- Catholicism and Buddhism. The Contrasting Lives and Teachings of Jesus and Buddha by Anthony E. Clark
Aimed at a wide and nonspecialist readership, Anthony Clark's book delivers a welcome systematic engagement with the question of Buddhist-Christian dialogue in a rigorous theologico-philosophical comparison between Buddhism, at large, and Christianity, particularly in its contemporary Catholic manifestation. Written in a clear prose, the book offers a solid analysis of core questions, rooted in a sophisticated discussion of historical, doctrinal, and cultural features of the two traditions, enriched by frequent fitting textual and scholarly references. These, in turn, although not always at the forefront of specialist scholarship, are nevertheless representative of great contributions among those more readily accessible to a lay, non-scholarly, audience across the various fields from which Clark draws. The book is written from a decidedly Catholic perspective, and it is often evident that in his writing Clark primarily addresses a Catholic audience, or at the very least one familiar with contemporary Catholicism. Nevertheless, the overarching argument that the book puts forward, as well as its discussion of interreligious relations will be of interest to anyone who is curious about engaging in Buddhist-Christian dialogue.
Clark's primary concern is a timely critique of what Carol Olson, in the book's foreword, refers to as "cafeteria Catholics" and "buffet Buddhism" (p. ix), and an overall uncritical syncretic approach toward interpreting and practicing what may be meant with the expression "Buddhist-Christian." In particular, as Clark laments in the introduction, this is at times taken in the sense that "Christianity is better practiced as a 'Christian Buddhist' or 'Buddhist Christian'" (p. 3, with later frequent references, among others, to Paul Merton, particularly Zen and the Birds of Appetite, New York: New Directions, 1968; William Johnston, Christian Zen, London: Macmillan, 1979; and Kim Boykin, Zen for Christians, Mineola: Ixia Press, 2018). Other times, it is used in reference to a "dual belonging" where "Buddhism and Christianity appear to melt together into one new religion" (p. 4, with reference to Paul F. Knitter, Without Buddha I Could not be a Christian, London: Oneworld, 2009; on the subject of dual belonging see also Rose Drew, Buddhist and Christian? An Exploration of Dual Belonging, London: Routledge, 2011; and Gavin D'Costa and Ross Thompson, Buddhist-Christian Dual Belonging: Affirmations, Objections, Explorations, London: Taylor Francis, 2017).
Clark's underlying approach is to reject both the syncretic approach, and the dual belonging view. Instead, he takes the binomial designation as instead meaning "Buddhist and Christian": two distinct traditions with an established recent history of interrelationships and dynamic exchanges—although in his analysis, as he explicitly acknowledges, this comparison is "admittedly one-sided, since [he] believe[s] that Jesus Christ is who he said he is" (p. 6).
It is important to remember, then, that Clark's parallel reading of Buddhism (often exemplified in the form of East Asian Mahāyāna traditions, such as Zen and Chan) and Catholic Christianity is ultimately geared toward an understanding [End Page 353] of interreligious dialogue as functional "to the discovery of truth" (p. 124), which, in a Christian perspective, can only be found in God through Christ. Even other religious traditions such as Buddhism, then, though they may be highly regarded, are eventually necessarily called "to final fulfillment in Jesus Christ" (p. 125). In this perspective, Clark's criticism of Catholic appropriations of Buddhist beliefs and practices is effectively a cautionary argument against misrepresentations of the Second Vatican Council's objectives in its call for ecumenism. Most crucially, this is so because, as noted above, such creative syncretism effectively builds on a notion that Christianity is best supplemented by Buddhism. This, in turn, necessarily implies (and from a Catholic perspective, rather alarmingly so) that "Christ, who is the Divine founder of Christianity, has failed to leave his Church the sufficient and effective means for peace and personal salvation" (p. 3).
Structurally, the book is presented in the form of thematically related questions, arranged in three sections, each focusing on a particular...