Buddhist Theology of Religions

In an ever-increasing pluralistic environment, religious leaders must formulate responses to other faith traditions.  This is the task of creating a theology of religions.  Currently, I maintain a theology of religions similar to that of the fulfillment model.  This puts me in a position where dialogue with other faiths is necessary for the realization of my convictions.  In this spirit, I want to examine an inclusivist theology of religions from a Buddhist perspective.  Although both theology of religions are from an inclusivist position, there still will be differences since we are coming from different faith traditions.  From analyzing a different religious tradition, we can find deeper understanding of our own faith[1].  This is why in order for Christians to have an appropriate and meaningful theology of religions, we need to know other religion’s theology of religions[2].  Our greatest area of learning from a theology of religions from Buddhism will be from the concepts of emptiness and skillful means.  These concepts will provide the fulfillment model with deeper and broader convictions of inclusion, without moving into the realm of pluralism.

To begin, we should acknowledge that Buddhism is as diverse as any other religion in the fact that there are multiple different ways to understand the Buddhist scriptures and practice the beliefs.  When it comes to a theology of religions, we see representatives that cover the exclusive, inclusive, and pluralistic perspectives.  Even with the inclusive minded Buddhists, there are different conceptions and understandings of how this would play out and be motivated.  As such, the conception we will look at is only one of many understandings of an inclusive theology of religions for a Buddhist.

The first point for our Buddhist conception is the conviction that Buddhism holds a preferred position over other faiths.  Buddhism provides the most efficacious salvation.  This conviction is common in the history of Buddhist thought from its conception with the Buddha himself[3], to the famous Japanese Buddhist monk Shinran[4].  It is also alive and well today as displayed by the Dali Llama and the many Buddhist scholars who have criticized uncritical syncretism by other Buddhists[5].  It is well attested to in Buddhist thought to see religions as systems of competing truth claims.  As such, Buddhism should be followed because it is speaking truth, and not because of comfortability, compatibility with personality or accident of birth.

This preference of Buddhism over other religions is seen when we compare it to more pluralistic Buddhist theology of religions.  Kristin Kiblinger shows this contrast in her proposal of using a three-vehicle model over the one-vehicle model.  This proposal suggests that the one-vehicle model for other religions, which is expanded from the Mahayana one-vehicle model for Buddhism, is too narrow[6] and doesn’t appreciate the distinctiveness and truth of other faiths[7].  The three-vehicle model though, which acknowledges the reality of different soteriological ends within Buddhism, when applied to an interreligious context contends that religions have their own soteriological ends.  Now there may be a hierarchy of ends, but nonetheless, the ends are different and real and valuable[8].  To me, this resembles closely the acceptance model and much of Heim’s work, and is more pluralistic rather than inclusivist.

We also see pluralistic tendencies in the Buddhist scholar Buddhadasa.  He writes that because the world is full of various contexts, there needs to be different religions that can speak to those contexts[9].  Like Hick, he finds a commonality in all religions and argues that this commonality is essentially the essence of religion.  Religions just express it in different ways.  For Hick, religion was about people talking about their encounter with “Ultimate Reality”.  For Buddhadasa, religion is about finding salvation[10], which for all religions is the eradication of selfishness[11].  Like Hick who essentially proposes a metareligion, Buddhadasa’s concept of emptiness erases all notions of individual religions and acts as a metareligion in itself[12].  His goal isn’t to show that Buddhism is superior in some way, but to show that Buddhism is just one among other religions.

In contrast to these pluralistic Buddhist perspectives, our inclusivist Buddhist position will still allow room for religions to be important, but will hold to the conviction of prioritizing Buddhism.  The main way an inclusivist position is envisioned is through the one-vehicle model briefly discussed earlier.  This essentially states that anything that is true and good, is pulling from the Buddhist tradition.   The source of this truth is the eternal dharma which is pervasive in all societies, as all humans have access to it within themselves by the power of the Buddhahood.  This dharma is experienced by all cultures differently, and so manifests itself differently in different places[13], yet it’s best expressed in Buddhism.  There may be many paths, but they converge into one, and lead to one end.  This is explained through the doctrine of skillful means.

The doctrine of skillful means states that there are multiple practices that will lead to liberation[14].  Skillful means gives Buddhist the ability to acknowledge and affirm truth in other religions, because different cultures will require different means of receiving and expressing truth[15].  This means that a Buddhist doesn’t need to be concerned about “converting” someone as long as they are able to pursue the truth of dharma in their current religion or belief system.  Skillful means recognizes the profound importance and power of culture and context in relationship to what and how someone learns.  It even can go so far as to suggest that people must learn through their own particular culture, giving other religions a preparatory function to Buddhism[16].  Even for some who don’t make it to fully converting to Buddhism, salvation need not be out of reach because liberation isn’t only an individual path.  Emptiness and co-arising point towards the inherit connectedness of all things and so merit can be shared among beings[17].  A Muslim or Hindu can tap into the reservoir of merit stored up by bodhisattvas that’s made available by the Buddha power.

It’s important to see that although Buddhists are allowing truth to be found in other religions, these truths still point back to a deeper truth that is only found in Buddhism.  This deeper truth is defined by the Buddhist understanding of the Four Noble Truths[18].  Any teachings that lead to clinging or don’t point towards the profound truths of emptiness are false teachings and cannot be accepted[19].  The deep affirmation that the eternal dharma is expressed in infinite ways requires there to be just as many modes of learning and understanding it.  This validates and legitimatizes other world religions.  Skillful means gives value to these religions as appropriate ways of pursuing the reality of Buddhahood in the eternal dharma.  However, Buddhist see their uncompromising belief in the Four Noble Truths and commitment to the concept of emptiness as an advantage over other religions.  As such, only that which is in line with the Buddha’s teaching lead to salvation[20].

The parallels I find here to my own fulfillment model is striking.  The accessibility of the eternal dharma can be compared to my belief of the pervasiveness of the Holy Spirit throughout all religions and cultures[21]. The doctrine of skillful means comes close to my own understanding of people responding to the Spirit in their own cultures and the value of religions acting as a preparation for Christ[22].  Yet as preparation, Christianity is still the fullest realization of God’s truth.  Even the concept of sharing merit echoes some characteristics ascribed to Christ’s atoning work for us which can be a basis for salvation of unbelievers.

The role of emptiness in the Buddhist theology of religions has opened my mind to different understandings of the salvific nature of other religions.  It has challenged me to see the nature of salvation in a more communal sense.  In Christianity, and western Christianity particularly, there is a very individualistic perspective of salvation.  Co-arising in emptiness suggests that the essence of my salvation and faith is intimately tied to other people.  We are all really one, since we are nothing without each other.  In the same way that my personhood can only be found in relationship with others, salvation is only achieved from contact with others.  It’s my relationship with Christ that brings saving, but my relationship with Christ is influenced by my relationship with others.  Thus, my salvation is dependent on other people, even people of other faiths.  This suggests that other faiths can aide in my realization and understanding of salvation in Christianity.  Also, if we are all one, then my salvation isn’t just about me being saved but about my salvation saving other people.

Emptiness, however, isn’t a Christian concept, and I would argue at times goes against Christian understandings. That being said, the interconnectedness of people that is highlighted by emptiness is a concept that is found in Christianity.  The notion of community, and humanity being a collective one is not foreign to the bible.  There is a deep sense of the unity of humanity in Christianity.   The Buddhist understanding of emptiness and co-arising give us another picture of the interwoven nature of humanity.  With such a picture we are able to see the way all peoples and ideas impact and shape our own and allows us to begin to appreciate the value in other traditions since we know that they have knowledge that would be valuable to us.

The teaching of skillful means can also bring value to a Christian fulfillment model.  As discussed, this already has much in common with tenets of the fulfillment model.  It opens the door to say maybe conversion isn’t a requirement of salvation.  Like Karl Rahner’s “Anonymous Christian”, skillful means is a way of saying someone is following and accessing the salvific nature of Buddhism without technically being a Buddhist.  Framing it this way is what keeps this conception of skillful means as inclusivist instead of pluralistic, since it is the Buddhist truth that still reigns supreme.  Extinguishment of clinging is the central truth of Buddhism that skillful means would be looking to show in other faiths.  For Christianity, it would be a sense of brokenness in humanity and a profound understanding that we are broken in a way we can’t fix, but that only God can rectify.  A Christian appropriation of skillful means would show ways other faith traditions are pursuing a savior for humanity.  Finding proclamations of this truth in other religions is how skillful means would be employed in Christianity.  It would be this truth in other faiths that would lead them down a salvific path, ultimately culminating in the person of Jesus as that savior who brings us back into relationship with God.

Christianity and Buddhism are not the same.  They do profess similar ethics and even have a lot of the same concepts and thinking in their traditions.  However, they do have different understandings of God, the world, humans, salvation, and more.  This genuine difference allows for authentic learning from one another since they don’t assume that they essentially believe the same thing with just different terminology.  When it comes to a theology of religion, this is an area for mutual learning.  To participate in the dialogue required by a fulfillment model, I need to see how a Buddhist theology of religions can impact my own.  The teachings of emptiness and skillful means help us look at the interconnected journey of salvation of all people and also the way people can chase after the path of salvation in a different religion.  Within the fulfillment model, these positions can be held for the Christian who still believes salvation only comes through Christ and that God has appointed Jesus as his person of self-revelation.



[1] Makransky, John. Thoughts on Why, How, and What Buddhists Can Learn from Christian          Theologians. Buddhist-Christian Studies, no. 31 (November 2011): 119–33.        doi:10.1353/bcs.2011.0040. 120

[2] Kiblinger, Kristin Beise. Using Three-Vehicle Theory to Improve Buddhist Inclusivism. Buddhist-ChristianStudies, no. 24 (November 2004): 159–69. doi:10.1353/bcs.2005.0025. 161

[3] Kiblinger, Kristin Beise. Identifying Inclusivism in Buddhist Contexts. Contemporary      Buddhism 4, no. 1 (May 2003): 79–97. doi:10.1080/1463994032000140194. 83

[4] Tanaka, Kenneth K. Acceptance of the Other as a Similarly Valid Path and Awareness of One’s Self-Culpability: A Deepening Realization of My Religious Identity through Dialogue.  Buddhist-Christian Studies, no. 25 (November 2005): 41–46. doi:10.1353/bcs.2005.0068.

[5] Kiblinger. Three-Vehicle Theory. 161

[6] Kiblinger. Three-Vehicle Theory. 168

[7] Ibid. 167

[8] Ibid.

[9] Buddhadasa, Bhikkhu. Interfaith Understanding in the Buddhist-Christian Dialogue. Buddhist  Christian Studies 9 (1989): 233-35. doi:10.2307/1390014. 233

[10] Promta, Somparn. The View of Buddhism on Other Religions: With Special Reference to Islam. The Muslim World 100, no. 2–3 (April 2010): 302–20. https://search-ebscohost-
=ehost-live. 307

[11] Buddhadasa. Interfaith Understanding. 234

[12] Kiblinger. Identifying Inclusivism. 91

[13] Makransky. What Buddhists Can Learn from Christian Theologians. 122

[14] Makransky. What Buddhists Can Learn from Christian Theologians. 122

[15] Makransky, John J. Buddhist Perspectives on Truth in Other Religions: Past and Present.         Theological Studies 64, no. 2 (June 2003): 334–61. https://search-ebscohost-
=ehost-live. 17

[16] Makransky. Truth in Other Religions. 24

[17] Ludwig, Theodore M. The Sacred Paths: Understanding the Religions of the World. Upper Saddle            River, NJ: Pearson Education, 2006.

[18] Makransky. Truth in Other Religions. 27

[19] Makransky. What Buddhists Can Learn from Christian Theologians. 127

[20] Hexham, Irving. Understanding World Religions: An Interdisciplinary Approach. Grand Rapids,            MI:Zondervan, 2011. 202

[21] Knitter, Paul F. Introducing Theologies of Religions. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2002. 70

[22] Kärkkäinen, Veli-Matti. An Introduction to the Theology of Religions: Biblical, Historical and            Contemporary Perspectives. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2007.


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