Conventional Truth as a Platform for Buddhist-Christian Understanding

Debates between Christians and Buddhists on substantive themes tend to stall in mistrust (especially in view of the lack of a personal transcendent God in Buddhism) or to become bogged down in dubious speculation. In this talk Joseph O'Leary suggests that perhaps the most promising theme for a theological discussion with Buddhism is the question of the status of religious and doctrinal language. 

Christian theology has devoted much thought to this question, in classical negative theology and in modern reflection since Kant and Schleiermacher. On the Buddhist side, religious discourse has always been assessed in terms of its salvific efficacity. The ideal religious discourse is a “skillful means” serving to lead to liberation and disposable when it has served its purpose. Another relevant topic is the Buddhist attitude to “views.” Although “right view” is the first step of the Noble Eightfold Path, in Mahayana sutras we hear that right view is more dangerous than wrong because more apt to encourage fixated attachment. Finally, the dyad of conventional and ultimate truth makes all religious teachings conventional, yet urges that in their very conventionality they are indispensable vehicles for conveying ultimate truth. 

While these emphases may pose more problems for Christian doctrine than for Buddhism, they speak very eloquently to the unease Christians today often feel about their religious language, and can prompt a more subtle and self-critical deployment of the resources of Christian thought, in shared reflection with our sister religion.  


Joseph S. O’Leary, an Irish theologian resident in Japan since 1983, was professor of English Literature at Sophia University, Tokyo, and Roche Chair for Interreligious Research at Nanzan University, Nagoya. His latest book is Conventional and Ultimate Truth: A Key for Fundamental Theology (University of Notre Dame Press, 2015). A Christian commentary on the Vimalakirti Sutra, under the title Buddhist Nonduality, Paschal Paradox, is soon to appear from Peeters, Leuven.



The Institute of Antiquity and Christianity (IAC 831North Dartmouth Avenue, 91711 Claremont CA