Buddhist ‘Theology’? Yes, No, and Sorta.
Can or does Buddhism have ‘theology?’ Well, yes, no, and sorta.
If one interprets theology in the strictest sense, going back to the roots of the word, ‘theo’ for god or the divine and ‘ology’ for study of, then the answer depends on how we define god. If God is capital ‘G,’ the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Moses, the omnipotent, omniscient creator of all things, then the answer is no. Buddhism has no reference to such a singular, personified deity. Some Buddhists, such as Nyanaponika Thera, have even concluded that such a deity is incompatible with the Buddhadharma. I am not so sure.
Even if one broadens one’s understanding of the Abrahamic God a little, as many modern Jews, Christians, and Muslims do, to encompass some ineffable, divine basis of reality, I would still be inclined to say no. Because even when monotheists broaden their understanding what of God is, their traditional religious histories of what God does remain fairly stable, although the methods become more allegorical and metaphorical. And, no, Buddhism has no reference to those things which the Abrahamic God is purported to do or has done, such as create the universe. In Buddhist cosmology, the universe is generally considered both beginningless and endless. The Buddha also cautions that this is not a question we should waste our time on.
Conjecture about [the origin, extent, etc., of] the cosmos is an inconceivable that is not to be conjectured about, that would bring madness & vexation to anyone who conjectured about it. – AN 4:77, from Skill in Questions: How the Buddha Taught by Thanissaro Bhikkhu p. 292
If we interpret the nature of gods, small ‘g’ and plural, or divinity even more broadly conceived as a sacred basis of reality, then certainly Buddhism has much to say on this matter. After all, it was born into Vedic culture, the precursor of modern Hinduism. The notion of gods, ghosts, devas, demons, and other supernatural beings was a forgone conclusion. Hinduism itself is a centered around these gods. However, in Buddhism (not Hinduism) these gods are not central to the Dharma, but rather just another form of existence subject to it.
Buddhism does not deny that there are in the universe planes of existence and levels of consciousness which in some ways may be superior to our terrestrial world and to average human consciousness. …Yet, according to Buddhist teachings, such higher planes of existence, like our familiar world, are subject to the law of impermanence and change. – “Buddhism and the God-idea” by Nyanaponika Thera
The gods do not play a soteriological role in Buddhist religions, even though they often appear as characters in Buddhist scripture. Therefore, if we use these gods to understand ‘theology’ in Buddhism, I can, at best, say that Buddhism sorta has a theology, but it’s not very important.
However, in western religions theology is generally considered very important. Perhaps it is merely an intellectual curiosity to the critical religious studies historian, but to the religions themselves it is a very big deal. Theology is both how they interpret what is and moralize what ought to be. Yet the divide between the twin academic disciplines of Religious Studies and religious Theology is entrenched. And it has left the academic study Buddhism strangely imbalanced in the west.
Scholars all over the Americas and Europe have the opportunity to engage in the study of Buddhism as an object, that is, from the historical critical perspective of Religious Studies. However, they have precious few opportunities to engage with it as a subject for constructive worldviews. Among Abrahamic religions, particularly Christianity, this latter task is traditionally taken up by the seminary. It is part of the training of clergy and theologians. While the religious historians have welcomed Buddhist scholars for the past several decades into the west’s most prominent academic institutions such as the University of Chicago, UC Berkeley, Stanford, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, there has been no corresponding opening of arms (either warm or begrudging) to Buddhist practitioners. In fact, Buddhist scholar-practitioners who both study (as object) Buddhism and practice (as subject) Buddhism have been regarded with a mildly hypocritical suspicion. (See Charles Prebish and Rita Gross on this topic.) There was almost nowhere for Buddhists to go, so to speak, to academically study the Dharma in the west.
Buddhist universities have been around since the 1950’s, when second-generation Japanese-Americans (nisei) founded the Institute of Buddhist Studies in Berkeley as little more than a study group for Jodo Shinshu Buddhists. It is now part of the Graduate Theological Union of affiliated seminaries. Naropa University in Boulder, CO, was founded in the mid-1970’s by Tibetan teacher Chogyam Trungpa. It was the first to offer degrees beyond Buddhist Studies, in fields such as psychology and literature. There have been a few others since then, including my own alma matter and current employer, University of the West.
These schools tend to follow either the IBS model and stick to religion or the Naropa model and offer a slightly more secular education, similar to Jesuit institutions. In both types, Buddhist scholar-practitioners finally found academic homes, though such schools had their own drawbacks. In general, they are smaller and less prestigious that the older, well-established, well-resourced Religious Studies departments of major universities. If one really wanted to become a name in Buddhist studies, it was still at least somewhat advantageous to squelch one’s theological leanings and maintain a historical critical stance.
Even in the Buddhist universities, there was plenty of talk about the Dharma, but very little about so-called Buddhist theology, due to the problematic nature of the word. That began to change slowly, as those prestigious Buddhist Studies scholar-practitioners in the Religious Studies departments of major universities, who had both a both more nuanced view of the meaning of theology and a deep understanding of the Dharma, gained enough credibility (and tenure) to step out on the limb.
This trend culminated in 2000 with the publication of an anthology titled Buddhist Theology: Critical Reflections by Contemporary Buddhist Scholars, edited by Roger Jackson and John Makransky. In it, Jackson, Makransky, and other scholars make a credible argument for the appellation of ‘theology’ to Buddhist. Other scholars, such as Rita Gross and Musashi Tachikawa have also taken up the question in separate works. Sadly, in the fourteen years since, Jackson and Makransky’s anthology remains the only book-length treatment of the subject (and it is sadly lacking in practical topics). My exploration of their perspectives yielded the following synthesis in a paper I composed this past spring:
Gross defines Buddhist theology as “the self-conscious reflections of recent Western converts to Buddhism who also have professional training and interest in the construction of religious thought.” This definition owns the necessity of coming up with a term for the constructive acts of Buddhists within their own religious tradition as particularly important for those of us who wish to discuss these topics with others of western religious traditions. When we call it ‘theology,’ western religious professionals know what we mean, even if our fellow Buddhists may not. (Gross, p. 155-156) The term may hardly be necessary in certain eastern contexts. It certainly doesn’t mean that Asians cannot ‘construct religious thought’ or engage in theology, as Tachikawa demonstrates.Therefore, it is not yet a sufficient definition of Buddhist theology.
Tachikawa and Gross share many of the same terms in their call for a Buddhist theology, including “self-conscious” and “constructed.” Buddhist theology must engage religious practice with contemporary issues. It must also “possess a method communicable to others,”(Tachikawa, p. 8) which is also why Gross proposes use of ‘theology’ over alternatives like ‘dharma-discourse,’ ‘dharmology,’ or ‘buddhology.’ Both Gross and Tachikawa also point out that Buddhist theology must work from within and engage the tradition. This is not merely ‘philosophy,’ which Gross regards as personal and open to being idiosyncratic, but an endeavor in which “one considers oneself to be working within a given system and under its authority.”(Gross, p. 156-157) Tachikawa characterizes this difference as part of what is “recognized from the outset,” such as the existence of the Buddha, which the religious philosopher is free to discard, but the Buddhist theologian is not. (Tachikawa, p. 8)
Cabezón, in contributing the Jackson and Makransky’s anthology, defines theology as “roughly, a normative discourse, self-avowedly rooted in tradition, with certain formal properties.” This would seem to fit both Gross and Tachikawa’s description. From here, Cabezón claims that “’theology’ can be meaningfully modified by the adjective ‘Buddhist,’” (Cabezon, p. 25) rendering Buddhist theology as: normative, reflective, and constructive discourse self-consciously rooted in the Buddhist traditions with formal properties defined by the systematic study of those traditions.
-From “Buddhist Practical Theology: A Literature Review,” by Monica Sanford, 2014
From this perspective, it seems clear that there is such a thing as Buddhist theology. It hangs on the wider reading of theology as “the more strictly intellectual interpretations of any religious tradition, whether that tradition is theistic of not.” (David Tracy in Roger Jackon’s chapter) Under this interpretation, any religion can and almost every religion does have its own theology, regardless of what they call it.
That begs the question, other than making ourselves intelligible to scholars and theologians of western religions, as Gross indicates, what exactly is the point of having a Buddhist theology? Why not just keep calling it Dharma? Isn’t that good enough?
Well, my jury is still out, but I’ll close with a few thoughts. Yes, we have Dharma, a perfectly good word for the truth as taught by the Buddha. We should own that word, be proud of it, and use it wherever applicable. I can’t always claim that what I do is Dharma, however, as I am not the Buddha. Being subject to attachment, aversion, and delusion, I know the Dharma only through the glass darkly. But I don’t think theology is the same as Dharma. Rather, theology is an approach or way of doing Dharma. Theology is a systematic study of not only the Dharma, but the Buddha and Sangha as well, that helps us understand, interpret, and apply those teachings to our everyday lives. I can do theology and it helps clear up that hazy view of the Dharma when I do.
The Dharma itself will guide our approach to theology. Indeed, Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s Skill in Questions can serve as just this type of theological guide. In this sense, Buddhists have been doing theology for a long time. That’s what the Abhidharma is, after all, but the Abhidharma has become codified and fixed into its own set of scared texts. No one does abhidharma anymore, lest they arrogantly usurp the mantel of those early Buddhist masters. (So far as I know. Correct me if I am wrong.)
It is only our encounter with western religions that has given us a new word, a flexible word, one in which all Buddhists can participate, be they scholars, clergy, laypeople, masters or beginners. For this reason, I believe the notion of Buddhist theology is eminently worth our consideration. Is there Buddhist theology? Yes, in my humble opinion. And we need more of it.