Dilatato Corde 4:1
January - June, 2014

Addison Hodges Hart
Finding Christ on the Buddha's Path
Wm. B. Eerdmans

Most people who know something about Buddhist spiritual practice would be familiar with the Ten Ox-Herding Pictures, a series of illustrations that lay out the stages of a Mahayana Buddhist practitioner's path to—and beyond—enlightenment. What they might not know, however, is that this set of ten pictures with accompanying poems and commentaries was based on earlier sets of illustrations. These earlier sets varied in the number of pictures they included, but all of them ended with a drawing of an empty circle, symbolizing the enlightened mind, the mind beyond duality, limitless and formless, infinite.
The set of ten pictures that was taken from China to Japan and that has become familiar to us is the work of the twelfth-century Ch’an (Zen) master, Kuòān Shīyuǎn (廓庵師). In his version, the empty circle becomes the antepenultimate picture in the series. By adding two more pictures—the ninth evoking the beauties of nature and the tenth depicting the enlightened one coming to the aid of other human beings—Kuòān Shīyuǎn proclaims that enlightenment, transcendent bliss, is not the end of the spiritual journey. Rather, “the Buddhist ideal of the bodhisattva—the enlightened one who works to bring ‘all sentient beings’ . . . to spiritual awakening—is the greatest goal to which one can aspire in this life.”

Addison Hodges Hart writes a Christian reflection on the Ten Ox-Herding Pictures out of his conviction that the Christian is one who, by definition, is interiorly free and therefore may search for truth wherever it is to be found. He recognizes that some would question the wisdom of following this path of interreligious dialogue, claiming that it poses a threat to Christian uniqueness. Hart counters this objection with a question: “When you say ‘uniqueness,’ don’t you really mean ‘superiority’?”  He maintains that Jesus shows absolutely no interest in and makes no assertions about either uniqueness or superiority. He sends his disciples to spread his message of the kingdom of God by word and deed,  charging them to do so not by arguing about God, but by giving witness to God’s saving power.

Hart also appeals to the semina verbi approach of some Church Fathers for whom the “seeds of the Word” are to be found Greek philosophical traditions. Hart specifically cites Augustine, who also applied this argument to pre-existing religious traditions when he wrote, “That which today is called the Christian religion existed among the ancients, and has never ceased to exist from the origin of the human race, until the time when Christ himself came, and men began to call ‘Christian’ the true religion which already existed beforehand” (Retractions I.13.3).

For Hart, the truth of this classic Mahayana Buddhist depiction of the spiritual path is applicable not only to Christianity, the spiritual tradition on which he particularly focuses, but to any one of the great religious traditions. The Ten Ox-Herding Pictures, he says, tell a perennial truth about the inner work of discipleship, and remind us all that contemplation without loving action is incomplete.

Hart fully recognizes the differences between the Buddha and the Christ. Those differences, he says, are “evident on the surface” (my emphasis). At a deeper level, “Both Buddha and Christ taught that true religion was a matter of the depths, of interior transformation, and that it must result in compassion. Buddha called it ‘awakening,’ and Jesus called it ‘the kingdom of God’—but both meant a profound revolution within oneself that led to the reordered and correct perception of all things.”

Finally, Hart gives a more personal reason for being attracted to this Buddhist portrayal of the spiritual life: “At the end of the day, and at my age, I have come to value experience with God above discussions about God.” I couldn’t help noticing that the author does not speak of his “experience of God,” but “experience with God.” That preposition alone is deserving of thoughtful reflection by anyone who is, in the words of Benedict’s Rule, “truly seeking God.”
Attached Document or FileWilliam B. Eerdmans Publishing Company  More information on the book; order from the publisher
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