J. Abraham VÉLEZ de CEA, The Buddha and Religious Diversity. London: Routledge, 2013. pp 250. $135 hc. ISBN 978-0-415-63972-9. Reviewed by Peter C. PHAN. Georgetown University, Washington, DC 20057

            This book makes significant and outstanding breakthroughs in two fields: Buddhology and comparative theology of religion.  Its central concern is  religious pluralism, one of the most urgent and controversial themes in our times. Two issues are discussed: what are the possible stances toward other religions and what is the precise position of the historical Buddha toward other religions? The answer to the second question presupposes not only a close examination of the textual sources commonly attributed to Siddhārtha Gautama but also a systematic analysis of the contemporary theologies of religion. In his investigations in these two areas Vélez displays a rare and unparalleled mastery of classical languages, Buddhological scholarship, theologies of religion, logical analysis, and evaluative acumen.

To begin with, Vélez proposes that religion in general be understood as theoretical affirmation of and practical concern about that which is “most important.” (Though Vélez does not refer to Paul Tillich, the latter’s notion of “ultimate concern” corresponds nicely to his concept of “most important.”) What is “most important,” indicated by X, is left open. Vélez uses the shorthand of “our tradition [tradition’s?] most important X” (OTMIX) to describe the nature of religion. Each religion is free to determine whether X really exists and what it is. With regard to the theology of religion, Vélez adopts the common typology of exclusivism-inclusivism-pluralism but modifies it in two important ways. First, he distinguishes between view of and attitude toward other religious. There are four possible views or theologies of religion: (1) exclusivism (there is no OTMIX in any religion except one’s own); (2) inclusivism (there may be OTMIX in other religions as long as it is similar to one’s own); (3) pluralistic-inclusivism (there may be OTMIX in other religions which needs not be similar to one’s own but may not contradict, challenge, or supersede one’s own since one’s OTMIX is nonnegotiable); and (4) pluralism (there may be OTMIX in other religions which may be different from one’s OTMIX and may contradict, challenge, or supersede one’s own since one’s OTMIX is not non-negotiable). 

There are three possible attitudes toward other religions: (1) exclusivism (tolerance but no respect for other religions and no dialogue with them); (2) inclusivism (genuine respect for other religions but dialogue with them is not considered as necessary but only as useful); and (3) pluralism (genuine respect for other religions; dialogue with them is regarded as indispensable for one’s own religious development, not as a tactic for conversion and doctrinal agreement, but as a necessary means for mutual understanding and harmonious co-existence). Vélez is careful to point out that while there is mutual incompatibility within the four views and within the three attitudes toward of religious pluralism, there is in principle and in fact no incompatibility between each of the four views and the three attitudes as described above. For example, a person may hold an exclusivist view of other religions and at the same time for pragmatic reasons cultivates an inclusivist (though mot pluralistic) attitude toward them. (For a synthetic summary of Vélez’s theory, see 222-25).

Which of the four views and which of the three attitudes did the historical Buddha hold? By the historical Buddha Vélez refers to the Buddha as recorded in the Pãli Nikãyas. Through a painstaking and thorough analysis of these sources and a careful evaluation of other commentators, Vélez argues that the Buddha of the Pãli Nikãyas held a pluralistic-inclusivist view of other religions but cultivated a pluralistic attitude to them. In other words, the Buddha acknowledged that there may be other religious systems (OTMIX) outside his own, and that these need not be similar to his but they can never “contradict, challenge, or supersede” his own OTMIX since this OTMIX contains some non-negotiable truths. However, in his attitude the Buddha had a genuine respect for the teachings and practices of other religions, even when they differ from his, and did not consider them as simply stepping-stones to his.  For him, dialogue with other religions was not aimed at conversion or building a doctrinal consensus but at promoting mutual understanding and harmonious relations among religions.

I leave ro Buddhologists to assess the accuracy of Vélez’s interpretation of the Buddha’s view of other religions as pluralistic-inclusivist and his attitude toward them as pluralistic.  Here I draw attention to the usefulness of his distinction between “view” and “attitude” toward religions other than one’s own and the possibility of holding one view of a  religion and cultivating an attitude toward it not logically consistent with one’s view.  This goes a long way in explaining the strange but not infrequent combination of doctrinal rigidity and pastoral/spiritual flexibility and vice versa, doctrinal flexibility and pastoral/spirituality rigidity.  However, how long can this cognitive-practical dissonance be maintained before it destroys the person and the religious institution that hold them? Furthermore, if the pluralistic attitude is taken to be the ideal (as I do), what can and should be done in the area of interreligious dialogue to move a person to abandon the exclusivistic view, which is widely if not universally rejected as theoretically untenable and pragmatically harmful? Finally, how can one determine what is “non-negotiable” in each OTMIX?  To be more specific, if the Buddha had known other religions better and if he had practiced a pluralistic attitude toward them long enough (perhaps in dual religious belonging), is it likely that he would change his pluralistic-inclusivist view to the pluralistic one, or at least come to realize that what he considered as “non-negotiable” is not that non-negotiable after all, and that “non-negotiable” is perhaps not the most felicitous term to use to describe doctrines? These are but some questions that may be raised in a dialogue with Vélez, but there is no doubt that The Buddha and Religious Diversity is a path-breaking and challenging work in both Buddhology and comparative theology of religion.