Dilatato Corde 8:1
January – June, 2018
Ramon Panikkar
Raimon Panikkar (1918-2010) was an unusual man and a remarkable thinker. Born in Spain to a Spanish Catholic mother and an Indian Hindu father, he straddled two worlds. A Catholic priest thoroughly steeped in the literature of Christian theology, he also studied Hinduism and Buddhism in India. He left a considerable body of work, much of it devoted to the cross-pollination of the spiritual traditions of East and West.
All too often attempts at comparative religion fail in the attempt to be true to both traditions. Even leaving aside polemic criticism written with a proselytizing intent, authors either distort one tradition’s teachings to make it fit into those of the other or they misunderstand both in an attempt to show that all religions are teaching the same thing at their root (“the perennial tradition”). Panikkar does not make these elementary mistakes. He has a profound understanding of both Christianity and Buddhism and is aware of the nuances and difficulties of both traditions. When we imperfect humans attempt to contemplate the highest mysteries, we are all of us peering through smoky glasses, but it seems that Panikkar’s spectacles are bifocal.
His book, The Silence of the Buddha, is written with a Christian audience in mind. His intent is not to present a simple comparison of Buddhism with Christianity but to ask how the particular vision of Buddhism might inform Christian thinking without compromising it. The central question he examines from many different angles, and with many excursions, is this: why was the Buddha silent about the ultimate nature of reality, or to phrase it in a particularly Christian way, why did He not speak about God?
Panikkar does not ask this question as a mere intellectual curiosity. His deeper concern is the problem of modernity (or post-modernity). He sees us as being in the early stages of a spiritual crisis as deep as that of the axial age (6th century B.C.). This is manifested in our machine civilization, alienation, and lack of meaning. The spiritual form characteristic of this new stage is atheism; a belief system that Panikkar, while certainly not endorsing, is at times surprisingly sympathetic to. It is, after all, one more attempt to peer at the Absolute. It does however, as our author makes clear, lead only to despair and a terrifying confrontation with the abyss (p. 232).
The sub-title of Panikkar’s book is “A Religious A-Theism.” With the confrontation of Christian theology with the new atheism as a subtext, he examines four key doctrines of Buddhism that can be (and have been) characterized as atheistic (p. 75f). These are the teachings of anātman (not-self), nirvāṇa, dependent origination, and the fourteen unanswered questions. He could not have chosen four topics more difficult to explicate, and he handles them masterfully, showing a deep and sympathetic understanding of the nuances and some of the controversies within the Buddhist tradition itself.
These Buddhist ideas might, according to our author, not only serve as a bridge for meaningful dialogue between theists and atheists but might help resolve some knotty problems in Western philosophy and theology. Panikkar discusses various stages and developments in the Christian, or Western, idea of God (p. 156f) and shows how a central problem has been the reconciliation of the separate ideas of God and Being, a complex of ideas going back to Greek philosophy. He argues that there are intellectual problems with either identifying the two, or separating them. Atheism has sought a way out by abandoning God. Panikkar sees that the problem is really with Being, and underlying that is the assumption, dating back to the Greeks, of the reality of substance. To reduce his complex argument to a perhaps overly simplistic statement, if God is a being, even a Supreme Being, then He is not really transcendent to Being, sharing in the same substance as creation. This makes the concept of God superfluous, if not absurd.
Here is where the Buddhist teachings can offer guidance. The anātman idea teaches that all things are without inherent self-substance; Being is a verb, not a noun (p. 191), and substantialism is seen as unreal. Furthermore, all things exist not as self-existent entities but as dynamic relations. This is the dependent origination of the Buddha, from which Panikkar develops his key concept of radical contingency.  All conditioned things, to use Buddhist terminology, or all created things in Christian language, are works in progress. Always dependent (contingent)
Ramon Panikkar (1918-2010)
Ramon Panikkar (1918-2010)
on a multitude of other things and always in the process of becoming something else.
The fourteen unanswered questions represent a key text for the claim that the Buddha was silent on the nature of ultimate reality. This was a kind of questionnaire that probably predated Buddhism and served to establish the position of teachers. All the questions relate to metaphysics in one way or another, but perhaps surprisingly to a Christian, there is no question about God. The Buddha took no position at all on these, refusing to answer, saying only to each, “That does not fit the case.” This was often perplexing to his listeners because the questions were framed to cover all possibilities, for example, "Is the world infinite or finite or both or neither?" Panikkar treats this problem at some length and examines and rejects such positions for the Buddha as agnosticism or even apophatism. Panikkar makes the insightful and radical claim that the Buddha was silent because ultimate reality is itself beyond being and non-being and is not susceptible to reason. Not because our reason is insufficient, but because it transcends reason itself. The questions themselves are unanswerable because based on false premises.
This raises another of Panikkar’s themes that runs right through his book, that of the transcendence of the ultimate, whether we call it God with the Christians or nirvāṇa with the Buddhists. The idea of nirvāṇa  is notoriously hard to speak about; it is after all ineffable. Panikkar’s treatment (p. 86f) is one of the best short descriptions of this abstruse topic that I have seen and he includes several brief passages from both the Theravada and Mahayana scriptures. He presents this, I think, for the benefit of his Christian readers by giving them a new way to think about the ultimate transcendent reality. There is no place here for the concepts of being or non-being (or, as an ancient Indian would add, there is also no place for both or neither of these).
Panikkar applies these Buddhist ideas to Christian theology, in an attempt to make it approachable for modern man at this time of spiritual crisis (p. 205f). He calls for a “radical innovation in the idea of God,” which he says represents a “new stage in human consciousness.” In the end his sympathies lie with the mysticshe often cites Meister Eckhart and Saint John of the Cross, for instance. He correctly says that for the Buddha, the only bridge from the conditioned to the Unconditioned is practice (orthopraxis in Panikkar’s words) not reason or ritual or doctrine. And this practice is at its deepest just silence.
The brief summary I have given here does not do justice to the depth and subtlety of Panikkar’s work, a reading of which will be thought provoking and rewarding to Christian, Buddhist, and atheist alike. His scholarship is deep and his arguments cogent and subtle.
This said, I am somewhat reluctant to offer any criticism which must seem picayune. Nevertheless, I beg indulgence to mention a few small matters that left me, as a Buddhist reader, unsatisfied. (I am in no way competent to comment on his Christian theology). Most importantly, we should be careful not to conflate as identical the concepts of God and nirvāṇa, albeit they fill analogous places in their respective traditions. I do not say that Panikkar does this, but I felt he could have made the distinction more explicit. The critical difference, as I see it, is in the relation between the Absolute (God or nirvāṇa) and the Relative (the created world or the conditioned one). Nirvana is in no way a cause of anything, much less a First Cause. Panikkar does mention this, but does not develop the contrast to the Christian doctrine of creation. He makes a few intriguing statements, almost in passing, about creation but never really develops this theme, which would seem important for his general thesis.
Beside this issue, my only complaints are minor indeed. In a very few places I would take issue with his translations but admit that any translation of an ancient text is problematic, and none of these really affect his argument. As a reader coming from outside the tradition of Christian scholarship, I would have liked a little more definition of terms. More than once I felt a little frustrated by his assumption that his reader would understand precisely what he meant by Being. There is a glossary provided at the end of the book, but it contains mostly Sanskrit words, and the many Latin and Greek theological terms he uses are mostly not defined.
To avoid ending this review on a negative note I will offer a typical gem of Panikkar’s wisdom; “In fact God is neither the One nor the Other, neither equal (to us) or different. The World and God are neither two (two of what?) nor one. It is clear that the thread always breaks at its weakest point. In absolutizing Reason, God breaks and disappears, and man founders; in absolutizing God, reason breaks and explodes and man degenerates” (p. 207).
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