Buddhist Christianity

Ross Thompson's 'Buddhist Christianity: A Passionate Openness' is a truly wonderful book. This is both an objective and a subjective view.

Subjectively because his opening autobiographical chapter is so resonant with my own. His encounter with Buddhism led to a conversion to Christianity but it was a conversion that did not supplant the 'errors' of Buddhism with the 'truths' of Christianity but which impacted and shaped the patterning of the Christianity he adopted.

This was true of me. I remember buying (from the remainder bin at W.H. Smith) a selection of "The Teachings of the Compassionate Buddha' when I was fourteen and reading the first sermon in the Deer Park when the Buddha announces enlightenment and the path to enlightenment. I cannot recall how many times that I read it - then or subsequently - but it struck me, and continues to strike me, as one of the most sense making texts ever compiled: a speech that truly gives life. It captures what Thompson describes as both the 'hole' (a pessimist's view) and the 'doughnut' (the optimist's view) - a realistic assessment of the challenging nature of life as permeated by suffering as a result un-slaked desire and the offer, rooted in the Buddha's own experience, of a path of liberation.

If it had been possible, I might have become a Buddhist there and then if I could have have identified a supportive community. I could not and instead I went to my own school library for further sustenance. I discovered F. C. Happold's 'The Journey Inwards' - a open-minded Christian account of the contemplative life that embraced supportive references to other faiths. It set me on a 'Christian' path.

In passing, I am struck by noticing that many of the important books in our lives are not seen (in the wider world) as especially 'important'. This one (though not his study and anthology on mysticism for Penguin) has long since been out of print.

Objectively the book is a beautifully lucid exploration of how it may be possible to embrace both traditions not by adopting either an unsustainable syncretism nor a consumerist pick 'n mix of ideas and practices but allowing them to mutually interrogate each other and in that conversation identify ways in which each tradition might enrich the other (and be changed).

For Thompson this conversation moves towards an explicit Buddhist Christian commitment that enables him to centre on a Christian life but one that is illuminated by an understanding of Buddhism that is compatible with it. This conversation, however, does not simply take place between Buddhism and Christianity but also between both traditions and alternative understandings of the world.

One of the most illuminating chapters is on the construction of desire. Christians tend to see a disordered desire transformed by redirecting it towards its proper place in God. Buddhists sees the need to still the whole structure of desire and to step into desirelessness. But both tend to see the problem of desire as that of the individual. Thompson shows that what we desire is constructed communally: we learn what is to be desired from the social structures we inhabit. Both traditions need to develop a more robust understanding of how corporately we transform the communities we inhabit that in turn liberate individual opportunities for transformation.

It is a book of striking images - as well as coherent arguments - of Jesus as a Bodhisattva who in our unfolding history has through his death and resurrection constructed a raft for our salvation that stepped onto and paddled can lead us to the other shore: our renewed life in the kingdom and that commonwealth of God is one that is always present, woven into the groundless lawfulness of life. Paradoxically you both row to meet it and relax into its current that carries you there!

The book is not offered as 'a solution' for everyone - the majority of Christians and Buddhists will recoil from its creative reworking of both traditions but it offers much to ponder both intellectually and in the heart.


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