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  • A Christian Commentary on the Dhammapada
  • Leo D. Lefebure

When the great composer Charles Ives was growing up in Danbury, Connecticut, in the late nineteenth century, he heard his father’s marching band on one side of the town square, as well as another marching band playing separately on the other side, but close enough to be within earshot of his father’s band. The sounds of the two bands clashed with each other within the hearing of young Charles, violating all the usual rules of musical composition but creating a new, intriguing experience as he held them both in his hearing at the same time. Years later the memory of such experiences flowed into the mature music of his Fourth Symphony and other works.

Some years ago I was chatting with Paul Knitter at a reception at a Catholic Theological Society of America convention when Catherine Cornille approached us with her usual energy and enthusiasm and asked us whether we would each like to contribute to her projected series of Christian commentaries on sacred non-Christian texts. In some ways the challenge of this project resembles that of the young Charles Ives—if we are already listening to one marching band, how do we hear another marching band that comes within our hearing, flowing into our awareness at the same time? In some regards the sounds directly clash, creating unimagined dissonances; the rhythms bounce against each other, breaking the rules of regularity; but out of the flux there may emerge a new aesthetic whole greater than the sum of its parts.

As I reflected on Catherine’s invitation, the text that kept coming to mind was the Dhammapada, because I had cherished and appreciated this text for many years. The thought of writing a book-length commentary on the Dhammapada excited me. Later, Peter Feldmeier offered to join me, and so the project became a joint venture, with Peter offering a new translation and explanations of the Buddhist context and myself offering a Christian response. This essay is a reflection on my contribution to the process of writing a Christian commentary on the Dhammapada; portions are taken from the introduction and epilogue of that work.1 [End Page 181]

Biblical Wisdom and the Dhammapada

Much of the challenge of comparative theology is deciding which aspects of the respective traditions to compare. I had long worked on the ancient Jewish wisdom tradition and its later reverberations in Christian theology, and so this was my starting point on the Christian side. To use the imagery of Ives’s experience, this was my original marching band. Like a marching band, the biblical wisdom tradition is not static, not a set of fixed positions, but always on the move. The wisdom teachers of the Old Testament engaged in conversations with the sages of Mesopotamia and Egypt; Solomon famously entertained the Queen of Sheba and they discussed wisdom together. The book of Proverbs includes an adaptation of the Egyptian Wisdom of Amenemope. Later, when the Greek philosophical tradition marched within range of hearing, heirs of the Jewish wisdom tradition such as Philo of Alexandria incorporated Hellenistic philosophies as well. We can also see this in the Wisdom of Solomon. Hellenistic Jewish wisdom writings were the matrix from which much of early Christian theology emerged. So my original marching band was already a blend of other bands.

In form, the Dhammapada is a collection of wisdom sayings similar to the biblical book of Proverbs. There is no narrative. There are themes that recur again and again, and each chapter has a traditional title. Shakyamuni Buddha did not claim to be a prophet. He did not base his teaching on any special revelation from God, but rather on his own insight into the causes of suffering and the path to the end of suffering. Some sayings specifically address monastic life; others address all human beings.

For Christians to ponder the wisdom of the Dhammapada is to enter into an age-old conversation concerning wisdom that spans centuries and continents and includes many different dimensions. I approach the Dhammapada as a wisdom text, aligning this discussion with the tradition of interreligious and intercultural sapiential dialogue that reaches...


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pp. 181-189
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