Buddhist-Christian Studies 21.1 (2001) 144-147
[Access article in PDF]
Welcoming Flowers from Across the Cleansed Threshold of Hope: An Answer to the Pope's Criticism of Buddhism
Welcoming Flowers from Across the Cleansed Threshold of Hope: An Answer to the Pope's Criticism of Buddhism. By Thinley Norbu. New York: Jewel Publishing House, 1997. 93 pp.
Welcoming Flowers is a short and tightly written critique of the Buddhism chapter of Pope John Paul II's 1994 best-seller, Crossing the Threshold of Hope. It is a strong, barbed, personal essay from a highly respected Buddhist teacher who expresses shock and dismay that the Pope's actual words about Buddhism that are read as absolute truth by millions of people around the world had "serious, gratuitous misrepresentations of Buddhist doctrine."The book is ostensibly a response to requests from Polish readers and a Polish publishing company to comment on "what the Pope clearly said about Buddhism." The author of Welcoming Flowers, Thinley Norbu, paints himself as a kind of efficient, spiritual cleaning maid who, with tongue in cheek despite his long admiration for the Catholic leader, has to tidy up after the Vicar of Rome: "It is as though the Pope suddenly vomited insolently and uncontrollably in a cathedral, so I hastily had to clean it up, as the Polish people asked me to do."
The Pope's negative assessment of Buddhism inspired Thinley Norbu to match [End Page 144] his attack with even more exalted teachings of the Buddha: "I am grateful to the Pope for being like a hit-hitting drumstick that has given me the good opportunity to be like a drum myself, resonating with the sound of profound Dharma. I am grateful to the Pope for yelling with negative words in a valley, letting me return the answer of its transformation into the positive echo of Buddhist hymns."
Thinley Norbu in fact uses the Pope's chapter to clarify some basic teachings of Vajrayana Buddhism and how it differs from Mahayana and Hinayana (note: Norbu's term, not this reviewer's) in a concise and instructive manner from the point of view of a practitioner. In this regard,Welcoming Flowers can be considered a kind of introductory, primary source ofTibetan (Nyingma)Vajrayana Buddhist doctrine for those who are unfamiliar with the various schools of Buddhism. The Pope's seriously outdated (reminiscent of Max Weber or early missionaries), limited, and unsympathetic understanding of one school of Buddhism is used by Thinley Norbu as a platform to expound his rich understanding of Buddhist traditions toWestern readers of comparative religion and specifically to Catholics. The book's twenty-nine footnotes can also function as a brief glossary of transliterated TibetanVajrayana Buddhist terms (but without use of diacritical marks for Sanskrit or Pali terms).
Thinley Norbu is careful to mitigate his condemnation of the Pope's unwarranted ignorance of Buddhism by sharing the onus with the Pope's not-so-sapient preceptors. He generously suggests that the Pope may not bear all the blame for the chapter's shortcomings in the following paragraph:
The misrepresentations of Buddhism in his book may have come from listening to advisors who were unfamiliar with Buddhism, from simply glancing at books at the Hinayana level, or by being shown books by misinformed authors. Perhaps he only looked at negative conceptions about Buddhism written by followers of other doctrines who had malicious intentions, or by idiots who wrote books for money without caring that they were full of mistakes. In any case, the Pope definitely heard about Buddhism from sources that did not know anything about it. It seems . . . as though he . . . scooped a few drops of water from an immeasurable ocean with a piece of grass and even misunderstood these few drops (p. 2).
Norbu reprimands the Pope for not doing his required homework, a fault that can lead to serious disharmony among religions."Without studying and understanding other doctrines deeply, to say many things about them is not wise," Norbu continues; "it...