Can we speak of a transcendental unity of Religion Was the topic of a talk given by Professor Y. Karunadasa at the Maithri Hall on August 12.

The Professor said there are many religions in the world such as Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam and Sikhism, but that some people believe there is a transcendental unity of religion. What this means is that although there are a number of religions, in the final analysis, they say the same thing. They are different expressions of the same eternal truth in other words, despite the apparent differences and the seeming polarities, there is a unity that transcends them all. The differences are only at the periphery, but at the core they are the same.

Apparently, the idea of a transcendental unity of religion came to be mooted originally by the Theosophiscal Movement started by Colonel Olcott of the USA and Madame Blavatsky of Russia, and two other movements: The Perrenial Philosophy, also called the Continuous Tradition, one of its proponents being Ananda Coomaraswamy, the celebrated scholar from Sri Lanka and the other movement being Neo-Hinduism, a movement ushered in mainly by the well known Indian philosopher and statesman, Sarvapali Radhakrishnan.

Professor Karunadasa posed the question whether we can speak of a transcendental unity of religion from the Buddhist perspective. The purpose of his lecture was to show that Buddhism is different from all other religions and that therefore from the Buddhist point of view we cannot speak of a transcendental unity of religion.

He pointed out that those who speak of a transcendental unity of religion maintain that all religions in common recognize a higher reality as the ultimate ground of existence. In theistic religions this higher reality is God, either a personal God or an impersonal Godhead. According to Hinduism this Higher Reality is Brahman, the Cosmic Soul. They maintain that, accordingly, Buddhism too must have a Higher Transcendental Reality and the Buddhist counterpart to this is Nibbana.

The best way to consider the Buddhist response to this question is to examine the Buddhist critique of views and ideologies. Normally when we want to criticize or argue against a point we resort to intellectual tools such as logical reasoning and philosophical investigation. According to Professor Karunadasa what Buddhism does instead is to identify the psychological factors that lead to the emergence of such views. He calls this the Buddhist Psychological Diagnosis of Ideological Positions. This he stated is something that is unique to Buddhism.

The best evidence of this comes from the Brahmajala Sutta, the First Discourse in the First Collection of Suttas, known as the Collection of Long Discourses (Dighanikaya). This Discourse, Professor Karunadasa says, begins with an enumeration of some sixty two religio-philosophical views prevalent during the time of the Buddha. What is most interesting about this discourse is that here not a single ideological position is rejected as wrong. All that the discourse seeks to do is to show, from a psychological point of view, how these views and ideologies arise, why they prevail in the world and finally, he stressed, how they can be transcended.

The Buddhist term for all speculative and metaphysical views and ideologies is ditthi-gata. This term includes all metaphysical views relating to the nature of the self and universe that are beyond personal verification.

According to Buddhism all these speculative and metaphysical views can be subsumed under two main headings: One is Sassatavada and the other is Ucchedavada. Sassatavada is the Buddhist term for all religions which recognize a permanent spiritual principle in the form of an ever-lasting spirit.

Ucchedavada, on the other hand, is the Buddhist term for all materialist ideologies. From the Buddhist perspective, both ideologies believe in a separate self, a separate individualized self-entity. The spiritualist version of the self, as defined in the Buddhist discourse, is based on the duality principle: "The self/soul is different from the physical body" (Annam jivam annam sariram). Whereas the material materialist version of the self is based on the identity principle: The self/soul is the same as the physical body" (Tam jivam tam sariram). We may represent the first as the theory of the metaphysical self and the second as the theory of the physical self. As specifically mentioned in the Buddhist discourses, all speculative views and metapysical theories relating to the nature of the self and the universe can be brought under either the spiritualist or the materialist ideologies.

What is interesting to note here is that according to Buddhism the spiritualist and the materialist ideologies are both due to what Buddhism calls sakkaya-ditthi, Personality View. Embodiment View — the belief in a separate self-entity. Why is sakkaya-ditthi identified as the root cause of all speculative views? Answering this question, Professor Karunadasa stated that we have sakkaya-ditthi when we have an egocentric perspective. It gives rise to a duality between the I and the non-I. As long as we are conditioned by the egocentric perspective so long all our judgements relating to the nature of reality will remain distorted.

Thus it is the Buddhist doctrine of non-self (the denial of sakkaya-ditthi) that prevents us from concluding that all religions are, in the final analysis, different versions of an eternal truth. Therefore, from the Buddhist perspective one cannot speak of a transcendental unity of religion.

He also pointed out that there are a large number of Buddhist schools, such as Theravada, Mahayana, Vajrayana, and what is more, what are called Mahayana and Vajrayana embrace within them a large number of sub-schools. However, what is common to all Buddhist schools is that they all reject the belief in a separate, individualized self. All their teachings are based on the denial of what is called sakkaya-ditthi. Therefore, we can certainly speak of the transcenedental unity of Buddhism. But not a transcendental unity of religion.

To conclude, he mentioned that if there is a doctrine which is unique to Buddhism, it is the doctrine of non-self.

If there is a Buddhist doctrine that is common to all Buddhist schools and traditions, whether they are Theravada, Mahayana, Vajrayana, it is also the doctrine of non-self.

If there is a doctrine that separates Buddhism from all other religions, it is also this Buddhist doctrine of non-self.

If one is asked, what is the Buddha’s most distinctive contribution to religious discourse, the correct answer should be: It is the Buddhist doctrine of non-self.

What about anicca (impermanence) and dukkha (suffering)? They were pre-Buddhist. It is of course true that the Buddhist idea of impermanence and suffering is very much different from how they are understood in other religions. However, unlike anicca and dukkha, anatta is unique to Buddhism.

What about the Buddhist doctrine of dependent origination? Is it not more central to Buddhism than the doctrine of non-self? Professor Karunadasa’s answer is that, in a way non-self means dependent origination. They are two mutually convertible terms. Whatever is describable as non-self is also describable as dependently arisen.

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