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How to do without God

05 October 2010

Marcus Braybrooke on a portrait of Buddhism, its ethics, detachment, and compassion


THIS beautifully written book on Buddhism is a good introduction, and also a valuable resource for those who have some knowledge. Elizabeth Harris’s scholarship is enriched by her living in Sri Lanka, and by her conversations with many Buddhist teachers. The book, therefore, provides a picture of contemporary Buddhism, especially of the Theravada tradition.

This is particularly evident in the discussion of the Buddhist response to the brutality from which Sri Lanka has suffered. The Buddhist ideal is non-violence, but, as a head monk said, this is not always possible. The Buddha, Harris says, was not “indifferent to political realities and the violence connected with them”.

The Buddha showed people how to recognise and root out the causes of violence, which diverted people from the spiritual path and caused untold anguish. She illustrates this with reference to contemporary teachers such as the Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. Buddhist texts, however, were realistic, and accepted that states needed armies to defend their citizens from attack. Indeed, she says, “Buddhists in practice have never been completely non-violent.”

Other chapters speak of the “Human Condition”, “The Path”, and “Mind and Meditation”. In explaining the first Noble Truth of Dukkha, or suffering, Harris suggests that Edvard Munch’s The Scream, which pictures a woman whose face is contorted in grief, may help Westerners to under­stand what is meant. She also shows that detachment and compassion belong together.

Another chapter tells of efforts to overcome the widespread mistrust between Buddhists and Christians in Sri Lanka.

All this is set in the context of Harris’s personal journey, and her struggle to “let go” her belief in God and to appreciate the absence of God and of the soul (anatta) in Buddhist teaching. She seeks to do justice to both the differences between religions and the “touching points”.

Referring to Paul’s saying, “For you have died and your life is hid with Christ in God” (Colossians 3.3), and Wesley’s “I am no longer my own but thine,” she writes: “Both Christianity and Buddhism point to the liberation that comes when any wish to protect the self is transcended. . . Buddhism goes further than Christianity . . . but this has made me see the gospel message in a more radical light, and become uncom­fortable with the Christian piety that plays into Western individual­ism by stressing individual salvation.”

Having read this, I was surprised that in the Epilogue Harris insisted, “I am not a Buddhist-Christian. I remain a Christian, but one who draws deeply from the wisdom of another faith as well.”

Perhaps our religious identity is part of the self that has to be transcended as we journey towards a bliss that “eye has not seen”, and which no words can describe.

The Revd Dr Marcus Braybrooke is President of the World Congress of Faiths.

Buddhism is rising in popularity and influence in the Western world, so Harold Netland and Keith Yandell have written a guide for Christians to this religion. In Spirituality without God, they introduce readers to the different strands of Buddhism, its history, and beliefs. Though it has some similarities with Christianity, the authors conclude that, at heart, the two are widely different approaches to reality (Paternoster, £14.99 (£13.50); 978-1-84227-642-6).

Muslims and Christians have fought wars against each other in Europe through the ages. In Two Faiths, One Banner, Ian Almond explores how people of both faiths have also fought alongside each other, and co-operated against common enemies, often also made up of fighters from the two reli­gions. The period covered is from the 11th century to the end of the Crimean War (I. B. Tauris, £19.50 (£17.55); 978-1-84511-655-2).

These books are available from the Church Times Bookshop.

These books are available from the Church Times Bookshop.

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