- Christianity Looks East: Comparing the Spiritualities of John of the Cross and Buddhaghosa
This book has a history that goes back at least fifteen years. The author, who has been on the faculty at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, for the last few years, originally wrote a much longer manuscript, "Interrelatedness: A Comparison of the Spiritualities of St. John of the Cross and Buddhaghosa for the Purpose of Examining the Christian use of Buddhist Practices," which was approved for the PhD degree at the Graduate Theological Union in 1996. Christianity Looks East is [End Page 216] almost half the length of the dissertation and written in nontechnical terms accessible to the interested layperson (although there is a very helpful "Glossary of Terms" in the back of the book).
Feldmeier's primary question concerns the possibility of taking the interreligious dialogue to the next level of spiritual practice. Succinctly put, his hypothesis is that, yes, this next level of dialogue and exploration is possible, but the complexities involved need to be approached cautiously. Five chapters structure the development of this line of thought.
Chapter 1 summarizes the state of the interreligious dialogue and introduces the book's thesis and dialogue partners, the sixteenth-century Christian mystic St. John of the Cross and the fifth-century monk-scholar Bhadantacariya Buddhaghosa, especially his classic commentary The Path of Purification (Vissudhimagga). Chapters 2–4 comprise the main comparative chapters, focused respectively on St. John of the Cross's and Buddhaghosa's anthropologies, their views of the spiritual life, and their understandings of the goals of spiritual disciplines and practices. Each of these middle chapters is divided into three parts: on St. John of the Cross, on Buddhaghosa, and on comparing where their views converge and diverge. Anthropological convergences include a constantly craving human nature, a delusional human consciousness, a desire-driven will, and the remedy of asceticism. Predictably, St. John of the Cross and Buddhaghosa diverge on the nature of the self: as a substantive soul on the one hand, and as impermanent on the other. Their spiritual paths feature detachment from cravings and deconstruction of the self's egotistical desires, but part ways in terms of St. John's emphasis on divine initiative and the practice of self-emptying love versus Buddhaghosa's emphasis on self-cultivation and the practice of analyzing phenomena. "Final bliss" (the title of chapter 4) presents convergent goals of absolute freedom and perfect peace, but different views of loving identification with a personal God (St. John of the Cross) and impersonal entrance into Nirvana (for Buddhaghosa, the cessation of suffering, negatively described as unconditioned).
The fifth chapter asks about the future of the Buddhist-Christian dialogue, particularly with regard to interreligious practice. Drawing especially from John Dunne's theory of passing over and then coming back, Feldmeier defends the possibility of Christian use of Buddhist practices. While clearly identifying the problematic aspects of interreligious practice, he also carefully delineates when Buddhist practices cooperate with and complement the Christian paths, and when the former might critique the latter. A short epilogue addresses the various limitations of the book's main proposals with regard to the complicated methodological, theoretical/conceptual, and practical issues that confront interreligious practice.
At one level, Christianity Looks East is similar to a number of other books familiar to readers of this journal that have compared and contrasted Christian and Buddhist meditation or their respective monastic traditions.1 At another level, however, the perennial questions pertaining to comparative studies of meditation and spirituality are explored through juxtaposing two specific voices: St. John of the Cross and Buddhaghosa. Hence, the striking structural similarities (what Feldmeier calls convergences) separated by geographical and temporal distance beg not only for historical [End Page 217] analysis but also for further theological explication. Since my training is primarily in theology rather than history, I cannot adequately address the genealogical questions surrounding the possible intertwining of the mystical traditions of East and West. I can, however, make a few observations about how...