Marking Out Common Ground for Eastern Orthodoxy and Mahāyāna Buddhism: Correspondences in the Works of Gregory of Nyssa and the Mahāparinirvāna Sūtra
Gregory of Nyssa (c.330-385 C.E.) is one of the earliest systematic theologians of the Orthodox Christian Church. Gregory defended the Christian faith against the undue influence of Greek philosophies, all the while relying upon those same philosophies to explicate orthodox doctrine. The nature of the phenomenal world, the relation of body to soul, the doctrine of the resurrection, and the eschatological expression of heaven became key topics in this debate with the Gnostics who championed ancient Greek ways of thinking. In this dispute, it is of particular interest that Gregory developed a Christian worldview that strikingly parallels the Mahāyāna theology described in the Mahāparinirvāna Sūtra. While there are seemingly irreconcilable tenets of faith separating Christianity and Buddhism, the writings of Gregory reveal surprisingly subtle distinctions between these religions on the dialectical monism that constitutes phenomenal reality and the 'blessed passionlessness' of the afterlife.
While important details vary considerably, it still remains that the basic schema of the cosmologies and eschatologies in both religions are surprisingly analogous. Phenomenal reality is defined in both by a dialectical monism, and non-human nature possesses intrinsic value that extends to an eschatological presence and consummation. Moreover, in each case, the human element is bound to non-human nature in this process of revealing; all of phenomenal existence is to be reconciled to ultimate reality in both Orthodox Christianity and Mahāyāna Buddhism through the human element achieving soteriological fulfillment. Eco-theologians will want to make special note of these common underlying themes. But the significance of this analysis also extends to other topics for interfaith dialogue. Profound doctrinal correspondences exist which make possible deep meaningful exchanges on other questions of theology, cosmology, and eschatology. The Nirvana Sutra and the works of Gregory do indeed reach toward the other, revealing a path of common, and in places, adiaphorous ground that can support a wide range of subjects for mutually enriching exchange.
Nevertheless, a declaration on the universality of salvation may not be a realistic goal for interfaith dialogue. Still, it is possible to increase mutual understanding and appreciation of other faiths, especially when those faiths confess many of the same basic truths of one's own. This analysis has shown that an important inroad for respectful discourse exists for Orthodox Christianity and Mahāyāna Buddhism, a path leading through the works of Gregory of Nyssa and the Nirvana Sutra. And so, while the soteriologies of these two great world faiths may be incompatible, Christians of today can still find themselves in a position similar to that of Clement of Alexandria (d. circa 215 C.E.) in admiring the extraordinary sanctity of the Buddha yet remaining true to his or her own religion. Mutually widening and deepening this admiration is perhaps the noblest aspiration for interfaith outreach.