- Beside Still Waters: Jews, Christians, and the Way of the Buddha
Religion,Wilfred Cantwell Smith teaches us, is about people, not about ideas. This remarkable collection of essays provides us with a glimpse into people, their spiritual aspirations, and their life journeys. This collection of narratives of Jews and Christians, who recount the story of their involvement with Buddhism, turns out to be a powerful spiritual medium. It allows us to get to know, at times in a very intimate and revealing manner, the stories, struggles, and processes that have shaped participants in this enterprise. Many of the participants are well-known figures in academia and in religious or interfaith circles. Getting to know the person behind the idea, or the book, is always a valuable means of grounding and contextualizing what might otherwise be disembodied ideas or concepts. But the volume does much more than introduce us to an impressive array of sensitive and thoughtful personalities. Through the life stories told in this volume, key elements of the relationship between the three religions—theological, philosophical, and ritual—are confronted. The flow of the book moves in interesting ways between the personal, philosophical, theological, experiential, and mystical, as the various life stories weave the greater whole of this book. The sum total of the fourteen stories of Jews and Christians and their encounter with Buddhism provides an interesting vantage point on the Jewish-Buddhist and the Christian-Buddhist encounters. (I use the term "encounter," as opposed to "dialogue," following the distinction made in this volume byE.Burke Rochford Jr.; "encounter" involves personal change and transformation, something shared by nearly all participants in this volume.) From this perspective, interesting observations emerge regarding the ways in which the encounter impacts and interfaces with both Judaism and Christianity, on the sociological, ritual, theological, and experiential levels. The juxtaposition of two sets of stories, Jewish and Christian, allows us, finally, to make some interesting observations on the difference between these two parallel sets of encounters with Buddhism. [End Page 259]
The concept underlying this volume—sharing stories, short spiritual biographies —suggests the growing importance of biography or autobiography and narrative in the study of religion. This collection of short contemporary spiritual biographies makes us aware of the importance of narrative as part of spiritual process, and of its sharing. As the reader discovers, storytelling is a very powerful medium for conveying ideas and sharing processes. Something of the transformative nature of the very enterprise of encounter is thus communicated through the medium of this book. There is no doubt that every reader of this book who is sympathetic to the sensibilities of interreligious encounter will be moved and inspired by some of the stories and testimonies here collected.
The strengths of Beside Still Waters are also its weaknesses. The medium of storytelling calls for particular literary skills quite distinct from the spiritual and intellectual qualities that have rightly earned participants in this volume their place in it. Moreover, not all participants are able to share a personal, let alone a spiritual, process. Some of the writers (Cobb, Lubarsky) share an intellectual journey, couched in the appropriate autobiographical context. Others (notably Muck) offer theological insight. At the other extreme, a significant group of Christian contributors shares with us some of the most intimate mystical moments of their spiritual odyssey. The uniform assignment that contributors were asked to fulfill has thus been variously interpreted. This makes the book both highly interesting and, in some sense, weak. The lack of consistent focus takes the reader on a ride between a range of dimensions and experiences—intellectual, experiential, mystical, sociological, and more. With the exception of the mystical-experiential dimension that looms large in some of thepresentations, none of the substantive issues is ever fully developed. The cross between autobiography and religious reflection whets one's reflective appetite, offering tantalizing theological insight, only to fade into one of the dimensions of narrative through which the individual contributors address their task. The sum total of the...