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Entangled in Indra’s Net

In his book Why I am not a Buddhist (Yale University Press 2020), Evan Thompson declares that the disciplines of philosophy of the mind and cognitive science need to learn from Buddhist philosophy and not from mindfulness practices—regardless of whether they are rooted in the Buddhist tradition or decontextualized and secularized—if they truly want to transform, develop, and deepen our knowledge of the human mind. In the same way, I believe that philosophy and our thinking in general has to confront, if not embrace, the non-essentialism elaborated in much of Mahāyāna Buddhist philosophy if we are to develop our thought, gain a deeper understanding of how the world works, and apply it to the problems of our times. Today, I will illustrate how Tiantai/Tendai philosophy as presented by the scholar Brook Ziporyn can help us make sense of inter-religious and intercultural encounters.

Probably the most famous attempt to ground a theory of interfaith dialogue in Mahāyāna Buddhist thought available in Anglophone literature is Masao Abe’s (1915–2006) Buddhism and Interfaith Dialogue. In his essay “A Dynamic Unity in Religious Pluralism” (Abe 1995, 17–39), he uses the Buddhist tri-kāya (“three bodies of the Buddha”) doctrine as a template to illustrate the commonality among “all” religions. Ironically, the subsequent essay argues that “there is no common denominator,” (Abe 1995, 40–51) but this is a different issue. Employing a mainstream, Kūkai (774–835) would say “exoteric” (Kūkai 2011, 52) Mahāyāna Buddhist reading of the tri-kāya doctrine, Abe suggests that Gautama Buddha, Jesus, and Kṛṣṇā* embody the nirmāṇakāya (“transformation body”). Amida, “Yahweh,” (Abe 1995, 35) Allah, and Viṣṇu embody the saṃbhoga-kāya (“bliss body”). And the “formless and boundless reality of emptiness” (Abe 1995, 35) embodies the dharma-kāya (“truth body”).

While I believe that Abe’s model has enormous potential and is, regrettably, consistently ignored in contemporary—almost always Christocentric—discourse on interfaith dialogue, this admittedly very creative approach has two fundamental flaws: 1) it presupposes the tri-kāya doctrine and the worldview it proposes (a non-dualism between the immanent and the transcendent); and 2) at least the mainstream theologies of the monotheistic traditions will take issue with the assumptions that “God” is not conceived of as the highest metaphysical principle but is subjugated to a “formless void.” Mystics and theologians such as Paul Tillich (1886–1965), who later in his life developed some interest in Tibetan Buddhism, however, may agree with Abe’s typology.

An even more fascinating application of Buddhist Mahāyāna philosophy to interfaith theory and practice can be found in Brook Ziporyn’s brilliant Emptiness and Omnipresence (Indiana University Press, 2016), one of the best books in/on Buddhist philosophy to appear in recent decades. While Abe engages in some kind of comparative work mapping rudimentary—and especially abstract—structures of various seemingly conflicting theologies onto one heuristic model, Brook Ziporyn follows mainstream Mahāyāna Buddhist philosophy to its heart and imagines how classical Tiantai (7th–10th centuries) philosophy would understand and envision interfaith encounters in our age.

The short answer is that Tiantai philosophy would ask us to abandon all conceptions of “truth,” “tradition,” and “religious identity” (and by extension our all-pervasive theory and practice of identity politics) and take seriously the cognitive transformation, which shatters our illusion of being discrete selves and having discrete identities, as it has been taught in central Mahāyāna Buddhist texts. Tiantai philosophy lends itself especially well to this exercise as it combines the teaching of universal liberation as it is found in the Lotus Sūtra with the radical non-dualism and non-essentialism of the śūnyatāvāda (“way of emptiness”) philosophy.

As everyone familiar with Mahāyāna Buddhism knows, śūnyatāvāda can contribute a lot to our interfaith theory and practice: the concept of “emptiness” (śūnyatā) implies that there is no absolute truth and that all our truth claims and beliefs are nothing but “skillful means” (upāya). Similarly, the “twofold truth” (dva-satya) characteristic of śūnyatāvāda implies that it is the “ultimate truth” (paramārtha-satya) that all truth claims are only “provisionally” true and are, therefore, to be classified as “provisional truths” (saṃvṛtisatya), including the above formulation of the “ultimate truth” itself. Or, in Ziporyn’s language, truth claims and beliefs are only “locally coherent” but “globally incoherent” (Ziporyn 2016, 152–55). All truths, beliefs, practices, and “religions” are nothing but “rafts” (yāna) that shuttle us safely toward liberation, only to be discarded once we have reached the goal—even the raft of Mahāyāna Buddhism itself. (Ziporyn 2016, 33)

However, Ziporyn takes the implications of śūnyatāvāda to another level and to its utmost conclusion when he applies the “one-vehicle doctrine” (ekayāna)—paraphrased as “all three vehicles are one”—to interfaith encounters today. Ziporyn asks us to imagine that:

A Christian’s work, or Christ’s own work, would be to continuously appear as a Jew or as a Muslim and to produce many students who were self-professed Jews and Muslims . . . not secretly Christians but themselves fully believing they were non-Christians. The Christian should teach some of his students to be non-Christian, the Jew should teach some of his students not to be Jewish and so on.

(Ziporyn 2016, 134)

 Ziporyn then concludes:

The ideal of the Lotus Sūtra, Buddhahood, is the point of convergence and intersubsumption of all particular values, beliefs, and practices, including those of separation and transcendence and otherness itself. . . . The work to which we should devote ourselves is to discover what kind of universalizing pun of the other’s values reveals new dimensions of our own values. To meet someone with other beliefs is to meet our own unseen side, the repressed half of ourselves. Experience of otherness and even conflict is an encounter with our own unrecognized double meanings.

(Ziporyn 2016, 140)

In other words, religious identities, as constructed by our identity discourses, are abstract and do not reflect our realities. Identities, religious and otherwise, are only meaningful in an extremely narrow and localized context. They cannot be globalized or universalized. The idea that the constructed “other” is essentially different from us is an illusion. Comparative projects, like that of Masao Abe discussed above, illustrate that. But as Ziporyn’s reading of Tiantai clarifies, the similarities between traditions are not merely typological or morphological, they go deeper and reach to the very core of our existence. We do not merely share similarities with the other, the so-called “other” and I are intrinsically intertwined. In true interfaith encounters, to cite the immortal words of the Japanese Zen master Dōgen: “You attain me—I attain you.” (DZZ 1: 333) The constructed “other” is not an external reality but a projection of our “unseen side”—our “shadow projection” as Carl Gustav Jung (1875–1961) would say—since “when one side is illuminated, the other side is obscured.” (DZZ 1:7) We discover “our own unseen side” in so-called interfaith encounters.

I apologize that today’s essay exceeds the typical lengths of essays in this venue, but I would like to end here with an allegory** that I composed to illustrate the path toward the awareness that the real “other” lives inside of us as well as the attainment of the non-dual/non-essential encounter/unity with those we construct as “other.” The allegory is told by 12 pictures and poems.

Here, I will introduce four of them:

Illustration by Amber Takano. Image courtesy of the author

身处树上 – the top of the trees
感到安全 – feels peaceful and safe
虽闻狼嚎 – even though wolves howl in the distance
猴是树王 – monkey is the king of the trees

Illustration by Amber Takano. Image courtesy of the author

为探新界 – to explore new worlds
猴子离树 – monkey leaves the trees
忽然之间 – when, all of a sudden,
猴遇見狼 – a wolf shows up

Illustration by Amber Takano. Image courtesy of the author

返回家後 – upon returning home
猴饮甘泉 – monkey drinks from the spring
猴望水时 – in the water, however,
狼脸映出 – wolf’s face is reflected

Illustration by Amber Takano. Image courtesy of the author

在湖底部 – at the bottom of the lake
無數面現 – numerous beings appear
有帝釋網 – it is Indra’s Net
衆生共存 – the co-existence of all beings

Like the monkey in this allegory, we grow up in our own world, figuratively and literally. We internalize a specific worldview and interpret the world around us through this lens. Our world view seems self-evident until we are confronted with other worldviews. This happens in inter-cultural and inter-religious encounters. Being confronted with the reality that our worldview is not the only one possible but also potentially not even correct makes us feel uncomfortable and defensive. However, if we break out of this dichotomized thinking, we realize commonalities not unlike those that Abe talks about.

Moreover, we discover that the differences between us and the so-called “other” are artificial and artificially constructed. In real encounters, “you attain me­­—I attain you.” It is only in “the ideal of the Lotus Sūtra, buddhahood, [which] is the point of convergence and intersubsumption of all particular values, beliefs, and practices, including those of separation and transcendence and otherness itself,” that we are liberated from the prison of our ego-centered worldview, that we realize that diversity is not only an external but also an internal phenomenon, that we arrive at a place where the “universalizing pun of the other’s values reveals new dimensions of our own values,” and become aware of “our own unseen side, the repressed half of ourselves.” This is the point at which we find ourselves in Indra’s Net, embracing the co-existence of all beings. Then we are able to embrace the Buddha’s view. Then we ourselves become multi-religious and mutli-cultural.

* Abe adds “Muhammed” (Abe 1995, 35) to this list. However, this addition only indicates his gross misreading of mainstream Islamic theology.

** This a summary of a larger story, the Twelve Wolf Encounter Pictures, that I have published elsewhere. I have listed the titles in the bibliography. The idea, story, and poems are mine. The poems were illustrated by Amber Takano. I would like to thank Qianran Yang and Irene Lok for checking my Chinese.


Abe, Masao. 1995. Buddhism and Interfaith Dialogue. Ed. Steven Heine. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Kopf, Gereon. 2021. “Talking Across the Divide: Discovering our Common Humanity,” Proceedings of the 19th International Symposium on the Theory and Practice of the Teachings of Dharma Master Yin Shun [Hsinchu City on 11/06/2021]: 9–22.

Kopf, Gereon. 2022. “Envisioning Multi-Cultural and Multi-Disciplinary Engagement: Lessons from the Twelve Wolf Encounter Pictures,” Culture and Dialogue Vol. 10, No. 1: 60–94.

Kopf, Gereon. 2023. “The Theory and Praxis of the Multi-Entry Approach,” in Philosophy of Religion Around the World: A Critical Approach, eds. Nathan Loewen & Agnieszka Rostalska. London: Bloomsbury Academics.

Kūkai. 2011. “Exoteric and Esoteric Teachings,” translated by David L. Gardener, in Japanese Philosophy: A Sourcebook, eds.” James W. Heisig, Thomas P. Kasulis, and John C. Maraldo, 52–59. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Ōkubo, Dōshū, ed. 1969–70. Dōgen zenji zenshū (Complete Works of Zen Master Dōgen). Two volumes. Ed. Tokyo: Chikuma Shobō. [Abbr. DZZ]

Takakusu, Junjirō and Kaigyoku Watanabe, eds. 1961. Taishō shinshū daizōkyō (The Taishō Edition of the Buddhist Canon). Tokyo: Taishō Shinshū Daizōkyō Kankōkai. [Abbr. T]

Thompson, Evan. 2020. Why I Am Not a Buddhist. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Ziporyn, Brook. 2016. Emptiness and Omnipresence: An Essential Introduction to Tiantai Buddhism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

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