2.) On Paradigm Shifts in Buddhism and Christianity: Some Reflections Precipitated by the 2nd Conference on East-West Religions in Encounter (1984)

It appears that if dialogue between Buddhism and Christianity is to be fruitful through the idiom of paradigm shifts, attention needs to be focused on the following points as items for an agenda of discussion.

(1) Paradigm adjustments versus paradigm shifts

Paradigm shifts as they have been discussed involve temporal succession or sequentiality. One paradigm shift follows another. Although it is recognized that earlier paradigms may persist alongside new ones, this point must be further developed. In this respect replacing the word persistence by coexistence may help, because when earlier paradigms persist, they and the new ones thereupon come to coexist. That is to say: In the case of religious traditions, as distinguished from that of purely scientific inquiry, it needs to be more fully recognized that the way in which paradigms are interrelated is not merely one of replacement of one by the other but as much also by interaction resulting from coexistence.

A new vocabulary needs to be devised to handle this situation. It is suggested that a distinction be drawn between two terms: (1) paradigm shifts and (2) paradigm adjustments. The paradigm shift should refer to diachronic changes – a usage we are already familiar with; and paradigm adjustment may then refer to the synchronic or simultaneous changes resulting from the interaction of the plurality of paradigms – one with the other. Thus paradigmatic changes brought about in the various schools of Buddhist thought, for instance, as a result of their mutual interaction could be described as paradigm adjustment, while the word paradigm shift could be used to explain the emergence of these schools themselves.

(2) Do paradigm shifts “happen” or are they “brought about”?

This is another point which requires clarification or at least discussion. Even in science a paradigm shift is brought about; it does not merely happen. It is brought about by a scientist who gains a new vision, is seized by it and is instrumental in bringing others around to sharing his view. But it seems that this role of the pioneer is even more pivotal in religion. The universe of discourse of the scientist largely consists of matter or the material aspect of human beings and their existence, while that of the religious figures relates to human beings as conscious entities. Moreover, the burst of creativity which might lead to a paradigm shift in religion seems to show a difference at least of degree, if not of kind, in relation to science. Typically the religious figure consciously associates this burst of creativity with another order to consciousness. Two points have just been made: (1) that a paradigm shift in religion as compared to science may involve a greater degree of the human element as religion has more to do with human beings as such than science and (2) that the creativity underlying this shift is often consciously related to a transcendent being as in Christianity, or a transcendent mode of consciousness, as in Buddhism. What may seem like impersonal forces in the case of paradigm shifts may acquire a more conscious personal dimension in religion.

(3) Paradigms as variables

In scientific revolutions, paradigms change but not the referent the paradigms are designed to explain. True, more data may become available about the referent and this may lead to a paradigm shift. But the referent generating this data seems to be a constant. It is the same universe for instance, of which the Ptolemaic and the Copernican paradigms are different explanations. The universe is the constant here, the paradigms are the variables.

What is this constant in religion? Professor Hans Küng (1) identifies the constant not as religion but as a religious tradition. Then (2) he identifies the foundational element of a religious tradition as such a constant. It seems to me that Professor Küng is wise in choosing religious tradition rather than religion per se as the constant, thereby avoiding a potentially frustrating debate about what religion is. It could be argued, however, that Professor Küng may have chosen the softer option in designating the foundational element of the religious tradition, e.g. biblical revelation in the case of Christianity, as the referent of the tradition.

The basic datum – the constant – could be taken to be a human being’s existential situation. All the various religious traditions will then appear as various macro-paradigms trying to “explain” this constant. Christianity is one such macro-paradigm. If the human existential situation is treated as Christianity’s referent and not the Christian revelation itself, then the analysis of paradigm shifts may provide a broad enough base for dialogue to occur. Inasmuch as Buddhism takes its stand not merely on its foundational texts or teaching but on the human being’s existential situation, it would be hard to apply Professor Küng’s analysis to it the way he applied it to Christianity and this may explain in part the difficulties faced in the context of the discussion of paradigm changes in Christianity and Buddhism.

(4) Paradigm shifts and truth

Human beings may be said to be under a certain obligation to seek the truth wherever they can find it, rather than adhere to a particular religious tradition, though it is not denied that one may find that truth in one’s own religious tradition. It has been said that a true ‘man’ of religion is as indifferent to the history of religion – (and paradigm shifts), as a true scientist is to the history of science. What seems to be implied here is that paradigm shifts occur not so much by analyzing paradigms as by analyzing reality with an intense devotion to truth, even if it turns out in the end that the so-called new truth is merely another paradigm.

If it is clearly recognized that the study of paradigm changes is a second-order study and that first-order concerns of “truth” etc. are not directly related to it, then much confusion may be avoided. When we compare paradigm shifts in Buddhism and Christianity, it should be clear that we are trying to study paradigm shifts, not to generate them.

(5) Paradigm shifts and religious pluralism

The question of paradigm shifts needs to be related to the fact of religious pluralism more clearly. Paradigms persist, as was pointed out earlier, and new one’s also emerge. In science, paradigms replace one another; in religion they tend to coexist. This throws up the issue of choice among paradigms – both within a religious tradition and among traditions. This aspect can be kept in the background: (1) by emphasizing “dialogue” rather than “conversion” as the mode of relating to another religion and (2) by focusing on comparison among rather than choice between paradigm shifts.

But some day the question will have to be brought out of the closet: how are such choices among paradigms to be made? This is, of course, a thorny issue but the nettle will have to be grasped by someone, sometime, as is done regularly in science.


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3 Responses to “2.) On Paradigm Shifts in Buddhism and Christianity: Some Reflections Precipitated by the 2nd Conference on East-West Religions in Encounter (1984)”

  1. The Slow Demise Of Institutions | inc.ubators Says:

    […] On Paradigm Shifts in Buddhism and Christianity: Some Reflections … […]

  2. Bookmarks about Buddhism Says:

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  3. joanna Says:

    another post of instances wherein paradigm shift was being used

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