The Blind Men and the Elephant:
Differing Perspectives in Buddhist and Bahá'í Metaphysics

By Dann May

First presented at the Irfan Colloquia Session #15
Bahá'í National Center: Wilmette, Illinois, USA
August 9–10, 1997
(see list of papers from #15)

    Bahá'í theology incorporates a number of important doctrines regarding other religious traditions. Among these doctrines are the claims that the world's religions originate from the same ultimate source, that they are similar in propounding the same essential teachings, laws, and moral principles, and that the differences between religions are due to varying historical, cultural and linguistic factors. While these doctrines regarding the world's religions work quite well when applied to the theistic religious traditions of the West (i.e., Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Bahá'í), they appear to run into difficulties when applied to many of the Eastern religious traditions, especially the nontheistic traditions (i.e., Buddhism, Jainism, and the Chinese religions). This is especially true when such ideas are applied to the Buddhist tradition. Not only is Buddhism explicitly nontheistic, some would even say, atheistic, its doctrines of anatta ("no soul"), sunyata ("emptiness"), nirvana, rebirth, karma, and its decidedly process ontology, seem completely incompatible with Bahá'í theology. Some Buddhists have even argued that the Bahá'í doctrine of the unity of religion greatly misrepresents the Buddhist teachings. Traditional Bahá'í approaches to these doctrines and issues are not only inadequate philosophically, they are often the cause of ill-feelings and contention between Buddhists and Bahá'ís.

    My presentation will outline the beginnings of an alternative Bahá'í approach to these important Buddhist doctrines. This approach will draw on general sources in philosophy of religion as well as diverse sources within the Buddhist and Bahá'í traditions. Since a major source of contention centers around the uncritically accepted theism of most Bahá'í discussions, I will begin with a general critique of theism followed by a brief discussion of apophatic theology. The Bahá'í and Buddhist views of ultimate reality will then be set within a perspectival framework that considers all views of ultimate reality as laden with mythopoetic language. The Bahá'í concept of the soul will also be subject to a type of apophatic theology, and then it, together with the Buddhist doctrine of anatta, will be set within a perspectival framework. Drawing on the thought of John Hick, I will argue that the conflicting truth claims of the Buddhist and Bahá'í Faiths result from what Buddhists call avyakata ("undetermined questions") — claims about the nature of reality that are unable to be determined, that are formulated in a mythopoetic language that does little more that point in the general direction of the great mysteries of the universe. Last, I will demonstrate that the Bahá'í principle of the unity of religion is not uniquely Western nor Bahá'í, but rather, has its parallels in various Asian traditions, including a number of Buddhist traditions.

    Dann J. May is an Adjunct Professor at Oklahoma City University where he teaches classes in philosophy and religious studies. He has also taught philosophy and religion classes at the University of North Texas, and at the South Campus of the Tarrant County Junior College in Fort Worth, Texas.

    Dann received his Master of Arts degree in Interdisciplinary Studies from the University of North Texas (12/1993) and his Master of Science degree in Geology from the University of Washington, Seattle (1980). He has been an active member of the Bahá'í Faith for twenty-two years and has given numerous lectures, classes and seminars around the country, including classes in world religion for the Wilmette and Faizi Institutes. Dann's academic interests include philosophy of religion, Asian religions and philosophy, and interreligious dialogue. His essay "The Bahá'í Principle of Religious Unity: A Dynamic Perspectivism," was recently published by Kalimat Press in Revisioning the Sacred: New Perspectives on a Bahá'í Theology.

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