The Raft Is Not the Shore:
Conversations Toward a Buddhist-Christian Awareness
By Thich Nhat Hanh and Daniel Berrigan
Orbis Books, 153 pp.

Jesus and Buddha:
The Parallel Sayings
Edited by Marcus Borg
Introduction by Jack Kornfield
Seastone, 241 pp.

Jesus and Lao Tzu:
The Parallel Sayings
Edited by Martin Aronson
Introduction by David Steindl-Rast
Seastone, 210 pp.

Buddha and Christ: Images of Wholeness
By Robert Elinor
Weatherhill, 223 pp.

Interreligious dialogue is a fact of our times, whether we are actually engaged in meeting with people of other faiths, or are simply trying to make sense of the world's variety of relgious traditions in our own minds. Many of us are wondering whether our differences divide us, or whether they perhaps actually create a need for the wisdom of one another's traditions. But how can you tell when a fruitful search for understanding gives way to a shallow borrowing of half-understood ideas and rituals from another religion?

Books on the world's religions abound, but which ones offer real guidance and insight? The following four books represent three very different ways of approaching the relationship between Christianity and Buddhism, from the chance to be a fly on the wall as Thich Nhat Hanh and Daniel Berrigan speak from their hearts, to a comparison of the words of the founding figures, to a kind of visual conversation among images of the Buddha and of Christ. Together, these four books negotiate the narrow path that respects religious differences while reaching for a common understanding of both humanity and transcendence.

The republication, after 25 years, of "The Raft Is Not the Shore" is cause for celebration. It is a classic work of interfaith reflection on the role of religious people in the shaping of a just and compassionate world. The book came into existence over a period of weeks during the late winter in a suburb of Paris, where Daniel Berrigan, the American Catholic priest, had gone to recover his equanimity after release from an American prison where he had been held for his active resistance to the Vietnam War.

Every evening, Father Daniel Berrigan and Thich Nhat Hanh prayed together in silence, "for the space of a candle."

In Paris, Berrigan met Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, who shared Berrigan's spiritually based political commitments as well as his love of poetry. "Each morning I would pack a few books and walk to the magnificent Parc de Sceaux, there to spend the day reading, meditating, writing," Berrigan writes of the days he spent getting to know Nhat Hanh. "Every evening we prayed together in silence, 'for the space of a candle,' at Nhat Hanh's gentle leading."

Their conversations ranged from purely religious issues, such as the relationship between Jesus and the Buddha, or Thich Nhat Hanh's understanding of the Christian Eucharist, to criticism of the involvement of religious people in armed conflict, the implication of religious institutions in economic systems, and the moral necessity to follow the consequences of one's religious convictions, even when they lead to exile, imprisonment, or death.

The talks recorded in these pages are at once gentle and full of fire, sharply truthful and courageously hopeful. And, although the authors were speaking of current events in the 1970s, there is not one chapter that seems dated now, because their approach to the issues is timeless, grounded in a profound understanding of their religious traditions. Their conversation about religious tensions and politics in the Middle East is more poignant now than ever.

In a chapter called "Religion in the World," Thich Nhat Hanh tells of a conversation he had with a rabbi in Israel who was trying to get him to see that loyalty to one's religion and homeland might require violence. Nhat Hanh's response to the rabbi's questions, "What if Buddhism cannot survive in Vietnam? Will you accept that in order to have peace in Vietnam?" illustrates the clarity of the monk's discernment of the path of faith.

"I said, 'Yes. I think if Vietnam has real peace--cooperation between North and South--and if it can ban war for a long time, I would be ready to sacrifice Buddhism.' He was very shocked. But I thought it was quite plain that if you have to choose between Buddhism and peace, then you must choose peace. Because if you choose Buddhism, you sacrifice peace, and Buddhism does not accept that. Even if you don't have any temple or any monks, you can still be a Buddhist in your heart and life."

Another kind of interfaith dialogue has been initiated by a series of books published by Seastone called "The Parallel Sayings." The first book in the series, entitled "Jesus and the Buddha," was first published in 1997, and the second, "Jesus and Lao Tzu," has just come out. Lao Tzu was the sixth-century "father of Taoism" who is credited with authoring the Tao-te Ching. Taoism's marriage with Buddhism begat Ch'an, or Zen Buddhism. The books juxtapose the sayings of these sages in provocative combinations, showing up common themes and symbolism that are not always readily apparent. For example, in "Jesus and the Buddha," the following sayings are set in relationship:

"The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches." (Matthew 13:31-32)

"Do not underestimate good, thinking it will not affect you. Dripping water can fill a pitcher, drop by drop; one who is wise is filled with good, even if one accumulates it little by little." (Dhammapada 9)

The editors are sensitive to the material, not suggesting that the messages of Jesus, the Buddha, and Lao Tzu are identical, but simply setting them side by side, like respectful conversation partners. The passages are arranged by subject matter, reflecting the emphases of the original teachers, such as "Compassion," "Humility," "Wisdom," "Materialism," "Hypocrisy," "Salvation." Because these topics are crucial to religious seekers today, these would be excellent books for an interfaith discussion group.

One of the outstanding features of this series is the stature of the scholars chosen to write the introductions and to edit the sayings chosen for comparison. The essay by David Steindl-Rast, which opens "Jesus and Lao-Tzu," is one of the most eloquent and imaginative pieces on the complexity of interfaith relationships that I have ever read. It should be required reading for anyone who wants to begin the work of interfaith dialogue in his or her own community. The others are Marcus Borg, Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield, and Martin Aronson, a highly respected scholar of Taoism and Christianity.

These experts have provided as slim a structure as possible for the passages, in order to let the words of the great masters take the place of honor in these books. Their skill is shown in the arrangement of the sayings, not in their own verbiage. The insights to be gained from these books are largely the reader's own.
The messages of Jesus, the Buddha, and Lao Tzu are simply set side by side, like respectful conversation partners.

Another angle entirely on the relationship between the dharma and the gospel is "Buddha & Christ: Images of Wholeness," by Robert Elinor, a Presbyterian minister with strong Buddhist leanings. When it arrived in my mailbox, frankly I was afraid to open the book. I am not fond of superficial surveys, and I thought the subtitle was trendy. Then I looked around my study. The icons and statues I have of both the Buddha and the Christ looked back at me accusatively. I picked up the book again and was gratified to see that the author has managed to assemble an impressive amount of history and analysis in a very accessible form (though I still think the subtitle trendy).

Elinor delivers the tools to enable the average viewer to understand the basic iconography and history of depictions of these two extraordinary men, whose images have been experienced by their followers as an entryway into the sublime. He explores the fundamental issues involved in the doctrine of incarnation, in religious image-making and symbolism, and he traces the history of Buddhist and Christian images from their beginnings to their proliferation across many continents and cultures, and their transformation into abstract forms, both ancient and modern.

The strengths of this book lie in the author's unusual combination of religious and scholarly sensitivity, together with an engaging style. For instance, he makes clear in his discussion of a Buddha of fifth-century Wei dynasty China and the Romanesque Christ of the same period that their stylistic similarity does not necessarily indicate philosophical similarity:

Wei Buddhas and Romanesque Christs radiate a strangely astringent spiritual vitality through very similar, highly stylized, flat, linear figures.... [Yet,] the Wei Buddha smiles in ineffable wisdom, certain of the eventual liberation of everyone from the world's contingencies; the Romanesque Christ stares in formidable command, assured that every person's response advances that person toward a blessed or infernal eternity.

What Elinor has created within the pages of his book is a unique kind of visual religious dialogue. Images--and not texts--do the speaking here, although it may take many words to interpret the meaning of a single image. Elinor's commentary provides the historical and critical information necessary to "hear" the dialogue among the images and their makers. A very practical portion of the book is devoted to the explication of the most common gestures and symbols used in depictions of the Buddha and the Christ.

One of my "aha" moments came when I opened to a comparison of a 17th-century Tibetan mandala and the stained glass rose window at Chartres Cathedral in France. The illustrations invite extended meditation and reflection. For this reason, I was disappointed in a very few of the reproductions, which are muddy or out of focus. This book, which gives access to one of the most important forms of religious expression, is an important addition to the development of interfaith understanding, and it should be required reading for people decorating their homes and offices with these images.

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