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Wednesday, September 9th, 2015

Buddhism: Week 2

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

I often tell the story of the holy recluse whom I came across while walking in the woods during my retreat at Merton’s hermitage in 1985. A recluse is a “hermit’s hermit” who lives alone, in silence, and only joins the community for Mass at Christmas and Easter. Somehow he recognized me and excitedly said, “Richard! You get to talk to people. Please tell them this one thing: God is not ‘out there’!” and he pointed to the sky. Then he said thank you and walked on.

Paul Knitter also sees the Western over-emphasis on God as a Transcendent Other who is “out there” somewhere as “the crux of the problem: Christian dualism has so exaggerated the difference between God and the world that it cannot really show how the two form a unity. . . . If there is in Christian tradition and experience a God within, a God who lives, and moves, and has being within us and the world, we need help in finding such a God. Buddhism, I believe, can provide some help.” [1]

Knitter writes, “As Christians seek God, Budddhists seek Awakening . . . [to] the way things are, the way they work.” Although Buddhists emphasize that Enlightenment is beyond words, they use the term Sunyata to touch on what the Awakening means. Knitter explains: “The Mahayana tradition of Buddhism [describes Sunyata as] Emptiness . . . in the sense of being able [and open] to receive anything. . . . Zen Buddhists speak of Emptiness as the ‘Buddha-nature’ that inheres all sentient beings. . . . Thich Nhat Hanh translates Sunyata . . . as InterBeing. . . . Pema Chödrön [A Buddhist nun who teaches in the tradition of Tibetan Buddhism], refers to Sunyata as Groundlessness . . . since everything is moving in interdependence with everything else.” [2] Sounds like the incarnate mystery of Trinity to me!

Knitter continues, “If we Christians really affirm that ‘God is love’ and that Trinity means relationality, then I think the symbol Buddhists use for Sunyata [InterBeing] is entirely fitting for our God. God is the field—the dynamic energy field of InterBeing—within which, as we read in the New Testament (but perhaps never really heard), ‘we live and move and have our being’ (Acts 17:28). Or, from the divine perspective, there is ‘one God above all things, through all things, and in all things’ (Eph. 4:6). This presence ‘above, through, and in’ can fittingly and engagingly be imaged as an energy field which pervades and influences us all, calling us to relationships of knowing and loving each other, energizing us when such relationships get rough, filling us with the deepest of happiness when we are emptying ourselves and finding ourselves in others.” [3] This is what I like to call the Spirit as a force field.

Knitter describes how we are inextricably linked with God: “without the spirit, the body cannot live; without the body the spirit cannot act. The same is true of Spirit and creation. . . . Thinking about or imaging God as InterBeing and relating to God as the connecting Spirit is a major antidote to the dualism that has infected Christian theology and spirituality. . . . With God as the connecting Spirit, the Creator cannot be ‘totally other’ to creation. . . . Here I think I’m getting closer to what Aquinas was trying to express when he described the relationship between God and the world as one of participation. . . . Therefore, a better image for creation might be a pouring forth of God, an extension of God, in which the Divine carries on the divine activity of interrelating in and with and through creation.” [4] Clearly, then, God is not just “out there”!

Gateway to Silence:
“The suchness of each moment is the infinite mercy of God.”  —Paul Knitter

[1] Paul F. Knitter, Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian (Oneworld Publications: 2009), 7-8.
[2] Ibid., 11-12.
[3] Ibid., 20.
[4] Ibid., 20-22.

Image credit: “The Bodhisattva attains Awakening and becomes the Buddha” (detail), a Lalitavistara (The Life of the Buddha) relief at Borobudur in Java, Indonesia, 9th century.
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