Saturday, April 20, 2013


"Enlightenment and Liberation" came to a satisfying close today (though again I only caught the last eight hours of the jam-packed day). One of the highlights for me was the contribution to a session on "Liberation and Spirituality" by the Tibetan Buddhist teacher John Makransky.

Makransky suggested that Buddhist and Christian liberation theologies each reveal an epistemological problem in the other - and can correct that problem for the other. Christianity liberation theology's problem is the duality implicit in the idea of a preferential option for the poor. Even if one is supposed to love the oppressor, too, one is called in action to take sides. But this is problematic for several reasons, most of them traceable to the fact that pain and oppression are only the most visible of three levels of suffering caused by deluded responses to emptiness. Not only are we called to see the oppressors' conduct as produced by their deluded efforts to maintain the illusion of the self as a refuge from from transience through control of their world and others, but we must confront our own such delusions, too. Unless we - through meditation - learn to understand these processes in ourselves, we cannot address them in others. Powerful stuff.

But the epistemological lacuna in Buddhism diagnosed and remedied by Christianity was even more powerful - at least for me, who had been suffering a little at the assymmetry of the Buddhist-Christian dialogue: Christians embrace meditation traditions, but all Buddhists take from Christianity is activism and perhaps prophetic anger. Buddhists understand the nonduality of self and all other sentient suffering beings, but this insight is limited by what they can imagine in meditation. To the extent that delusions are socially structured and reinforced - each society treats some people as nonhumans, their suffering not even registered as such - awakening can happen only if we learn from the experiences of the marginalized. Bodhisattvas apparently occupy every place in experience, but the Christian tradition (building on the Hebrew prophets) really drives home the importance of learning from the least of these - did not God in his incarnation choose to live and die with the nonpersons of human society? Christianity's "unique focus on the poor as the hermeneutic key to the unconscious social sin we participate in but do not see" is something Buddhists could learn from.

There were other goodies, including a lovely final session where Paul Knitter looked back on a career which began with Vatican 2 and Karl Rahner followed by memories and blessings by old friends from several traditions, but I think it's Makransky's ideas which will stay with me. (I've ordered his book!) The account of the superficiality of western understandings of social problems is one similar to that of David Loy (who was at this conference, too) but the way Makransky brought together individual, social and liberationist questions with a deep understanding of the profoundest challenges of Buddhist and Christian traditions was a revelation.

(The photo is of a basket of origami lotus blossoms folded by a conference participant.)

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