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Spirituality: Books

Buddhists shed light on Benedict’s Rule


Edited by Patrick Henry
Riverhead, 223 pages, $23.95


We have entered a new age -- what I call the Interspiritual Age -- in which the barriers between cultures are collapsing, and thousands of years of cultures in isolation from one another are coming to an end. In this remarkably creative period of history, some members of religious traditions are exploring the depth dimension of other traditions. If a person is mature in his/her faith, such crossing-over can be a rewarding experience. In the Catholic understanding of this exploration, what we’ve learned from it is that when Christians cross over, they are able to view their faith in deeper ways. The mystery of Christ is seen in a new light, in a fresh perspective. This was Thomas Merton’s experience, and that of Henri Le Saux, Bede Griffiths, Raimon Panikkar and countless others.

When it’s a matter of interreligious dialogue, a kind of mutual irradiation can occur. This term was suggested by the Quaker mystic Douglas Steer, and it presupposes that the partners in dialogue are friends, something the Dalai Lama recommends as essential for genuine encounter to flower into communion.

More and more interspiritual books are appearing. Henri Le Saux’s Saacidananda: A Christian Approach to Advaitic Experience; Raimon Panikkar’s Invisible Harmony; The Ground We Share: Everyday Practice, Buddhist and Christian by Robert Aiken and Br. David Steindl-Rast; Thich Nhat Hanh and Steindl-Rast’s Living Buddha, Living Christ; and Hanh’s Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers, to name a few.

There are numerous bilateral dialogues happening around the world: Hindu-Christian, Christian-Buddhist, Islamic-Catholic, Native-American-Catholic, Taoist-Christian, Jewish-Buddhist, Christian-Sufi and many others.

It is the one between Christianity and Buddhism that is the most fascinating to me and potentially the most significant of these ongoing interreligious conversations. The historian Arnold Toynbee noted in 1973 that the meeting between Christianity and Buddhism was the most important event of this period of history. Perhaps, he was referring to the great fruit for humanity that could result from the relationship.

Benedict’s Dharma can be regarded as one of the first fruits, an interspiritual work that is a reflection by four Buddhists on the Rule of St. Benedict, a 1,500-year-old monastic document that has guided monasteries in their attempt to live the gospel in a more complete way. The four Buddhists are Norman Fischer, a Zen lay monk; Judith Simmer-Brown, a Tibetan Buddhist academician; Ven Yifa, a Taiwanese nun who was a lawyer and who also has a doctorate in religious studies; and Joseph Goldstein, a master of Vipassana meditation in the Theravadin Buddhist tradition.

Their insights have developed out of the rich and deep Christian-Buddhist dialogue, which began with Thomas Merton’s visit to Dharamsala in November 1968 and his three conversations with the Dalai Lama. A significant process was initiated in 1980 when the intermonastic hospitality exchange was begun between North American monastics, under Monastic Interreligious Dialogue, and Tibetan monastics under the Dalai Lama.

On Sept. 5, 1993, at the Parliament of the World’s Religions, the focus was on the development of compassion in the context of sunyata, or emptiness and kenosis, Christ’s self-emptying in the event of the Incarnation. Then in July 1996 Gethsemani I occurred, when monastics from both traditions met for five days in Merton’s abbey. Gethsemani II is planned for April 2002.

Benedict’s Dharma emerged out of Gethsemani I. Skillfully edited by Patrick Henry, longtime executive director of the Institute of Ecumenical and Cultural Research at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn., with a contribution of an introduction to the Rule of St. Benedict by Sr. Mary Margaret Funk, the executive director of Monastic Interreligious Dialogue, and concluding evaluation of these reflections by Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine leader of Buddhist-Christian dialogue. The entire text of the rule is included in the book.

Each Buddhist contributor expresses great appreciation of and respect for Benedict’s Rule and identifies parallels with Buddhist teachings. Goldstein discerns a relationship between holiness or sanctity and enlightenment, and that sanctity is enlightenment, having both a wisdom level, or an understanding of reality, and a moral dimension in the progress of virtue. There is a profound connection between the Christian emphasis on love, evident in the rule, and the Buddhist notion of emptiness.

Speaking in the context of forgiveness, Goldstein says: “The term love has better public relations than emptiness, but I think those two words at the deepest level refer to the same thing.”

Yifa tells us she is amazed at the profound similarity between the Christian and Buddhist monastic approaches, especially in their codes. She is impressed at the nearness of the traditions to each other, particularly when reading the sections of the rule focusing on the importance of obedience and humility. These chapters are foundational to the Benedictine vision, and Benedict exhorts: “The first step toward humility is obedience without delay.” Yifa comments on her reading of the prologue to the rule, where a middle way is suggested, that the words could be taken from any number of “Buddhist monastic codes.”

Simmer-Brown, remarking on the treatment of the sick, who are to be seen “as Christ himself,” conceives this as a way to get beyond self-fixation and deepen one’s compassion. She puts it: “When we look into the face of a sick person, we are taken out of ourselves and our own self-confirming habits. We are aroused to compassion and service.”

Fischer disagrees with chapter 68, which concerns obedience, when one is asked to perform difficult tasks, or to accept assignments that seem impossible. Instead, he counsels empowering monastics with some choice in the matter.

Steindl-Rast perceives a deep reverence for the Holy Rule in the musings of these four Buddhists, an appreciation of the common ground we share, a common ground that is eminently practical, emphasizing as it does daily practice, realization of impermanence, emptiness and love. Finally, as he says: “This book is but a beginning. It opens a gate. No one can tell what discoveries lie ahead.”

Wayne Teasdale teaches at Catholic Theological Union, Chicago, and is author of The Mystic Heart: Discovering a Universal Spirituality in the World’s Religions (New World Library).

National Catholic Reporter, December 7, 2001