Buddhist Nonduality, Paschal Paradox

Christian Commentary on The Teaching of Vimalakirti [Vimalakirtinirdesa]

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
J. S. O'Leary
Christian Commentaries on Non-Christian Texts
  • Leuven, Belgium: 
    Peeters Publishers
    , February
     313 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Brilliant and amazingly productive, Joseph S. O’Leary ranks among those well-known Catholic priest-theologians who, in relation to the established tradition of Catholic theology, choose to be outliers. An Irishman who has passed much of his long career in Japan, he first gained widespread attention with his influential Questioning Back: The Overcoming of Metaphysics in Christian Tradition (Winston, 1986), which deconstructs the Church’s longstanding “onto-theology” (adapted from classical Greek thought). In La Vérité chrétienne à l’âge du pluralisme religieux (Editions due Cerf, 1994) and its subsequent English “rewriting” (Edinburgh University Press, 1996), O’Leary both engages European postmodernism and displays his growing familiarity with Buddhism. In books such as his Conventional and Ultimate Truth: A Key for Fundamental Theology (University of Notre Dame Press, 2015), the helpfulness of Buddhism to his Christian theological project reaches full flower. 

The Vimalakīrtinirdeśa (V), a Mahāyāna sūtra composed in the 1st century CE, has exerted a powerful influence especially in Far Eastern Buddhism (via Chinese translations), and particularly on Chan/Zen. Tellingly, its protagonist, Vimalakīrti, is a devout lay bodhisattva who helps to initiate what will become the pivotal Mahāyāna teaching of nonduality (the “emptinesses of not one/not two,” truly realized only by a bodhisattva). O’Leary’s project in Buddhist Nonduality, Paschal Paradox (BNP) is to study the illuminating wisdom/compassion of Mahāyāna’s nondualities, foremost of which is that “saṃsāra is nirvāṇa,“this impure world is the Pure Land”; and then to focus on the “face-off” between Buddhist nonduality and Christianity’s “Paschal mystery, a pattern of death-and-resurrection structuring human existence and expressing the entry of the divine into human history” (26). In order to achieve these aims, O’Leary works his way, chapter by chapter, through V’s text, juxtaposing in each case its pertinent Buddhist teachings and Christian doctrines or entrenched practices, the “woundedness” of which a Buddhist insight can be said to heal (48). 

O’Leary’s lengthy introduction announces his chosen themes: “nonduality” and “the nonduality of Wisdom and Compassion”; comparative understandings of “the sacral realm”; and the roles of “paradox,” “drama and debate,” and “sacrifices.” O’Leary begins with the awesome “gathering” of the “buddha-field” (Vimalakīrti himself enters in the following chapter), progresses chapter-by-chapter through V’s text—supplying hundreds of Buddhist/Christian comparisons (positive and negative) along the way—and ends with a summarizing conclusion. To cite a typical example of his comparative mode, when Śāriputra implies that the Buddha’s bodhisattvic practice must be impure because the Buddha’s buddha-field is impure, the Buddha answers that only impure awareness sees impurity. O’Leary extracts from this scenario a warning against Christianity’s “Platonizing” drive that condemns the fleshly present and exalts an unfleshly future. The risen Christ “exhibits the full glory of the human body,” and “history, transcendent realities, and eschatological striving are all a single nondual event” (63-65).

Those who know O’Leary’s work well know that within it he has several manifestations, and when he functions as a book reviewer, he has even been known to write quasi-contradictory reviews of the same book! There is—to invoke benign Buddhist epithets—the wrathful O’Leary, who is fiercely acerbic, belittling even the most hallowed beliefs, and there is the many-eyed O’Leary, circling around a subject and showing it to be multifaceted. In BNP, the wrathful aspect appears, for example, in lines that deprecate even the Creed: “A mind secure in faith-consciousness will meditate on the articles of the Creed only to deepen that consciousness, without busily seeking to adjudicate what degree of credibility the archaic language of the Creed possesses” (166). The many-eyed aspect—and here is where O’Leary is at his best, I think—appears, for example, in his circling from the absence of “any sacral or divine presence” (38) in Mahāyāna to the equally true affirmation of the “sacral elements” in Mahāyāna (41). 

BNP’s introduction already declares its endgame—“a supremely paradoxical conjunction: the nonduality of Buddhist wisdom and Christian faith” (26)—and ends 254 pages later by referencing the “ultimate gracious reality” toward which the nonduality points (280). For O’Leary, the “vast difference between the worlds of thought” (of Buddhism and Christianity), and their equally persistent nonduality, challenges both religions “to overcome their basic frameworks of understanding, as a deeper vision of reality begins to emerge” (278). In short, BNP ends by repeating one of the standard versions of pluralism, positing the numinous mystery as “ultimate reality” (a fat substantive noun, that) sucking in all religious articulations in the face of which all religious articulations, including “nonduality,” must necessarily disappear. 

What foretells O’Leary’s closeted adherence to the “ultimate” as “holistic” is his description of nonduality as “paradoxical.” Actually, as Robert Thurman explains, nonduality means not that non-unity and unity configure holistically, but rather that each of them is a negative (The Holy Teaching of Vimalakīrti, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1976, 163). Paradox, in both its rhetorical and logical meanings, closes into a holism, and that is why Derrida considers its mystical version “logocentric” (see Derrida’s “How to Avoid Speaking: Denials,” in Coward and Foshay, Derrida and Negative Theology, SUNY Press, 81). Wouldn’t numinous mystery be better served by using the “unconditioned” or even “the whence” as “pointers”?  

Buddhism and Christianity are “inclusivist” religions that relate asymmetrically to each other. Unless there is some supernal intervention causing their respective points-of-view to change while they are “in this life,” why shouldn’t Buddhists remain true to their definitive teachings that affirm self/Self-reliance and reject a supreme creator? Why shouldn’t Christians remain true to their definitive teaching that beatitude is found only through Jesus the Christ? Numinous mystery enabling such mutual lopsidedness is not served by the very human (and latently “male,” as Luce Irigaray well points out) models of a holism before which definitive teachings disintegrate instead of reaching—according to what eventuates as their ultimate roles—a transcendent fulfillment. For Christians in this world, numinous mystery can be signaled by the “unconditioned,” which is God in se, and by the negatively differential functions of the trinitarian relations themselves. For Buddhists in this world, numinous mystery can be understood as the “openness” of either nibbāna (Theravāda) or the dharmakāya (Mahāyāna).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Robert Magliola is Professor of Philosophy and Religions at the Assumption University of Thailand and Chair Professor (Retired) at National Taiwan University.  He is currently Interfaith Director at Ling Jiou Shan Buddhist Center in Flushing, NY and an Affiliate of Istituto Vangelo & Zen, Italy.

Date of Review: 
June 16, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Joseph S. O'Leary is an Irish Roman Catholic theologian living in Japan.


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.