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  • A "Hypostatic Union" of Two Practices but One Person?
  • Paul F. Knitter

This is going to be an awkwardly personal reflection. But that, I understand, is what the assignment given to the members of the Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies panel "Constructing Buddhist Identities in the West" called for: I was asked to reflect upon "How I as a Western Christian have appropriated Buddhist practice and teachings into my religious identity." I'm grateful for this invitation, because it has provided me with the occasion to realize, quite startlingly, that what I have thought and written about my "Buddhist-Christian identity" in the past really isn't quite accurate.

But first let me offer a bird's eye, and therefore limited, view of my two-faced identity: I was born into a traditional, not very critical, Catholic family in the Chicago of seventy-three years ago. At thirteen, I decided (against my parents' wishes) to enter a minor seminary in order to become a priest, and went through the whole fourteen years of training. For the last four years of that training I had the profoundly good fortune to be sent to Rome, arriving there in 1962, two weeks before more than two thousand bishops marched into St. Peter's Basilica to start the Second Vatican Council (the renewing effects of which were much more lasting, it seems, in my psyche than in the psyche and structures of the Vatican!). Ordained a priest in 1966 and animated with Vatican II's new openness to other religions, I did a dissertation at the University of Marburg, Germany, on Christian theologies of religions. When I returned to the United States in 1972, I taught theology at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, and when I decided to leave the Catholic priesthood in 1975, I moved to Xavier University in Cincinnati, where I continued teaching theology for some twenty-eight years.

It was during those years, in the 1980s, that I began not only to teach courses on Buddhism but also to practice daily Zen meditation. Gradually, I came to realize that Buddhism, its theory and practice, was seeping into and coloring the way I understood and practiced my Christian creed—to the point that in 2007 I took refuge in the Tibetan Dzogchen tradition and since then have been under the guidance of my teacher, Lama John Makransky. It was around this time that I faced the need to figure out just what or who I was—a Buddhist Christian or a Christian Buddhist. So, typical academic that I am, I wrote a book. [End Page 19]

In Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian, I declared and defended my primary identity as a Christian who was thoroughly drenched in Buddhism.1 But when I recently read Rose Drew's penetrating analysis of various ways of blending dual religious belonging in her Christian or Buddhist? An Exploration of Dual Religious Belonging, I started to wonder.2 From her ethnographic study of actual dual belongers, she found that (a) some have a primary religious identity (the group to which I thought I belonged), (b) some alternate between both primary identities, (c) some cannot attribute primacy to either or any identity, and (d) some are too bewildered by it all to say anything.3 As I pondered Drew's description and analysis of her interviewees' meanderings back and forth across religious lines, I had to admit that I wasn't sure where I belonged. So when the request for this paper came along, I saw it as an opportunity to help myself sort things out.

An Inappropriate Analogy

My problem is that as my Christian and Buddhist practices have continued over these recent five to ten years, more and more, I cannot keep them apart. They remain clearly distinct, but unlike Roger Corless, of blessed memory, I have not been able to honor their distinct identities by practicing them, as Roger apparently did, separately: being a Buddhist from Monday to Thursday, and a Christian from Friday to Sunday (and then waiting to see what would happen). Rather, for me, when I am at Mass, I hear the words of the Scripture readings or of...


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