Robert Aitken and David Steindl-Rast
Edited by Nelson Foster.
Triumph Books: Ligouri, Missouri, 1994.
248 pp., $17.95 (cloth).

In her Paleolithic romances, Jean Auel imagines angry clashes between Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon humans over the power of their respective totems. The details are off (not all Cro-Magnon women were blond and buxom), but Auel’s gloss on the prehistory of religions is surely right on target: interfaith encounter has always been with us. During our century, the exchange has improved enormously; the operative word now is not power or persecution, or even proselytization, but dialogue. The most flamboyant example of this recent sea-change is last year’s Parliament of World Religions, a grand carnival of cross-denominational handshakes and self-approbation. But serious dialogue usually goes on in quieter corridors, as representatives of various religions meet in small conferences or one-on-one for scholarly exchange or shared practice. One such example, a suitable gauge of the state of interreligious dialogue today—and particularly of Buddhist-Christian dialogue, the most animated of all cross-religious conversations—is recorded in The Ground We Share.

Even casual observers of the dialogue scene will recognize the two participants: Robert Aitken Roshi, founder of the Diamond Sangha and the principle teacher at its Hawaiian center, and Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Roman Catholic monk of the Benedictine Order now living as a hermit in Big Sur, California. For one week in January 1991, Brother David and Aitken Roshi met in a cabin in the Hawaiian rain forest in order to discuss everyday practice. According to editor Nelson Foster, Brother David proposed most of the questions, while Aitken Roshi’s concerns “guided the entire conversation.” The result, assembled by Foster from what must have been a monstrous pile of tapes, makes instructive reading.

The bulk of the discussion revolves around issues that arise in all spiritual work, and, indeed, in the lives of nonreligious people as well: how to handle fear, suffering, discouragement, vanity; the value of attention; the uses of friendship. Usually, Brother David and Aitken Roshi see eye to eye and come up with sound, if disappointingly predictable, advice (on perfection: try to improve but accept limitations; on solitude and community: “the door to the hermitage must never be locked,” as Brother David nicely puts it). Good teaching stories abound, such as this one by Aitken Roshi on breaking habitual roles:

I gave a talk to children…and told them about the time that my father had a stroke and lost the use of his right arm and leg. When I visited him in the hospital, he asked, “Would you cut my fingernails for me?” I did so and suddenly felt that I was the parent and he the child. So I told the children, “You can be parents to your parents, and they can be your children.” They were astonished.

Such tales, although valuable for students of self-development, sustain the low-key, respectful tone that runs throughout the text. Ardent notes emerge only when the two men turn to flaws and failures within their own respective traditions. Aitken Roshi laments the failure of Zen to offer a rigorous procedure for character formation and confronts the issue of sexual exploitation in Buddhist centers, a problem that he likens to incest. Brother David lashes out at institutional hierarchy in Christianity (by which he means, presumably, the Vatican) and worries about a growing disinclination among Christians to engage in community service.

The main reason for the lack of electricity, however, is the unwillingness of the two men to lock horns on religious differences. Upon closing the book, readers may well wonder whether Buddhism and Christianity, at least as regards principal points of belief and practice, have not melted together into a portmanteau faith, neither fish nor fowl. To be sure, polite quibbles emerge over knotty terms like nothingness (although Brother David more than once redefines traditional Christian terminology to meet Buddhist objections), and at one time Aitken Roshi suggests that “there are differences we should respect and maybe even celebrate.” Yet the presiding assumption seems to be Brother David’s belief that “both traditions come from the same experiential awareness,” and therefore that key aspects of one religion must find correspondence in the other—a contention that is not shared by most scholars of religion or by the majority of practicing Buddhists or Christians. In order to achieve this parallelism, vast areas of “everyday practice” are omitted from discussion. For example, most Christians would define practice to mean devotional prayer, participation in the sacramental life of the Church, or developing a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, yet these subjects are skirted over or ignored. Moreover, major issues that divide the two religions—matters of ontology, epistemology, teleology, and the like, all of which have the most profound impact on “everyday practice” and cannot be relegated to the dustbin as “theory”—remain un-explored. What Aitken Roshi and Brother David offer instead is an intelligent, instructive discussion limited almost entirely to Buddhist-Christian affinities. Many thanks, then, for a splendid appetizer. We await the main course.

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