- Jesus and Buddha: Practicing Across Traditions (film) Dir. by John Ankele
Proponents of interfaith encounter often argue that the importance of such encounter is not simply to increase tolerance between peoples and groups of different religious persuasions so that they can get along better in the world, but, more importantly, that such encounter is a crucial and necessary component of spiritual growth for those who choose to participate in interreligious/interfaith encounter. If one is a serious spiritual or religious seeker of whatever religious tradition, interreligious engagement can be an important component of spiritual growth and maturity within one’s own tradition. Rather than water down one’s commitment to one’s own faith, such encounter can actually deepen that commitment.
The documentary Jesus and Buddha: Practicing across Traditions is a wonderful example of this delightful side effect of interreligious encounter. In this documentary, we hear from three Christians who have found their own Christian faith transformed and deepened through their intentional and serious engagement with the Buddhist tradition. [End Page 207] Two of the featured Christians are Roman Catholic, and one is Presbyterian. All three of them are trained theologians/practitioners within the Christian tradition, with considerably more religious literacy within that tradition than that of the usual person in the pew, but the journey they describe is one that is not limited to those with advanced theological training.
Paul Knitter, at the time this film was produced, was the Paul Tillich Professor of Theology, World Religions, and Culture at Union Theological Seminary. His book Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian: A Personal Journey of Passing Over and Passing Back sets forth in much more detail the experiences he describes in this film. Knitter explains that his journey into Buddhism enabled him to see things about Jesus that he could not have seen without his encounter with the Buddha. He found Buddhism’s emphasis on looking within oneself for enlightenment rather than looking to a God “out there” beyond the self to be transformational for him as he progressed in his Christian faith. Knitter was trained as Roman Catholic priest. He left the priesthood to marry and spent decades as a prominent Roman Catholic theologian and prolific author of theological texts, developing a sophisticated Christian theology of religious pluralism. Along the way, he began a serious Buddhist practice in the Zen tradition, and that practice became an integral part of how he lives his life as a Christian.
Fr. Robert Kennedy is a Jesuit priest and a Zen teacher in the White Plum lineage. He taught theology for many years at St. Peter’s College in New Jersey and as a young man studied with Yamada Roshi in Kamakura, Japan, with Maezumi Roshi in Los Angeles, and later with Glassman Roshi in New York. He was installed as a sensei in 1991 and was conferred Inka by Glassman Roshi in 1997. He is the author of Zen Gifts to Christians and other books. The documentary describes his journey to becoming a Zen teacher while retaining his Roman Catholic priesthood and identity as a Christian.
Chung Hyun Kyung is a professor of ecumenical theology and interfaith engagement at Union Theological Seminary and a Buddhist Dharma teacher in the Kwan Um school of Zen. She trained with Seung Sahn Sunim and Thich Nhat Hanh. She comes out of the Presbyterian tradition originally, and her academic work focuses on eco-feminist theologies based on her research in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
The documentary explores how each of these three Christian theologians made their way to Buddhist practice. For Paul Knitter it was that emphasis on looking within that drove him to Buddhist practice. For Kennedy the imperative to engage people of other religious traditions came with the Second Vatican Council’s emphasis on such engagement as a critical part of Catholic spiritual formation, and as he encountered Buddhism he was impressed with “the reasonableness of Zen, the sanity of it.” He found the emphasis on practice rather than doctrine or belief to be important...