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Don Cupitt: Christian Buddhist?

Author(s): Gregory Spearritt

Source: Religious Studies, Vol. 31, No. 3 (Sep., 1995), pp. 359-373
Published by: Cambridge University Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/20019757 .
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Rel. Stud. 31, pp. 359-373. Copyright ? 1995 Cambridge University Press



In a number of ways, western Christianity has taken a genuine interest in the

thought-world and practice of Buddhism over the last few decades. Process

theologians have found much to enthuse them in the Buddhist rejection of

substance as a fundamental category and Christian mysticism has discovered
common ground with Buddhist
understandings Reality. of ultimate
Buddhist-Christian dialogue has been occurring at many levels, initiated for
the most part by Christians.1
Radical Christian thinkers have been among those attracted to Buddhist
ideas and attitudes. English scholar John Baxter describes what is, for radical
Christians, a aspect of Buddhism :
particularly appealing

here is a tradition which has sought to address itself to the human condition in terms
decidedly different from the supernaturalist theistic religions on the one hand, and
the of secular materialism on the other.2

In the recent work of Anglican a

priest and radical theologian Don Cupitt
deliberate attempt has been made to appropriate elements central to
Buddhist thought and practice. More than a decade ago, in Taking Leave of
God, Cupitt a 'Christian Buddhism' in which ?the content, the
spirituality and the values, are Christian; the form is Buddhist'.3 He has
since seemed to be edging closer and closer to a Buddhist understanding of
humanity and the world.
A comparison between Buddhist thought and that of Cupitt may be a

profitable exercise, insofar as it may help to clarify the nature of both.

Contemporary western religious humanism of the sort Cupitt proposes nat?

urally has its roots in traditions quite foreign to those which produced and
nourished Buddhism; how and where the two may come to similar con?
clusions and where they diverge is a matter worthy of investigation.

Inevitably, this exercise is complicated by questions of definition.

'Buddhism' and 'Christianity' are, of course, labels which denote a variety
of phenomena. For present purposes, the 'Buddhism' referred to here will be
chiefly the Madhyamaka variety of Mah?y?na Buddhism, particularly as

represented by the second-century philosopher N?g?rjuna, and Zen

Leroy Rouner ('Theology of Religions in Recent Protestant Theology', in Hans K?ng and J?rgen
Moltmann [eds], Christianity Among World Religions [Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1986], 109) offers several
suggestions to account for western activism in pursuing dialogue.
'The Sangha Comes West', Theology, lxxxix (1986), 176.
Taking Leave of God (London: SCM, 1980), p. xii.

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Buddhism. Zen, asMasao Abe points out, lies outside the fold of traditional'
Buddhism insofar as it involves no reliance upon and doctrinal
teaching.4 It has been demonstrated, however, that historically 'Buddhism'
is category largely created and constructed by western scholars of the

eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.5 In the context of the

Madhyamaka/Zen attitude to duality and distinctions, it is ironic that

Buddhism should be considered in any sense a religion separate from the
societies in which it is found, or as a religion as against other world '.
Nevertheless, western analysis/definition of Buddhism seems to have
influenced eastern as well as western
'Christianity' too is difficult to define, characterized as it is by an
incredible diversity of belief and practice, ranging from Jim Bakker to Don
is clearly on the 'outer' as far as 'orthodox' is
Cupitt'.7 Cupitt Christianity
concerned. Thus the Christianity referred to here is a radical Christianity,
one which rejects a supernatural aspect to reality, yet seeks to maintain a

perspective that is religious and is informed and inspired by Christian story

and tradition.

Just as, even within Zen Buddhism or radical

Christianity, there will be
a variety of positions and attitudes, so also to discuss the thought of Don
is to create a false category : himself stresses the fact that his
Cupitt Cupitt
'position' is For our purposes, however, Cupitt's thinking as
reflected in his books from Taking Leave of God in 1980 to After All: Religion
Without Alienation in 1994 will be considered. Roger Jackson comments that
in the west today 'the anti-foundationalist successors of Heidegger and
Wittgenstein dominate philosophical discussion';9 Cupitt will here be

regarded as amongst their ranks.

A word of caution is necessary for the present project of comparison.
Jackson has rightly warned that the game of matching Buddhist and West?
ern philosophical concepts... is danger-fraught and can be suggestive at
best'.10 An eagerness to find parallels can involve a distortion of one or other
of the
traditions; Conze notes that verbal coincidences can often mask
fundamental differences.11 The mere fact of translation can present
problems: the concept of'Nothingness', for instance, which is so important
for Madhyamaka thinking, is inevitably somewhat misleading in a western

Zen and Western Thought (Honolulu: University of Hawaii, 1985), p. 194. This work of Abe's will
be treated here as a primary source of information concerning Zen.
See Philip C. Almond, The British Discovery of Buddhism (Cambridge: University Press, 1988).
Ibid. p. 140.
7 iv (1990), p. 190. Cf. Don
Scott Cowdell, 'Buddhism and Christianity', Asia Journal of Theology,
Cupitt, Radicals and theFuture of the Church (London: SCM, 1989), pp. 53-4.
See the foreword to Scott Cowdell's Atheist Priest? (London: SCM, 1988), p. x.
9 '
Matching :
Deconstructive and Foundationalist Tendencies in Buddhist Thought ',JA AR,
Concepts 10
Lvii (1989), 565. Ibid. p. 563.
Edward Conze, 'Spurious Parallels to Buddhist Philosophy', Philosophy East and West, xm (1963),
p. 105. See also Peter Delia Santina, 'The Madhyamaka and Modern Western Philosophy', Philosophy
East and West, xxxvi (1986), p. 41.

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context. Moreover, Buddhist should not be compared too care?
lessly with philosophy in the modern west, since the former contains a strong
concern which is lacking in much western philosophy. Some of
these perils will, without doubt, attend and qualify the present study and its

As a final note on the questionof defining and representing Buddhism and

it is acknowledged with Masao Abe that neither religion is
exhausted religious truth is something to be
by philosophical thought:12
not merely discussed.


Don makes for Buddhism,

his admiration particularly Japanese Zen
Buddhism, In
response to critics who label him 'Buddhist' he
declares it rather an honour for aWesterner to be thought to deserve that
name'.13 One of his more recent works describes Zen as 'One of the most
Zen is regarded, in important
perfect of all religious traditions';14 respects,
as well worthy of Christian emulation.15
Three aspects of Buddhism
main hold special attraction for Cupitt. First,
one of his major concerns is the role and abuse of power in western society
and religion. He is
scathingly critical
'orthodoxy, ofcensoriousness,
and factionalism-... the whole apparatus of a "regime of
" '16
truth which has blighted Christianity down to the present day. Following
the later Wittgenstein and recent French philosophy, Cupitt sees no reality
as accessible apart from humanly construed and constructed reality; in
Christian societies this reality has been historically controlled and mediated
' '
by a powerful male hierarchy. The crushing overagainstness of God in
Christian theology has compromised human autonomy.17 A factor, therefore,
of primary appeal for Cupitt in Buddhism is the lack of an overarching,
on individual adherents.
power-wielding hierarchy imposing Meaning
A second aspect of Buddhism which holds particular appeal for Cupitt is
its spiritual focus. He extols 'the way the Buddha put spirituality above

theology by exalting the Dharma above the Gods'.18 Baxter rightly charges
him with attempting to make Anglican Christianity a vehicle for achieving
a way of being rather than an expression of faith in God.19 Cupitt is not
alone, of course, in a in the Buddhist emphasis on praxis for
seeing challenge
Christianity's fascination with dogma and orthodoxy.
And thus to a third major attraction of Buddhism: it is non-ideological.

12 13
Zmi P- I0?- Radicals, p. 143.
14 15
What is a Story? (London: SCM, 1991), p. 131. See Radicals, p. 157.
Ibid. p. 22.
Taking Leave' of God, p. 8. In Radicals (p. 73) Cupitt criticizes the concentration of spiritual power
in male clergy, with their orthodoxy, their franchise on forgiveness, their chain of command and their
18 19
proper channels of Grace'. Taking Leave of God, p. 8. 'The Sangha\ p. 177.

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the notion of fixed messages or essences; he advocates a

Cupitt has rejected
beliefless Christianity. Truth and orthodoxy in his view are, among other

things, subservient to power and should no longer be trusted. He is impressed

by Zen, a religion which, in Masao Abe's words, 'is neither dependent on

any sutras nor shackled by any creed or tenet'.20 Arguably, much Buddhism
does have a place for religious doctrine, but by and large such doctrines are
'instruments for transformation rather than descriptions of reality'.21


nature of ultimate reality

For Cupitt there is no longer an objective, ready-made, laid-on final Answer
and ultimate Truth of things'.22 No 'final analysis' is possible since there are
no essences, no Absolute. For Buddhism too (in Madhyamaka and
Zen) there are no basic, enduring facts of existence. Despite T. R. V. Murti's
use of the term 'absolute' to describe Madhyamaka's ultimate truth, there
is no Buddhist Absolute in the sense of a metaphysical entity or immutable
essence.23 Rather, the eleventh-century monk Atisa succinctly states the case :
If one analyses with reasoning this conventional realm as it appears, nothing
is found. The very nonfindingness is the ultimate.'24 Clearly there is simi?

larity here with Cupitt's position, but the respective conceptions of just what
this lack of an absolute or ultimate is do not coincide.
The ultimate for Mah?y?na Buddhism is s??nyat??,commonly expressed as

However, even Emptiness is not essentially 'true': it is not an

essence with attributes. It does not nor does exist.
exist, yet non-emptiness
For the Buddhist an absolute is necessary, one which negates even
the This is one of the fundamental principles of the
approach, that all dualities must be transcended if one is to
the true nature
of reality. Cupitt acknowledges and respects this
as a soteriological
of dualities approach and in his 1992 volume
The Time Being suggests possibilities for a Christian emulation of it, following
the Zen scholar Dogen.26 However, he does not regard transcended duality
#!!, p. IO5.
21 :
PaulJ. Griffiths in a work edited by him, Christianity Through Non-Christian Eyes (Maryknoll, N.Y.
Orbis Books, 1990), p. 137. This view is expressed in the Buddhist parable of the raft: a raft is useful for
crossing the river, but it becomes an unnecessary burden and a hindrance if you strap it to your back for
the rest of the journey.
The Long-Legged Fly (London: SCM, 1987), p. 151. See also Radicals, pp. 59-60.
23 to mean some kind of'limiting
See Jackson, p. 566, n. 6. If the 'absolute' is to be understood
believes it may apply to Buddhism. Cf. T. R. V. Murti, The Central Philosophy of
principle', Jackson
see also Santina,
Buddhism (George Allen & Unwin, 2nd ed., i960), pp. 336-7; p. 49.
24 of the Recent Work of Raimundo Panikkar: A
Quoted in Paul Williams, 'Some Dimensions
Buddhist Perspective', Religious Studies, xxvn (1991), p. 514. Masao Abe, Zen, p. 102.
26 for one so opposed to dogmatic
The Time Being (London: SCM,
'1992), pp. ' 127-30. Interestingly,
assertion, Cupitt seems to be fond of either-or argument, and has been criticized by David Jenkins
xciv on it in flights
(review o? Radicals in Theology, [1991], 60) for relying too heavily and simplistically
of rhetoric.

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as the nature ; he takes the nihilistic
of the Real view that there is no Real
to be found. Indeed, for him the Void and our need to face it is perhaps the
main issue.27 What is ultimately true for Cupitt is that the universe is empty
of essence or substance or meaning, but this is to say something quite different
from the Buddhist notion of Emptiness. For the Buddhist, s??nyat??expresses
something beyond mere absence. Thus Masao Abe :

N?g?rjuna not only repudiated the eternalist view, which takes phenomena to be
real just as they are and essentially unchangeable; he also rejected as illusory the
nihilistic view which and as the true
opposite emphasizes emptiness non-being
reality. This double negation in terms of 'neither... nor' is the pivotal point for the
realization of Mah?y?na Emptiness which is never a sheer emptiness but rather

Ontology and epistemology

Both Buddhist and

may be described as 'anti-realist5. For the
Madhyamaka or Zen Buddhist the western preoccupation with ontology is
fruitless: N?g?rjuna removed the question of existence from the sphere of
as categories or
debate by ruling out both existence and nonexistence
The Vijn?nav?da perspective was considered in error by
Buddhists because it assumed that consciousness had an on
: it wanted
tological ormetaphysical reality to posit something which would
not be negated. Cupitt notes the predisposition in the English-speaking world
to see God, the self and the cosmos in realist terms, and is scathing about this

preoccupation with substance, rejecting it as wishful and harmful.29 He

suggests that other ways of discussing God would be more for
' ' profitable,
using a centre-dispersed axis or in terms of biblical power and
weakness. too, sees consciousness as insubstantial: 'consciousness is
relational and temporal. It exists only where there ismovement, a movement
from to
sign sign.,30
Both Cupitt and Buddhism
acknowledge that, in conventional terms,
things do exist- of the Rock
Gibraltar, for example,' for Cupitt, is 'there'.
For both, however, the existence or true nature of anything at a deeper
level is undiscoverable and intrinsically so. This radical epistemological
scepticism derives from (or in the Buddhist case, accompanies) a firm con?
viction that language is non-referential. For Cupitt in particular this is a

primary theme. In The Long-Legged Fly he begins with the dictionary as an

illustration of the way in which all language works :

The dictionary is like the infinite Book of Sand described in a Borges story. It has
no because a assumes a of the
beginning, one-language dictionary working knowledge
very language it explains. You cannot consult this book (or indeed, any other book)
unless you already belong within the world of language. The dictionary cannot first
Cupitt warns, however, against reifying the Void : see After All: Religion Without Alienation (London :
SCM Press, 1994), p. 103. ?en, p. 159.
In The Time Being (p. 135) he speaks, for instance, of'our ugly, sinful and faithless desire for realistic
metaphysics and religious belief. Ibid. p. 88.

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initiate you into language : it can only refine your grasp of the nuances in a field of
differential between words, a field in which you stand. And
relationships already
this field is endless or unbounded like the surface of a sphere, for there is no last word
in the book that does not lead straight back to others.31

Language, says Cupitt, is ultimately about nothing other than itself. There
is much in common here with the Buddhist perspective as Harold Coward
describes it, wherein 'language expresses merely imaginary constructions
over ever access
(vikalpah), which play the surface of the real without giving us
to it'.32 Words, such as 'person' or 'self, are of use only in out
particular aspects of the conventional world of human experience.
An integral aspect of Buddhist scepticism concerning ontology and epis

temology is the conviction that nothing possesses svabhav? (self-existence).

Every word, according to N?g?rjuna, is devoid of independent existence;
even s?nyat? itself is not self-existing. So also for Cupitt, nothing stands alone.
can be contextualized historically and there is no foundation or
Goal to be found. We live in a world of signs which have meaning, as the

dictionary example demonstrates, only in relation to other signs. Cupitt notes

the similarity between his view and that of Buddhism ; for him, the main
difference is that where Buddhism has its 'boundless swarm of minute,
insubstantial reciprocally-conditioning events', he speaks of the interplay of

'signs' in a 'boundless, glittering, heaving Sea of Meanings'.33


Cupitt has been accused of having 'fallen for simple-minded de

constructionism in the most absolute and
totally dissolving way'.34 Jackson
sees deconstruction as serving to 'deflate the certainties to which human
thought-ever hopeful and ever-self-deluding is prone'.35 This is indeed
the way that Cupitt seems to view his work over the last decade or so.
Christians should be disabused of such archaic and destructive notions as a

powerful Father-God prescribing and dispensing Meaning and a more real,

enduring heavenly existence beyond the momentary and mundane. Cupitt's
deconstructionism involves analysis of cherished Christian
assumptions and attitudes, particularly in the light of his understanding of
the nature of language, and concludes with the exposure of these eternal
truths' as historically and humanly
locatable constructed fictions.
and methodology here are obviously similar to those of
Cupitt's project
Buddhism, of which deconstructionism was a fundamental
early Mah?y?na
aspect. A subtle dialectic was used in the Madhyamaka school to break down
the various contemporary theories of ultimate reality. In the belief that every
view must be relinquished in order to appreciate the true nature of things,
The Long-Legged Fly, p. 13.
32 xl
'Derrida and Bhartrhari's V??kyapad?ya on the Origin of Language', Philosophy East and West,
(1990), 3. See also Santina, p. 512. Radicals, pp. 42 and 43 respectively.
34 35
David Jenkins, review of Radicals, p. 60. 'Matching Concepts', p. 564.

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N?g?rjuna used reductio ad
absurdum arguments employing dialectical
strategies such as the tetralemma to negate even such hallowed and fun?
damental Buddhist notions as causality, time and motion. Much later, Zen
Buddhism used deliberate mockery ofconcepts 'sacred' in a sustained
of religion. Thus, the Zen saying:
for example, 'Encountering a
Buddha, kill the Buddha'. Cupitt is particularly taken with the Zen strategy
of using paradox and riddles to demonstrate the absurdity of life and of all
an ingenious and effective way around the problem
positions. He views this as
of self-reflexivity and paradox into which any kind of dogmatic assertion

inevitably falls.36
' '
The nature of the conventional world

There is broad agreement among Buddhists concerning the nature of the

apparent world, although not all see samsara as illusory. Ninian Smart quotes
from the Khuddaka Nikaya of the Therav?din canon :

... these -
conditions of life are without essence,
Conditioned, unstable and forever drifting.37

From a Zen of view, everything without exception is transitory and

perishable; nothing endures. There is no direction or goal. Masao Abe
observes that becoming, process, and flux have no ideological implication
inMah?y?na Buddhism'.
Although it is a Path, in reality it leads nowhere,
for there is nowhere to go. For the Zen Buddhist, zazen has no purpose : True
zazen in itself is true enlightenment.
In Cupitt's view, western philosophy has been in error for centuries
because it has been in headlong flight from time and change. In reality we
are 'adrift in an flux'; we should acknowledge
illimitable 'the poignant
insubstantiality, fleetingness or contingency of everything'.39 The nature of
language is such that beliefs, values and meanings inevitably change, and
with them one's own life plans change continuously and uncontrollably.40
Cupitt advocates a Christianity which is mobile and so can do justice to the

ever-changing nature of reality and truth.

There is further agreement concerning the world of conventional truth.
For Cupitt the human world is one of arbitrary distinctions. Language
creates a common life-world for us by differentiating feelings, thoughts,
objects; it is a world 'fictioned into existence from nothing'.41 A person's life
has no meaning or coherent structure save that which society gives it: it 'is
What is a Story?, pp. 131-3. See also The Long-Legged Fly, pp. 33-4. This problem of self-reflexivity
and paradox, ironically, affects Cupitt's own reasoning and conclusions, as he acknowledges : see Radicals,
p. 43 and The Long-Legged Fly, p. 35.
Buddhism and theDeath of God (University of Southampton, 1970), p. 8.
38 39
Zmi PP- l^7 and 200 respectively. Radicals, pp. 12 and 142 respectively.
Ibid. p. 58. In reflecting upon his own work, Cupitt notes (in Scott CowdelPs Atheist Priest?, p. x)
that 'The literary project takes on a Chinese-box quality: as I change, the project changes-and the
change changes too'.
What is a Story?, p. 81. On differentiation see The Long-Legged Fly,
through language, chapter 4.

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only of a narrative or an artistic kind of unification'.42 However,

while it is essential that we recognize it as fictional and arbitrary, the
conventional world is important and useful : it is acknowledged, for example,
that 'we have many powerful sciences'.43
For Buddhism too, conventional truth is fiction and illusion :

As a trick, a dream or a castle,

magic fairy
so should we consider duration, and dissolution.44
Just origination,
- conven?
Causality, karma, samsara and nirvana all are fabrications. The
tional world is a low-level truth created and maintained by the
mind' which has not yet rejected or overcome all possible
distinctions and dualisms and so become enlightened. 'Buddhism' itself is
conventional truth, since the notion of a Way or Path
merely participates
in the time-space locationist way of thinking which perpetuates suffering'.45
this world of provisional or conventional truth is illusory and its
concepts fundamentally in error, nevertheless it is of great practical import?
ance to the Buddhist. It is accepted as useful for providing patterns of
in the empirical sphere. In practical terms, for instance, it helps
to speak of'persons' or 'selves', although ultimately such labels are empty
of any substance or reality. More to the point, however, conventional truth
is regarded as a necessary prerequisite for the attainment of ultimate truth
or enlightenment. The attitudes of realism are pedagogical devices used to
of the highest
help deliver us from this world of illusion. The realization truth,
for example, on our comprehension of and our use of
depends language
linguistic conventions. N?g?rjuna, after all, followed the rules of logic in his

day, that is, he capitalized on the mundane realities of speech and logic to
deconstruct prevailing systems of thought.

The nature of the self

Jackson describes the traditional Buddhist view of the self:

what we call a is merely a constellation of five ever-changing
conventionally person'
of matter, sensation, and consciousness. Those
aggregates, recognition, dispositions
are exhaustive of the
aggregates 'person'.46

It is at this point the existence of the self that Buddhism in

Cowdell's view ismost divergent from Christianity. He adds, however, that
the closest Christian is found in the radical theology of Don Cupitt.47
Indeed, Cupitt's view is very similar:
Radicals, p. 58.
43 the scientific vision of the world in some detail.
Ibid. p. 86. In After All Cupitt discusses
44 in Frederick J. Streng, Emptiness: A Study in Religious Meaning
From the Madhyamakakarikas, quoted
(Abingdon Press, 1967), 'p. 49.
45 :Deconstruction and Reflexive Definition in Buddhism and
Phillip A. Mellor, Self and Suffering
Christianity', Religious Studies, xxvn (1991), p. 61.
46 of a classical Buddhist
'Matching Concepts', p. 569. See Masao Abe (pp. 195-6) for an example
for the idea of a substantial self.
strategy challenging
'Buddhism and Christianity', p. 194.

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[as persons] we are not anything that could be lifted out of the flux: I just am my
life, my external relations and the I hear and I can no more be
language produce.
lifted out of history than a wave can be lifted from the sea.48

For both Cupitt and Buddhism there is no substantial self. Moreover, where
in Buddhism the contrast between self and others has traditionally been
viewed as morally irrelevant (since the self is ever-changing and always
becoming 'other'), Cupitt claims to have found in postmodernism 'a

thoroughly wholesome loss of interest in the individual subject'.49

Despite this view of the self, a focus on the individual is apparent in both
and Buddhism. Buddhism has been described as 'a moi theory,
a morality
focussing on the psychophysical individual and relating it to both
and a cosmic order'.50 One of Cupitt's chief concerns
is the freedom and

autonomy of the individual. He admits that both Christianity and Buddhism

'traditionally and correctly insisted that one's first concern must be for one's
own salvation'.51

Concern for salvation

Buddhist as noted earlier, is not philosophy divorced from

of religious
meaning and salvation, as much western philosophy
has been. Langdon Gilkey describes the Buddhism espoused by Masao Abe
as a religious mode of existing reflected into philosophical categories, not a

philosophical mode of thinking resulting in a religion'.52 Smart observes that

the Madhyamaka dialectic is not merely philosophy, but a method of medi?
tation wherein the arguments are meant to be 'both valid and salvific'.53

Cupitt's work also has a constant soteriological goal, that of changing our
'for the sake of our salvation', he says, 'we need to become non
realists'.54 For Cupitt, salvation means coping with nihilism by knowing,
accepting and rejoicing in the fact that we are contingent and empty and
that we must create our own

Emphasis on the particular

In Buddhism and in Cupitt's work there is rejection of the notion of

overarching or underlying unity, and there is affirmation of a dynamic

particularity. Consistent with his concerns about the use and abuse of power,

Cupitt advocates

the thoroughgoing repudiation of any unitary control or closure of interpretation,

and the acceptance of a genuinely open and limitlessly heretical and mobile social
and order.55

Radicals, p. 42. See also pp. 19 and 70 and The Time Being, pp. 2 and 148-9.
49 50
Radicals, p. 39. Michael Carrithers, quoted inMellor, 'Self and Suffering', p. 51.
Taking Leave of God, p. 101.
'Abe Masao's Zen and Western Thought', The Eastern Buddhist, xix (1986), p. 113.
53 54
Buddhism and theDeath of God, p. 8. The Time Being, p. 163.
Radicals, p. 15.

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He rejects the suggestion that there may be one Ultimate Truth understood
in different ways, an idea supported by both eastern and western thinkers
such as John Hick and Swami Vivekananda. Our reality that is, language
- '
and culture is always shifting : The whole is so unbounded in every way
that there is no Whole'.56 There is only dispersal and an endless prolifer?
ation of meanings, particularistic points of view which interact and change
but are never resolved.

While Buddhism seeks to assert

of apparent the identity
opposites such as
samsara and nirvana, the result :universal
is not monism
and particular are
seen, paradoxically, to be one. So in the Pi-yen chi when J?sh? is challenged
with 'All things are reduced to the one; where is this one to be reduced?',
he replies, 'When I was in the province of Tsin I had a monk's robe made
that weighed seven Similarly, the rocks expressively in
pounds'.57 arranged
a Buddhist rock garden testify to the significance of the particular. Moreover,
sunyat? eschews all thought content, so it can be freely phenomenalized ; there
is no definitive or 'orthodox' expression of it, because all expressions are false.
Thus far we have similarity or agreement
noted between Buddhist thought
and the thinking of Cupitt in many areas. Both are anti-realist and

epistemologically sceptical. Both deny that anything possesses substance and

both display a soteriological focus on the individual. They have the tool of
deconstruction in common, are agreed in viewing the conventional world as
fictional and share an emphasis on the particular. Some minor points of
difference have been noted, but there remain several significant areas of

disagreement to consider.


Attitude to the 'conventional' world

It has been observed that Buddhism regards the world of conventional truth
as necessary for the realization of the 'higher' truth (sunyata). Indeed,
Jackson argues that N?g?rjuna affirms and actually establishes this world:

it is only because entities and are of svabhava that there even can be
concepts empty
a conventional world, for a world in which entities did have svabhav? would be a
world in which change was impossible, and the world is only comprehensible on the
basis of its changes, its differences.58

On balance, however, the Buddhist attitude to samsara could not realisti?

cally be described as anything other than negative. The conventional world,

with its objectified concepts and selves, is the source of suffering. Murti notes
that in this realm 'What appears as pleasure is pain in the making' : that is,
life is actually worse than it appears.59 The aim, therefore, is to escape this
world of woe, and this is, in theory, achievable:
56 57 58
Ibid. p. 41. Masao Abe, p. 208. 'Matching Concepts', p. 575.
Quoted in Mellor, p. 51.

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there is, O monks, an Unborn, an Unbecome, an Unmade, an Unconditioned; for
if there were not this Unborn, Unbecome, Unmade, Unconditioned, no escape from
this born, become, made and conditioned would be

As Conze puts it, the 'world weariness' of Buddhists 'is cheered by the hope
of ultimate release and lightened by multifarious meditational experiences
which ease the burden of life'.61
Where Madhyamaka Buddhism sidesteps nihilism by negating everything,
even Nothingness, sees and accepts nihilism as the inevitable conse?
quence of a postmodern understanding of history and language. He believes
we should welcome and embrace it. However, in spite of viewing the
'conventional' world as and empty in itself, Cupitt's attitude to
the world is positive. He condemns
the realism of previous (and current)
philosophy and religion as a desperate attempt to deny and fend oflfthe true,

meaningless nature of things, seeing in this strategy the debasing and

devaluing of the present world.62 This world, says Cupitt, cannot and should
not be escaped ', but rather faced with courage. The world is in fact beautiful
in its nihility, and although it contains a good deal of woe, life in it is not
unreservedly awful. We must make our own meaning, but our life can
potentially be 'a carnival of contingency'; a we can attain
delight in things that can cope with anguish and Passions
can be light and as well as dark and it is to
healthy threatening; possible
imagine a religion which a
'in mood of laughter added to life'.64

The nature of salvation

The Buddhist solution to the problem of the human condition is to escape it.
Through meditation, deconstructive
argument, mockery and paradox the
dualisms and distinctions
of the conventional world are broken down and
realized for what they are: completely empty in every possible sense. The
mind is voided of conceptualization and the self is recognized as devoid of
svabhav? and becomes 'cooled down', empty of attachments, projects and
goals and unrelated to temporal process. Yet this enlightenment is not
something to be reached or worked towards :

The harder strive after it the further it is away no more

you from you. When you
strive after it, lo, it is right in front of you. Its wondrous voice fills ear.65

Somehow, the Path itself turns out to be enlightenment. And true s??nyat??,
says Masao Abe, is positive, active and creative, affirming everything and
everyone in their
60 61
Fromthe Ud?na, quoted in Conze, p. 112. p. 113.
62 'Spurious Parallels',
See, for example, The Time Being, pp. 120-4.
Scott Cowdell's description of the attitude of Cupitt and fellow radical Christians in 'Radical
Theology, Postmodernity and Christian Life in the Void', Heythrop Journal, xxxn 66.
64 (1991), p.
The Time Being, pp. 160 and 165.
65 Cupitt,
Quoted from The Record of Lin-chi in Masao Abe, pp. 145-6. See also Abe, pp. 199-200 and cf.
Cupitt's analysis in The Time Being, p. 141. ?en, p. 182. Cf. also pp. 94 and 211.

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For Cupitt, salvation is a very different matter. The contrast between his
own view and the Buddhist position is an issue referred to extensively in The
Time Being. In Cupitt's view, the conventional world of language ('signs') is
not escapable. The truth of the human condition is that humanity is utterly
- '
immersed in a sea of language the boundless, glittering, heaving Sea of

Meanings' -which has no outside. For Cupitt,

to be completely returned into the only truth of the human condition is liberation.
Not release from the human condition, not deliverance from the world, but the
return into the human condition, reconciled to it when we understand its
Cupitt's position is thus to say a firm yes to time, conventional truth and the
human world'.68

Cupitt believes that his view is to be further distinguished from the Buddhist
solution in that it involves activity and creativity. Buddhist spirituality, he
asserts, with its temperance, dispassionate compassion and coolness sounds
like an ethic forCupittthe believes in participating
retired'.69 in the

ambiguities For
and vulnerabilities
of life. him, life is theatrical; our culture
creates roles for us which we must play and creatively interpret. We should
commit ourselves to our parts and put on a good show, producing our own
lives as art'.70

Further, the Christianity which accepts the fleeting, contingent nature of

the human world, according to Cupitt, will need to be 'lightweight' and
detached.71 In Cupitt's terms, however, detachment means radical non
realism rather than non-involvement with the conventional world. We need

to be free from our attachment enduring, extra

to the illusion of some

linguistic reality or meaning behind the surface phenomena of our world.

We will know ourselves to be insubstantial, but we will be truly free, self
determined and able to create.
This view of detachment is a long way from the notion that we must avoid

becoming tangled in human passions. However, in some respects it seems not

to be so different from the view espoused by Zen Buddhism. Masao Abe
of attachment in the sense of objectifying or substantializing. For
example, overcoming attachment to the goal of achieving the true Self means
the point, totally and existentially, where the true Self is known to
be unattainable because empty and non-existent.72 Thus far, since Cupitt
The Time Being, p. 182.
Ibid, p. 164. See also Radicals, pp. 61 and 145. Streng (p. 50) notes that from the Madhyamaka point
of view, time is inescapable but this is because there is no such reality to escape from. In Cupitt's view,
{The Time Being, pp. 135 and 178-82) time is a reality but it cannot be parted or distinguished from who
we are: time is being, being just is time. The Time Being, p. 148.
70 an active and passionate
Ibid. p. 149. While Cupitt's point concerning involvement in life is taken,
he does perhaps misrepresent the Buddhist case. Masao Abe, for example, (p. 111) declares 'free creative
activity' to be the result of the realization of total Nothingness.
71 72
See The Time Being, pp. 159 and 163. ?en, pp. 9-10 and 202.

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a mistake inherent in objectifying or substantializing (that is, in
seeing anything as real and not humanly created and interpreted) there
seems to be agreement. However, for Zen the cure for substantializing ideas
and feelings is not merely to recognize them as contingent and arbitrary and
to hold them 'lightly', but to overcome any and all distinctions. Accordingly,
Masao Abe the Genesis creation story: before the apple was
eaten, the world was without distinctions, truly ontologically
This world was destroyed with the advent of distinctions between
not but in terms of the
good and bad, which Abe interprets just morally
of value-judgements. Such judgements are an attribute of
making uniquely
self-consciousness, which is in turn a state wherein we are alienated from

Other differences
Cupitt lamentsthat still obstinately
Zen follows nearly all other faiths and

philosophies in locating salvation outside language in an ineffable Beyond \74

He reinterprets Zen's use of paradox and apparent nonsense as a response to
and an of the understanding of why there is nothing to be
understood: i.e. because language is outsideless and inescapable. The prac?
tice of
indulging in
language games with paradoxes 'stirs intelligence,
enhances life and returns us into the worldof signs refreshed and delighted \75
Buddhist concerns about duality and distinctions are, to an extent, shared
for example, that in 'carving up' the world to
by Cupitt. He acknowledges,
make it intelligible, language inevitably alienates one thing from another.
He sees a need
to re-integrate a number of the dualisms that our culture has
created and asserts the possibility of a dialectical movement in Christianity
in which these are radically contrasted and then radically
conjoined and united. In the Christian incarnation he finds
the possibility of
'conjoining again everything that the platonic dualisms had disjoined the
eternal and the temporal, absolute and relative, necessary and contingent
and so on'.76 However, language for Cupitt inescapably involves distinctions
and thereby creates the only reality that we can know. Indeed, the
distinctions by western
introduced 'observational sciences' enrich our ex?

perience of life.77 In any case, an attempt to throw off completely the cultural
construction of the world and return to pure unstructured becoming would
be a futile exercise, since if it were successfully accomplished it would leave
us unable to say anything about it or even to apprehend what it was.78
' '
Jackson suggests that there seems to be a latent foundationalism even in
the radically deconstructionist Madhyamaka Buddhism. N?g?rjuna argues :

73 '
Such a state is sunyata : not a nihilistic emptiness but rather a fullness of particular things and
individual persons functioning in their full capacity and without mutual impediment' (Zen> p. 211).
74 75
What is a Story?, p. 136. Ibid. p. 138.
76 77
Ibid. p. 4. See also pp. 90 and 129-30. See After All, pp. 80-3.
What is a Story?, p. 177.

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If I would make any proposition whatever, then by that I would have a logical
error; but I do not make a therefore I am not in error.79

Enlightenment, however, ultimately depends on knowledge, which is one

reason, as we have noted, that conventional truth is not utterly devalued in
Buddhism. If enlightenment depends at least partly on of the way
things are, then there must be an identifiable way that things are. And there
must exist an epistemological basis for apprehending this Jackson
concludes that N?g?rjuna's 'entire critical enterprise can be
only finally
understood within the still larger frame of a conventional Buddhist pursuit
of enlightenment'; N?g?rjuna presupposes that some conventionalities have
enough of a foundation in that the world and the
reality ordinary
deconstructive project itself can make some sense.81 Surely, a
if only in weak
sense, this is a 'position' of a kind.
If this argument is valid, then Buddhism refutes itself: N?g?rjuna has a
position (of sorts) and is thus in error.
is also engaged in a
deconstructive enterprise, and his claim that there is simply no Truth or Way
that things Are is similarly self-refuting, since he is in effect proposing just
another Truth (albeit radically different from the prevailing realist views in
' '
the west). However, Cupitt acknowledges both that he has a position and
that it is vulnerable to this contradiction. He relies, he says, upon the very
Logos he attacks.82 He seems to accept this paradox as inevitable, that is, as
the price of living completely within language. It is impossible to assert self

consistently in language that there's an objective God's-eye-view of how

things Are or to assert that there's anything In his view,
beyond language.
as we have seen, Zen's strategy of using riddle and paradox can be

interpreted as an understanding of this fact.

To sum :
up while there are extensive areas of agreement and similarity
between Cupitt's ideas and Buddhist thought, the two diverge in important
respects. Where Buddhism is basically negative towards the conventional
world and plots to escape it, Cupitt accepts and affirms the world despite
it as nihilistic; for him it is inescapable and should engage us
wholeheartedly. Where Buddhism recommends the transcending of dualities
and distinctions, Cupitt sees the world as entirely language-formed and thus

inevitably involving distinctions. He

advocates, however, an attitude of

irony, of 'sitting light' even to the basic distinctions inherent in self-con?

sciousness: self-consciousness is itself a trick of language 'bending back upon
itself, without substance or enduring
reality. And where
something quite
Madhyamaka Buddhism to holding
will not a 'position',
admit Cupitt
acknowledges that his claims for no Reality are logically self-refuting.
There are two more areas of similarity worthy of note. Murti observes that
79 80
From the Vigraha-vyavartani, quoted in Streng, p. 93. Jackson, pp. 569-71.
Ibid. pp. 575 and 585.
See Radicals, p. 43; The Time Being, pp. 115 and 121 ; and What is a Story?, pp. 131-8.

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the Madhyamaka system has often been criticized as 'a
' ' species of philosophi?
cal sadism which savours of ill-will
symptomatic of a disposition that sees
no good in others'.83 is similarly regarded by some of his critics as
dogmatic and wilfully destructive.84
A more positive point of convergence between Cupitt and the Buddhist
thought world, and a fitting one on which to conclude, is that, as Masao Abe
puts it from a Buddhist perspective, 'eternity manifests itself in the here and
now, and life at this moment is not a means to a future end, but is the end
itself'.85 So too for Cupitt: eternal life is realized in the 'winged joy, the non
and transient happiness of those who can truly say
clinging, non-acquisitive
to time'.86
That Don a product of western culture and philosophical
tradition, should finally and fundamentally disagree with Buddhist

prescriptions for salvation is hardly surprising. What is perhaps remarkable

is the extent of similarity and agreement that has been possible along the

Department of Studies in Religion,

University of Queensland,
St Lucia 4072,
The Central Philosophy, p. 334.
See David Jenkins' review of Radicals and Steven R. L. Clark's review of Creation Out of Nothing
{Religious Studies, xxvn ( 1991 )). Clark (p. 561) finds Cupitt's claims 'simply maddening'.
#?, p. 215.
The Time Being, p. 177. See also Cupitt's discussion of'affirming the Now' in After All, pp. 56-7.

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