How different are Christians and Buddhists?

Jesus & Buddhaby Paul Knitter

Orbis Books. 204p $26

One of the great paradoxes of Buddhist-Christian relations is that Buddhist worldviews diverge so radically from Christian perspectives that in many ways it seems difficult to imagine any understanding at all between their respective adherents; yet many Christians, including myself, have found that engagement with the Buddhist tradition has strongly enriched their Christian practice. Mutual understanding is precarious: if a Christian assimilates Buddhist perspectives and practice too easily to familiar assumptions, one misses the otherness of the Buddhist tradition; if, on the other hand, one stresses the differences to the point that the two traditions are incommensurable, then no true communication appears possible, and no learning or enrichment will result. The relation is a gestalt that can be viewed in different ways, depending on whether one emphasizes the differences or the similarities.


In the middle of the 20th century, pioneers like Hugo Enomiya Lassalle, Thomas Merton and John S. Dunne crossed over to explore the resources of the Buddhist tradition and then returned home to the Catholic community enriched and transformed. They found positive resonances that changed their lives, but they also recognized that the Buddhist tradition differs profoundly from Christianity: Merton quipped that comparing Christianity and Zen Buddhism is rather like comparing math and tennis. Since that time, many Christians have explored Buddhist perspectives with appreciation. These explorations pose many questions for reflection. To what degree can a Christian coherently accept Buddhist views? Does it make sense for someone to claim to be both Buddhist and Christian? While a number of Christians describe themselves as practitioners of both Buddhism and Christianity, some critics, both Buddhist and Christian, have been skeptical. The Dalai Lama has compared the attempt to practice both Buddhism and Christianity to putting a yak’s head on a sheep’s body.

In this volume Paul Knitter and Roger Haight, S.J., explore this challenge in a series of engaging conversations with each other. They strongly endorse the project of Christians learning from Buddhists in the present climate, which they describe as marked by individualism, injustice and violence but also by an emerging corporate consciousness that is open to appreciating religious diversity in pursuit of compassion, justice and peace. Each chapter in this volume unfolds as a dialogue, with a Christian perspective from Haight, a Buddhist perspective from Knitter, mutual responses and finally a joint statement, “It Seems to Us.” On the one hand, they stress the importance of strong borders to guarantee identity; on the other hand, they call for flexible borders to permit passing over and coming back.

The main interest of Haight and Knitter is not in theoretical issues but in spiritual practice, including both the practice of meditation and the engaged practice of transforming the world to relieve suffering. Their main interest in bringing the teachings of Jesus and the Buddha into dialogue is to guide life in the present world of massive inequity amid the threat of ecological catastrophe. On this level they give us many helpful insights and much to ponder on our journey.

These ventures start from a particular vantage point, and the discussions of Knitter and Haight reflect their own origins within the U.S. Catholic theological community of the middle and late 20th century. Haight writes as an experienced Catholic systematic theologian, drawing on the theological language of his tradition to interpret and respond to Buddhism and illumine the relationship. At times Haight may assimilate Buddhist perspectives a bit too easily to Christian views, as when he describes the Spirit of God as “the Christian Buddha-nature,” or when he compares the Buddhist relationship between emptiness and form to Augustine’s theology of cooperative grace, or when he describes the Mahayana Buddhist view of absolute truth as “critical and metaphysical.” While these types of comparisons can be thought-provoking, it is not clear that they fully recognize and respect the stark otherness of Buddhist worldviews.

One of Paul Knitter’s earlier books bore the bold title: Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian. Knitter’s vantage point in the new volume is playful and paradoxical, for he describes himself as both a Christian and a Buddhist, employing the Christological language of the Council of Chalcedon to suggest that the two practices are united in him, remaining truly different but becoming one without being confused or changed. Whether the Buddhist and Christian practices are indeed not changed in this experimental union may be open to question. In this volume Knitter writes usually as a Buddhist; but occasionally he shifts voice, commenting from a Christian vantage point. For example, in the middle of offering a Buddhist perspective, Knitter abruptly warns that “the danger is that we Christians....”

Haight and Knitter often pair the Buddhist term “Emptiness” with the Christian term “God” as analogous expressions for ineffable ultimate reality, which is described as both transcendent and immanent. Knitter views “Emptiness or God” through the lens of process theology: “Emptiness or God ‘depends’ on form or creatures, not for its existence, but for its activity.” While there is no one Buddhist understanding of Emptiness, most Buddhists would not view Emptiness as an alternate term for what Christians mean by God, and most would have questions about Knitter’s formulation. Haight and Knitter challenge humans to realize “their connectedness to the power of creative Emptiness,” and they speak of functional analogies between emptiness and Jesus’ proclamation of the rule of God. This strategy risks domesticating the differences between Christian understandings of the transcendent God who creates the universe and Buddhist interpretations of emptiness, which is not a transcendent creator.

Because Haight and Knitter repeatedly describe the Buddhist perspectives as complementary and functionally analogous to Christian perspectives, one may question whether the otherness of the two traditions receives sufficient recognition and consideration. Nonetheless, this is a welcome and stimulating invitation to explore an important relationship.

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Richard Booth
2 years 8 months ago
For my part, I have found a number of the elements of Buddhism reflected in Christianity. For me, the two are, in many ways, highly compatible. However, as you suggest, the fact that Buddhism has no gods or God renders it more of a way of living, or a psychology of a healthy life, whereas, Christianity espouses a Deity, which means that it is a religion of transcendence, of the Supernatural. I can certainly understand why a contemplative like Thomas Merton found common ground with the Buddhist tradition. I appreciate your writing this article.


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