"The Openness" of Differing Perspectives in Buddhist and Bahá'í Metaphysics

By Dann May

First presented at the Irfan Colloquia Session #24
Louhelen Bahá'í School: Michigan, USA
October 8–12, 1999
(see list of papers from #24)

    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 run into serious difficulties when applied to many of the Eastern religious traditions, especially the so-called non-theistic 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 non-theistic, some would even say, atheistic, its doctrines of anatta ("no soul," or "no self'), sunyata ("emptiness," or "openness"), 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. To date, previous Bahá'í approaches to these doctrines and issues have been not only inadequate philosophically, they are often the cause of ill-feelings and contention between Buddhists and Bahá'ís, as recent internet discussions have revealed.

    My presentation will outline the beginnings of an alternative Bahá'í approach to these important Buddhist doctrines. This approach will draw on recent works on the Buddhist concept of sunyata, 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 mytho-poetic language that is ultimately "empty." 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 mytho-poetic language that does little more that "point" in the general direction of the "great mysteries" of the universe. Lastly, 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.

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