1. Introduction

It is almost trite to say that in our globalized twenty-first century society, the adherents of the world’s religions are encountering, intersecting with, and influencing one another profoundly in different dimensions of our day-to-day lives. In this context, attitudes taken in the past by adherents of given faith traditions vis-à-vis the Religious Other marked by indifference or hostility towards, or competition with those Religious Others are no longer viable in our day and age, especially given the fact that our global family is fractured and wounded, wracked by violence perpetrated by humans against other humans, and humans against the Earth, a situation precipitated and aggravated in great part by differences in views of the Ultimate, or contradictions in claims to Absolute Truth held by adherents of the different faith traditions. In short, our urgent task across the board is to find those sources of vision and empowerment, whereby Religion can be a factor in reconciliation and harmony, toward healing the woundedness of our Earth community, rather than continuing to be part of the problem.

Our ways of relating to the Religious Other are now called to go beyond mere “tolerance,” toward a more constructive stance of neighborly engagement, dialogue, partnership, cooperation, and if grace so allows, true friendship.[1] There are volumes that have been written on this matter already, and I will not venture to repeat or summarize what is already common understanding in this regard. One recent phenomenon that deserves mention that has emerged as an outcome of interreligious encounters is called dual or multireligious belonging, which refers to the engagement or commitment by the same individual in more than one religious tradition or community.

While more and more of our contemporaries find themselves disaffected by the institutional forms of religion, which may have given them a place of belonging since their youth, for not meeting their spiritual needs in this technological and digital age, many continue to be seekers after something genuine, meaningful, and spiritually nourishing. A question that arises in this light is whether the traditional religions may still have something to offer for those who now consider themselves to be “spiritual but not religious,” in a way that may nourish them as well as challenge them, and invite them to find a sense of belonging and source of support in a spiritual community. These movements in our contemporary society present particular questions and challenges to those of us who remain committed to our own particular traditions, especially those who find their belonging in the communities of the followers of Jesus Christ, whose very reason for being is to witness to the Good News of God’s Unconditional Love for all humankind and for all Creation.

On this occasion marking the 100th birth anniversary of Edward Schillebeeckx, one of the giants of twentieth century Catholic theology, my task here is to consider how Professor Schillebeeckx’ theological vision may offer Christians some guidelines for addressing the issues of our age.[2] For this, I would like to go “up close and personal,” describing my own journey in interreligious encounters, focusing my attention on the two particular faith traditions, Catholic Christian, and Zen Buddhist, that have been the own source of my nourishment through my life. I will reflect on possible implications of this experience on those of us who may find either or both, or none, of some interest for our own life journey, spiritual path, or theological understanding, or all of the above.[3]

Allow me first to share with you the background from which I will be offering these reflections on our theme, related to what Edward Schillebeeckx has meant for me in my spiritual and theological journey.

I grew up in a traditional Catholic family in the Philippines during the pre-Second Vatican 1950’s, with the dictum extra Ecclesiam nulla salus (no salvation outside the Church) firmly imprinted on my young mind. This doctrine bothered me to no end, struggling over how a loving God could consign millions of people to hell just because they happened to have been born in the wrong time or the wrong place and did not have the opportunity to hear the Gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ. There was also the question of how God could allow the apparently needless suffering of the innocent, including the countless children in my own country and throughout the world who go to bed hungry at night, with many who die in their life of poverty and malnutrition. Does God even exist, and if so, how does that affect the way we live our lives?

These questions kept nagging at me, and even as I entered the university with a state scholarship to do a degree in physics, aspiring to become a scientist that would help in the technological and scientific future of my country, instead of doing my math and science homework, I was spending time in the library reading books in philosophy and theology trying to shed some light on my doubts and questions. All this was also linked with the deeply personal question, “What is this life all about?” And bringing this question down to earth, “How may I live my life in a most meaningful way?”

These burning questions, together with some auspicious encounters with certain individuals to whom I will forever be grateful in my life, led to my letting go of a dream career as a nuclear physicist, and entering the Jesuit novitiate. It was there, as a second year novice in1965, when I happened to pick up an English translation of Edward Schillebeeckx’s Christ the Sacrament of Encounter with God, which had just arrived in our Jesuit novitiate library. As I began to go through the introductory chapter I literally could not put it down, and found myself going back to it with every free period we were allowed during our well-regimented novitiate schedule, until I finished until the end. As I look back now, it was this book, together with Karl Rahner’s Spirit in the World (Geist im Welt), whose manuscript of a rough English translation I was fortunate enough to receive from a fellow Jesuit in carbon-copy typewritten format, that became the key formative texts in my own theological development.[4] The key theological insights that I learned from reading and reflecting on these writings are as follows:

a. The living and loving God has taken the initiative to meet us human beings where we are in our earthly and historical existence, throughout all ages since the time of Creation. This initiative is called “grace,” and through it all humanity receives that inward word of God, calling us to communion with Godself.

b. God becoming flesh is the self-emptying of God in taking on our humanity in its fullness in Jesus the Christ. Jesus Christ is thus the visible Sacrament of Encounter with God.

c. The self-emptying of Christ, in his Passion, Death, and Resurrection, is a human act of total surrender, giving back to God all that belongs to God. In and through this event, the Self-Emptying of God and the Self-Emptying of humanity become one in mutual interpenetration, unleashing the power of the Holy Spirit who in turn is emptied out into all flesh. This salvific event of Pentecost reveals the mutual self-emptying and mutual interpenetration of the Triune God (perichoresis in Greek) a dynamic event in which we human beings are invited to enter into communion, which is the full meaning of salvation.

d. The Church is the community of faith, the recipient of this Good News of the unleashing of the Holy Spirit throughout all flesh, sent out into the world to proclaim this Good News to all the earth. Its task in the world is to be a Sacrament inviting all to the fullness of communion with the living and loving Triune God.

2. Encounters of the Heart: A Jesuit Zen Buddhist?

In 1970, I was sent by my Jesuit superiors to Japan to join the Japanese province of the Society of Jesus in the educational and pastoral tasks of the Catholic Church in that country. Japan is a country whose Christian population is less than 1% of the total (then around 100 million), but its history and culture manifest the deep imprint of its indigenous tradition, Shinto, as well as the three great spiritual traditions that came from China mostly via Korea, that is, Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism.

It was auspicious that the Jesuit language school I was assigned to live and study was located in Kamakura, a city that is known for having been a center of Buddhist influence and activity in Japanese history, second only to Kyoto in this regard. There, my Jesuit spiritual director, Fr. Thomas Hand, encouraged me to join him in the Zen Buddhist meditation group he had already been going to on a regular basis for some time. After the usual orientation talks and preliminary procedures lasting over several weeks, I was formally introduced to the Zen Master, Yamada Koun Roshi, at San-Un Zendo, or Zen Hall of the Three Clouds, and in our first one-on-one interview, was given the classic koan on MU as my “assignment” for my Zen practice.

A Zen koan, or gong an in Chinese, normally consists of an anecdote or verbal exchange between a Zen Master and a practitioner monk, or between two or more Zen Masters. The words used in these koans are meant to bring the practitioner beyond the dualistic framework of the subject-object consciousness. It is not about attaining an intellectual insight, but a having a direct experience of the world of nonduality which is at the heart of Zen. This brings about an inner transformation of one’s mode of being and entire outlook vis-à-vis the world, oneself, and reality as such. A koan in short is a device meant to trigger a Zen enlightenment experience that occasions a veritable change of mind and heart, a metanoia, from an ordinary dualistic and deluded consciousness, to an awakened way of life.

This koan on MU opens with a question by a Zen monk, and concludes with a curt answer by the Zen Master Chao-chou. “A monk asked Master Chao-chou in all earnestness. ‘Does a dog have Buddha nature, or not?” Chao-chou replied, MU!”.

A practitioner who receives this koan is told not to speculate on the meaning of “MU,” nor to pay attention to the dog, nor the concept “Buddha nature” that is used as the ploy in the koan. It would help those not too familiar with Buddhist terminology to understand that the backdrop of the monk’s question, “Does a dog have Buddha nature?” is a doctrinal statement that is a central affirmation of the entire Buddhist tradition, especially as it developed in East Asia: “All sentient beings are endowed with Buddha nature.” In other words, all sentient, or living, beings have the inherent capacity of becoming Buddha, that is, “awakened” to the true reality of things. And what is this “true reality of all things?” To put it in conceptual terms, it is the reality that all things in this universe are intimately and intricately interconnected, and that there is no one thing that exists separately from everything else. This is said to be the fundamental realization that Shakyamuni Buddha arrived at in his celebrated enlightenment experience, one that transformed his life from being a simple seeker after Truth to one who embodied that Truth in his very being, that is, an “Awakened One,” a Buddha, one who now sees with the eyes of Wisdom, and whose heart is oozing with Compassion.

If one takes this MU koan simply on the surface level, the monk’s question would seem to be referring to this central doctrinal affirmation. “All sentient beings are endowed with Buddha nature. This dog is an example of a sentient being. Does this dog then have Buddha nature?” A logic professor would immediately reply, “Elementary, my dear Watson. Yes, it follows from your premises that the dog does have Buddha nature.” But the Zen Master seems to say otherwise. On the surface level, from the literal meaning of the Chinese text, the Zen Master’s answer can be read as “No.” Another reading would be “Nothing.” That is, he would seem to be denying this particular instance of this dog having Buddha nature, directly contradicting received Buddhist doctrine. Or, he seems to be saying, “No, there is no such thing as Buddha nature.” In either case, the koan leaves one intellectually dissatisfied. It makes no sense, either logically, nor doctrinally. In short, the koan leads to an intellectual impasse. And this is precisely its intent.

A commentary on this koan, by thirteenth century monk Wumen, who placed this koan at the top of the list of the 48 or 49 he compiled for use in Zen practice by students, urges: “Don’t consider it to be ‘nothingness.’ Don’t take it as ‘has,’ or ‘has not.’ ” Rather, he says, “…make your whole body a mass of doubt, and with your three hundred and sixty bones and joints and your eighty-four thousand hair follicles, concentrate on the one word MU. Day and night, keep digging into it.” (Robert Aitken, The Gateless Barrier, San Francisco: North Point Press, 1999, pp. 8-9).

Continuing, Wumen exhorts the practitioner: “Gradually you purify yourself, eliminating mistaken knowledge and attitudes you have held from the past. Inside and outside become one. You are like a mute person who has had a dream— you know it for yourself alone. Suddenly MU breaks open. The heavens are astonished, the earth is shaken. It is as though you have snatched the sword of General Kuan. When you meet the Buddha, you kill the Buddha. When you meet Bodhidharma, you kill Bodhidharma. At the very cliff edge of birth-and-death, you find the Great Freedom. In the Six Worlds and Four Modes of Birth, you enjoy a Samadhi of frolic and play. How then, should you work with it? Exhaust your life energy into this one word MU. If you do not falter, then it’s done. A single spark lights your Dharma candle.” (ibid)

Dutifully, I did as I was instructed, and continued to sit in meditation, taking the above guidelines to heart. It was not more than a few weeks of daily meditation practice in this mode, when one afternoon, sitting leisurely on an easy chair in my room at the language school, all of a sudden something opened up, that made me stand up and shout with joy, laughing out loud. “Ha ha ha ha ha!” Spontaneously I ran out of my room, and rushed climbing the stairs and knocked excitedly at Fr. Hand’s door, who opened it in surprise. I blurted to him excitedly, “I got it! I got it! I know what MU is! Ha ha ha ha ha!” There I was caught with more convulsions of laughter and tears, and could not contain myself, so I just rushed back to my room and sat down on a chair and continued to giggle and cry tears of joy at the same time. Fr. Hand then recommended that I call Yamada Roshi to make an appointment for a visit, for him to “check” my experience. And so I did, and went to the zendo the next day at the appointed time. I was still excited and could not find the words to express myself, so he asked me to come back the following day. On that second visit, he confirmed that what I had undergone was indeed a Zen experience of “seeing my True Self” (kenshō), whereupon he gave me instructions and the next koan for my practice.

From now on, Yamada Roshi told me, having confirmed that I had had a glimpse this world of the True Self in a direct experience, my Zen practice was no longer to be one of “seeking the Truth,” or “seeking my True Self,” for I had now been graced with a glimpse of it, but now of “embodying this True Self in one’s day to day life.” He gave me a booklet that contained a list of the five or six hundred koans that were to be my “program of practice” for the successive years to come. [5]

So for the next seventeen years, I visited the Zendo in Kamakura twice a month for one-on-one guidance on the koans by Yamada Roshi, and also participated once or twice a year in Zen retreats, called “sesshin,” which can be translated also as “Encounters of the Heart”) of five to seven days in length, conducted at the Zendo and led by Yamada Roshi.

I have been asked time and again by different people: what was it that I “saw” in that explosive experience that led to the laughter and tears, which the Zen master “confirmed” as an experience of Zen awakening? The entire Zen tradition holds that such experiences, duly confirmed by an authorized Zen Teacher in turn confirmed by his or her own Zen Teacher down the line up to Bodhidharma, and then through his roots in India traced back to Shakyamuni Buddha, opens one to the realm of “what the Buddha saw” in his own profound transformative experience that made him a Buddha— a realm that is ultimately ineffable and indescribable, that is, beyond words and concepts, transmitted from mind to mind by Teacher to student beginning with Shakyamuni himself to Mahakashyapa and down through the line of what you could call “apostolic succession” (Buddhist style).

For Shakyamuni it was of such depth and profundity and thoroughgoingness that what he saw continued to empower him and be a beacon throughout his entire life. For those countless others who followed him, it is said, though they may have seen “with the same eye,” as it were, what they saw may vary in degrees of depth and intensity and thoroughness. Yet even a small glimpse of that realm already enables one to “see as the Buddha sees,” though one needs to continue in spiritual practice throughout one’s life in order to deepen and broaden it, and keep it vibrant and not let it be forgotten down memory lane. In other words, an awakening experience does not ensure that one who is privileged to have “had” it is now a Buddha full and complete, but simply becomes an entry point into that realm that one needs to be continually polished and deepened with ongoing practice throughout one’s life. And what is the outcome of such a life of ongoing practice? It is a life characterized by inner peace and equanimity, a capacity to see things for what they are without the delusions of the egoic self, and an overwhelming sense of compassion for all beings whom one realizes a deep interconnectedness and kinship.

Looking back, every koan that I took up in the one on one sessions with Yamada Roshi was a reconfirmation, a deepening, a broadening, an opening into a new angle, of that root experience that opened up for me this world of Zen, the world that “the Buddha saw.” Other such “big bang” experiences came also through the years of practice, in differing degrees of depth and intensity. Articulating this has been the ongoing task of my life ever since, and this task continues to this day. The Buddhist tradition has a long history of scriptural and commentarial literature that sought to expound “what the Buddha saw” (also known as the Dharma, the liberating Truth that the Buddha realized and became one with), and my graduate seminars exposed me to the valuable literature composed by sages of the past who trod the same path of practice, and sought to articulate their insights in intellectual and conceptual terms. These serve as reference for what I would like to propose in the exploration of new horizons for Christian theology.

3. Articulating the Mystery: God-talk out of Silence

The task of reconciling, and of integrating what I continued to experience in my Zen practice with my own Christian faith lay before me. A strong temptation early on was to bracket my Christian faith, and make things simple for myself, just continuing my Zen koan practice and taking the Buddhist conceptual framework and vocabulary provided to articulate all this. Zen had opened me to such profound depths of experience and understanding in a way that came to shed light on every aspect of my life up to that point, so setting aside all the “Christian stuff” that was part of my life, and just continuing to understand and experience the world from a singlemindedly Zen perspective, would have been an easy way for me. But my outward identity as a Jesuit priest and educator, not to mention my deep rootedness in the Christian faith and worldview, would not allow for that.

On the one hand my Zen practice was telling me, “Stop your active mind, and just sit and be still. Be aware, open your heart, and experience the fullness of life in each moment.”[6] On the other hand, my naturally inquisitive mind could not keep from asking, what does all this have to do with the truths I held as central to my Christian faith, as laid out in the Apostles’ Creed—“I believe in God…and in Jesus Christ his only Son…conceived by the Holy Spirit…in the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the Resurrection of the body, and life everlasting…?

Zen tradition emphasizes that it is about a realm “beyond words and concepts,” that is, ineffable and indescribable by our ordinary language. Koans are verbal expressions used to point to this realm, and as we all know, these are not discursive or propositional statements about reality, but are enigmatic pronouncements geared to triggering an experience or a deepening of experience, like the proverbial finger pointing to the moon. The Koan MU and its workings, briefly described already, is one such example.[7]

Every koan has been the theme of an extended Zen talks and commentaries by Zen Masters through the ages, inviting the listeners to pay attention in silence, and open their minds and hearts to an Encounter with an ineffable Mystery, which may occasion an inner transformation, a total change of perspective, a metanoia, within oneself, in the way one sees the world, reality, oneself in relation to everyone and everything else. In short, a koan is a device which we that can be described as “subverting words,” that is, a way of using words that overturn their ordinary conceptual meaning, bringing forth an intellectual impasse, which in turn can lead to a deep spiritual experience in one so disposed in the context of the practice of silent meditation. [8]

As noted earlier, my graduate studies introduced me to the writings of the Buddhist sages of the early centuries of the common era who sought a way of giving logical articulation to the “content” of the enlightenment experience of the Buddha.[9] Among these was the second century philosopher Nāgārjuna, who found a way of conveying the key message of the Buddha through a rigorous intellectual process of dialectic. Writing commentaries on the Buddhist Wisdom (Prajñāpāramitā) literature being circulated around his time, he expounded on the term śūnyatā, usually translated as “emptiness,” or sometimes as “the void.” The key proposition that the Wisdom literature emphasizes can be summed up in the central statement in the shortest of the Wisdom sutras, widely known as the Heart Sutra: “Form is no other than emptiness, emptiness is no other than form.” In other words, every existing being in the universe is no other than śūnyatā, śūnyatā is no other than every existing being in the universe.

Let me offer a way of trying to make sense of this by considering fractions, consisting of an integer, the numerator, on the upper part, and a figure on the lower part, the denominator, which is the amount by which the numerator is divided.

1/1=1; 2/1=2; 3/1=3 etc. =Dividing the numerator by one produces a sum equal to it.

1/.01=10; 2/.01= 20; 3/.01= 30, etc. Dividing the numerator by one-tenth produces a sum ten times the numerator.

1/.0000001= 1,000,000; 2/.0000001= 2,000,000; 3/.0000001= 3,000,000, etc. Dividing the numerator by exponentially minute numbers exponentially increases the sum correspondingly, and the smaller the value of the denominator, the bigger the sum of the fraction in exponential proportion.

Now consider taking a leap from an infinitesimally small number, and make the denominator zero (0). (Mathematicians would say this is disallowed, an “illicit move” that we are not supposed to make, because this would mess up the entire system.) The product of such a move would be “undefinable,” “infinite”= ¥. This ushers us into a realm that is incomprehensible, beyond what our mind can measure. But this mathematically disallowed move, a jump into the undefined, can be taken as analogous to what the Zen experience is about.

As we substitute the numerator from 1 to any number, 2, 3, or any integer in the realm of all integers, and divide each by the same denominator, zero (0), we can put an equal sign ( = ) between all of them: 1/0=¥=2/0= 3/0= 4/0= 798,534/0=one trillion/zero equals “in-finite,” etc. If we take any particular individual existing being in the universe, unique and unrepeatable as such, you, me, each and every person in this world, and further, each blade of grass, each pebble, each leaf, flower, raindrop, etc. and consider that as the numerator in each case, and divide it by what we can call “zero point,” that is, śūnyatā, we are ushered into a breathtaking vision of the universe where all things are equal to one another, and to everything else. This is a universe of the web of interconnectedness of all beings. I am you and you are me, and each one of us is an intimate part of everyone else. We are all kin to one another! [10]

Zen teacher Yamada Koun Roshi gave this illustration a number of times in his talks to us Zen practitioners over the years. In other words, his message is this: this is the world that “the Buddha saw.” And Zen is the invitation to each and everyone of us to see it for ourselves, and personalize it, and allow it to permeate through every thought, word, and action, through every pore of our being, throughout our earthly life. What is the implication of such a life, lived in this light of zero-point? This is where the fruits of Zen unfold and open us to a new horizon.

Another way this vision of interconnectedness has been articulated is through an image known as the Net of Indra. Here the universe is likened to an infinite web bedecked by innumerable jewels, wherein every eye of the web comprises of one such unique jewel. If we examine one particular jewel, we will discover that it reflects within itself all the other jewels of the entire web. Each jewel is thus reflected fully reflected in every other jewel of the infinite web. And so the same goes with every particular being in this existing universe, each likened to a jewel in this net. We are all intimately part of one another.

Zen experience, in short, is an “encounter of the heart” that entails a leap into the infinite, the ineffable, whereby an individual being (numerator=you, me, he or she over there, each and every human being in history in search for one’s true self) “sees through” the zero-point, a transcendent realm “beyond words and concepts” which is at the time that is at the most intimate core of one’s very being and the very being of everything in this universe, which brings one into communion with all beings in the universe through the mediation of this zero-point.

Beeld door: Pixabay

4. Zen Experience as Locus Theologicus: New Light on Old Doctrine

What then can we learn from this view of reality experienced through an encounter of the heart, and as conveyed in the Heart Sutra’s formula of “Form is no other than Emptiness, Emptiness is no other than Form”?

Here allow me to present aspects of this zero-point in a way that might provide suggestive angles for addressing tasks in Christian theology.

A first point to note is how this articulation of zero-point involves a coincidentia oppositōrum. It was Mircea Eliade who observed that a common strand manifested in religious phenomena in different spiritual traditions of the world is this characteristic of the fusion, the merging of opposites, coincidentia oppositōrum. Nicholas of Cusa back in the fourteenth century also highlighted this characteristic in his endeavor to articulate his experience of Divine Reality.

If we look back at the history of Christian doctrine, we cannot fail to note how key proclamations of the early councils relating to Christology, and Trinitarian doctrine, central tenets of Christian tradition, reveal this trait of affirming opposites in the very same breath.

To affirm that Jesus Christ is fully human, and at the same time fully Divine, and also to affirm that God is One, yet also Three, are hallmarks the entire Christian tradition, banking on coincidentia oppositōrum. In short, all those attempts at reducing one or other of the polar opposites, such as Ebionism, which viewed Jesus to be fully human but only quasi-divine, or Docetism, which viewed Jesus as fully divine but only an “apparent” human, were rejected as misrepresentations (“heresy”) of the primordial Christian experience of encounter with God in Jesus Christ. In the same way, attempts at watering down the full implications of One God, vis-à-vis the Christian baptismal formula that named this One God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, were set aside, for the bold affirmation that God IS One, AND Three, affirmed in the same breath.

A task that remains for Christians to pursue is to examine how this experience (rather than the “concept”) of zero-point as described above may shed light on our ways of conducting theological discourse, that is, the endeavor of faith seeking understanding (fides quaerens intellectum). In short, this is a caution that at the end of the day, all the rational argumentation or intellectual concept weaving that those of us who pursue this quest for understanding feel compelled to undertake, need to surrender to the Incomprehensible Mystery of what lies before us that we seek earnestly to articulate in ways our puny minds can understand. Theo-logy, God-talk, needs to be grounded in a stance of contemplative silence and awe at the Mystery. And vice versa, it is this immersion in the contemplative silence and awe in an encounter with a tremendous and at the same time fascinating Mystery  (Mysterium tremendosum et fascinans) that can give birth to a life-giving kind of theology, one that makes skillful use of words and concepts to point beyond themselves, toward something the words and concepts themselves are not fully able to capture nor fathom.

The point of God-talk then is understood not as to generate more talk, but to lead those who engage in it to an encounter of the heart, toward a metanoia that happens as we allow our egoic self to open itself to this zero-point. This act of opening the core of our being to a wholly Other that is zero-point is an act of self-surrender of the egoic self, a self-emptying, whereby we place ourselves at the heart of the Paschal Mystery of Christ’s own self-emptying, allowing entry into the mutual self-emptying of the Triune God into our very lives in a most intimate and deeply personal way. This in turn brings our gaze back toward the world and all that is therein, as the field that “God so loved as to send the only Begotten,” wherein we are called to live and act and engage the world, to bring forth the fruits of this encounter of the heart into the concrete realities of our Earth community wracked in the pain of its woundedness and fragmentation, towards healing, reconciliation, and salvation.[11]

Concluding Reflections: Interreligious Encounter as Sacrament

We return where we started, that is, the commemoration, and honoring of Edward Schillebeeckx and his theological vision, for our concluding reflections. A good friend and colleague who studied under Schillebeeckx who now teaches at the National Catholic University in Australia, Dr. Edmund Chia, recently published a book entitled Edward Schillebeeckx and Interreligious Dialogue: Perspectives from Asian Theology. (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2012). In this work, having outlined Schillebeeckx’s theological project highlighting the notion of Church as sacrament of dialogue, the author takes a step forward and applies some of its implications as opening new horizons in Asian theology.

Chia describes four forms of dialogue that the Asian bishops have outlined for their region. One is the dialogue of life, which entails solidarity with all our neighbors in our struggles for survival and for a decent, equitable, and humane way of life in our day to day existence. Another is the dialogue of action, which entails solidarity with those seeking peace and justice in society and toward a sustainable Earth community. Another is the dialogue of discourse, which entails conversations with Religious Others seeking mutual understanding in our doctrinal differences. A fourth is the dialogue of spiritual encounter, wherein adherents of different traditions encounter one another on the level of spiritual practice and contemplative prayer, across traditional boundaries. We may also affirm that these four forms of dialogue are applicable not only for the churches in Asia, but also for all those of us living in our contemporary global society.

Taking the cue from Chia, I would like to suggest that Schillebeeckx’s theological framework may be taken even further forward, focusing on his central notion of Sacrament, with reference to these four levels of dialogue as laid out by the Asian bishops, now seen as encompassing the mission of the church throughout the entire world. In short, can the encounters happening on these four levels be not understood to be in themselves veritable Sacraments of encounter with the living, loving God, transforming each and everyone involved, bringing people together from a state of woundedness and alienation, toward recovery of wellbeing, toward fuller and fuller communion?

In our search for the healing of our fragmented human society and Earth community, we have the rich spiritual treasures of our religious traditions as resources. If those of us who choose to remain adherents of these traditions can go beyond the collective ego and triumphalistic attitudes of their respective institutional settings, and engage in dialogue with the world on the four levels laid out above, perhaps we will be able to discover in one another, in the midst of these attempts, a Sacrament of Encounter with the living and loving God, who invites us to communion, in the midst of our difference and diversity. As we go forth in this direction, what may emerge are the contours of a new Global Church, one wherein former institutional barriers are broken down, bringing forth a “new heaven and a new earth” in our midst.[12]

[1] See James Fredericks, “Interreligious Friendship: A New Theological Virtue,” in Journal of Ecumenical Studies, 35/2 (Spring 1998) pp. 159-174.

[2] I express my gratitude to the organizers of this symposium, especially Professor Manuela Kalsky, holder of the Edward Schillebeeckx chair at VU University, and Ms. Heleen Ransijn and the staff of the Dominican Studies Center for Theology, for the invitation to come and offer my reflections on this event.

[3] Raimon Panikkar had explored this phenomenon of “multireligious belonging” in his book entitled Intrareligious Dialogue, first published in 1978. Spiritually nourished both by his mother’s Roman Catholic (Christian) tradition, and his father’s Hindu tradition, he wrote, “I started out as a Christian, “discovered” that I was a Hindu and then “went back” to being a Buddhist without ever having stopped being a Christian.” I must note here however that this term is used nowadays to mean the dialogue that must take place and is taking place between adherents of the same religious tradition, rather than in the sense that Panikkar meant, a task important and calling our attention in its own right.

[4] Around this time I also read the newly promulgated Documents of the Second Vatican Council, specifically Lumen Gentium (Constitution on the Church), Gaudium et Spes (Constitution on the Church in the Modern World), and Nostra Aetate, also known as the Declaration on Non-Christian Religions, which gave “official stamp” to the theological insights of Schillebeeck, Rahner, and other theologians whose work paved the way for these church documents.

[5] In the meantime, I was assigned to take on a graduate program in Buddhist Studies at Tokyo University, concurrently with my theological studies in preparation for ordination to the priesthood at our Jesuit theologate in Tokyo, where I transferred residence after language school. After receiving priestly ordination (1976) and completing my graduate school studies (1978), I was assigned to teach in the Philosophy Department of Sophia University, the Jesuit-run university in Tokyo, and my courses included Introduction to Buddhism, and Buddhist Philosophy. I found myself in an ironic situation of being a Jesuit missionary teaching Japanese students about the Buddhist religious tradition that they themselves were brought up in, and helping them appreciate the spiritual riches of this tradition from within.

[6] Studying the Buddhist tradition, I also learned that in response to those who asked the Buddha what he “saw” and how they themselves could “see” it in order to live like they saw him live, that is, with deep inner peace, wisdom and compassion, his answer could be summarized in two words (in Pali) : Samatha, and Vipassana. These two words can be translated as “Stop,” and “See.” That means, to those asking for guidance in realizing what he realized, the Buddha gave them not a doctrinal statement that they were supposed to believe, but an invitation to take on a spiritual practice that would prepare them and enable them to realize what he realized, so they themselves would become, as he was, “awakened.” The forms of practice based on these instructions are cultivated by Buddhist followers to this day, in different ramifications of the Buddhist practice traditions, including Insight meditation, Chan or Zen, Tibetan forms of meditation, and so on.

[7] Other examples are as follows, from the same thirteenth century collection called Wumen Kuan, or Gateless Gate.

Huo-an asked, “Why has the Western Barbarian no beard?” (Case No. 4)

The priest Hsian-yen said, “It is as though you were high up in a tree, hanging from a branch with your teeth. Your hands and feet can’t touch any branch. Someone approaches beneath the tree and asks: “What is the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming from the West?” If you do not answer, you evade your responsibility. If you do answer you lose your life. What do you do? (Case No. 5)

A monk asked Tung-shan, “What is Buddha?” Tung-shan said, “Three pounds of flax.”(Case No. 18)

A monk asked Yün-men, “What is Buddha?” Yün-men said, “Dried shitstick.”(Case No. 21)

Ta-mei asked Ma-tru, “What is Buddha?” Ma-tsu said, “This very mind is Buddha.” (Case No. 30)

A monk asked Ma-tsu, “What is Buddha?” Ma-tsu said, “Not mind, not Buddha.” (Case No. 33)

Nan-chüan said, “Mind is not Buddha, Wisdom is not the Way.” (Case No. 34)

A monk asked Chao-chu, “What is the meaning of the Bodhidharma’s coming from the West?” Chao-chu said, “The oak tree in the courtyard.” (Case No. 37)

These examples, in their various and veiled ways, are all asking the fundamental question of our human condition: “What did the Buddha see?” “What is Enlightenment?” “What is Ultimate Reality?” “What is the meaning and point of it all?” This is not asked as a casual, conceptual question calling forth a philosophical, nor even theological answer. It confronts the questioner with the fundamental matter at hand: “What is the Great Matter of Life and Death?” “What is this earthly life all about?” “Who are you?”

[8] The training program in our Sanbo Zen lineage offers five to six hundred such koans for those willing and able to continue their Zen practice under the guidance of the Zen Master over many years. On a personal note, it took me around seventeen years to complete the program, going to the Master for guidance one by one on each of those koans on the list, between 1971 and 1988.

[9] When the Buddha was asked questions about the metaphysical truths like whether the world had a beginning and end or not, whether human beings survive after death or not, and so on, the Buddha’s response was silence. In this connection, he is said to have given his listeners the parable of the poisoned arrow, about someone who is struck by such an arrow and the poison is now beginning to seep into one’s bodily system. It is useless for such a person, the Buddha adds, to ask “what kind of bow was used in shooting this arrow?” or “To what tribal group did the shooter belong?” or “Which bird’s feather was used for the quiver of the arrow?” and so on. The matter at hand is to pull out the arrow and remove the poison from one’s body. In short, the Buddha’s message was not about satisfying intellectual curiosity about metaphysical realities, but about liberating our own selves and all our fellow human beings from our fundamental dissatisfaction, which is due to the finitude of our human condition with its concomitant tendencies to cling to things based on a sense of inner lack. Instead of answering speculative questions, he gave them a practical prescription: “Stop, and see!”

[10] The basic meaning of the Sanskrit word maitrī, (mettā in Pali), translated as “lovingkindness (toward all beings)” is “kin”.

[11] “Salvation” here is understood as coming from the Latin salus, holos in Greek, a recovery of wholeness and wellbeing from a state of woundedness and fragmentation and separation (sin) and entry into communion with the Triune God.

[12] In this regard, I would like mention the “New We” Forum, which seeks to address the issues in the context of the cultural, religious, and other kinds of diversity in Holland, as one such initiative among others that could give us hope, and vision, in this regard

Ruben Habito

Werkt bij Perkins School of Theology Southern Methodist University & MKZC Dallas

Ruben L.F. Habito is Professor of World Religions and Spirituality, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University en Guiding …
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