Was the Buddha Ecumenical?

Photographer unknown

by J. Abraham Vélez de Cea
Routledge, 2013, 245 pages; $13

Nearly forty years ago, at a meditation course I attended in Nashville, Indiana, Lama Thubten Yeshe was asked by a Christian woman in the audience, “Are God and dharmakaya the same?” Lama remained silent for several minutes, rocking back and forth on his cushion, pondering, as we sat in suspense. Finally, he simply said, “Yes.” I have never known quite what to make of his answer, but it has remained a sort of interreligious koan for me in the years since as I’ve tried to puzzle out how my identity as a Buddhist did or did not intersect with the identities, ideas, and practices of people in other religious groups.

Not every modern Buddhist is interested in such questions. Indeed, if recent debates in the Shambhala Sun and elsewhere are an indication, nowadays many Buddhists think they practice not a religion but a form of “spirituality” or “mind science.” One’s view of the matter, of course, hinges on the meaning of various big words, most crucially “religion.” Many people who deny they are “religious” associate religion with blind faith, ritualism, and dogmatism. Confident that Buddhism is free from these, Buddhists believe they are not practicing a religion—never mind that scholars are just as sure that Buddhists do belong to a religion.

Such debates notwithstanding, historically most Buddhists have seen themselves as part of a religious community and have, whether by choice or necessity, found themselves both in conversation and competition with other such communities. From the Buddha’s engagement with the Brahmins and ascetics of his own day, to Milarepa’s song and miracle contests with Tibetan Bonpos, to Ven. Gunananda’s debates with Christian missionaries in nineteenth-century Sri Lanka, and to contemporary practitioners’ attempts to see Jesus as a great bodhisattva—or God as dharmakaya— Buddhists have squarely faced the problem of religious diversity.

Religious diversity is a “problem” simply because there are in the world at any given time multiple groups that claim to understand, and provide access to, “the ultimate”—and their descriptions of the ultimate and its attainment often appear contradictory. Thus, a faithful Christian soul being saved through the grace of a loving-creator God seems rather different from a Buddhist awakening through meditation on the absence of any eternal deity or self. Who, if anyone, is right?

Many Buddhists undoubtedly find such a question unanswerable, uninteresting, or both, and they are content to live with a sort of postmodern agnostic pluralism: “We do our thing, they do theirs, and who knows where the truth lies?” For those, however, who still are intent on capital-T Truth and therefore feel compelled to think and converse across traditions, no better guide has appeared than J. Abraham Vélez de Cea’s The Buddha and Religious Diversity. This lucid and sophisticated book—which cries out for an affordable paperback edition—is at once a learned reflection on the categories we use to think about religions that are not our own and a scrupulous inquiry into the Buddha’s view of other religions. It presents a provocative set of suggestions for how Buddhists—or anyone—might engage the religious other, now and in the future.

Excerpted from the Fall 2014 issue of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly, available on newsstands and by subscription.