missiology at the Pontifical Gregorian University.

1. M. O'C WALSHE, "Buddhism and Christianity, a positive approach", in The Wheel, n. 275, Kandy, 1980, p. 276.

2. Dhammapada, one of the most ancient texts written in Pali (today translated into modern languages), ch. 20 is entitled "The Path".

3. Dhammapada, verse 276.

4. "The Discourse on Right View. The Sammaditti Sutta and its Commentary. Translated from the Pali by Bikkhu Nanamoli", from nos. 377 / 379 of the vol. The Wheel, Kandy, 1991.

5. Translation and examination in Revista de Estudios Budistas, n. 11 (1996), pp. 69-78.

6. These ideas are taken from F.TOLA, "Budismo e humanismo", ibid., n. 9 (1995) pp. 73-74.

7. Xavier's and Torres' "Discussions" with Buddhists were published by P. SCHURHAMMER, in the original language, Spanish, with the German translation, and a commentary, Die Disputationen..., Tokyo 1940. Xavier tells of his conversations with a Zen Bonze on philosophical subjects, e.g., in his letter of 5 Nov. 1549, in any edition, under number 90, n. 19.

8. Taishó Shinshú Diazokyo Kankokai, Tokyo 1960, new ed. (the first edition is of 1927). The edition is the work of the Japanese Buddhologist Takakusu Junjirô, it follows the chronological order of the texts, and includes more than 3.360 works. Further information in KOGEN MIZUNO, Buddhist Sutras. Origin, Development, Transmission, Eng. trans. Tokyo 1982, especially on the Taishô, pp. 184-185.

9. I have translated all the precepts, the rules of the monks, etc., in my book, La Mistica del Budismo. Los monies no cristianos del oriente, Madrid 1974, ch. 5, pp. 150-176.

10. A wonderful book with an excellent bibliography and practical experiments which are being carried out in the East, J. DINH DUC DAO, Preghiera rinnovata per una nuova era missionaria in Asia, Roma 1994. TH. MERTON, Mistici e maestri Zen, Milano 1969. See the writings of two Catholic missionaries, W. JOHNSTON and Y. RAGUIN, who opened a way in this dialogical mystical experience.

11. An idea repeated in his commentary on the sutra of understanding, Maháprajñâpáramitá-sastra, see the translation by E. LAMOTTE, Le traité de la grande virtue de sagesse, I vol., Lovanio 1944, p. 984. The Chinese text in Taisho, vol. 25, no. 1509.

12. J. LOPEZ-GAY, "El bodhisattva en los sûtras del Mahdyâna", in Boletín de la Asociación Española de Orientalistas, 22 (1986) 258-283, where "the original vow", the "four great vows" and the ten vows that all Bodhisattvas take are explained.

13. There are a great number of writings on Amida: one book in French and Italian is by H. DE LUBAC, Aspects du Bouddhisme. Amida, Paris 1955, Milano 1980: the entire second part, from p. 141 onwards is on Amida. Amida's saving vows to save all those who call on him, in the sutra ,"The Larger Sukhávatï-vyúha", vol. XLIX of the series Sacred Book of the East, Oxford 1894, pp. 1-72, see pp. 73-75, with an explanation of these two vows 18 and 21. Other texts in the art. cited.

14. In the English translation of the Lotus, this chapter is entitled: The Tactfulness, in the Chinese edition of the Taisho, vol. 9, no. 262, pp. 5-10; in the English trans. The Threefold Lotus sutra, 5th ed. Tokyo 1982, pp. 51-66.

15. Many complementary texts in H. DE LUBAC's book, p. 16 ff.

16. Cf. T. OHM, L'amore a Dio nelle religioni non cristiane, a cura di P. Rossano, Alba 1956: Amore nel Buddhismo, pp. 320-346 (original in German). Ch. 1 of H. DE LUBAC'S book cited is entitled "La carità buddistica". F. MASUTANI, "On Mercy and Love", in the book: A comparative Study of Buddhism and Christianity, 3rd ed., Tokyo 1962, 163-174. E. LAMOTTE, "La bienveillance boudique", in Bulletin de la Academie Royale de Belgique, 38 (1952) pp. 381-403. J. LOPEZ-GAY, "Buda corno Padre en el Hokekyô", in Studia Missionalia, 33 (1984) pp. 127-144 (I have indicated the places where the characteristic of "love" is used).

17. An English translation of Tannishô, by Tosui Imadate, published in the book, SUZUKI T., Collected Writings on Shin Buddhism, Tokyo 1973, pp. 207-222. There are also translations in Italian and Spanish. Cf. F. SOTTOCORNOLA, Bologna 1989.

18. J. LOPEZ-GAY, "Palabra y comunicación en el budismo", in Oriente-Occidente, 12 (1994/95) pp. 27-38.


Ref.: in Omnis Terra, n. 318, June 2001.