Living Buddha, Living Christ
Thich Nhat Hanh
Riverhead Books: New York  1995.
208  pp., $20.00 (cloth)

Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk who was a friend and spiritual brother of Thomas Merton’s, has come to be regarded as a kind of “Asian Merton,” a sage for all seasons and ubiquitous guru to everyone who is—or wants to be—”on the Way,” regardless of race, creed, color, sex, or (especially) religion. His teachings, collected in such books as The Miracle of Mindfulness and Being Peace, convey with simplicity and clarity the basics of spiritual practice, and an understanding of its  purpose.

His new book, Living Buddha, Living Christ, comes to us with seals of approval from a pair of distinguished Christian teachers: Brother David Steindl-Rast, O.S.B., and Elaine Pagels. In her Introduction, Dr. Pagels, professor of religion at Princeton and author of The Gnostic Gospels, finds that her agreement with Thich Nhat Hanh comes from “resonances” in Buddhism with early Christian mystics, especially the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas. Brother David gallantly moves to head off anticipated criticism of the book by stating in his Foreword, “For Christian readers, it would be a great loss to overlook this voice of insight and compassion, insisting on academic niceties and theological precision.”

I am no theologian, nor am I given to “academic niceties,” but as a Christian layperson I could not help wonder at some of the seemingly casual and questionable interpretations of Living Buddha, Living Christ. Thich Nhat Hanh tells us, “I do not think there is that much difference between Christians and Buddhists. Most of the boundaries we have created between our two traditions are artificial. Truth has no boundaries. Our differences may be mostly differences in emphasis.”

The attempt to bolster this belief leads to such cloudy statements as “Taking refuge in the Three jewels is the foundation of every Buddhist practice. Taking refuge in the Trinity is at the foundation of every Christian practice.” Except for the fact that there are three of each, there seems little comparison between the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, and The Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Indeed, the very idea of the Trinity would seem to refute Thich Nhat Hanh’s sweeping statement that “Christians understand that God cannot be experienced through notions and concepts.”

Having attended Protestant services since childhood, I have yet to hear anyone speak of “taking refuge in the Trinity,” though in hymns and prayers we speak of “The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.” “Refuge” is more likely to be taken with Jesus, rather than the more abstract theological concept of “The Trinity.”

In another effort to meld the two diverse traditions together, Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “If the Buddha had been born into the society in which Jesus was born, I think he, too, would have been crucified.” Would he then also, I wonder, have risen on the third day?

Ironically, in some of the ways the two traditions seem similar, Thich Nhat Hanh misses the point. He tells us that “in Christianity, the Kingdom of God is the place you will go for eternity,” but one of Jesus’ key teachings is “The kingdom is within,” which really is close to Buddhist thought.

Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Christian meditation often takes scriptures as its objects, meditatio scripturarum. That is why it is called Prayer of the Heart.” Yet “The Prayer of the Heart,” also known as “Centering Prayer,” is in fact without words except for a single word used as a kind of mantra (like God or love) for stilling the mind—a practice close to Buddhist meditation.

Certainly the teachings of love and compassion are found in both Buddhism and Christianity, but beyond that it seems unproductive to try to mush together these rich traditions from East and West. A more helpful approach comes from Professor Diana Eck of Harvard Divinity School: “The theological task, and the task of a pluralist society, is to create the space and the means for encounter of commitments, not to neutralize all commitment.”

At a conference on theology, Thich Nhat Hanh heard an Indian Christian friend say, “We are going to hear about the beauties of several traditions, but that does not mean we are going to make a fruit salad.” Thich Nhat Hanh replied, “Fruit salad can be delicious!” Readers who share the same taste will enjoy consuming this book.

Dan Wakefield’s latest book is Expect a Miracle: The Miraculous Things That Happen to Ordinary People(HarperSanFrancisco).

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