At the behest of a long time acquaintance I finally caved and picked up a copy of the book Without Buddha I Could Not Be Christian by a man named Paul F. Knitter. Since I spent a good many years actively studying and practicing Buddhism, and since this guy really insisted I read it, I took the plunge and dropped the money to get the Kindle version. I will confess right off the bat I am only about 80 some odd pages into it and was so throughly put off by the authors gratuitous misunderstanding of basic Christianity that I could not finish the book. Yes folks, it’s really that bad. All throughout he rejects basic Christian doctrine than tries to reinterpret it in the light of his own understanding of Buddhism and in light of controversial characters within Catholicism like the late Karl Rahner and Andrew Greeley.
All in all I felt a bit sad for this man who actually felt the need to write a book chronicling his profound confusion regarding both Buddhism and Christianity and passing it on to the public as some profound wisdom. To his credit he is deeply honest with himself and his readers about the struggles he has with basic fundamental Christianity. Judging by the amount of rave reviews this got on Amazon he must have struck a chord with people. Unfortunately, rather than simply becoming Buddhist he cannot seem to let go of Christ, albeit his own peculiar vision of Him.
As a man who spent years within Buddhism and who still feels that Buddhism offers some excellent insights I still think that many concepts are not compatible, although I am no expert. I still love Ryokan, Basho, Dogens Shobogenzo and occasionally sit meditation, but I have never allowed myself to go too far outside the bounds of Christian orthodoxy, or to push the alleged similarities between Christianity and Buddhism too far.
At rock bottom Buddhism is silent on the question of God, and in fact makes the question of His existence itself pointless. If a man according to his own self directed efforts can put an end to all suffering in his conscious experience than salvation in Christ is meaningless and not at all compatible with Buddhism’s Pelagian heroism.
One thing many Christians fail to see is that for Buddhism none of the vexing questions of classical western philosophy and theology mean anything to the Buddhist way of life. It’s all mental masturbation and pointless abstraction. What can you do right here, right now in your experience of the world to put an end to grasping, stress and suffering. Does an abstract appeal to a God, God’s or nebulous concepts like grace help in any way to doing this other than as psychological pep talks and wishful thinking? That’s Buddhism, and it’s not exactly compatible with Christianity when you get down to the nitty gritty. Personally I found Buddhism—especially in its Theravada form—to be not much more than an ascetic and pragmatic nihilism.
Where are the points in common with Christianity? The wisdom of letting go, of silence, of non distraction and of compassion are all points where we can agree with Buddhists. The sense that this world is itself impermanent is another one. The sense that things are not well, and that we must do something about it is another. Aside from very basic things there isn’t much.
What this is really about is not Paul F. Knitter or Buddhism—at least it wasn’t my intention— but about reaffirming my own commitment to orthodox Christianity. I hate to gloat but after reading what I could stomach of that book I feel like no matter how much I don’t understand of the Christian Faith, and no matter how unfathomable the mystery may be it is always my wish to remain within the safe boundaries of orthodoxy. Knitter dares to explore but I think he breaks down the fence entirely and perhaps unintentionally finds himself outside Christianity altogether.
The biggest danger in not holding fast to Tradition is that we can unwittingly lose all sense of perspective and get lost in the darkness. What so many moderns fail to see is that it’s all important, and by “all” I mean all the signs, symbols and other elements of our Tradition, especially the Scriptures, the first seven Ecumenical Councils, the writings of the early fathers and the ancient liturgies, both in their content and their externals. All of these things help make up the fence whereby orthodoxy is allowed to roam, and outside of which there is no longer Christianity but something different.
While the Old Believers and the Roman Catholic Traditionalists are sometimes misguided and take things too far, theres something to really respect about those who intuit that one cannot separate praxis from right belief. Even amongst Buddhists it’s best to stay within whatever school or style you practice. If you want to follow a Tradition than it ought to be followed wholesale, and not in part. We certainly shouldn’t be afraid to ask questions and dig deeper, but we ought to respect what’s been given to us from our ancestors. Once we go out of bounds we have left the safety of the fence and all that’s familiar and venture into lonely territory without any kind of help, and no real guideposts.