In the recent film Children of Men, by Alfonso Cuarón, the viewer is dragged willy-nilly into a world of horror and ugliness in the year 2027. Nuclear war, the collapse of economies and of the environment, massive waves of refugees, and ubiquitous paranoia have made the world more a place of death than of life. At the very heart of the crisis is the collapse of human fertility: since about 2008, no women have brought human children into the world. Prominent in the obsessions of this ugly, infertile world are extremists of various stripes, including environmental terrorists and Islamists. The film effectively projects into the near future all the trajectories that currently dominate the political matrix that is dished up regularly in the mass media. One might say, from a contemplative point of view, that what we see in Children of Men is the manifestation in the material world of the mental fabrications of the deluded relative mind, in short, a hell-realm (naraka-loka).
There are no evident Buddhists in the film, but the aging midwife who is for a while a symbol of hope repeats the mantra of Avalokiteśvara on numerous occasions and makes frequent use of the word "śānti" in a futile attempt, along with various obscure and manic ritual gestures, to implore the aid of higher powers in a world gone mad. There are also repressed references to the Christian mystery as well, such as when the young African woman who is indeed, miraculously, pregnant claims humorously to be "a virgin" or when the newborn child is carried out of a shattered apartment building in the midst of a battle between insurgents and the military: everyone, on both sides, pauses from the work of slaughter to touch the feet of the infant in the manner of a Beato Angelico Adoration of the Magi. This viewer, contaminated by his "Buddhist-Christian Studies," sees things that perhaps the filmmaker did not wish to be so obvious. It is almost too easy to see the Āryan Truth of Suffering coupled with the dogma of Original Sin in this Britain become a Dantesque malebolgia.
All of which raises the question, perennial in our discipline, of the value and the validity of comparison. Several of the articles in our 2007 issue take up the exercise of comparison in an effort to tease out previously unnoticed meanings on both sides of the Buddhist-Christian conversation. At first glance, our authors' methods seem to embody the essence of simplicity: take a Buddhist text and a Christian text in the English language, examine their contents to determine commonalities and differences of terminology and meaning, and draw conclusions that may advance the dialogue between Christians and Buddhists. Anyone who has undertaken this exercise, however, is well aware of the logjam of difficulties that emerge before a single paragraph has been written. In the first place, there is [End Page iii] the question of the relative validity of translations. In our Zen/Ch'an-Catholic Dialogue in California over the past five years, it has become clear that some of the terminology that is used to translate Sanskrit, Chinese, and Japanese Buddhist technical terms needs to be reexamined because of the historic drift of the English language away from its medieval scholastic and contemplative inheritance. Thus, a term like "contemplation" should not be used for "discursive reflection" as in modern English, but for the formless, graced state of absorption in God, as it meant to the fourteenth-century European mystics. Another problematic term is "participation," as in "participation in the divine nature" (II Peter 1:4 Latin: "per haec efficiamini divinae consortes naturae"). The meaning of this phrase in the mystical tradition suggests a substantial sharing in the divine life, up to and including the transformation of the human person that is called "divinization." Thus we have in the Rule of St. Benedict (Prologue): "Let us open our eyes to the light that divinizes us" (deificum lumen), a phrase that even the Benedictine translators have been reluctant to render in its astonishing integrity, but that participation is truly immersion in the life of the Trinity itself. Another problematic term...