Catholicism and Buddhism

The Contrasting Lives and Teachings of Jesus and Buddha

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Anthony E. Clark
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Cascade Books
    , May
     162 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Anthony E. Clark is a well-published specialist in Chinese history known for his books treating the history of Chinese Catholicism, and he is to be highly commended for these. The book under review here, Catholicism and Buddhism: The Contrasting Lives and Teachings of Jesus and Buddha, represents a departure for him in that its subject matter belongs to religious studies per se. Clark’s aim is to engage the contemporary encounter between Catholicism and Buddhism. He proclaims his adherence to the teaching authority ("Magisterium") of the Catholic Church and purports to speak from that perspective. Such would be a real service to the Catholic-Buddhist dialogue, because—though the Vatican strongly encourages such dialogue—the preponderance of high-profile Catholics engaged in it play fast and loose with Catholic teaching. Unfortunately, Clark often falls into the same misrepresentation and argumentative sleight of hand that he (often rightly) attributes to the Catholic "dual-belongers" and other freelancers traveling the Catholic circuit.  

Clark's preferred modus operandi is egregious over-generalization, so Theravada Buddhist teaching is interpolated into "Big Vehicle" Buddhisms (Māhayāna and Vajrayāna). His most persistent manipulation of quotes and muddling-up of doctrines involve the nirvāṇic state. Wherever possible, he works to limit his description of this state to the terms "extinction" or "the extinguished flame" (24, 25, 29, 36, 61, 70, 82, 132), causing it to sound outrightly nihilist to the uninformed (actually, what are extinguished are the "karmic effects"). He neglects those descriptions—even in Theravada—that resort to more positive-sounding nouns such as "the Unborn, the Unoriginated, the Uncreated, the Unformed (Udāna 8.3).

Clark does not underscore the doctrinal dispute whereby Big Vehicle Buddhism pejoratively labels Theravada the “Little Vehicle": this doctrinal divide would expose his scrambling of traditions. Big Vehicle schools, because of the doctrine defining Bodhisattvas as beings who forego their own final enlightenment until all other beings are liberated, reorient Buddhist attention away from nirvāṇa and towards the Bodhisattvic ideal (compassion). Coupled with this is a strong Mādhyamikan and then Māhayānist drive to dignify the concrete world. Nāgārjuna's doctrine of the "Two Truths," the "world-ensconced truth" and the "absolute truth," gives saṃsāra ("cyclic existence") its due, as does his famous axiom, apprehended only via prajñic insight, that "the realm of nirvāṇa is the realm of saṃsāra: between the two there is not the slightest difference" (MMK, XXV:20; Kenneth Inada, trans., Nāgārjuna: A Translation of His Mūlamadhyamakakārikā with an Introductory Essay, Hokuseido, 1970).

Clark, misunderstanding, judges Nāgārjuna's assertion that "nirvāṇa neither exists nor does not exist" to be absurd (74). The author is mistaken because he doesn't understand that in Big Vehicle Buddhism existence and its opposite are both saṃsāric, and that only the prajñā-eye can see that saṃsāra is actually "empty of intrinsic nature" and thus nirvāṇic.

The only definition of the "Dharma body" that Clark gives is the Theravada version (62), omitting the Māhayānist version. Māhayāna's doctrine of the trikāya (“three-bodied”) teaches that there are three modes of the Buddha. The dharmakāya ("truth body") is the founding mode, and is the "Unconditioned" (i.e., human description can in no way be adequate), thus enabling, among dialogists, a comparison to Catholicism's "God in se," who is likewise understood to be "Unconditioned." Māhayāna teaches that individual human beings, insofar as they cultivate their "true nature," come to the realization that they are in fact the Buddha-as-Unconditioned. Even when someone like Thich Nhat Hanh references nirvāṇa, he means the Māhayānist version, not solely the "extinguished flame" that Clark attributes to him (82). This same sort of scrambling occurs when Clark slides from reference to Tibetan Vajrayāna to a very Theravadan passage in the Dhammapada (88). While avoiding reference to the "Buddha-body" as the Big Vehicle's final objective, Clark, on page 69, extends Theravada's starkest definition of the nirvāṇic state to the belief-systems of all Buddhism, and he does so repeatedly (24, 70, 72-74, 94, 126, 135).

Another problem with this book is its outright errors. For example, despite Buddhism's affirmation of "rebirth" (of an agent's karma) and outright rejection of "reincarnation" (transmigration of a soul to a new body), Clark identifies Buddhism with "reincarnation" time and time again (9, 51, 74, 75, 91, 92). One cause of these errors is Clark's dependence on authors who are not established Buddhist scholars. For example, Thomas Berry (75, 78, 87) and Georg Siegmund (70) wrote on Buddhism sometimes, but Berry is an eco-theologian and Siegmund a German Catholic theologian. In the case of Daisetsu T. Suzuki, whom Clark often references, the problem is that his representations of Buddhism are now judged by prominent Buddhologists to be distortions (see John R. McRae and Bernard Faure in this regard).

Clark consistently disregards or mischaracterizes those Catholic sources that remain committed to authoritative Church teaching yet are helped by Buddhism: to name a few, the Gethsemani Encounters (Catholic and Buddhist monastics, USA—affiliated with the international Monastic Interreligious Dialogue,; the International Centre of Teresian and Sanjuanist Studies (Discalced Carmelites, Spain) in collaboration with the University of Hong Kong; the Monastery of St. Ottilien (Benedictines, Germany) in collaboration with the European Network of Buddhist Christian Studies (wherein the word "Buddhist" is not an adjective modifying "Christian").

Aside from declaring that Buddhists and Catholics "may best collaborate" to "improve the world's social justice problems" (108) and concurring with Benedict XVI that the two religions share "a respect for life, contemplation, silence, [and] simplicity" (84), Clark bypasses the many lessons that Catholics—without compromising Catholic teaching at all—can learn from Buddhists. Though Catholic theology celebrates corporality much more than Buddhism does, what contemporary Western Catholics can learn from Buddhism is the importance of the body for prayer—an erect spine and proper breathing enable focus and detachment. Another lesson is that diet is enormously important. For example, celibate clergy should learn that vegetarianism allays passion.

Despite what Clark says (115, 116), where he reduces Vajrayāna meditation to Theravadan goals, most Big Vehicle meditation orients towards a Spacious Presence. Clark declares God is purely "external" to Christians (81, 132), but the Church takes "partaking of the divine nature" (2 Peter 1: 4) to mean that—while persons-in-grace are not God—their relation to God is a closer union than subject-object. Big Vehicle Buddhism's mergence with the "Unconditioned" and Catholic "partaking of the divine nature" certainly differ but are more analogous than Clark makes out.  Aside from its entrenched oppostion to positive comparisons between Buddhism and Catholicism, Clark's book can nonetheless do much good for some, and I want to close on this favorable note: his book can very much educate poorly catechized Catholics so they can understand the divinity of Christ (16-17, 62-64, 67-68), the roles of sin and salvation (69-72), and even the beautiful practice of lectio divina (119-121).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Robert Magliola is an affiliate at Istituto "Vangelo & Zen," Milano, Italy; professor of philosophy and religions at the Assumption University of Thailand, and retired Distinguished Chair Professor in the Graduate School of Liberal Arts at National Taiwan University.

Date of Review: 
June 30, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Anthony E. Clark is Edward B. Lindaman Endowed Chair and Associate Professor of History at Whitworth University. He is author of several books, including Heaven in Conflict: Franciscans and the Boxer Uprising in Shanxi(2015), China’s Saints: Catholic Martyrdom during the Qing (2011), and the editor of China’s Christianity: From Missionary to Indigenous Church (2017).



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