I Am / No Self does not comment on the Heart Sutra vis-à-vis particular Christian notions, but rather takes the emptiness of self, as taught in that Sutra, as a broad philosophic background for reading the Gospel. My claim is that Mahayana philosophy can be, and in some cases is, a valid approach to our Christian scriptures, equally fruitful if not more so than more comparative approaches that simply contrast Christian ontology with Mahayana emptiness. Given the pervasive ontological reading of the Gospel of John over the centuries, such a Mahayana reading is more skillful for our times, when critical readers are disinclined to accept the commentarial promotion of any scriptural discourse to an objective and absolute status.
Mahayana proceeds by negating the normative practice of contrasting subjective and objective poles, which is often taken as the only framework for theologizing. In such a polarized framework, one is left with either affirming claims of a frozen objectivity or accepting mere subjectivity. But the focus of Mahayana is upon awakening, involving the recognition that there is at once both a non-discriminative wisdom—apophatic and silent—and at the same time, a need to enunciate doctrine as skillfully as possible in conventionally true verbal teachings. I try to avoid synoptic readings that would align a Buddhist text alongside a Christian one. I believe that this practice constricts the meaning of both texts, since because of our radically incommensurate philosophic histories, one cannot mirror-read one set of ideas into another. An organic blending of philosophic notions such as here attempted is intended less as a work of tentative negotiation between two texts than as an enrichment of one text, The Gospel of John, by the perspectives of another set of more distant texts.
Unfortunately, the endeavor was not, as O’Leary notes, very “economical,” for the submitted manuscript was too lengthy for the guidelines of the series and I was constrained to eliminate many notes that engaged the Christian scholarly works. Although I found that most of the commentaries I employed were ontological in approach and therefore within my context less useful and rather stodgy, the elimination of so many of the footnotes meant that the final product comes out as less scholarly.
The main section of the brief Heart Sutra is taken directly from the Chinese translation of a passage from the Prajñāpāramitā corpus, repeating its Chinese word for word. That is what first led Jan Nattier to think it was originally put together in China, rather than translated anew from the Sanskrit text., which would surely have offered a slightly different Chinese version. In the early days of Chinese acceptance of Buddhist texts, back and forth translations between Sanskrit and Chinese were not, I think, so very unusual. So the presence of Sanskrit commentaries is not surprising, and yet there are over a 1000 Chinese commentaries in the canon. In any event, the original form of the Heart Sutra does not figure in its interpretation, for there are no significant semantic differences between the Sanskrit and Chinese versions.
It is not merely that I find that the Buddhist anthropology of the skandhas resonates with the Johannine vision. I do so, but even more I find the adoption of this anthropology to be useful in undermining the confidence of a reader who assumes a standalone reader persona. John itself accomplishes a similar undermining in its use of double irony: first setting the reader on the high ground of being in-the-know with Jesus vis-à-vis Nicodemus or the Samaritan woman, and then collapsing that surety by means of its high christological affirmations, which leave everybody much in the dark of its abundance of light. When read as ontological claims, John’s affirmations become twinned with a somewhat lower but equally ontological affirmation of the standalone being of the reader. By contrast, adopting of the emptiness of self “reduces” questions of identity to their dependently arisen status—consistently bringing up the component factors of our human being, the normative perceptions, insights, and orientations that direct our life courses, none of which truly apply to the ultimate meaning of our lives, the God who groundlessly swims through Jesus’ “I am” statements. If we can own up to our own human groundlessness, then we may the better construct a reader/disciple who is able to approach John’s gospel without the ontological baggage of our tradition. To read the gospel groundlessly surely shifts the ground of any High Christology that would locate its ground in "being itself."
It is true that I detest crude conceptions of God, as does Joe O’Leary, but although nuanced theologians have long since discarded such obstacles, I find that those notions perdure in the culture, widely and tenaciously. Theologians may well have raised his voice against the idolatry of substantialist notions of God. Nevertheless, naïve images and notions of God seem hard-wired in our neural desires and well supported in the traditions, most pronounced in exegetical works. Commentary after commentary purveys notions of a divine being who is well-defined in being, if inscrutable in willing.
I did overlook the article in 1:1. It is pros ton theon, and not pros theon. But the “subtle” discussion of Origen escapes me. In the many commentaries I read, his treatment was never mentioned. It is replete with a plethora of Biblical citations that serve more to confuse than to elucidate the passage in question. There has been a dispute among a few scholars over the import of the anarthous theon; some wish to understand theos here, not as God, but as “divine.” But there is a perfectly good Greek word, theios, for divine, and that is not used here. Following the commentaries I employed, I do not think that here there is any real “distinction between the Father as the Logos embodied in the phrase ho theos or theos.” These trinitarian concerns lie beyond the horizon of this verse. So although I have read the passages from Origen’s Commentary on John, they do not shed light for me. Thus, I would like Joe to say a few more words on just how Origen provides an antidote to Nicaea and Chalcedon categories read back into John.
Joe makes a number of "could-have” and "should-have” suggestions, most of which I concede, merely noting either that I did not think of them or that I could not see how to proceed further. To O’Leary’s question, “Could a more precise and illuminating application of Buddhist emptiness be possible or desirable here?” I would agree: surely such is entirely possible, and desirable, but just did not occur to me.
Still, as in the dialogue with the Samaritan woman, I would insist that there are no privileged languages. The constant interpretation of the commentaries has largely been to note the stable irony and contrast the words of the woman who does not understand with the truth expressed by Jesus, taken to be the objective, ontological true coin of this realm. But the claim of other interpreters that there functions throughout John a double, unstable irony disallows the surety of such approaches. The reader is not to rest assured in sharing Jesus’ true perspective against Nicodemus or the Samaritan, or the supposed latent intent of the author in chapter 6, but to recognize that even the most exalted words that appear in the gospel remain conventional speech, moving at times closer to apophatic transcendence, but never themselves finding purchase in a locatable realm of divine truth and being.
Other questions are more easily answered: “Jesus is not an ultimate revelation event whose content is a universal insight into the empty nature of being.” Emptiness is but another conventional word, used to banish ontological pretentions. The usual phrase is the “empty nature of beings,” not the empty nature of being. For it is does not move in polarities of being and nonbeing, but serves as a non-affirming negation, i.e., it negates that things stand alone in their self-sufficient essences, but does not affirm that in contrast there is something called emptiness that might be the actual nature of things apart from their dependently arisen character—which itself can never be ultimate.
The denial of self-assured identity does not “leave us with a vagueness about God, Christ, and eternal life,” but with a reverential silence that refuses the anodynes of ready answers: We do not know what God is; we learn Christ over the decades of our lives; and we await eternal life as an eschatological fulfillment whose contours we can neither grasp nor map. To abide in God is not to abide in emptiness, for emptiness describes no separate realm wherein one might abide. Which is why Mahayanists constantly speak of a non-abiding abiding. It does entail a “closure on fixed identities and substances,” but hardly on “presences,” for our lives are built upon the presence of the absent Christ and the absence of the ever-present Father, as well as upon our presence to one another.
I am not sure which texts have “supreme religious authority.” Within the Christian canon we generally favor some texts over others, and in our liturgical lectionaries we simply omit distasteful passages from our cycle of scripture readings in church. Among Buddhist texts, I clearly accord more weight to the classical Mahayana scriptures and commentaries that express the philosophy of emptiness, aware of but not employing the few Indian scriptures and commentaries on tathāgatagarabha themes. I cherish Chan and Zen texts, but do not much prize the works of D. T. Suzuki or Masao Abe, precisely because they do outline a sphere wherein emptiness functions, “the locus of place,” wherein affirmation and negation mutually support and negate one another in dialectical interplay. The Buddhist canon is so vast that it encompasses diversetraditions alongside one another, while the New Testament is so short that it demands one attend to each and every text as authoritative. So I do not see much of a parallel between “the Buddhist and the Christian texts” in terms of their authoritative role in tradition. Rather, more concretely, I employ Mahayana scriptures together with the classical commentaries of the Mādhyamika and Yogācāra in India; and lately I have been looking to the work of Chih-i, the architect of the T’ien-T’ai tradition, and his varied teachings on the threefold truth.
The autobiographical “vignettes” offered in my book do not intend to provide any groundedness for the accompanying commentary. Quite the contrary, they are meant to describe, in a few stokes, just how my religious groundedness lost its ground and its cultural surety, leaving me with a faith that is more and more bereft of comforting images and theological explanations. It has become a very raw faith, knowing less and less, yet urging me to grapple with the blood-red gospel body of the broken and risen Christ. We are saved by faith, not by knowledge, even if we cannot envisage from here the formal structure of our eschatological longing.
We invoke the names of God and Christ because we live in a named world and apart from naming there is no speaking. When we want to mark some names as deserving of reverence, we do well to follow the lead of Philippians 2:6, where Christ himself does not regard his equality with God as anything so special, literally, “anything grasped as victorious booty,” so as to abandon status altogether and take the humiliated status of a slave. That Philippian hymn is probably our earliest Christological confession, cited by Paul in the year 54-55. But the loss of status by the humiliated and crucified Christ is then reversed, not in an empirical victory or a conventional promotion of his name, but by being “more-than-exalted” and receiving “the name that is beyond all names,” i.e., the very name of YHWH, unpronounceable because bereft of the vowel markers that would make it voice-able. The adoration and trust for Father, Son, and Spirit are boundless because we erase the boundaries that would define them as over against us. We can do that because we set up those boundaries in the first place. To cling to the specialness of Jesus is to remove Jesus from ordinary life and make him into a sacral person; yet we live only our ordinary lives, which are to be conformed to the measure of Christ.
Perhaps “I and the Father are one” can be understood in Vedānta’s terms as non-dual with the Father. But I do not know very much about Vedānta and have not read widely in Śaṅkāra. I would rather see the identification made by the text as a challenge to the reader to abandon set limits to identity altogether with a Christ who is defined beyond imaginable delinition, redirecting attention to the living waters that bubble up from within as we experience prayer and liturgy. The non-affirming negation of emptiness means that anything I wrote enjoys no more status than any other thought or expression. So I wonder if in the Johannine horizon, the Father and the Son are “objects” at all, for they do not stand over against a secure subject. I do think that it is best to understand the scriptures and the later conciliar traditions as affirming the identity between Jesus and God the Father. I cannot see any other way to read and understand the creeds. Yet I think that identification makes sense only if we reconfigure what identity means.
I am not sure what “a realistic assessment of the genre” of the Lazarus story is. It is an awakening account. Also I would empty John’s appearance accounts of the risen Lord just as I did in my study of Mark. I suppose I simply took that for granted.
It is true that I find John to be difficult. Not only for a Mahayana reading, but for any reading. It never fit easily with Christian ontology. Perhaps Raymond Brown is on the mark when he interprets John’s prologue in Chalcedonian terms, but then the issue of the adoption of Greek ontology is forced back from Patristic times right into the New Testament. Some New Testament texts—such as Mark, James, and Philippians—are quite open to being read in terms of emptiness. Others are more resistant. As was John for me, and now Colossians and Ephesians. Colossians adopts almost wholesale the Middle Platonic and Stoic cosmologies then current, only substituting Christ as the pervasive force that reigns over the cosmos. Does that mean that we are wedded to ancient cosmology? We agree that the Household Codes in Colossians and Ephesians mark the morality of a bygone age. Likewise, then, we ought to mark the cosmic ontology of Colossians as similarly skillful for its times but to be abandoned today. Some of questions that bedeviled Stoic physics are no longer of interest; we are not concerned with knowing what "holds together" the elements of the cosmos. It is neither Zeus, nor Fate, nor Nature, nor Christ, but rather gravity. Nevertheless, we still ask some of the same questions: Where and why did it all come about? Where are we going? I would suggest that scriptural answers are not theoretical cosmic speculations, for such fundamental questions are approached only in an indivisible practice of a path that moves in awakened risen life to speak of a Christ wisdom that can enlighten the eyes of our hearts.
Reading Christian texts within Mahayana frameworks or Buddhist texts within Christian frameworks entails the conscious creation of a reader who is conversant with and appreciative of both traditions. Commentaries often prove unsatisfying when they move only within their own scripted world of meaning, dismissing blithely things poorly understood and assuming a common acceptance of biblical perspectives. But those perspectives are no longer common, and commentaries that fail to attend to the many worlds of meaning available to attentive readers familiar with the plurality of religions will fail to find purchase in their minds.
 See Keenan, “Mahāyāna Emptiness or ‘Absolute Nothingness’? The Ambiguity of Abe Masao’s Role in Buddhist-Christian Understanding,” in Revue Thélogiques, forthcoming 2013.