While Buddhism has long been a subject of “theological” study in academia, there is lingering doubt in Buddhist circles, including among academic and monastic authorities, about the validity of the word “theology.” Critiques can come from traditional Buddhist communities, wary of discourse that suggest co-opting Buddhism into causes irrelevant to its practice and growth. Other critiques coming from academia see it as an unnecessary conflation with Western theology.
In the seminal anthology Buddhist Theology (Curzon Press 2003), its editors argued that Buddhists should not feel reserved about deploying the term theology:
Certainly, we must accord some priority to terms intrinsic to a particular tradition. We must recognize, however, that what is ‘intrinsic’ is not always so easy to recognize, for ‘traditions’ are subject to constant influence from extrinsic forces, and that their identity and stability are only relative. . . . Furthermore, even if ‘theology’ is admitted to have been foreign to Buddhism up till now, there is nothing dictating that Buddhists may not adopt it into the tradition in the future, if it seems useful to do so.(Jackson and Makransky 2003, 3)
Venerable Lobsang Lhamo is familiar with the ambivalence toward this term. However, the association she is a part of, the Associação Buddha-Dharma (Buddha-Dharma Association), aims to bring together propositional and experiential Christianity, and propositional and experiential Buddhism, to deliver a transformative learning experience. One of its academic branches, the Instituto Pramāṇa (Pramāṇa Institute), represents a major milestone for the practice and study of Buddhism in Brazil, as the country’s first center for formal Buddhist studies at the tertiary level.
Lobsang Lhamo has been working with Prof. Plínio Tsai, founder of the Associação Buddha-Dharma, to establish the Instituto Pramāṇa and the Instituto São Didymus (Saint Didymus Institute) as the academic branches of the Associação Buddha-Dharma. The association was created by Plínio Tsai in 2008 and focuses on Buddhist religion, interfaith dialogue, and social work focused on education. Lobsang Lhamo has said of the Associação:
It was to aid in his teaching Dharma and his aim of creating a solid base for its study and practice, including social action and through education. Both Institutes have their roots in the association’s early days but was not realized until nine years later in 2017. In our early classes, before any association or institute was created, we always had the dialogue between tradition, academy, western philosophy, Christianity, theory and practice.
The Instituto Pramāṇa offers an undergraduate course in Buddhist theology that is in the process of obtaining authorization and certification from Brazil’s Ministério da Educação e Cultura (Ministry of Education and Culture; MEC).
”We call it graduação livre or free graduation, when a course still does not have government approval,” noted Lobsang Lhamo. “We plan for this course to cover Buddhist traditional disciplines necessary to the understanding of Buddhism for Brazilian students, and others that cover the basic theological formation in accordance with MEC. We have the three main trainings of śīla, samādhi, and prajñā as the pillars for the course, and we look forward to Indian Buddhism, using the model of the ancient Buddhist universities of India.”
The Instituto Pramāṇa’s objective, according to its website, is “to promote and develop students’ scientific and critical thinking spirit among the different fields of human knowledge. Especially in theology (divinity), philosophy, and religion, in order to interact with the community in educational, social, and religious counseling organs, for individual and collective benefit.” The duration of the full course takes four years and is distance learning-based.
There were important reasons for seeking government approval and recognition. Lobsang Lhamo stated: “I believe the benefit of such a recognition has two main scopes: from one side, government recognition reinforces the importance of Buddhist studies in Brazilian academia. By the other side, students with a recognized diploma would have all the legal prerogatives therefrom. We have the help of professionals in the necessary adaptations, and the project is moving at a good pace. It is a big challenge to do all these adaptations, since many traditions—whether Mahayana or Theravada—agree that a traditional curriculum of complete studies in the Dharma would take many years—more than 20 or 30 years. So, in the academic field, choices and compromises need to be made.
“Since we also seek to reach people with few financial resources, we do our best to ensure that the amount charged for the courses is low, but that the quality of teaching remains high. Our teaching staff are very well qualified. All have master’s degrees and most hold doctorates. We are working hard to make up the materials (we have very few texts in Portuguese, so translating and writing are a necessity), as well as seeking constant improvement. And such qualification is not only in the technical sense, but also in the sense of generating, maintaining, and increasing a right motivation that seeks to benefit all, in accordance with Buddhist principles.”
Lobsang Lhamo expressed a belief that the project could have an impact on the Spanish-speaking region in general: “We have a committed student in Costa Rica and already have students from Colombia and Mexico, which is a benefit of having an online strategy for student admissions and courses. Translations of certain courses into Spanish are already in our plans.”
The Instituto Prāmaṇa’s approach to religious education is comprehensive and also faithful to the principles of “propositional, experiential” faith. A sense of openness is required to fully appreciate the theological depth of the courses, but such an open mind will be rewarded with a rich experience in theological training for the 21st century.
Echoing Jackson and Makransky’s words from decades ago, Lobsang Lhamo addressed the longstanding ambivalence about using the term “theology” in a course involving Buddhism:
The name Buddhist Theology causes some strange reactions in people for many reasons. Many people think about Buddhism only as a philosophy in the academic sense. More frequently, they see it as a ‘life philosophy’ in a loose sense. Other people think about Buddhism as a religion, but completely apart from Christianity. All these perspectives do not think about theology as a proper term to be related to Buddhism. But if we think that the term theology was born in Greece, before Christ, and it was related with searching the first principles of things through reason, there’s nothing wrong in using it. Besides that, the attributions of theologians in society are very important and more suitable to our purposes.
Until the beginning of this year, both the Buddhist and Christian theologies were part of Instituto Pramāṇa, until our actions towards Catholic Studies grew: from study groups to seminars about modern Catholicism, from the onset of the 20th Century to post-Vatican II. We began doing more projects with our Catholic friends, until we decided that would be better to form an independent institute, the Instituto São Didymus, that is in its beginnings now. Like the Instituto Pramāṇa, it also aims to offer in the future undergraduate Catholic theology – accessible, low-cost, and with teachers that will be rigorously schooled in Catholic theology.
Lobsang Lhamo concludes with a reflection on the present situation in Brazil:
The importance of studying both Buddhist and Catholic theologies is, by one side, to actually understand how different they are, and in doing so, engage authentically with each other. My country is predominantly a Christian country, and Buddhism is a tiny minority: less than 1 per cent. If I do not pay attention to my mind and the way I interpret things, I could project onto the Buddha ideas I used to project on God or Jesus, and vice-versa. It is therefore incumbent on the seeker that desires greater understanding of themselves to study the other side. The better they understand the differences, the more authentic the similarities they can glean, as well. As His Holiness the Dalai Lama says, each religion makes immense contributions to the wellbeing of humanity. We should therefore come together authentically, side-by-side, without mixing theologies.
Jackson, Roger and John Makransky. 2003. (2nd ed.). Buddhist Theology. Richmond: Curzon Press.
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