Harold Kasimow, John P. Keenan, Linda Klepinger Keenan, eds. Beside Still Waters: Jews, Christians, and the Way of the Buddha. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2003. 284 pp. $14.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-86171-336-3.
Reviewed by Joseph S. O'Leary (Sophia University)
Published on H-Buddhism (August, 2003)
The Quiet Growth of an Inter-Religious Culture
The Quiet Growth of an Inter-Religious Culture
This book contains interesting and often impressive spiritual confessions that refresh one's vision of the inter-religious landscape of our day. The contributors seem for the most part to be profoundly happy people. Their creativity and their freedom of spirit will leave no reader unchallenged. The book falls into three sections: Jewish voices, Christian voices, and essays on what has gone before from a sociological, a Jewish, a Christian, and a Buddhist perspective.
A recurrent theme in the Jewish contributions is how, as one wanders amidst foreign Buddha-fields, one's own religious tradition may re-emerge, laying a claim on one's soul. Some express nostalgia for the Jewish community in their childhood neighborhoods, destroyed by urban construction. The re-emergence of identity was experienced by Nathan Katz as he sat down to a seafood dinner in Bombay. "I just couldn't do it! I couldn't bring myself to order such blatantly non-kosher food. I was thoroughly taken aback." One returns to "know the place for the first time" (T. S. Eliot): "I found that by practicing mindfulness, I could navigate the [Jewish] liturgy's intricate melodies satisfactorily" (p. 41). Alan Lew follows a similar trajectory. In Zen meditation, "we continuously witness our mind being carried away, and we come to see precisely what it is that is carrying it away.... That which carries our awareness away never arises at random and is never insignificant." And what may surface thus in meditation is the memory of one's roots: "A highly disproportionate amount of my own unconscious material is Jewish.... After ten years of peeling back the layers of my own spirituality and coming closer and closer to the core of it, I am experiencing that core to be irredeemably Jewish" (p. 53).
Norman Fischer is quoted as saying, "Now that I've done Zen meditation for twenty years, I could do this--I could practice ordinary Judaism--Torah, Shabbat, and Tefillah--and it would be enough.... But if I hadn't meditated for all those years, I wouldn't even know what this was--I wouldn't know how deep it was" (p. 57). Perhaps this return to roots verifies Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi's comment, "Buddhism is a great method. It isn't a 'good religion.' It becomes a good religion when it's embedded in Japanese Shinto, in Tibetan Bon, or in Chinese Taoism" (p. 87); "the Buddhism for export isn't heartful" (p. 91). Buddhist mindfulness makes us attentive to the heart of our own traditions at the same time as it liberates the traditions from essentialism. As Sandra B. Lubarsky learns, "Judaism, like all religious traditions, is 'in the making,' renewing itself in conversation with other ways of negotiating life" (p. 69), including the Christian and Muslim ones. This mutual illumination and mutual valorization of religious traditions stands in chastening contrast to the history of mutual contempt among the three monotheisms. One hopes that the future of religious culture will follow the principles emerging here and one fears that it will not.
The Christian contributions blend reminiscence and inspirational homily, occasionally discussing some challenging problems. Sanbo Kyodan provided the Zen formation of Ruben Habito (under Yamada Koun) and Elaine Macinnes (under Shibayama Zenkei). Both of them came to Zen with a contemplative metaphysical awareness of God as creator, as First Mover, which prepared them for the impersonal understanding of ultimate reality in Zen, and both combine Zen practice with compassionate involvement in the pain of the world, encountered in the Philippines. They are spiritual leaders who command with ease the resources of myth and symbol, both Christian and Buddhist.
Others offer more low-key tales of theological engagement. Terry Muck thanks Buddhism for keeping him a conservative Christian, inspired by a Wesleyan conviction that "the world swims in an inexhaustible reservoir of divine grace" (p. 197); here he finds the common ground between religions. Though he cannot, despite ongoing study, accept the Buddhist doctrine of non-self, he finds in the analyses motivated by it an unparalleled source of insight into "the pinnacle of God's creation, the complex human mind" (p. 192). John Cobb rehearses his debates with Zen and Pure Land philosophers, but reserves his deepest admiration for Sri Ariyaratne in Sri Lanka and Sulak Sivaraksa in Thailand, who seek "to build a society on sufficiency rather than with the orientation toward endless growth that greed promotes" (p. 124). Sallie King speaks from bedrock experience, the experience of motherhood, in order to correct life-denying emphases in Buddhist and Christian tradition. She needs the two languages of Quakerism and Buddhism, which are not mutually translatable and whose ultimate reconciliation still eludes her. These writers are ready to live with unresolved intellectual problems, which enrich rather than impede their response to Buddhism. Perhaps the important message of this book is that one can use Buddhism freely, creatively, and learn from it to be more free and creative in dealing with one's own tradition as well. This may be common sense in the liberal circles in which the authors move, but it would be revolutionary if it spread throughout the wider religious culture.
The book begins to comment on itself in the third section, pre-empting its reviewers. E. Burke Rochford places the preceding papers in a sociological horizon, with supplementary anecdotes, as characterizing "an age where spirituality is less likely to be concretized or contained within single traditions" (p. 229). I doubt if the material offers the basis for a really substantial analysis. Arthur Green's Jewish perspective is on the same plane as the earlier Jewish contributions, and Norman Fischer's "Buddhist perspective" also reads in part as a reprise of those Jewish contributions. William R. Burrows, representing the Christian perspective, offers an "appreciation" of the preceding essays, acclaiming one as "a classic" (p. 245). The impression of a self-congratulatory turn here is increased by other aspects of the book's self-presentation, from the preface by best-selling author Jack Miles, who promises that "in its quiet way, this book will remain a landmark" (p. 11), to the line-up of contributors accompanied by glossy photos (pp. 273-77), to the inevitable flurry of blurbs on the back cover. "This book heralds an important new age in interreligious relations."
It is a very American book in that it accentuates the positive at every turn. The European reader may suspect that the darker or quirkier side of things has been banished from view, and that a mandatory brightness of presentation has limited the play of light and shade, or foreclosed more profound perspectives. The world of publications on spirituality suffers from a foregrounding of edifying images--such as the "still waters" of the title. If "the medium is the message," the exploration of spiritual life is enveloped and overshadowed by the necessities of professional packaging, which project a bland image of spirituality, draining it of human substance. The ritual stress on first-hand experience means that if questions for reflection are raised at all, they tend to be rather swiftly answered. In the present publication, questions are dealt with by quick reference to received notions about Taoism, Buddhist emptiness, or process thought.
Ethics, including feminist and ecological ethics, also takes precedence over questioning and research, with the result that Buddhism comes across as edifying rather than intellectually stimulating. As Norman Fischer remarks, "for the authors of this book, Buddhism was more a catalyst toward spirituality than a religious tradition, with all the weight of custom and institution that that implies" (p. 255). While for many of the contributors, philosophical and theological questioning is integral to the religious quest, it nonetheless seems to be recuperated by a shared ethical and spiritual ideology, so that they all seem to sing from the same hymn-sheet, as if etiquette demanded this when one enters the realm of spirituality. If the Society of Buddhist-Christian Studies, with which several of the contributors are involved, sends out the message that the intellectual promises and challenges of Buddhism are of minor significance compared with the wholesome and life-enhancing activities of meditation and ethical discernment, it may unwittingly be bending to and boosting an anti-intellectual current in American religion and culture, and it may actually short-circuit the Buddhist-Christian encounter by shunting it into the harmless realm of a generic spiritual hygiene.
But these are perhaps churlish comments. Let me end by celebrating the excellent work being done by the profoundly good people who have given their witness in this volume. They are in most cases spiritual or pastoral leaders, roshis or rabbis, and even those whose career is confined to the academic have allowed their research to be shaped by sensitive responses to individual and collective quests for healing and liberation. Thanks to their efforts, the perfume of Buddhism is beginning to pervade the often tormented landscape of contemporary Christianity, restoring to faith its confidence and clarity while defusing the excesses of fundamentalist zeal.
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Joseph S. O'Leary. Review of Kasimow, Harold; Keenan, John P.; Keenan, Linda Klepinger, eds., Beside Still Waters: Jews, Christians, and the Way of the Buddha.
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