Monday, January 02, 2012

Paul Knitter sees Buddhism's Sunyata as Trinity

There are many approaches to interfaith understanding. Most of them agree that integrity is essential; that is we have to understand any one religion on its own term and not domesticate its teaching to suit our own understanding for whatever reason. 

Integrity in this area is especially important in comparative studies between religions so that we do not distort any religion to contrast or conform with another according to whim.

Paul Knitter, who professes to be a Roman Catholic and a Buddhist (his blog titles 'How a Buddhist Christian sees it'), in his lecture 'Only One Way?' (H/T: Justin Taylor) proposes that the translation of Buddhism's Sunyata concept is pointing to the God to whom is the reference of Christianity.

The Union Theological Seminary's professor invokes the translation of Sunyata as "InterBeing" as a reference to the relational Trinity. As he wrote in his book:

"Thich Nhat Hanh, a modern practitioner, scholar, and popularizer of Zen Buddhism, translates Sunyata more freely but more engagingly as InterBeing. It's the interconnected state of things that is constantly churning out new connections, new possibilities, new problems, new life." (p.12)

" believe in a Trinitarian God is to believe in a relational God. The very nature of the Divine is nothing other than to exist in and out of relationships; for God, "to be" is nothing other than "to relate." That, among other things, is what the doctrine of the Trinity tells Christians. (p.19)

"To experience and to believe in a Trinitarian God is to experience and believe in a God who is not [...] the Ground of Being, but the Ground of InterBeing! [...] God is the activity of giving and receiving, of knowing and loving, of losing and finding, of dying and living that embraces and infuses all of us, all of creation. Though every image or symbol limp, Christians can and must say what Buddhist might agree with---that if we're going to talk about God, God is neither a noun nor an adjective. God is a verb! With the word "God" we're trying to get at an activity that is going on everywhere rather than a Being that exists somewhere. God is much more an environment than a thing.

"And therefore, if we Christians really affirm that "God is love" and that Trinity means relationality, then I think the symbol Buddhists use for Sunyata 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)."
(Paul F. Knitter, Without Buddha I Could not be a Christian [UK: Oneworld, 2009], p.19-20. Emphasis original.)

For Knitter to make his case, it is fundamental that his understanding of Sunyata as InterBeing is correct. And it is on this fundamental level that I have a question to raise: Is Knitter's equating Sunyata as InterBeing valid?

Knitter himself acknowledges that this equation is the product of Thich Nhat Hanh's "free" translation. In Chinese, Sunyata is simply translated as 空, which means "emptiness" or "void". Hence the famous verse from the Heart Sutra, "色即是空, 空即是色," ("Form is emptiness; emptiness is form") to which Knitter mentioned in the lecture.

Of course, how should Sunyata be understood is still a debate among the different Buddhist sects. Nonetheless, what we can be certain here is that Knitter chooses to use a free translation to draw out conformity between Buddhism and Christianity. He disregards the question over the validity of this translation and uses it anyway.

Besides, is the Suntaya really means interconnectivity among beings? If so, then according to the Heart Sutra, interconnectivity among beings is void. ("不生, 不滅, 不垢, 不淨, 不增, 不減。是故空中. 無色, 無受, 想, 行, 識. 無眼, 耳, 鼻, 舌, 身, 意. 無色, 聲, 香, 味, 觸, 法. 無眼界. 乃至無意識界. 無無明. 亦無無明盡. 乃至無老死. 亦無老死盡. 無苦. 集. 滅. 道. 無智, 亦無得." Translation: "The void is without beginning, ending, form, embodiment, consciousness, sensation, thought, deficiency, completeness, etc." Simply said, the void is nothing.) 

The Sunyata refers to the interconnectivity that has nothing and is nothing. It is ontologically impersonal.

If this is true, then I have another question to raise: If Suntaya refers to the impersonal interconnectivity among beings, how then can Knitter proposes that it is an equation to the Trinitarian God, who is fundamentally recognized in Christianity as personal

One can see that Knitter's intention is to point out convergence between Buddhism and Christianity. However, in the way he did it, there are violations done on both Buddhism and Christianity. On one hand, Knitter knowingly used a free translation to represent Buddhism's Sunyata concept, while on the other hand, he deprived Christianity's Trinity from its nature as a personal being. As mentioned above, there are many approaches to interreligious understanding; is this how a Buddhist Christian sees it?


John Wood said...

Thank you for your post and opening this discussion. I think that those who do not see sunyata as expressing inter-being, may not be looking deeply enough. Co-dependent origination, the utter contingency of everything, means that for something to 'be' it is dependent on another that 'is'. That is inter-being, no?

Many others have seen the relationship between sunyata and the Christian doctrine of the Trinity - like von Balthasar and even Pope Benedict XVI (see Introduction to Christianity). There is certainly some truth to it, and it can only serve to deepen Christians' understanding of reality.


Sze Zeng said...

Hi John Wood,

Thank you for your comment.

I shall not comment further on sunyata other than the point made in the post on its impersonal nature.

I did a check on Pope Benedict XVI's Introduction to Christianity, and this is what I found:

"But what is actually meant, then, by God's name, by his being personal? Precisely this: Not only can we experience him, beyond all [earthly] experience, but also he can express and communicate himself. When God is understood in a completely impersonal way, for instance in Buddhism, as sheer negation with respect to everything that appears real to us, then there is no positive relationship between "God" and the world."
(Pope Benedict XVI, Introduction to Christianity, [USA: Ignatius Press, Revised Edition 2004], p.23)

What the Pope wrote there coheres exactly with the point the blog post is making. I can't find the said relationship between Sunyata and Christian doctrine of the Trinity in this work. Would you point out which page he talked about it?

You also mentioned von Balthasar, may I know which book and page did he wrote about it?


reasonable said...

I guess "inter-being" is derived from the core Buddhist concept of co-dependent origination, (put in a simplified way for those who do not know, it means something like every conditioned phenomenon, to exist, is dependent on some other phenomenon/phenomena.) Co-dependent Origination and Emptiness mutually implies each other: if phenomena do not exist with intrinsic independence but depends on others, then it means emptiness. On the other direction, if phenomena are empty and without inherent existence, then if it exist it needs the support of others. So co-dependent origination & emptiness can be seen as two sides of the same coin.

One may narrow the mutually dependence of phenomena down to beings, and hence inter-beings. So emptiness can be seen as inter-dependance (co-dependent origination) which in turn can be seen as inter-being.

If the "core-nature" of the personal Trinitarian God is such that each "member" of the Trinity is seen as inherently dependent upon the other two "members", then it may be said that core-nature of Ultimate Reality (i.e. Trinity) is co-dependent or inter-dependent.

If this is true, then in other words, Ultimate Reality itself, which is personal from the Christian perspective, is also anatta/not-self & sunnata/sunyata/"void". It is a personal voidness, not an impersonal voidness.

So we have a Ultimate Reality characterised as
1. Personal
2. Unconditioned
3. "Voidness"/"Emptiness"
4. Permanent
(permanent even from a Buddhist perspective, since from a Buddhist perspective, only conditioned phenomenon are impermanent while the unconditioned is not described as impermanent)

John Wood said...

Yeah the reference in Introduction to Christianity isn't direct - perhaps a clearer reference is in the Pope's Eschatology book, where he makes mention of the doctrine of karma - which is altogether related to sunyata, from page 187: "...we can ask whether a human being can be said to have reached his fulfilment and destiny so long as... the guilt whose source he is persists on earth and brings pain to other people. [T]he doctrine of karma in Hindu and Buddhist teaching systemetized this fundamental human insight [and] expresses an awareness which an anthropology of relationship would be wrong to deny. The guilt which goes on because of me is a part of me.". He then even uses this to add insight into the doctrine of the immaculate conception.

The same theme of a relational antrhopology is pervasive throughout his books.

Regarding Balthasar, again the theme appears in various forms, but from recollection most explicitly mentioned in his Communio article on the person (which is particularly pertinent to the point you're making). Luckily a copy is online: - see the last page of that article. Great read in fact, as is the Pope's article in the same issue - which many considered groundbreaking from a theological perspective.

The gist is that the person by definition recognizes his relationality, his 'emptiness', and acts from that perception. The 'three-in-one' pure personal relationality of the Trinity epitomizes this.

I agree that sunyata in itself is hardly personalist. But I think the fundamental insight is correct, and only goes to enrich our understanding of the person. As the zen saying loosely goes 'before I studied zen, a mountain was a mountain. While studying, a mountain was no longer a mountain. With enlightenment, the mountain is once again a mountain.". The same can be said of the person. Sunyata makes the person no longer a person, but perhaps with enlightenment the person is once again a person, yet so much more.