Joe O’Leary is a scholar of many talents. Trained in phenomenology, Christian theology with special reference to the patristic period, modern theology with special reference to Karl Rahner, Buddhism, interreligious dialogue, and comparative theology, and living for over thirty years in Japan, O’Leary and his work only grows more relevant by the year. His vast and polyvalent oeuvre is fresh, interdisciplinary, and above all, attentive to the flesh-and-blood of practice and interreligious repartee. Beginning with the widely read Questioning Back: The Overcoming of Metaphysics in Christian Tradition (1985) up to the recent Conventional and Ultimate Truth: A Key for Fundamental Theology (2015), O’Leary’s long and productive (with six monographs) career opens up an interlacing between Christian theology, metaphysics, and Buddhism, which culminates wonderfully in the present manuscript, Reality Itself: Philosophical Challenges of Indian Mahāyāna (2019). Philosopher and theologian alike will benefit from the luminous prose and imaginative cross-disciplinary comparative theology (and comparative philosophy) invoked on four-hundred-plus pages of this monograph. Select chapters hold substantive engagements with philosophers like Hume, Hegel, and Husserl; these chapters will especially appeal to philosophers who do not drink from the theological turn or invoke the Christian tradition. Those who work in religious studies and continental philosophy and European philosophy (broadly conceived) will find much to enjoy and contemplate. Theological formulations and Christian confrontations with Buddhism are especially rich in chapters 1–4, but I would recommend Conventional and Ultimate Truth for a more sustained example of comparative theology (between Christianity and Buddhism).
While he never shies away from theory, philosophical intervention, and speculative inference, O’Leary entreats on every page his readers to employ and recruit hope for this world. Scholars of religion can disclose more carefully how academic reflection and religious practice remain situated in and always submit to “the world in which we breathe here and now” (31). The question of reality is a theoretical evocation, perhaps a rhetorical device, and yet, it lingers: what is reality itself?
The world, for O’Leary, involves the mystery of relationship with worldhood or the transcendence of lived experience, a phenomenon distinct from the world of science and empiricism. When O’Leary claims that the kingdom of God “cannot be anything less than reality itself” (32) and that God lays claim to the world as the site of the kingdom, he does not exploit the correlation between reality and world in service of scientific realism or empiricism. We must “let go” of our delusions to see the world as permanent “thing” built up as bits of spatiotemporal content or atoms. Reality itself discloses that no such realities like being, substance, thing, object, concept, and so forth exist. They only pretend to be permanent, timeless, and secure. Christian theology need not fear finitude, contingency, and impermanence. He writes eloquently of how Buddhism’s therapy in this regard can illuminate the Christian hermeneutic of the contingency; O’Leary’s analyses are not so much conceptual as therapeutic, not so much dogmatic as meditative. Hence the encounter here between Christian practice and Buddhist enlightenment is pragmatic:
For many Christians Buddhist meditation has the effect of bringing the Gospel message of salvation into clearer perspective, by training the mind to focus on the essential or vital aspect of this message rather than on theoretical or doctrinal dimensions. Salvation is of course an unconditional gift that lies beyond the machinery of religion (Rom 5:1–17); it “is coming into the world” ( Jn 11:27), reaching us right where we are, and is not something we reach up to; but in so far as that “machinery” can impede or aid perception of this gift, then Buddhism may play a key role in improving the functioning of the Christian machinery, clarifying how it can be a skillful means. A Christian can thus embrace Buddhism wholeheartedly, albeit as a complement to Christian faith. (32)
Theologians hailing from the Christian tradition shall profit from O’Leary’s many encouragements and nudges to do more than “compare” Buddhism and Christianity. Interaction between the traditions shall evoke learning genuine techniques of contemplative practice lived here, in the world, apart from textbooks, encyclicals, debate, and conceptual machinery, without implying that such machinery be stripped down completely.
The conceptual and deliberative heart of the book, should I risk the claim, may well be chapter 9 on the two truths, a chapter that echoes the dialectic between conventional vocabularies and experiences of ultimacy found in his 2015 Conventional and Ultimate Truth. The attentive and detailed outline of conventional truth in Buddhism, here named saṃvṛti, shall please scholar and novice alike. One statement that draws me into O’Leary’s narrative is the following: “To see the conventional as conventional is already to see its emptiness. . . . Against a popular misconception among some Western scholars, the upshot is not merely relaxing back into the conventional, in a Humean or Epicurean style, but rather a shattering of the conventional and the emergence of the ultimate or nirvanic dimension that cannot be reduced to conventionality” (44). The conventional truth of reality is that reality is not the “substantial stuff” we assume it to be. Such is the illusion whose spell we must break. Reality, the mystery of the world here and now, remains too elusive for that kind of crude direct realism. Yet, as chapter 4 articulates so well, O’Leary asks us to be self-aware attitude about the complementary role Buddhist saṃvṛti can assume in relation to Christian doctrines of the imago Dei and the Trinity. Thus,
noting that the doctrines of non-self and emptiness do not annihilate human personhood, but free it for a more authentic existence, it will ask whether the Buddhist denial of God is susceptible of a similar positive interpretation. Meanwhile theologians may find that an empty God, who is non-self, is closer, phenomenologically, to the dynamic Johannine and Pauline conception of God as an event of Spirit, light, agape than to the God of classical metaphysical theology, which has “tended to shield the humanity of Jesus from contingency and impermanence (anityā) in a docetistic fashion. (79–80)
Furthermore, and I agree here with O’Leary, traditional christological formulations that I teach to my students like Nicaea and Chalcedon, enunciated in strong metaphysical vocabularies like hypostasis, substance, nature, etc., are vulnerable to conceptual idolatry. Buddhism’s focus on the conventionality of all language, dogma included, can free Christians from this essentialism and free Christ to be Jesus of Nazareth. This dovetails, in that he narrates and re-narrates with greater precision the critique of conceptualism, with another striking chapter: chapter 12, “Critical Buddhism and Hermeneutics of Religion.” O’Leary enters the fray of debate surrounding the (more) recent intramural controversy over authentic Buddhism, sometimes called critical Buddhism; here O’Leary mobilizes the critique of essentialism in Buddhism, in order to raise a broad-ranging philosophical point about religion as such. The lazy religious habit (Hinduism, Christianity, and Buddhism itself) to find safe, secure conceptual ground trades on a fundamental insecurity, namely, that fresh insights may corrupt or contaminate the original purity of the founder or the sacred text. The fear and anxiety over an “original” logos or “pure” set of doctrines prompted the atmosphere of heresy, growing out of a primal impulse to isolate a “pure” event of religion out from accretions of later theological development. Rightly, O’Leary says that the more psychology that funds the pursuit of purity or proctology can be understood as an unconscious drive to conserve, which is seen as “constantly stifling new revolutionary insights” (297).
In addition to the forgoing, we have diverse and insightful commentary on O’Leary’s work in each panel member’s essay. Catherine Cornille investigates the theological problem of the uniqueness of Christ in O’Leary’s use of Christian theology. James G. Hart opens up what space there may be in O’Leary for an affirmation of transcendental phenomenology, which wrestles with O’Leary’s foray into phenomenology. Nikolaas Deketelaere offers a suggestion that an often-neglected voice be heard anew, that of the secular or nonreligious individual. And finally, John Keenan approaches Buddhism by asking in what way O’Leary can reread Critical Buddhism.
While the critical readings carried out by our panel below will challenge interpretations of self and God embedded in O’Leary’s volume, I have raised here in this introduction only a few observations about the intention of the text as a way to orient and guide the reader. And while the title, Reality Itself, gives reason for us to pause when confronted with such a weighty and cumbersome term like “reality,” the book suggests with profound insight that reality eludes any straightforward taxonomy in western metaphysics—to the point that we rightfully guard against the reification of self, God, world, and ultimately, hesitate before drawing an ontological map that fixes and encodes their interrelation in concepts, dogma, signs, and conventions. Reality as philosophical grammar can be utilized as a strategic term in our repertoire of theological tools, as long as it is chastened, disciplined, even emptied. Similarly, for the Christian theologian and scholar of religion, I wonder if the lesson we may learn from O’Leary is consolidated in a simple comment any reader may pass over, which may be ramified into the categories of any religious tradition: “The categories of classical dogma have a role in orienting Christian towards reality, if they are skillfully deployed” (31). The point may well be that liberation from conceptual idolatry, essentialism, and the insecurity that can mount in the face of fresh interpretations and retrievals of ancient doctrine, is more like relief. Liberation from concepts, that is, need not descend into the rejection of ancient wisdom and texts.