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Buddhist-Christian Studies 20 (2000) 115-125

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Pretending to Be Buddhist and Christian: Thich Nhat Hanh and the Two Truths of Religious Identity

Jeffrey Carlson
DePaul University

Nagarjuna replies: "The teaching by the Buddhas of the dharma has recourse to two truths: / The world-ensconced truth and the truth which is the highest sense. / Those who do not know the distribution (vibhagam) of the two kinds of truth / Do not know the profound 'point' (tattva) in the teaching of the Buddha. / The highest sense [of the truth] is not taught apart from practical behavior, / And without having understood the highest sense one cannot understand nirvana. / Emptiness, having been dimly perceived, utterly destroys the slow-witted. / It is like a snake wrongly grasped or [magical] knowledge incorrectly applied." 1

I would like to offer a response to Thich Nhat Hanh's book Living Buddha, Living Christ, a response which suggests that Nhat Hanh embodies and propounds this classical Buddhist notion of "two truths," in a way that sheds much light on the very notion of "religious identity."

The fact that Buddhist teachings involve two kinds of truths is a familiar one in Buddhist studies. T.R.V. Murti describes worldly truth as "truth so called; truth as conventionally believed in common parlance. . . . It is the truth that does not do any violence to what obtains in our everyday world, being in close conformity with linguistic conventions and ideas." 2 Edward Conze notes that ". . . in some places the Buddhas have spoken of a 'self', in others they have taught a 'notself', and in addition they have also taught that there is neither a self nor a notself. Candrakirti convincingly explains this aphorism by pointing out that the Buddhas are physicians rather than teachers, that they always consider the mentality and spiritual maturity of their interlocutors, and vary their teachings accordingly." 3

Ultimate truth, again characterized by Streng, is "the realization of dependent coorigination whereby there is no attachment to fabricated 'things'--not even to the formulation of dependent coorigination." 4 [End Page 115]

1. Thich Nhat Hanh on Conventional Truth and Religious Identity

Thich Nhat Hanh writes: "We need roots to be able to stand straight and grow strong. When young people come to Plum Village, I always encourage them to practice in a way that will help them go back to their own tradition and get re-rooted. If they succeed at becoming reintegrated, they will be an important instrument in transforming and renewing their tradition." 5 An advocate of interreligious dialogue, he nonetheless maintains that "sharing does not mean wanting others to abandon their own spiritual roots and embrace your faith. That would be cruel. People are stable and happy only when they are firmly rooted in their own tradition and culture. To uproot them would make them suffer. There are already enough people uprooted from their tradition today, and they suffer greatly, wandering around like hungry ghosts, looking for something to fill their spiritual needs. We must help them return to their tradition." 6

He cites the suffering caused by Christian missionaries who, he writes, "came to Vietnam several hundred years ago, [and] urged us to abandon the cult of ancestral worship and to abandon our Buddhist tradition. Later, when they offered to help us in refugee camps in Thailand and Hong Kong, they also urged us to give up our roots. The good will to help and to save us was there, but the correct understanding was not. People cannot be happy if they are rootless." 7

Nhat Hanh tells a compelling story of six children he met in Sri Lanka. Coming upon them Nhat Hanh began chanting in Pali, "I take refuge in the Buddha. I take refuge in the Dharma. I take refuge in the Sangha." Nhat Hanh recounts that four of the children joined their palms and chanted, while the other two stood respectfully. "I motioned to the two children who were not chanting to join us. They smiled, placed their palms together and chanted in Pali, 'I...