- The Path of Wisdom: A Christian Commentary on the Dhammapada by Leo D. Lefebure and Peter Feldmeier
The Path of Wisdom: A Christian Commentary on the Dhammapada marks the emergence of a new form in Buddhist-Christian comparative studies, the close interreligious commentary. This is a divergence from the often more general Buddhist-Christian doctrinal and philosophical reflections of recent decades. Peter Feldmeier and Leo Lefebure, in combining an original translation of a Buddhist root text (Feldmeier) with a set of close readings of that text (Feldmeier), and then with a further set of explicitly Christian commentarial responses (Lefebure), have offered an innovative contribution to the ongoing maturation of Buddhist-Christian comparative work. Any flaws are worth noting only because the book’s pioneering character should, ideally, help to enable the development of further interreligious commentary between Buddhists, Christians, and the primary texts of their traditions.
J. Z. Smith noted several decades ago that “Comparison, at base, is never identity. Comparison requires the postulation of difference as the grounds of its being interesting (rather than merely tautological) and a methodical manipulation of difference, a playing across the ‘gap’ in the service of some useful end.”1 Neither the discovery of theological differences nor the identification of similarities can be meaningful, in themselves, without the framing seriousness of some theological purpose or desire. Such desire need not be narrow; interreligious commentarial work might involve a broad sense of receptivity to potential interreligious challenge, and we are not always sure which differences (and which similarities) will actually make some difference. There is a kind of trust involved in commentarial discipline, one that is even more remarkable when that trust is shared between multiple authors.
The explicitly interreligious form of commentary has already made its appearance beyond the sphere of Buddhist-Christian inquiry. Francis Clooney’s Christian commentaries on Hindu texts have helped make the possibility of Buddhist-Christian commentary intelligible, and his combination of painstaking attention with open receptivity offers a template. Commentary, he writes, “requires self-effacement before [End Page 205] the text, patience, perseverance, and imagination; it is a humble practice that discloses productive ways of thinking and changes the reader, as she or he is drawn into the world of the text, even the text of another religious tradition.”2 Feldmeier and Lefebure signal their own acceptance of such commentarial requirements throughout their introduction, where they write of “a search for the truth requiring openness to learning from one’s dialogue partner” (5), and align themselves with Gadamer’s insistence that “It is enough to say that we understand in a different way, if we understand at all” (6).
Feldmeier and Lefebure largely succeed at fulfilling these hermeneutic virtues. Feldmeier’s translation demonstrates a thoughtful fidelity to the Dhammapada’s often incantatory concision, and the reader is referred to Thanissaro Bhikkhu as a capable and generous mentor for Feldmeier. The transparently communal production of The Path of Wisdom suggests the humility and perseverance involved in the work, and this model in turn suggests possibilities for a broader disciplinary maturation toward greater diversity of forms and partnerships.
Feldmeier’s close readings of each of the twenty-six sections of the Dhammapada offer a helpful gradual progression of understanding, particularly for the potential undergraduate reader. The Dhammapada is skillfully located both within its thought-world and within the broader Pali canon, and these writings are likely the most valuable in the book for the classroom.
The later Buddhist reflections are particularly strong. To take one example among many: in chapter 19, which discusses the gradual integrative establishment of insight, the student is introduced first to the potential problems of concentration practice when used in isolation, before the student is offered views on the relationship of concentration to the broader soteriological aims of insight. Clear writing allows the reader to access potentially difficult but foundational issues.
And Feldmeier is at his best when demonstrating the mutual dependence of ideals that may seem irreconcilable to the beginning student: “the...