The Buddha Meets St. Thomas Aquinas:
An Imaginary Dialogue
By Fr. Bernhard Blankenhorn, OP
Many Westerners are interested in Buddhism today. Numerous “seekers” are drawn to its venerable ancient tradition as a potential path towards personal fulfillment. Even many practicing Christians are attracted by its methods of meditation and promise of greater personal wholeness. The considerable size of the Asian Religions section at many bookstores confirms that Buddhism is in a sense “in.”
The attraction of Buddhism in the West raises some important questions. To what extent are the teachings and practices of Buddhism compatible with Christianity? Are persons drawn to elements of Buddhism that they could actually also find in Christianity, though they do not realize it? How do popular conceptions about Buddhism compare to the authentic common teaching of that great Asian religion?
I would like to tackle these questions by constructing an imaginary dialogue between the Buddha and St. Thomas Aquinas. I am going to focus on the ancient Buddhist teachings attributed to the Buddha. I will ignore doctrinal differences among the various Buddhist schools and instead focus on the teachings that they commonly accept as truly coming from the Buddha. I’ve chosen Thomas as a dialogue partner because he’s both one of the two or three greatest Christian theologians of all time, and because he is a true spiritual master. Thomas was also a master at engaging non-Christian thinkers. He often appropriated elements of their philosophies that he found to be compatible with the Christian faith. Aristotle and Plato influenced him, not to mention medieval Islamic and Jewish philosophers. I also know more about him than about any other theologian.
The lives of the Buddha and Thomas are in some ways strikingly similar. According to the ancient biography, the Buddha was a prince in India whose father wanted to ensure that he was immersed in a life of delight and pleasure, far removed from all suffering. But one day the Buddha renounced all wealth and privilege to become a poor wandering contemplative and preacher. Thomas was raised in the lower nobility in 13th century central Italy. His parents had him kidnapped to prevent his becoming a full-fledged Dominican friar, in other words, a poor wandering contemplative preacher. Thomas prevailed and spent much of his life praying, studying and teaching about God, the world and salvation. He and the Buddha were so convinced that they had found the ideal life and the best path to spiritual liberation, so they left everything else behind.
The encounter I am going to construct will in some ways be very strange. The Buddha lived centuries before Christ, and seems to have been fully unaware of Judaism. Apparently, the Buddha was not exposed to Western monotheism. Thomas and the medieval West seem to have known nothing of Buddhism.
My sources consist of an anthology of the Buddha’s discourses as well as numerous books by Buddhists and Buddhist scholars who are at least strongly sympathetic to that great Asian religion. My aim has been to learn Buddhism from within, from its practitioners and promoters. I am hardly a Buddhist scholar, but I’m convinced that one can only learn a religion from within, and not by reading its external critics who do not breathe its air nor have truly immersed themselves in a religion’s inner logic. This is important. For example, many people today gain a superficial knowledge of Christianity by reading mostly its outside critics. Their understanding of Christianity becomes a caricature. My knowledge of Thomas comes from years of daily immersion in the primary text.
In the following discourse, I will refer to St. Thomas Aquinas as simply Thomas and to the Buddha by his family name Gautama. Every assertion that I put in their mouths is founded on their teachings.1
The first session’s topics will include the following: the nature of truth, faith and dogma, the nature of the universe and the human being. In the second part, we will deal with notions of “fallenness,” ethics, the goal of life, contemplation and meditation.
One day St. Thomas Aquinas traveled to India. There in a beautiful park, he found Gautama Buddha sitting under a tree. Thomas warmly greeted Gautama, and the Buddha in turn welcomed the tall, big-boned Dominican. A group of Gautama’s monks was sitting nearby, while two Dominican secretaries accompanied Thomas to take down a transcript and prepare it for publication. Someone explained to Gautama that despite his physical size, Thomas ate fairly little and has led an ascetical life. Gautama was grateful for this information, but said that he already knew this.
Thomas sat down across from the Buddha and said: “Gautama, I have eagerly looked forward to this meeting. I have heard great things about you and am eager to hear from you. I have read some of your discourses, and am very curious about many things that you say.”
The Buddha answered: “O Thomas, I have seen all of your past lives. I admire the balanced detachment from sense pleasure and wealth that you practiced in your last life. I must hear what kind of teaching led you to do this. I have read some of your works, but Thomas, you write too much. I must ask you to summarize your Summa of theology.”
Thomas: “Gautama, I think we must begin with the following question: what is truth? For if we cannot come to some agreement on the nature of truth, then any subsequent discourse will be superfluous. If there is no truth, then all human knowledge falls apart. And if there is no knowledge, than all human language is just useless chatter.”
Gautama: “I am amazed that you have encountered an idea that there is no truth. I hold that a disciple of mine has the right view when he has arrived at the true teaching or Dharma.2 The Dharma is my body of teaching. When I left my family, wife and son behind, I went on a long search for truth. When I attained liberation or nirvana, I stopped searching for the truth because I had found it.3 This teaching is true because it reflects reality as it is. Truth is most certainly objective.”4
Thomas: “Gautama, you sound so adamant.”
Gautama: “I am, because this is absolutely central to my teaching. I have found the truth, I have discovered reality. Others have bits and pieces of the truth, but all other philosophies and religions fall short in some way.”5
Thomas: “I am very pleased to hear this. While I disagree that you have found the truth, our dialogue can be most fruitful because we both are convinced that there is objective truth. Tell me, Gautama, does truth only pertain to the nature of liberation?”
Gautama: “Certainly not! Truth pertains to all of life. Truth does not simply concern the goal of life, but the entire path to the goal. All of life needs to become a path to our goal of liberation. Thus, a true view of ethics or moral behavior in everyday life is essential for liberation. False ethical views are most dangerous.”6
Thomas: “I delight in your discourse, Gautama. Indeed, all of life needs to be ordered to our ultimate purpose, which I call the final cause. We disagree on what that purpose is, but we agree that the whole person must be directed to that ultimate purpose, whatever it may be. Tell me, Gautama, how does one come to recognize the truth?”
Gautama: “First, one accepts the testimony of the wise. Then later on, one can come to experience this truth personally by advancing in right action and meditation.”7
Thomas: “So it is crucial to immerse oneself into a wisdom tradition in order to attain truth?”
Gautama: “Indeed, this is absolutely necessary. I am the only exception in recent millennia. I alone learned the ultimate truths by experience.”
Thomas: “I would agree that a connection with a wisdom tradition is essential to grasp supernatural truths. Examples of supernatural truths are the reason why we suffer, the nature of the afterlife and the path to liberation. But I hold that there are also natural truths that are accessible to all, though extremely difficult to learn without a wise teacher. Examples of such natural truths are that all being is good and beautiful, that the good must be done and evil avoided, that one should not kill the innocent or steal another’s property.
Gautama: “I do not grasp these categories of supernatural and natural truths. But I see why Christianity and Buddhism are missionary religions. We both have a message of objective truth to present.8 Otherwise, why bother preaching? If we had not found the truth, we would be like wanderers knocking on the doors of houses for no reason whatsoever. Rather, one must know the truth to engage in right action, and only then can one attain liberation. This is why I preached for over 40 years.”
Thomas: “Indeed, the preaching of the truth is at the heart of our endeavors, an act of great compassion for our fellow human beings.”