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Books

01/27/2016

LIVING BUDDHA, LIVING CHRIST

 

Thich Nhat Hanh. 20th anniversary edition. (New York, Riverhead Books, ©2015, 219 pages. Reviewed by Shannon Hengen.

Thich Nhat Hanh finds many connections between Buddhism and Christianity — including the life of the Spirit that teaches understanding and love in each of us — but his aim is beyond an intellectual exercise in comparison. His aim is to show how the genuine practice of the two sets of beliefs brings practitioners to peace. How timely that the 20th anniversary edition should appear when peace between disparate believers seems as difficult and remote.

As the book’s title implies, Buddhism and Christianity are both realized fully only when lived, not when approached through concepts and notions. Meditation leads the practitioner to a way of living that is mindful of the interconnectedness and the impermanence of all things. As a result of mindfulness, we become both aware of the world’s suffering and committed to relieving it. We are able to bring joy.

The author invokes an image of touching often in the book. For example, without the practice of touching the Spirit (of Jesus, of Buddha) deeply, as in meditation, we cannot touch our own suffering. Such an ability to know ourselves allows us to know reality as well. He writes: “We are all filled with violence, hatred, and fear . . . . Meditation can help. Meditation is not a drug to make us oblivious to our real problems. It should produce awareness. . . . Looking deeply at our own mind and our own life, we will begin to see what to do and what not to do to bring about a real change” (p. 76).

Referring to the global milieu of 20 years ago when the book was originally published, in particular the rule of Saddam Hussein, he states: “Trying to overcome evil with evil is not the way to make peace” (p. 75). We cannot help but sense a strong relationship to the current violent extremist forces in the Middle East and our responses to them.

Buddhist and Christian teaching converge in emphases on healing and peace. The author states: “Jesus did not say that if you are angry with your brother, you will be put in a place called hell. He said that if you are angry with your brother, you are already in hell” (75). “Jesus healed whatever he touched” (p. 15). “The Buddha was called the King of Healers” (p. 14).

The author draws not only on the primary sacred texts of the two religions but also on great Christian and Buddhist spiritual interpreters to show their commonalities. With profound intuitive skill, he points at similarities between Buddhist precepts and, for example, the Trinity, eucharist, and resurrection.

Claiming that we understand our own tradition better when we truly appreciate another’s as it is lived authentically, the author calls us repeatedly to act as Jesus acted. To do so is to overcome our fear and anger, to live in joy, and to enable dialogue. To act as Buddha did is to understand ourselves and reality deeply and to show respect for all of creation.

Thich Nhat Hanh emphasizes the need for disciplined spiritual practice, without which we act out of emptiness. Our young need teaching in practices that can fill them with loving kindness, teaching that for him arises not from our preaching but rather from our genuinely living Buddha, living Christ.

Hengen, who now lives in Ontario, spent many years living in Saskatchewan and was an occasional contributor to the Prairie Messenger during that time.