Orthodox Christianity, which became a distinct communion of churches following the schism between Constantinople and Rome in 1054, is the majority religion in regions such as Greece, Eastern Europe, and Russia (with important minorities in Iran and Turkey). In recent decades, following the expansion of interfaith dialogue between Buddhism, Catholicism, and Protestantism, there has been gradually increasing interest in a potential dialogue between Buddhism and this specific expression of the Christian faith that is not only geographically and historically closer to Buddhist regions, but also shares some important thematic echoes. One milestone publication on the topic is Romanian theologian Ernest Valea’s 2015 volume Buddhist-Christian Dialogue as Theological Exchange: An Orthodox Contribution to Comparative Theology, which presents a dialogue between the Mahayana vehicle and the Orthodox Church.
Like the global Buddhist sangha, the institutional authority of the Orthodox communion is decentralized and “autocephalous” or self-governing, although unlike Buddhism, a specific individual (the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, based in Istanbul) holds a first-among-equals status among the fellowship. Opinions in the Church about the validity or desirability of interfaith dialogue will differ between communities as much as they do in Buddhism. For example, there might be more of an interest in interfaith dialogue among Orthodox communities in North America. Nevertheless, we hope that by engaging in good faith that there might be at least a meeting of mutual goodwill, in the spirit of conversation and not conversion.
In November 2014, Orthodox priest Fr. Antony Hughes gave a sermon on self-compassion at his church in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In one passage he urged that we embrace the “least of the brethren.” Here he used “brethren” to describe the “hungry, lonely, imprisoned parts of ourselves we usually treat with disdain.” Of interest to Buddhists is not only this internalization of society’s poor, lowly, and oppressed—but also the way in which Fr. Hughes proposes we deal with them. “For example, we are not angry people by nature [our italics] even though we may be prone to being angry,” he said. “The image of God in us is not angry. It is disturbed by nothing. Because the passions are not us, they can change. If we resist or deny them, they become stronger. If we meet them with compassion, we can befriend them and transformation occurs.” (St. Mary Orthodox Church)
“I do know that the main problem many people have in life, particularly in our culture, is that they believe they are not worthy of love. Bad theology and bad psychology often supports this false idea,” Fr. Hughes further said, invoking his studies of different schools of thought, both secular and spiritual. “Precisely because of Orthodox theology and what I have learned from the study of the world’s wisdom traditions and mindfulness-based therapies and science, I am drawn to the opposite idea.” (St. Mary Orthodox Church)
If the italicized segments—that negative afflictions are not our true self; that our true nature is disturbed by nothing, and that befriending and attending to them compassionately is far more preferable to suppressing them—strike a chord with Buddhists, it is likely because similar language is deployed in the Buddhist tradition when treating our mental defilements.
Buddha-nature is the undefiled and pure basic nature shared by all sentient beings, undisturbed by greed, anger, and delusion. Buddhists would also agree that we are not defined by our delusions: our fundamental enlightened nature is akin to a pristine lotus that arises unstained from the mud in a pond. Our mind’s true potential is to experience the Unconditioned whether it’s expressed, as prajna, bodhi, insight, enlightenment, or Nirvana. The Unconditioned is beyond existence and non-existence, the Dharma that all Buddhas discover and reveal to sentient beings.
It is also striking that the Orthodox tradition does not agree with Original Sin—the Augustinian doctrine that we inherit Adam and Eve’s guilt from the Fall. The Orthodox Church has historically not developed its thinking under the shadow of this doctrine as much as the Roman Catholic Church. In Orthodox belief there is an absence of guilt because the existential conundrum inherited from the Fall is not guilt, but death. Death is also the preoccupation of mainstream Buddhist belief. Of course, Buddhism and Christianity offer radically different ways to overcome death, with Buddhism preaching the removal of the Three Poisons that keep the process of death and rebirth going and Orthodox Christianity advocating the conquest of death through Jesus Christ.
What matters much more in Buddhism and Orthodox Christianity is a movement toward knowledge or insight of the transcendent dimension of life. This describes a process of learning and discipleship toward the perfection of the human being. In Mahayana Buddhism, this means no less than the realization of Buddhahood (apratisthita nirvana) itself. In Orthodox thinking, this process means the person eventually becomes deified in the true likeness of God (theosis).
Theosis does not mean becoming God, as the creator’s essence and his creation are fundamentally different, even though it means union with God’s energies. According to Buddhist thinker John Makransky, Buddhahood, in Mahayana soteriology, means “non-abiding Nirvana,” a state at once unconditioned and conditioned: personally free from karma yet “pervasively active within the conditioned world on behalf of others.” (Makransky 1997, 85) Within these divergent concepts of spiritual fulfillment are subtle ontological distinctions that could be fertile ground for future dialogue.
World history from the 16th–20th centuries unfolded in a way that contact was more common between Buddhist cultures and Catholic or Protestant societies. Even in today’s interconnected world, where interreligious conversations are much easier, the deep philosophical differences between Buddhism and Orthodox Christianity should not only be acknowledged but celebrated. Orthodox thinkers inevitably think of compassion, mindfulness, and working with defilements from a theistic perspective. Yet while differences are easy to discern, it is identifying and exploring the common echoes that can bear real fruit in relation to healthy interreligious relations.
Makransky, John M. 1997. Buddhahood Embodied: Sources of Controversy in India and Tibet. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
Valea, Ernest M. 2015. Buddhist-Christian Dialogue as Theological Exchange: An Orthodox Contribution to Comparative Theology. Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock.