- The Prophet and The Bodhisattva: Daniel Berrigan, Thich Nhat Hanh, and The Ethics of Peace And Justice by Charles R. Strain
The Prophet and the Bodhisattva is an attempt to create a religious social ethic from a synthesis of two religious sources. These are, roughly, Catholic liberation theology, embodied in the American Jesuit writer and activist Daniel Berrigan, and engaged Buddhism, embodied by the Vietnamese Zen teacher and writer Thich Nhat Hanh. Strain’s goal places the book not only in the large field of Buddhist-Christian dialogue but also within constructive religious social ethics. This is an ambitious project, and complex, which creates challenges for the work. It is also inspiring and should contribute to opening up space between religious traditions for constructive ethics.
The complexity of the task Strain sets for himself requires attention to method, which is not always clearly articulated. Strain uses a wide range of sources beyond Thich Nhat Hanh and Berrigan to construct this ethic, and at times it is unclear why he chose some sources over others. These moves, however, are better understood if one looks at The Prophet and the Bodhisattva as a very personal work. Strain writes tellingly how, several years ago, he reached out to Buddhism from his place in Catholic theology to find a correction for the moral righteousness that he found in the peace movements and liberation theology in which he worked. This engagement created a [End Page 241] lasting interest, and Strain’s book is largely an attempt to theorize a social ethic that both works out his relationship to both sources while also speaking to the pressing issues of our times.
The book is organized into three parts. The first argues that there are two key archetypes—“the prophet” (Berrigan) and “the bodhisattva” (Thich Nhat Hanh)—representing two different yet complimentary modes of ethical engagement with the world. The prophet gives us a way of resisting the overwhelming power of a dominant culture, consumed by consumerism and its own virtuous self-regard. The bodhisattva provides a way of cultivating peace between oneself and others in the midst of adversity and even violence. This comparison is a helpful and even inspiring introduction to both thinkers, especially for anyone interested in engaging Berrigan’s many studies of the prophets of the Hebrew scriptures.
This comparison moves into the book’s second section, which attempts to create a more systematic ethic synthesizing the prophetic and bodhisattvic approaches. Strain engages perhaps the central ethical issue of anyone that takes both Buddhist and Christian ethics seriously in their lives. Christian ethics, broadly speaking, can provide a strong social ethic based on notions of prophetic witness capable of speaking truth to power. Social justice discourse, however, can be difficult to reconcile with Buddhist ethical thought, where one is hard pressed to find a cognate of “justice” as understood through Christian theism. At the same time, there is the dialectic of compassion and wisdom, at least in traditions grouped together under the Mahayana rubric, that comes with specific practices that can be seen as a way to engage in suffering, even structural and institutional injustices, without succumbing to the toxic anger that activism can create in one’s self.
To reconcile the two, Strain reaches beyond both traditions to Martha Nussbaum’s capabilities theory to create an understanding of social justice, which is the object of social ethics in what we call “Western” traditions, that both the prophet and bodhisattva can agree upon. Strain is not completely clear on why he seeks for this definition outside of the two religious traditions he engages. It may be that he is seeking a more neutral ground where the two can meet, instead of privileging one or the other tradition. It may also be that Strain simply finds Nussbaum’s approach personally compelling, an approach that may be as important to his ethical worldview as the archetypes that dress the cover of the book.
In light of the capabilities approach, Strain can...