The way that God is usually understood – an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving heavenly Father who tells us how to live – doesn’t really work anymore.
Sweeping Zen: For many Westerners both Buddhism and psychology are perceived as elitist — for intellectuals. From the average Joe perspective I think that, for Buddhism to truly have an impact, it may sometimes need to be viewed through the scope of peoples’ own religious tradition. Some Buddhist tenets may need to be interpreted through certain passages in the Bible, for example.
David Loy: It will be interesting to see how that develops. I do not see how Buddhism is compatible with the traditional way most people see Christianity, for example, where Christ is the only Way and the Savior. But that’s not the only problematical element within the Abrahamic traditions, from a Buddhist perspective. The way that God is usually understood – an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving heavenly Father who tells us how to live – doesn’t really work anymore. Such a God doesn’t fit into our understanding of the universe and isn’t compatible with the sufferings experienced in the 20th century and continuing today. It’s not simply a matter of reinterpreting some biblical passages. Buddhism offers an alternative spiritual worldview. That’s likely to become a site of serious tension.
Each of the Abrahamic religions also has a mystical dimension that is much closer to Buddhism. Within Christianity there are people like Meister Eckhart and texts like The Cloud of Unknowing,and within Islam great mystic philosophers like Ibn al’ Arabi, whose understanding of God is more non-dualistic: a “theophanic” God takes form in us, as us, as everything. That is much closer to the Mahayana claim that form is emptiness, emptiness is form.
SZ: And those mystical dimensions all spring forth from contemplative traditions. The meditation component in Buddhism, therefore, I believe will be most helpful. In these Abrahamic religions prayer is often seen as petitionary — people asking for some thing — but, at least within the Christian tradition, there is also something called centering prayer. Prayer as open listening, which I think is quite similar to what we find in our meditation practices.
DL: Well said. Many of the Christians who came to practice with Yamada-roshi believed that the contemplative tradition within Christianity had largely been lost and they were there to recover it, without necessarily becoming Buddhists themselves.
David R. Loy (born July 27, 1947; Dharma name David Tetsu’un Loy) is a Buddhist philosopher who writes on the interaction between Buddhism and modernity. He has been practicing Zen since 1971 and is an authorized teacher in the Sanbo-Kyodan tradition of Japanese Zen Buddhism.
Interview transcript originally published on the Sweeping Zen Website on April 5, 2011.
Image: Within, by Keoni Cabral, CC by 2.0, from Flickr.com