Experiments in Buddhist-Christian Encounter

From Buddha-Nature to the Divine Nature

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Peter Feldmeier
  • Maryknoll, NY: 
    Orbis Books
    , February
     2019.
     272 pages.
     $40.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781626983069.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

With Experiments in Buddhist-Christian Encounter: From Buddha-Nature to the Divine Nature, Peter Feldmeier has given us another well-crafted and useful book. Like his earlier work on the “new atheism” and the theory and practice of interreligious dialogue, this book is readable, intelligently organized, and concise. I can recommend it especially for classroom use.

The first chapter is devoted to clarifying basic distinctions between the theology of religions (grand narratives about the nature of religious diversity) and comparative theology as the author seeks to practice it. He also deals briefly with interpretation theory (Hans-Georg Gadamer and Paul Ricoeur) and includes a brief autobiographical section in this chapter which provides a locus for the book as a whole. Following this chapter, Feldmeier gives the reader an introduction to the Buddhist teachings and practices that will be brought into comparison with Christian teachings and practices in the subsequent chapters. He does not pretend to provide a comprehensive introduction to Buddhism; instead, he gives accessible explanations of doctrines and their relationship with actual Buddhist practices. The author is not afraid to underscore conflicts of theory and practice in Buddhist tradition, such as the “worship” of Siddhartha Gautama.

The same is true of his treatment of Christianity, as can be seen in his engaging reflection on whether it is possible for a Christian to be a Zen roshi (192-193). In fact, one of the virtues of this book is the author’s keen awareness that doctrinal speculation must never be divorced from the religious lives of real people.

After these preliminaries, Feldmeier provides eight more chapters, each a limited experiment in comparison. He designates specific Buddhist and Christian texts, placing them in historical context and offering commentary on the texts prior to making thoughtful comparisons. Some of these experiments compare specific doctrines, such as the chapter on Nagarjuna’s logic of negation and the via negativa. He also compares the doctrine of the Buddha Nature and Meister Eckhart’s preaching on the Trinity. Three of the experiments have to do with what Christians call “spirituality.” He compares the poetry of John of the Cross, for example, with Buddhagosa. Ignatius of Loyola’s spiritual exercises are compared with bodhisattva practices in Mahayana Buddhism. The Ox-herding Pictures, in Zen tradition, are used to reflect on “stages of faith” as seen in the Desert Fathers.

The ninth chapter deserves special mention. Feldmeier places elements of Japanese Pure Land Buddhism in dialogue with Christianity. He includes the Pure Land practice of reciting the nenbutsu in comparison with the Jesus prayer (195-210). His observations are considered, sensible, and—at times—provocative. Christianity’s engagement of Buddhism will be transformed by including Pure Land teachings in the conversation. Dialogue with Zen leads the conversation in certain directions. The same can be said of Tibetan Buddhism. Dialogue with Pure Land Buddhism, as reformed by leaders like Honen and Shinran in Japan, will bring the dialogue in a direction largely unforeseen today, and Feldmeier is ahead of the curve on this issue.

The word “experiments” in the title is indicative of Feldmeier’s methodological commitments. He refuses to articulate a comprehensive Christian theological theory accounting for Buddhism as a whole or to impose a meta-religious template over both Buddhism and Christianity. Instead, the author offers us limited experiments in comparison written in a way that invites the reader to do their own experimenting. This last comment suggests that the book is well designed for classroom use (I presume that the book’s various chapters have been test-driven multiple times in the classroom and revised before finding their way into print). The writing is accessible to undergraduates and yet the ideas will be satisfying for graduate students. Most helpfully, the experiments are all based on specific primary texts. I recommend giving these primary texts to the students and then relying on this book as a commentary on these texts.

About the Reviewer(s): 

James L. Fredericks is Professor Emeritus at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles.

Date of Review: 
February 26, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Peter Feldmeier is Professor of Catholic Studies at the University of Toledo.

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