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.”

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