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The Buddha’s Practical Theology

January 29, 2015
'Sleeping Buddha' by Matt Westgate via

‘Sleeping Buddha’ by Matt Westgate via

A while back, I wrote a literature review about “Buddhist Practical Theology?” with the question mark in the title. This paper summarized and critiqued the very scant number of articles and books on the topic, only two explicitly so and a few other tangentially related. I followed it up here with a discussion of Buddhist theology, which is a tricky enough topic on its own. I’ve continued to muse on the idea of Buddhist practical theology and come to the conclusion that such a theology is inherent to Buddhism, we simply know it by another name: The Four Noble Truths. Let me explain.

When the Buddha first uttered the Four Noble Truths in the deer park at Varanasi, he laid down an eminently practical theology. Of course, he did not call it that, least of all because Shakyamuni Buddha did not speak English. As Buddhists attempting to remain true to his teachings twenty-five hundred years later, we may find the term ‘practical theology,’ a very odd fit. Adoption of this term is not terribly important, but it does offer methods for analytical reflection to align our thoughts, words, and deeds more fully with the Dharma.

So what is ‘practical’ about Buddhist theology? Within Christianity, practical theology is a recognized as “a general way of doing theology concerned with the embodiment of religious belief in the day-to-day lives of individuals and communities,” according to Bonnie Miller-McLemore. As an academic subject and theological method, it can easily be applied to Buddhism (for it is already within Buddhism). Much of the existing Christian scholarship can be adapted, especially as most of the methods employed are drawn from secular social sciences.

Practical Buddhist theology can be tentatively defined (from my earlier paper) as a theological discipline within Buddhism that uses empirical description and normative construction in a dialogical relationship with lived experience to study, understand, and beneficially transform human activity. In other words, when we study the Dharma, it changes how we live our everyday lives. And the way we live our everyday lives changes our understanding of the Dharma. Practical Buddhist theology is concerned with this relationship.

The simplest possible practical theological framework is that of action-reflection-action. One does something, observes and reflects upon the outcomes, and adjusts one’s actions accordingly. In the Sona Sutta (AN6.55) the Buddha likens practice to the strings of a musical instrument, a vina, asking if the instrument was playable if the strings were too tight or too loose. Just as a musician tunes his instrument by tightening a string, listening for the sound, then loosening it again, we employ action-reflection-action to bring ourselves more in tune with the Dharma. In the case of certain forms of meditation, this framework may be slightly reversed and described as reflection-action-reflection, but the basic formula remains and can be applied on a moment-to-moment daily basis.

A more formal method for practical theology is described best by Richard Osmer in his book Practical Theology: An Introduction. This method has been widely adopted by practical theologians because of its very pragmatism. Osmer admits he did not ‘invent’ the method, but he does an outstanding job of explaining and applying it. Osmer’s four-part method, or the Four Noble Truths method, if we wish to claim it for ourselves, can be employed for more deliberate reflection. Osmer describes his method thus:

Over the course of this book we explore four questions that can guide our interpretation and response to situations [within our religious communities]:

What is going on?

Why is this going on?

What ought to be going on?

How might we respond?

Answering each of these questions is the focus of one of the four core tasks of practical theological interpretation:

– The descriptive-empirical task. Gathering information that helps us discern patterns and dynamics in particular episodes, situations, or contexts.

– The interpretive task. Drawing on theories of the arts and sciences [or Buddhist psychology or philosophy] to better understand and explain why these patterns and dynamics are occurring.

– The normative task. Using theological concepts to interpret particular episodes, situations, or contexts, constructing ethical norms to guide our responses, and learning from “good practice.”

– The pragmatic task. Determining strategies of action that will influence situations in ways that are desirable and entering into a reflective conversation with the “talk back” emerging when they are enacted.

Osmer’s book is well worth a read in its entirety by any Buddhist teacher or clergy involved in caring for a sangha or counseling fellow Buddhists. It is relatively short and easily accessible, even for those relatively unfamiliar with its Christian applications.

An example of practical Buddhist theology in action is provided by Bhikshuni Lozang Trinlae, an American Buddhist nun and doctoral candidate at Claremont School of Theology in California.

A Buddhist meditation teacher is teaching her students how to generate a meditative state of altruistic compassion. She conducts a guided meditation session on the topic according to typical traditional theological guidelines. After the session, she reviews the session using Osmer’s [practical theology] framework:

Descriptive: from student feedback, she learns that many students found the meditation difficult to follow;

Interpretative: the meditation guidance was perhaps too long for the students to digest fully in one sitting;

Normative: more time should be given for students to learn and understand the meditation procedure;

Pragmatic: next class, she will read through an explanation of the meditation with students before conducting the guided meditation

Bhikshuni demonstrates the application of Osmer’s four-part method for practical theology in a Buddhist context. Osmer is a Christian theologian and, until now, practical theology has largely been a Christian discipline. However, this framework also happens to exactly parallel the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths. This is not coincidental, but rather further evidence of with wisdom of the Buddha in providing a universal path.

According to Bhikshuni Lozang Trinlae, Buddhism needs a practical theology “…because Buddhist congregations, clergy, religion teachers, etc., have the right to benefit from critical, normative, and pragmatic reflection on praxis.” Thus far, English-language academic literature on Buddhism has largely lacked such a dialogue due to the dominance of Buddhist studies over Buddhist theology in the academy. In her papers, Bhikshuni applies methods developed by several Christian theologians, who do not suffer such a lack, in various Buddhist contexts and concludes that practical theological methods are entirely suitable to Buddhism. In fact, Osmer’s framework is precisely the same framework provided by the Buddha in the first turning of the wheel of Dharma.

We need only return to the Four Noble Truths to find that the Buddha himself was an eminently practical theologian (in the broad sense). The First Noble Truth is that of suffering. It describes our everyday experience. The Second Noble Truth is the cause of suffering. It interprets experience to get at the heart of the problem. The Third Noble Truth is the cessation of suffering. This is a normative judgment about the best possible outcome. The Fourth Noble Truth is the way out of suffering. It is a pragmatic prescription for what we can do to realize the outcome we seek, liberation from suffering. The Four Noble Truths and the meditation example above follow the same pattern as Richard Osmer’s methodological framework for doing practical theology, described below. This reflection-action framework can and should be explicitly adopted by Buddhist teachers and leaders who seek to apply the Dharma in ever-changing modern contexts.

[NOTE: This post is adapted from a forthcoming chapter on Buddhist practical theology in a book edited by Nathan Michon and Danny Fisher. For more about how to apply Buddhist practical theology in various contexts, please look forward to the upcoming volume. I will post an update when it is released.]


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