Dilatato Corde 2:1
January - June, 2012

William B. Eerdmans

This book is a wonderful addition to both Buddhist and comparative religious literature in the West.  Buddhism and Christianity have long had to circle each other, measuring and comparing themselves against each other.  Both religions are too large and world-shaping not to have to deal with each other in deep and comprehensive ways.  They are competitors and at the same time share mutual admiration.  Indeed, they occasionally suspect they may be related!  Yet, they are different.  The wishful thinking that all religions are saying the same thing is sheer laziness or, perhaps, a sacrifice of truth for the sake of peace.

Virtually every western Buddhist is by necessity a scholar of comparative religions.  We come to Buddhism not as an inheritance from our parents, but rather as a deliberate and often hard-fought struggle to seek out meaning, inspiration…a life of some sort, in the midst of what appears to be a post-Christian West.  For many of us self-converts, the Dhammapada might have been our first or most revelatory Buddhist scripture.  Until recently, many of the Buddhist books available in the West were merely summary explanations of Buddhism, secondary sources with only a few scattered quotes of dubious authenticity attributed to the Buddha.  To many of us, it was a revelation to come across what is traditionally held as “Buddha Vacana”, the word of the Buddha, in modern English.  Some of the early English Dhammapada translations, such as Thomas Byrom’s edition, were rather liberal with their translation but nonetheless honored the spirit of the Buddha’s words.  The present translation is quite adequate from this monk’s perspective. 

As I read this commentary with great interest and some trepidation, I was relieved to find that both scholars, Leo Lefebure and Peter Feldmeier were quite learned in their own traditions and reasonably fluent in the other.  My main concern was that the Christian interpreter would be excessively politically-correct and merely complimentary towards the great wisdom contained in the verses of the Dhammapada.  On the contrary, Lefebure stayed true to mainstream Christian orthodoxy and drew important lines between the two traditions.  In particular, he challenged Buddhist claims of final salvation (Nibbana or Nirvana), stating that this would simply not be possible to achieve in the Christian view without the intercession of God or divine grace.  After all, what is the use of God if you can free yourself through your own efforts?  This is the central and ultimately critical point which every Buddhist-Christian dialogue must come to grips with. 

If I have any quibbles with our Buddhist scholar, it is with his mixing of the schools of Buddhism.  I would even venture to say that these “schools” of Buddhism could more fairly and accurately be described as “religions” of Buddhism, given their substantial differences.  In practice, the clergy of the Theravada school, to whom the attitudes expressed by the Dhammapada most comfortably belong, do not regard the doctrines of the Mahayana and Vajrayana schools  as interchangeable with early orthodox Buddhist teachings.  Although I find reflections on Dhammapada verses from the Mahayana viewpoint interesting, and the author sometimes notes which school they come from, I would have rejoiced in a little less fruit salad for the sake of clarity, however delicious fruit salad may be. 

This book is truly delicious for those interested in fairly substantial historical overviews of both traditions.  It includes some intriguing stories of early Christian monastics from the time of the desert fathers.  We also witness some early doctrinal wrestling during the formation of orthodox Christian views regarding the relationship between individual wisdom and divine grace.   It is worthwhile to note that the state of deliverance that philosophers of the Greek wisdom traditions had attained has been worked over in Christian philosophy for many centuries.  There is an almost standard dismissal of the limits of unaided human wisdom preceding the advent of Christ.  It would be hasty to lump Buddhism in with Socrates or Diogenes.  These questions, however, merit some deep and non doctrinaire inquiry on the part of Catholic adepts to come to a balanced conclusion. 

Another intriguing feature of the book is the inclusion of some modern Catholic history through a depiction of Thomas Merton’s response to Buddhism.  Indeed, it is probably Merton’s contemporaries that could best provide well informed and sympathetic readings of such works as the Dhammapada that would be of interest to the committed Buddhist contemplative.  As Gethsemeni Monastery, Merton’s place of residence and practice, has also hosted the most important series of Buddhist-Christian interfaith meetings, it is fitting that this book includes that backdrop.  It is neatly “karmic”, as we say! 

I will be recommending this book often in the future.  As a teacher, I frequently meet people coming to meditation without much information either about Christianity or Buddhism, let alone Christian responses to Buddhist scripture.  This book will spare me much repetitive explanation and I am reasonably comfortable that it is neither obscure, nor overly sophisticated, nor misleading to the reader. 

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