Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Panikkar redux: Andi gets the floor

Andi's been all over the world lately, but now she's back in Colorado for a bit and has time to email me a thoughtful reply to the Panikkar post. (Check out her response to my query about the difference, if any, between Buddhist monks and priests, here.)

Your Panikkar post is timely, in part because I think today is likely to be my only day to respond.

This caught my eye:

"Christianity is considered as one religion among many, and Jesus, ultimately, the savior only of Christians."

One of the things I've been struggling not to do *in dialogue with Christians* is make Jesus into some kind of Buddhist Bodhisattva, in part because I don't think that he is. I don't think you can just transplant one religious figure to another religion, no matter what spiritual truths underlie that figure. It's not to say that people outside Christianity shouldn't or can't learn from Jesus, but it's not responsible to ignore cultural, historical, and doctrinal differences. At least, this is how I read Pannikar's first response.

And from the second response:

"Is it not the temptation of every revolutionary movement, once its leaders achieve power, to suffocate any further evolution? Has Christianity succumbed to such a temptation? Until now Christians have absorbed syncretistically the "good things" of the Mediterranean religions. Why cannot they do something similar with other religions?"

Wow. Panikkar can, of course, be applied to other religions that claim universality (which is all the major ones, I believe), and this is a powerful indictment of religious rigidity and the institutions that hold up these structures of doctrinal and practical inflexibility--one that comes at the expense, I would suggest, of true spirituality.

The Dalai Lama has come across as a Panikkar religious pluralist: he has frequently urged people to continue in their "home" religious practice and has also spoken and written about the differences between religions not as problematic, but just factual. ZM Seung Sahn's teachings try and detach students from the identification "Buddhist" and emphasize the universality of meditation--but I don't know if that's really possible. Isn't the claim that Zen meditation is a universal practice just another form of and belief in specific religious universality? In Buddhist terms, not everyone has Zen karma. So is Zen really universal? Panikkar would argue "no," I think, and I'm beginning to agree with him.

I really, really dig the vision of truth--whether a Christian's christic vision or a Buddhist's annatta vision--as neither particular or universal. Then *what is it*? That unanswerability is tantalizing. I'd call it a very good kong-an, and grapple with it as such. One thing I'm curious about--other than your thoughts, of course, and I hope you'll treat us to such in a future post!--is whether Panikkar sees many truths or One Truth, that "essence" that no one religion has a monolopy on. Me, I'm not so sure anymore that there's "one truth" out there, and I'm not sure that there needs to be. But I'm still pretty fuddled on it all.

Andi's brought up some issues I'd like to address, but for the moment I'll just make a quick remark about Panikkar's approach to the "one truth" idea: Panikkar's fundamental alignment (despite his being a Catholic priest) is nondualistic. I doubt he'd make a claim, one way or another, about the numerical status of truth. To claim that "truth is one" or "truth is many" would be to miss the point entirely. When Panikkar says "reality/truth is plural" (as I think he says later in that chapter), for example, he means this nondualistically: suchness is not merely Pythagorean. It's numbered and numberless.*

Panikkar is intimately familiar with both Buddhism and Hinduism, and the influences of both are visible in the passage I quoted. He mentioned that his metaphor was "moving toward" the idea of the transcendent unity of religions, but you'll notice that he didn't advocate it full-on. Why? Because to do so would mean to drop back into dualism: to embrace emptiness at the expense of form. I read Panikkar's nondualism as consistent with the Heart Sutra's conviction that "form is emptiness; emptiness is form." This is why Panikkar treats the word "essence" with kid gloves and surrounds the word with scare-quotes.

When Master Joju (Chn. Chao-chou, Jpn. Joshu) tells the adept, "Go wash your bowls," he's suggesting the answer to the kong-an about the nature of truth lies in the most quotidian, pedestrian realm of our daily lives-- the just-this of right now: just do! Panikkar's nondualistic stance provokes questions for the rational intellect, but the way to answer those questions is to live the answer: there's no other way! This, then, is how Panikkar unites the Buddhist notion of right living contained in the Eightfold Path, the Hindu notion of acting without self-conscious regard for the fruits of one's actions (as seen in the Bhagavad Gita), and Christianity's stress on ethical action grounded in ultimate faith.

As for whether it's legitimate to recast Jesus as a bodhisattva (or an incarnation of Krsna, as some Hindus do)... that's a subject for another post.

*There's an important linguistic issue: some anglophones, especially in the West but also in the East, will capitalize the word "One" to express this notion of nondualistic Oneness. Here too, this isn't numerical oneness but something surpassing all human categories, including that of number. In Hinduism, the term is "one without a second." In Buddhism, the words "mu" (no/not/nothing) and "bul-i" (not-two) capture this quite nicely. In Christianity, Meister Eckhart's cry, "God is NOTHING!" has been interpreted by many (certainly not by everyone!) as a nondualistic utterance: God is that which surpasses all categories, all concepts. In Taoism, this ineffability is seen in the first line of the Lao Tzu: "The Tao that can be talked about ("Tao'ed") is not the true (or eternal) Tao."

But the capitalized One presents problems if we're not careful. For example, the Shema says, "Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God, the Lord is One!" This was probably meant, originally, as a statement of numerical oneness consistent with the commandment that "Thou shalt have no other gods before me." But theology is as much a creative endeavor as anything else; some theologians have reinterpreted the Shema's "One" nondualistically.

Finally, there's a bear of an issue arising from any monotheist's nondualistic utterance: is apophatic speech (i.e., speech that hints at ultimate truth by means of negation) really pointing at the same thing to which, say, Zen nondualism points? Beware facile equivalences! Is the Hindu nirguna brahman the same as the Tao, and is the Tao the same as the unnameable God, and is the unnameable God the same as Buddhist sunyata? Panikkar's writing on this matter is one huge caution against the temptations offered by homeomorphism, i.e., the idea that seemingly corresponding parts in different schemas represent the same thing. Brahman lies at the heart of Hindu thought and practice; God lies at the heart of Muslim practice. But are these two, Brahman and God, the same thing simply because both occupy core positions in their respective cosmologies? To see the issue in sharper relief, look at the furious debates surrounding the question of whether God is unitary or triune.


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