I read this book at the urging of a friend. He figured that as an instructor of comparative and Asian religion and someone who is involved in Buddhist...moreI read this book at the urging of a friend. He figured that as an instructor of comparative and Asian religion and someone who is involved in Buddhist-Christian dialogue, I would find the book to be of interest.
I did find the book interesting, but probably not for the same reasons as my friend. Author Ravi Zacharias and many of his reviewers claim that the book is a dialogue meant to explore these two traditions, specifically how their teachings relate to the suffering of a prostitute dying of AIDS. Unfortunately, as the author makes quite clear in his introductory words, the book is not an objective look at the two traditions, or even a work of Christian apologetics, but is instead a thinly veiled polemic against the Buddhist religion from the perspective of an absolutist and exclusivist Christianity.
Let's dispel the idea once and for all that this book is somehow non-biased or objective. One reviewer asserts that Zacharias does not "unfairly tilt this conversation in Jesus' favor" due to his Christian faith, yet the author himself readily admits that his "conclusions must be in keeping with the Truth that can be tested," which is to say, the Christian gospel. He also says, when discussing the possible slant that the book could take, that "some fundamental ideas are inescapable and must be engaged." Some of these fundamental ideas are that "Jesus and Buddha cannot both be right" and that "behind the two symbols [of Christianity and Buddhism:] stand two diametrically opposed faiths" (all Zacharias' quotes here are from p.8). These ideas are assumed in the introduction---accordingly, the "dialogue" that makes up the bulk of the book merely demonstrates its author's assumptions. Zacharias is neither interested in looking at these two traditions on their own terms and in examining their commonalities as well as differences nor does he intend to create an authentic dialogue, where both parties come to the table as equals, each with wisdom to share with the other. Rather, he already knows the "Truth" about the situation, and merely stages a faux-dialogue as a way of demonstrating the assumed superiority of one religion over the other. Perhaps the reason Zacharias finds it "difficult to highlight the deep differences between Buddhism and Christianity and not bring offense" (p.7) is because he is not merely highlighting these differences, but applying an a priori value judgment to them as well. (Although the honesty in his introduction is welcome, his use of the dialogue format is disingenuous; Zacharias hopes to evoke an open, objective feeling while selectively putting words into the mouths of Jesus and the Buddha in order to support his polemical agenda.)
One also needs to address the "research" that Zacharias put into the book. According to him he spent "scores" of hours interviewing monks and teachers from different Buddhist traditions. One reviewer asserts that the "hours and hours of interviews" the author has conducted with monks from different locales afford Zacharias the opportunity to convey "real Buddhism" to the reader, as opposed to the "watered down, American Buddhism that is more a combination of Star Trek and Hallmark than anything that the Buddha ever taught" (this reviewer obviously harbored no reservations about offending!). Another reviewer argues that Zacharias' "representations of Jesus and Buddha are based on the best historical documents of their teachings, and not on modern interpretations or practices." Yet scores of hours of interviews with a handful of monks would no more convey an accurate and complete picture of Buddhism---a 2,500 year old religion with different traditions in dozens of Asian countries---than interviews with a dozen Franciscans and Cistercians would encapsulate the definitive essence of Christianity. And one must ask how these reviewers speak with such certainty of "real" or "historical" Buddhism without explaining their criteria for evaluating "real" vs. "watered-down" or "historical" vs. "modern interpretations." My guess is that "real" Buddhism comprises those elements that support Zacharias' polemic, while "watered-down" Buddhism constitutes anything that would make his case more problematic. (As well, Zacharias' account seems more "historical" because it is in line with the late 19th-century misrepresentations of Buddhism that contemporary Buddhist studies have done much to dispel, with little success. These misrepresentations include the image of the Buddha as a hyper-rational logician or rule-obsessed moralist, nirvana described as "oblivion," etc.)
Finally, the dialogue itself rings false to someone who has spent fifteen years engaged in the academic study of Christianity, Buddhism, and religion in general. Zacharias misrepresents the Buddha and Buddhism throughout the "dialogues"; he frames Buddhist ideas in evangelical Christian terms without acknowledging it, he points out apparent inconcistencies without then allowing the Buddha to respond to his criticisms (hardly fair in a real dialogue, but in this one Zacharias got to write all the parts), and he relies on outdated Western interpretations of Buddhist thought that are, quite simply, incorrect.
While insisting that the two traditions are diametrically opposed, Zacharias repeatedly demonstrates parallels between the two. On pg. 16, Jesus says, "time isn't just a fleeting thing. It never moves forward without engraving its mark upon the heart...[it:] always [leaves:] an imprint." This is a lovely restatement of the Buddhist doctrine of karma, in which the results of each thought and action leave impressions (bijas or "seeds") in the mind. These impressions condition subsequent thoughts and actions, which in turn leave more impressions, and so on. Again, on p.18, Jesus says that "when the imagination is beguiled--which is where it all begins--and the will succumbs, the mind is unwittingly taken prisoner." Compare this to the Buddhist understanding of samsara, cyclic existence, in which the ignorant mind is unwittingly taken prisoner after it grasps onto that with which it comes into contact.
In Zacharias' book, the Buddha discusses karma, not in terms of impressions left on the mind or as the consequences of prior thoughts and actions, but as a debt that needs to be repaid. The metaphor of debts and repayment is a foreign one in my study of Buddhism, but it is quite familiar within Christianity wherein all are sinners, indebted beyond our ability to repay, and Jesus is the one who makes restitution. I suspect that Zacharias used this metaphor deliberately, in order to set Buddhist "works" against the Christian gospel of "grace." My hunch is supported by Jesus' response--"How does one pay? With what does one pay? And to whom does one pay?" The Buddha cannot answer these questions, not because he has no answers, but because karma is not understood as a debt that one must pay; rather, it is a moral law of cause and effect, more akin to Newton's laws of motion than to an accountant's ledgers. The words that Zacharias puts into the mouth of the Buddha in response to Jesus' questions reveal precisely how little the author actually understands about this religion: "But I just didn't arbitrarily make up this philosophy. Years of thought went into it." As any Buddhist will tell you, the Buddha did not make up the idea of karma out of whole cloth, nor was it a philosophy that he thought out over a long period of time. Instead, the doctrine of karma came from his recognition of a moral law of cause and effect, one that the Apostle Paul also understood: "As you sow, so shall you reap."
On page 23, Zacharias brings up a slightly thorny issue for Buddhism, the question of how to reconcile the doctrine of rebirth with the doctrine of anatman, "selflessness." In other words, if there is no essential self, then what precisely is reborn? This is a good question, and one that Buddhist thinkers have wrestled with for 2,500 years. Yet Zacharias simply acts as if he were the first person to think of the question and does very little to explore the substantial answers that Buddhists have given. In fact, on the following page, he brings up the Buddhist idea of "dependent origination" and summarily dismisses it as a "technical term" that's "far too complex to go into." This is ludicrous! The Buddha insisted that understanding the admittedly difficult doctrine of dependent origination (and understanding here means getting it in more than an intellectual way) was the same as understanding the whole of the Buddha's teachings. To write this off in a book that purports to be an honest exploration of Buddhism is akin to blowing off a discussion of the Trinity in a book on Christianity, because the doctrine is "far too complex" to talk about.
I won't even go into the Buddha's petulant complaint about Jesus' insistence on using his birth name, Gautama, rather than the honorific "Awakened One," other than to remind the reader that this is Zacharias, and not Shakyamuni Buddha, who is speaking. Similarly, the discussion between Jesus and the Buddha over which came first is absurd. Jesus' assertion that he predated the Buddha because he was present at the creation of the universe is cute ("So time ought not to be a factor of seniority here, if you don't mind. Those who define truth by the calendar run afoul of Him who created time" p. 29), but no matter how much Zacharias doth protest, the fact of the matter remains that the Buddhist religion is 500 years older than Christianity. This by itself means little, but Zacharias' attempt to refute historical fact seems to be an example of protesting too much. Additionally, Jesus' "argument" will convince many Christians of his temporal primacy, but the Buddha would have dismissed Jesus' claims to have created the universe as nonsensical--for Buddhism, time and the cosmos are beginningless.
Zacharias fills the remainder of his "dialogue" with similar mischaracterizations of the Buddha and of his teachings on karma, suffering, desire, nirvana, prayer, devotion, effort, the spiritual path, selflessness, etc. If this is as much as you will ever read about Buddhism, then Jesus' (i.e., Zacharias') questions and criticisms may indeed be difficult to rebut, and he does not make much of an effort to accurately represent the Buddhist responses to these questions and criticisms. If you study Buddhism, though, you will find that every question that Zacharias raises has been addressed, repeatedly, for thousands of years.
In short, this is a book that seeks to provide just enough information on Buddhism to remind the convinced Christian that they are right and the poor deluded Buddhists are wrong. As Zacharias himself says on p. 31, albeit in a different context, "When you mix falsehood with truth, you create a more destructive lie." A similar book on Christianity--showing its apparent inconsistencies and illogical elements--could be written just as easily, but for the most part, the Buddhists who write about the two religions try to find common ground instead of lording the superiority of their faith over that of benighted Christians. For those looking for more honest and engaging books on Christianity and Buddhism, I recommend Living Buddha, Living Christ by Thich Nhat Hanh, The Ground We Share by Robert Aitken Roshi and Br. David Steindl-Rast, and the works of Ruben Habito. Those looking for an introduction to the teachings of the Buddha would do well to read What the Buddha Taught by Walpola Rahula.
Sadly, for those looking to confirm their own sense of spiritual superiority, this is a good place to start.(less)
Blake's poetry is implicitly Christian, and yet also feels unabashedly pagan, with its emphasis on embodied divinity. The facsimiles of his original b...moreBlake's poetry is implicitly Christian, and yet also feels unabashedly pagan, with its emphasis on embodied divinity. The facsimiles of his original brightly colored, hand-drawn artworks show him to have been what we might now call an "outsider artist." On the whole, this is a print-age illustrated manuscript of sorts.
I always love coincidence, and so it's pretty funny to realize that I started re-reading this two years and one day after I read it the first time. This time I am supplementing my readings with various audio versions, including a quasi-period setting with Allen Ginsberg and a modern composition by William Bolcom, to help me get a more informed sense of the richness of what appear at first blush to be pretty simple poems and pictures.
According to Wikipedia, these poems are in part a response to Milton's Paradise Lost, which is on a shelf somewhere (and was mentioned in a book I considered reading today after I finished In the Garden of Iden, Wayne Barlow's God's Demon), and so I am moving the former forward in the to-read queue. I'll probably reread Blake again after that to see if any new meanings are evident in that expanded context. (less)
When I first encountered this book on the Waldenbooks new age shelf, I thought that Vedanta was a person, as in "the Gospel according to Matthew," etc...moreWhen I first encountered this book on the Waldenbooks new age shelf, I thought that Vedanta was a person, as in "the Gospel according to Matthew," etc. (This was in 1989 or 1990, when I was high school senior in Decatur, IL; I discovered this book at the same time as the Bhagavad Gita, which at the time was mainly noteworthy because it rhymed with "pita," itself another "foreign" item intruding on my culturally impoverished youth. Sad but true.)
In the subsequent two-plus decades, I spent a lot of time and energy attempting to answer my dad's perennial question, "What do you believe?" I knew I didn't accept my family's fundamentalist Lutheran take on Christianity (and hadn't since the fateful day I brought home that book on human evolution from the public library, only to be told that science was a lie when it contradicted stories in the Bible). I also knew that atheism, at least as I understood and experienced it, was not for me—it seemed too easy an out for me to say, "Oh to hell with the Jesus thing." And so in college I studied science (specifically biology and anthropology) alongside religion, trying to figure it all out. Then I got a Master's degree studying Buddhism and contemplative aspects of other religious traditions, including the Christianity in which I had been reared. I gradually arrived at a (loosely held) worldview in which I affirmed the relevance of Jesus to my own life, just not on terms my parents would, or do, understand. That worldview is one in which Jesus is a yidam, Tibetan for "tutelary deity," a concept akin to the Hindu notion of the iṣṭa-devatā.
So what does all of this rambling have to do with the book in question? Well, after having this book on my shelf for twenty years, and finally getting around to reading it, I found that my current worldview was more or less spelled out in these 126 pages. Perhaps I need not have taken the trip I took if only I had read it way back when, but then, of course, if I had read it 20 years ago, I wouldn't have gotten as much out of it (if anything at all). The decades of searching and pondering were, and are, my path. (less)
[T]his book is part of a series on cultural impact. And the great question about Jesus must always be: Did he make a difference? Is our world--in the century that began with the Turkish genocide against the Armenians, reached its nadir with the "scientific" holocaust of six million Jews (and five million others), not to speak of the slaughter by their own governments of Russians and Chinese in the scores of millions, and now comes to its end with genocides in central Africa and "ethnic cleansings" in the Balkans that are still, horribly enough "in progress"--is our world any better than the one inhabited by the Celts and Romans of twenty-four centuries ago? Did the values preached by Jesus influence the Anglican Queen Elizabeth or her opponent the Catholic Earl O'Neill? Did she ever shudder at the carnage of her battlefields? Did he, even once, as he surveyed the hacked limbs, the gouged eyes, the grisly dying, ever wonder if there was another way? Do Christian values have any influence on the actions of Christians who on both sides of the English/Irish divide have continued to "fight the old fight again"? Did the life and death of Jesus make any difference to the denizens of first-century TransTiberim? Does he make any difference to the residents of today's Trastevere?
These are hard questions; some will no doubt label them unfair. But they must be posed at the outset. For if this Jesus, this figure professedly central to our whole culture, has had no effect, he has no place in a history of cultural effects. (8-9)
As we now stand at the entrance to the third millennium since Jesus, we can look back over the horrors of Christian history, never doubting for an instant that if Christians had put kindness ahead of devotion to good order, theological correctness, and our own justifications--if we had followed in the humble footsteps of a heretical Samaritan who was willing to wash someone else's wounds, rather than in the self-regarding steps of the priest and the immaculate steps of the levite--the world we inhabit would be a very different one. (185)
At first it appears to be a re-telling of the Fall from Grace story, set on Venus (Peralandra) instead of in Eden. It becomes far richer, though, as i...moreAt first it appears to be a re-telling of the Fall from Grace story, set on Venus (Peralandra) instead of in Eden. It becomes far richer, though, as it explores the infinitely unique and non-repeatable aspects of the Indra's Net-like Divine Plan. Challenging in many ways and definitely one to re-read.(less)
After all, it is the Bible, which carries a LOT of baggage. As the sacred scripture of over 1 billion people,...moreThe Bible is a difficult book to review.
After all, it is the Bible, which carries a LOT of baggage. As the sacred scripture of over 1 billion people, its impact on the lives and minds of those who view it as The Book is difficult for a secular reader to appreciate fully. Moreover its influence on two thousand years of human history and culture cannot be overstated. That said, it is not really a book for general reading, nor was it ever intended to be. It is hard to consider it a book at all; it is instead a particular edition of a library of texts, first transmitted orally and then written, spanning a time frame of a millennium and a half, dealing with the evolution of one religion and the formation of another. So instead of providing a flowing story-line with an overarching plot and character development, the Bible presents a tangle of poems, myths, hymns, aphoristic wisdom literature, cultural and historical narratives, prophetic exhortations for social justice, and theological fragments. Part of the challenge of reading the Bible as a whole is figuring out just what all these different parts can possibly mean: one their own, in relationship to one another, in their original contexts, and within my own 21st century USAmerican experience. Some of texts speak directly to "the Human Condition" and are as radical to the contemporary reader as they were to the powers and principalities of the times in which they were composed. Other texts seem relevant only to archaeologists and students of ancient history, and still other texts seem downright perverse and un-sacred; I honestly have some problems with my nine-year old reading the Bible because of the questions it raises (almost none of which have to do with God or theology).
I didn't really like the One Year format. Breaking the various texts into sections and then alternating the daily excerpts (in the order of Old Testament, New Testament, Psalm, Proverbs) made it difficult to maintain continuity in the readings. From what I have gathered online, there are resources to assist the reader in dividing the Bible into daily portions, and so I recommend trying that out with the Bible you already have or can obtain at any motel, second-hand store, or Campus Crusade give-away. I am also not so keen on the New Living Translation. While I am not a Bible scholar or an expert in translation, I have certain preferences and look to the NRSV as my "favorite" translation of the Bible, having used that while at university. The biases of the translating committee of the New Living Translation were pretty obvious in points (e.g., repeatedly translating "disciples" as "believers," and translating "the saints" as "other believers," etc.), and at other times the language lacked any sense of gravitas, sort of like the King James version in reverse.
I finally settled on two stars for the rating. The Bible deserves a couple of stars simply for being one of the main wellsprings of Western civilization, religion, and literature. I find many verses in the Bible to be amazing (5 stars) because of their beauty or insight or provocative quality, but others (too many) are difficult to understand or downright meaningless (2 stars, tops). Unfortunately way too much of the Bible was devoted to war, warriors, and war-making for my taste (not surprising, seeing that God is regularly referred to as the "LORD of Hosts" or "LORD of Heaven's Armies"), and many of God's proclamations reminded me too much of an abusive spouse, raging and forgiving, raging and forgiving. As with many other challenging books, this is another that I want to re-read and re-engage with, but I am going to read the Jewish Study Bible next time, maybe for 2012 or 2013.(less)
In this novel Saramago has created a masterpiece, both in terms of style and content.
The prose is musical, poetically evocative of the streams of cons...moreIn this novel Saramago has created a masterpiece, both in terms of style and content.
The prose is musical, poetically evocative of the streams of consciousness and conversation that fill our lives. While Saramago's paragraphs often run several pages in length, and his idiosyncratic use of punctuation (e.g., his refusal to use quotation marks to delimit speech and his insistence on ending all sentences--including questions--with a period) can seem daunting, the fluid, melodic language makes reading the story a true pleasure.
In terms of content, Saramago has mastered the art of faithfully retelling a story while simultaneously subverting the text through interesting asides, editorial comments, notes to the reader, etc. He also subverts the normal relationship between humanity and God in Christian tradition, wherein humanity is in need of God's forgiveness. In Saramago's retelling, it is the inhumanity of God that is need of humanity's forgiveness. I have often wondered at the needless brutality that lies at the core of mainstream Christian theology (i.e., God needing to have his only child brutally murdered in order to forgive me for being the imperfect being I was created to be), and finally, in Saramago, I have found an author willing to take God to task while not dismissing the sorrowful beauty of the life of Jesus.(less)
"The promoters of the systemic evil involved in killing President Kennedy counted our our repression and denial of its reality. They knew that no one...more"The promoters of the systemic evil involved in killing President Kennedy counted our our repression and denial of its reality. They knew that no one would want to deal with the elephant in the living room. The Dallas and Bethesda doctors who saw the truth staring up at them from the president's dead body, and who then backed away from it, were not unique. They are symbolic of us all." p. 315
"The extent to which our national security state was systematically marshaled for the assassination of President John F. Kennedy remains incomprehensible to us. When we live in a system, we absorb a system and think in a system. We lack the independence needed to judge the system around us. Yet the evidence we have seen points to our national security state, the systemic bubble in which we all live, as the source of Kennedy's murder and immediate cover-up." - p. 370(less)