Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers
Thich Nhat Hanh
“You love the apple; yes, you are authorized to love the apple, but no one prevents you from also loving the mango.”
I picked this book up because I am interested in the similarities between Jesus and Buddha, and because I find my faith and understanding expanded every time I read one of Hanh’s books. This topic, in particular, has meaning for me. When I was first learning about Buddhism the idea of letting go of my spiritual tradition, Christianity, was very hard for me. Of course, there were a lot of things about it that I didn’t feel comfortable with, hence my search for an alternative, but at the same time there were, and are, many aspects of the religion that I find meaningful, and that I was hesitant to give up, most of all the teachings of Jesus Christ. But Thich Naht Hanh says that we don’t have to abandon one tradition when we embrace another. In fact, he says, we shouldn’t.
First of all, Hanh, a Vietnamese monk who lives in a religious community in France, says that it is a mistake to focus on the teachings, on dharma or dogma, only, ignoring our lived experience. “What is the Dharma? The Dharma is not a set of laws and practices, or a stack of sutras, or videotapes, or cassettes. The Dharma is understanding, it is the practice of loving-kindness as expressed by life. You cannot see the Dharma unless you see a person practicing the Dharma […]”. According to Hanh, we get caught in ideas, concepts, and notions, and this is an obstacle to true understanding. This is as true, he says, in Buddhism as it is in Christianity. We have to let go of the idea that we already know everything. “Understanding is a process. It is a living thing. Never claim you have understood reality completely.” We have to allow learning to happen through experience, not just by reading and listening to monks and nuns, priests and pastors. Hanh seeks to guide Christians not by converting them to Buddhism, but by helping them to practice their own religion more deeply.
Hanh clearly wants to stay away from criticizing Christianity, yet the implicit critique is everywhere. There’s no doubt he thinks Buddhism offers more opportunity for inner peace and ease of suffering than Christianity does – at least in the way it is taught and practiced today. He seems to want to make the case that the same ideas could be found in both traditions, if one just looks at them a little differently. For example, “Practicing Buddhist meditation does not transform our person into a battlefield, the good side fighting the evil side. Non-duality is the main characteristic of Buddhist teaching and practice. […] We learn in Buddhism that the negative is useful in making the positive. It’s like the garbage. If you know how to take care of the garbage, you will be able to make flowers and vegetables out of it.” The Christian tradition, Hanh continues, can benefit from this kind of insight as well. “As I see it, if there is a real encounter between Buddhism and Christianity, there will be a very drastic change within the Christian tradition, and the most beautiful jewels in the tradition will be able to emerge.” I have to agree; in my experience the idea that the good side of me was constantly fighting the bad was exhausting and demoralizing. As soon as I recognized, through my study of Buddhism, that I didn’t have to reject any part of me, but rather water “wholesome seeds” and kindly acknowledge but not water “unwholesome” ones, I immediately felt better, calmer, and more able to be loving and friendly to myself and others. I think Hanh is saying that non-duality is inherent in Jesus’s teachings too, but it has become lost in the way we understand it, and that is bad for all of us.
Hanh goes through the Lord’s prayer and the Apostle’s Creed, analyzing each line and reinterpreting it through a Buddhist lens. The meaning he takes from it is often essentially the same, yet also completely different and, for me, easier to understand. For example, how do we understand Jesus’s claim at the last supper that the bread is his body and the wine is his blood? In the Christian church they talk about “transubstantiation” which means that, somehow, the bread and wine we eat and drink at communion literally becomes Jesus’s body and blood. In contrast, Hanh writes, “‘Take, my friends, this is my flesh, this is my blood.’ Can there be any more drastic language in order to wake you up? What could Jesus have said that is better than that? You have been eating ideas and notions, and I want you to eat real bread so that you become alive. If you come back to the present moment, fully alive, you will realize this is real bread, this piece of bread is the body of the whole cosmos.” Hanh’s interpretation retains the essential truth of the Christian one – that the bread literally is Jesus’s body – but adds to it the truth of inter-being. We are all literally the bread, Jesus’s body, and every other thing in the world. We are all made of the same things; every single thing it part of every other single thing. Jesus is not gone; he is you and me, the bread we eat and the air we breathe. Are we so set in our beliefs about communion that our practice can’t be deepened by adding this new understanding to it?
There is so much more good, profound stuff to talk about in this book. But I think you should read it and then come back and leave me comments about which parts were most meaningful to you. The book will give you insight into Buddhism, and hopefully a deeper appreciation for your own tradition, too. Hanh writes that in Vietnam missionaries caused suffering by telling the people that they had to abandon their traditions and take up Christianity instead. Hanh says, “We don’t want to do the same thing to our friends.” Instead, he talks about the time he has spent in Europe, and how because he was deeply rooted in his own culture he was able to develop another set of roots in the Christian tradition as well. This has added to his understanding of reality, and this is what he offers to us in this and all his books.