Dilatato Corde 2:1
January - June, 2012

William B. Eerdmans

 Averroës understood interpretation of ancient scriptures as a matter of transferring the content of the sacred text from poetry to prose, from the sphere of intuition to a zone of discourse where rational analysis becomes possible. Today we might say that he was advocating a switch in the reader from the right hemisphere of the brain to the left. Something is lost and something is gained in the process; intellectual clarity is purchased at the price of aesthetic attractiveness; the meaning is more obvious but its appeal is less eloquent.

This was my first response to the book under review. It offers a clear and readable translation of the Dhammapada, divided into sections, each of which is followed by a few pages which first spell out the Buddhist context of the text and explain unfamiliar references in it, and then follows this with a Christian response, providing parallels from the Bible and from parts of Christian tradition. The text itself possesses a certain directness and charm and, for the most part, the meaning of its teaching is self-evident. The additional material is good but, to this reader at least, it sometimes seems to be laboring the obvious, making sure that the prescribed amount of commentary is provided.

The Dhammapada is written in an allusive, gnomic style, typical of many sapiential traditions, with many mannered repetitions and antitheses, and a wealth of metaphor. The ideal it places before the reader is lofty: a life of integrity and virtue lived in mindfulness. It is obvious that arriving at this point will require a great deal of vigilance, self-restraint and deliberate separation from many potential sources of lower gratification. It teaches that self-knowledge and self-mastery are the keys to genuine happiness, but they must be acquired. “From practice wisdom arises; from lack of practice wisdom is lost” (282). This ongoing challenge introduces a note of moral dualism: the notion of the “Two Ways” familiar in many wisdom writings. Our life is envisaged as a series of choices between good and evil; its blissful outcome depends on our habitually preferring the good. Implicit (and sometimes explicit) in this approach is the threat of doom to those whose lives are shaped by the choice of folly or evil. “Of the one who has transgressed the law, rejected the world beyond, and speaks falsely, there is no evil that he could not do” (176). This preferential option to deny priority to bodily cravings sometimes leads to very negative dismissals of the physical organism. “Look at this beautiful image with many plans – a diseased mass of sores that has no permanence. This body, a nest of illness that is wasted away, this foul mass breaks up, for truly life ends with death. On seeing these gray bones, thrown out like gourds in autumn – what is the fondness? It [the body] is a city made of bones plastered in flesh and blood, where old age, death, conceit, and hypocrisy are stored”  (147-150).  By extension the world is also excluded from the affections of the wise. “Look upon the world as a bubble, look upon the world as a mirage” (170) and “Blind is this world where few see clearly, as birds who escape from the snare are few, so too are those who go to heaven” (174). We find many similar sentiments in Christian tradition, where temptation was ascribed to the world the flesh and the devil.

Because the Dhammapada can serve as a more accessible handbook of the vast Buddhist canon, its purposes are principally practical. As a result, there is a convergence with Christian practical treatises, especially those coming from the monastic tradition. The theoretical frameworks are different, but the means of making spiritual progress are similarly demanding in their radicality. The following description on page 108 could apply equally to many Christian saints. 

The Dhammapada honors arahants [those who have attained Nirvana] who, through energy and perseverance, have overcome all defilements and fetters and have found wisdom by following the Eightfold Path. They leave their homes and possessions behind, sever connections, and live in freedom, unattached to any particular place or to food (91, 93, 98). As a result of their practice, they come to calmness of mind, speech and action (96), and to delight (98-99).

I was disappointed that, in the Christian response, the author did not delve very deeply into the writings of Christian monasticism, which share with the Dhammapada an emphasis on self-knowledge, a clear vision of a transcendent goal, and a summons to radical renunciation. It is true that, particularly in the West, surviving testimonies of that tradition (such as the Rule of Saint Benedict and the Institutes of John Cassian) are often couched in legal terms, but these regulations are regularly buttressed by teaching about beliefs and values, often written with a sapiential flavor and drawing much from the wisdom books of the Bible.

Some select comparisons with the Rule of Saint Benedict may be in order. “Vigilance is the path to the deathless state. Negligence is the path to death” (21)  and “Placing the ‘fear of God’ always before his eyes let him flee forgetfulness in all its forms” (RB 7:10).  “Through effort, vigilance and self-control, the wise one makes himself an island that a flood could not overcome” (25) and the quotation of Matt 7:24-25 in RB Prol 33-34. “One ought to regard another who sees one’s faults, and censures what should be censured, as a revealer of treasures” (76) and “He [the abbot] should not ignore the sins of those who leave the path, but cut them off immediately at the roots, while he is able, before they begin to sprout” (RB 2:26). “Hasten to do good: restrain your thoughts from evil” (116) and “Turn away from evil and do good” (Ps 34:14 and RB Prol 17) “Patience and endurance are the highest asceticism” (184) and “Through patience we may share in Christ’s suffering and so merit to share his kingdom” (RB Prol 50). “One is not wise in virtue of speaking much” (258) and “A wise man is known by few words” (RB 7:61). “One who claims what is not so goes to hell” (306) and “There are ways which human beings think right, but their end is in the depth of hell” (Prov 16:25 and RB 7:21). It is easy to multiply such similarities, without further profit. The point is that Saint Benedict would probably agree with much of what the Dhammapada prescribes, although his fundamental theoretical framework is different.

It is worthwhile noting that the authors of this useful volume are not trying to prove anything. They are simply explaining the meaning of this important Buddhist text and demonstrating that there are many similar themes and recommendations in Christian tradition. Reading another tradition can often have the effect of alerting us to elements in our own that have been watered down through lack of fervor, overshadowed by woolly thinking, or pushed to the margins by political correctness.

The great difference between Buddhist emphasis on self-restraint and discipline and that same concern expressed in Christian tradition lies in the emphasis on the safety net provided by faith in the mercy of God, incarnate in Jesus. Saint Benedict’s fourth chapter lists some seventy-three meritorious works and restraints but concludes with one that seems to subvert the foregoing catalogue: “Never to despair of God’s mercy.” Christian monastic tradition, for all its eloquence in advocating  good works, is always characterized by a fundamental dialectic between activity and receptivity, faith and works, grace and free will.

Notwithstanding this difference – the extent of which may be left to experts to debate – there is much to learn from reading the Dhammapada in a reflective and receptive state of mind. To my mind the volume could have been improved by indices and a glossary and perhaps by presenting the whole of the Dhammapada on its own before breaking it up into sections followed by the interpretative matter. I felt that the “Christian response” although useful to be thinner than it needs to be, given the possibility of drawing on the ample richness of monastic tradition, both eastern and western. What is here is good. To use the criterion formulated by Aelred of Rievaulx for monastic discourse, readers will find in this text, if they so choose, instruction, correction and inspiration. As I did.

He of little learning grows old like an ox.
His bulk increases but his wisdom does not. (152)

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