Essays In Buddhist Theology

Buddhist-Christian Studies 22 (2002) 228-229

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Book Review

Buddhist Theology:
Critical Reflections by Contemporary Buddhist Scholars

Buddhist Theology: Critical Reflections by Contemporary Buddhist Scholars. Edited by Roger R. Jackson and John J. Makransky. Surrey, England: Curzon Press, 2000. x + 410 pp.

This book is, in effect, an argument for and exemplification of a distinctive form of scholarly pursuit in the academy called "Buddhist Theology," and it owes its genesis to a panel of the same name at the American Academy of Religion meetings in 1996. Including introductory and concluding/responding essays, the book contains twenty-two essays by seventeen authors on a variety of relevant topics broadly divided into (1) explicit arguments for doing Buddhist theology (especially the "Editors' Introduction"; part 1, on "Buddhist Theology"; and part 3, titled "Critical Reflections") and (2) exemplifications of the same (part 2, "Exercises in Buddhist Theology").

These essays represent a considerable diversity in subject matter and style, and range from those offering specific critical studies of some aspect of the Buddhist tradition to those seeking to apply Buddhist principles to larger human concerns (for example social/ethical issues). While not all authors feel equally comfortable, it seems, wearing the label "Buddhist theology," one assumes their very presence in this volume affirms—minimally—their willingness to be (1) labeled "Buddhist" both personally and academically, and (2) associated with a theological enterprise in some way, shape, or form.

Be that as it may, for the most part these essays do not seem to be claiming any special knowledge, insight, experience, or authority because of their authors' connection [End Page 228] to Buddhism, though perhaps Roger Jackson's "In Search of a Postmodern Middle" (215-246) is the clearest articulation of what a Buddhist theological perspective in the academy might look like.

Indeed, what would a truly Buddhist theology look like, and how would it "play" in the halls of the academy or the pages of our disciplinary journals? Are we now to shift from talk about religion to religious talk? Do we now shift from talk about Dharma to Dharma-talk? To put it another way, would Zen Master Dogen be welcome here? Or, can self-confessing Buddhist scholars speak iconoclastically from out of emptiness and still get tenure?

It is not that this volume is insensitive to such issues, but it does not really test them, since for the most part the essays do not claim a "special transmission" outside the canons and criteria of scholarly work, nor do they Buddhistically challenge our forms of knowledge and usual modes of interpretation. Indeed, and again for the most part, these essays seem not to take seriously the practical implications of all this; namely the roots of a Buddhist theology (one presumes) in Buddhist practice and experience, and the implication of that for radically altered perspectives on any number of things. To put it another way, it is rather safe to do descriptive or historical theology in the academy, but what happens when one does a "constructive" theology or claims a special insight unavailable to most others?

Still another way in which the practical implications seem to be missing here is closely related to the above: What are the political (even personally economic) implications of all this in the academy? Is it not risky to reinsert a theological enterprise into Religious Studies in the academy just when we have begun to make the case with the larger community that Religious Studies and theology are distinct enterprises? Do we not lend credence to the current critique of Religious Studies as a "crypto-theology" by bringing theology (Buddhist or otherwise) back into the fold?

In brief, and not to give short shrift to the specific and often insightful essays making up this volume, 1Buddhist Theology raises as many questions as it seeks to answer, and it is hard not to see the forest for the trees or the tail wagging the dog.

Perhaps it would be better simply to drop the Buddhist (or Christian, etc.) part and grant that many of us are already doing theology...

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