Christian-Buddhist dialogue continues to provide important insights, connections, and relationships for members and scholars of both traditions. In The Hidden “God”: Towards a Christian Theology of Buddhism, a comparative study and introduction to the key tenets of the Buddhist religion, Peter Baekelmans seeks to answer this central question: what is the “god” of Buddhism (if indeed there is one at all)? “God” in this context should be thought of as the grounding of Buddhism that pervades its ideals and practice—not necessarily a literal god nor the God of Christian faith. The book is divided into three main sections, each of which spans two chapters and broadly corresponds to one of the three main branches of Buddhism (Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana), though there remains significant overlap and interdependence between each of the sections.
The first major section details the teachings and ethical codes of Buddhism that are central in several varieties of Buddhist tradition. Chapter 1 gives an overview of the supernatural beings that are a part of Buddhist cosmology, including devas, who have their origins in Hinduism, and the bodhisattvas, who play a particularly large role in many Mahayana traditions. This opening chapter demonstrates that despite the lack of a single creator God (in contrast to the Abrahamic religions), several Buddhist traditions acknowledge a spiritual realm and supernatural beings. This leads into the second chapter, where Baekelmans discusses the faith and practices of various branches of Buddhism. This includes concepts such as dharma, nirvana, the Four Noble Truths, and meditation.
The second section focuses on two aspects of Buddhist faith that are prominent in Mahayana traditions: sunyata (“emptiness”) and pratityasamutpada (“interdependent co-arising”). Baekelmans compares these two concepts with the “vianegativa” approach to God, as both point towards an ultimate mystery and unity behind all of existence. A recognition of “divine hiddenness” is something that is shared between the two religions: “God and the Dharma are beyond thought…It is in the silence that a person discovers another reality, the Ultimate Reality” (83). The connections to apophatic theology provide a foundation for fruitful comparative theological work amongst Christian and Buddhist communities.
In the third section, Baekelmans details key aspects of esoteric Buddhist ritual practice, with particular emphasis on Shingon Buddhism. This section is likely to be the most challenging for those not familiar with Buddhist tradition and terminology—Baekelmans himself admits that it is the most conceptually difficult part of the study. He discusses the importance placed on training the mind, as well as the cosmic “dharma power” that can be accessed through esoteric practice. In the book’s final chapter, Baekelmans concludes that the Dharma, understood as the Ultimate Reality hidden behind all of existence, can be considered the “god” of Buddhism: “Buddhism and Christianity can recognize each other in the common experience of the great Unknown, the mystery of mysteries, the hidden reality, only to be grasped by intuition, grace, or true faith” (211).
Personal experience is an important component of understanding religious rituals, and Baekelmans’ experience with Shingon Buddhist practice at Koyasan frames both his description of Buddhist traditions and his search for the “god” of Buddhism. His participation in the goma fire ritual is an example of how his firsthand experience adds credibility and insight to his pursuit to understand Buddhist rituals as a Catholic priest. Baekelmans’ analyses and conclusions are built on a lifelong dedication to learning from Buddhism in tandem with his own Roman Catholic tradition. There are a few instances where Baekelmans’ sources feel perhaps weaker than they could be, relying in certain places on Wikipedia articles or popular webpages. Aside from this, however, his study contains rich insights and perspectives that enliven the Buddhist-Christian conversation.
The Hidden “God” can serve as a useful text for a comparative theology course or anyone with a background in Christianity who is looking for an introduction into the basics of Buddhism. It is an ideal text for those who identify with the Christian faith but are interested in serious dialogue and engagement with the power of Buddhist rituals and beliefs. While there are more robust overviews of Buddhism available, this book serves as a helpful introduction to the basics of Buddhist faith and practice. Baekelmans’ personal experiences with Buddhism in Japan help to frame this work as an exploration of how studying another religion contributes to a richer understanding of one’s own tradition.
Baekelmans lays a solid foundation for further dialogue and comparative study between Christianity and Buddhism. He points to specific examples that could use further research and exploration throughout the different sections of the study. One such example is the way that the concept of interdependence can inform and reframe Christian theology. Following thinkers like Thich Nhat Hahn and Paul Knitter, Baekelmans reflects that “Christian theology can learn from the viewpoint of Buddhism that not only human beings but everything is inter-related in this world…Buddhist dharmatology helps to clarify its importance” (122).
While weaving through the concepts and practices of various Buddhist traditions, Baekelmans aims to outline a Buddhist “Dharmatology,” a phrase he uses to refer to the equivalent of Christian systematic theology. His work also attempts to bridge many of the differences between Christianity and Buddhism that often hinder Christians from a genuine understanding and appreciation of Buddhism. He compares various aspects of Christian practice, scripture, and theology to Buddhist teachings in order to provide helpful analogues for a Christian audience. Such comparisons also align with Baekelmans’ goal of sparking further dialogue between the two religions.
Can we truly speak of and identify a “god” of Buddhism? What are the most fruitful and meaningful ways for Buddhist-Christian dialogues to move forward? What kind of impact can serious study and experience of Buddhism have for Christian faith and practice? Anyone who has ever considered questions such as these will gain new insights and be pushed to wrestle with the mysteries of ultimate reality through reading Baekelmans’ book.
Peter Baekelmans, born in 1960 in Brasschaat, Belgium, has dedicated his life to the study of religions. He holds an MA in Comparative Religion (Lugano, Switzerland), an MA in Buddhist Studies (Koyasan, Japan), and a PhD/STD in Theology of Religions (Nagoya, Japan). He worked twenty years as a CICM missionary at different parishes and universities in Japan where he also practiced in-depth Zen meditation and Shingon rituals at Buddhist monasteries. He is presently the director of SEDOS (Rome), as well as guest professor at KU Leuven (Belgium), where he teaches Hinduism, Buddhism, and Eastern religions on the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies. As a Roman Catholic priest-theologian, he seeks to bring religions closer to each other also on a theological level.
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