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  • Critique of “Buddhism and Christianity: The Meeting Place”
  • John P. Keenan

Stephen Morris in his “Buddhism and Christianity: The Meeting Place” focuses on parallel teachings in The Gospel of Thomas and the Zen tradition. This is an insightful approach, for there are points of clear and interesting convergence—both representing the wisdom trajectories of their respective traditions. But Morris broadens his argument by contrasting The Gospel of Thomas with a caricatured dogmatic Christianity. Meanwhile, he caricatures Buddhism as the pure, unmediated, and direct Zen experience of reality. Neither of these moves is valid. The author would have done well to consider The Gospel of Thomas in light of Zen texts. But there is no solid ground to take Zen as the normative Buddhist tradition, for it is one school among many, and even among Zen thinkers the Suzuki style of Zen (strongly centered on the nonconceptual immediacy of the satori experience) that is favored by the author has trenchant critics. 1 Neither are there grounds for singling out The Gospel of Thomas from among early Christian texts as normative in contrast to the canonical tradition.

Morris speaks about Buddhism but only discusses Zen, as if he believed the dated preaching of D. T. Suzuki that Zen is the essence of all Buddhism—that is what Suzuki taught. Thus I wonder about the “single insight” that Morris takes to be the heart of Zen (p. 16), especially as it is precisely this notion that has been so abundantly critiqued by Faure, Hakamaya, and Sharf. Indeed, according to Hakamaya, Dogen himself chastises such an emphasis on a once-and-for-all experience as a heretical teaching and not Buddhism at all. In a similar vein, one would criticize the citation from Layton (p. 17), for if the recognition of one true nature leads to a repose in which one sees death as trivial, then what field is left for engaged, compassionate activity in the world? Hakamaya claims that the doctrine of Buddha nature leads to social disengagement and encourages discrimination and injustice, because one has “left all that behind.” I realize well the controversial nature of Hakamaya’s claims, but the issue is one often argued in Buddhist texts themselves. One can cling to a substantialist experience of Buddha nature just as much as to a doctrinal stance. Must not such an understanding of any “single insight” and satori itself be emptied?

It is true that Buddhists have in the past often argued that Buddhism is in harmony with human reason, and indeed from the Pali scriptures to the medieval Indian [End Page 35] Buddhist Logicians, Buddhist thinkers have championed the soteriological power of reasoning. 2 Yet, perhaps Morris too quickly identifies that trust in human reasoning (p. 2) with Western “Enlightenment” trust in the ability of human reason to grasp reality and mold it into a steady stream of progress. The Western celebration of reason pushed an autonomous reason forward as the hegemonic ruler and controller of human affairs. Yet, especially since the experience of two world wars and innumerable cruel and bloody conflicts, that trust in the power of reason to identify truth and bring about progress has been undermined in the West—to such a point that few Christian thinkers would defend such a notion. Indeed, postmodern thinkers take their stance precisely against “Enlightenment” modernity. 3 The appeal of Buddhism as a religion of reason at one time harmonized with Western attempts to ground religion upon truths discovered through reason, and it was an effective apologetic for Buddhism. Yet few Buddhist thinkers would adopt such a claim today, because attempts to ground religion upon reason have all but disappeared and because Buddhist scriptures present the Buddha and his teaching as beyond reasoning. But such a critique of reasoning does not imply that one complacently accepts “doubtful doctrines.” Far from it; practitioners of faith traditions accept the faith of our ancestors as embodying not a once-given-for-all absolute truth, but as a path of practice that surrounds one with the mystery of being in this world. Thus I object to Morris’ use of the term inoculated (p. 3), for it implies that doctrine is a disease.

Caricature of...

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pp. 35-40
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