Beside Still Waters - Introduction

Jews, Christians, and the Way of the Buddha

INTRODUCTION

Beside Still Waters is a deeply personal book. We have gathered here the voices of fourteen Jews and Christians who describe their profound encounters with Buddhist teachings and practice. Although these writers have been involved with Buddhism at a deep level over a significant period of time, they are firmly anchored in their own traditions of origin. Faithful Jews and Christians, many are authors of articles or books on Buddhism, teachers of Buddhist meditation practice, or participants in dialogue with Buddhism.

Knowing that people who engage publicly in such interreligious activities tend to be religious seekers on the personal level as well, we wanted to hear their stories. We asked them to write candidly about what led them to become open to Buddhism, about how this involvement with two religious traditions has played out in their lives. In the end, we were humbled by the generosity and honesty with which these fourteen people shared their experiences—and we were taken by surprise at the rich resonance between accounts by individuals who on the surface are quite different from one another.

In addition to these fourteen, we have invited prominent representatives of the Jewish, Christian, and Buddhist traditions, as well as a sociologist of religion, to read these accounts and to offer their distinct perspectives on the modern phenomenon of the meeting of Judaism and Christianity with the Way of the Buddha.

The three editors—Harold Kasimow, a committed Jew, and Linda Klepinger Keenan and John Keenan, committed Christians—also have histories with Buddhism. By coincidence, and although they did not know it at the time, in 1968 Harold and John were enrolled in the same class in Temple University’s well-known Department of Religion—the first such department to offer courses in the various religious traditions taught in each instance by a follower of that tradition and presented in its own terms and from its own perspective. In taking that course, John and Harold were stretching themselves to learn about and better understand other religions, while both remained very much immersed in their own religious traditions. Harold was engrossed in dialogue and study with his mentor, the well-known Jewish thinker Abraham Joshua Heschel, on whose work he was writing a doctoral dissertation. John was a young Roman Catholic curate in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, actively struggling with John Cardinal Krol—his mentor and nemesis— over the implementation of Vatican II reforms in the South Philadelphia parish of St.Thomas Aquinas.

After completing his studies at Temple University in 1972, Harold Kasimow went on to teach comparative religion at Grinnell College in Iowa. A Holocaust survivor, he has been active in interreligious dialogue with Christians, Muslims, and Buddhists. Meeting with Buddhists led him to the practice of Zen meditation in the U.S. and Japan. John Keenan left the Roman Catholic priesthood in 1969, and after graduate study in Buddhism at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and two years as a research fellow at the Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture in Nagoya, Japan, he has taught Asian religions to undergraduates at Middlebury College, served as an Episcopal priest in several Vermont parishes, and applied Mahayana Buddhist philosophy to the writing of Christian theology.

Linda Keenan’s first encounter with Buddhism came with a sudden plunge into the life of the Hatanaka family in Kagoshima, Japan, in the summer of 1963. Two years at Grinnell College had already undermined the surety of her Iowa Methodist upbringing. Two months as an exchange student in Japan raised even more questions: “My Buddhist host parents place offerings of food on their home altar and light incense and sound a gong as they bow before it. It looks strange to me, but how could they be any more loving or more wonderful human beings if they were Christian?” and “What is this overpowering sense of the holy that I know with my entire being as I look into the faces of row upon row of bodhisattva images in Kyoto’s Sanjusangendo Temple?” Many years of Japanese language and culture study later, Linda has done research on legends about quasi-Buddhist mountain holy man En no Gyoja, been wife and editor to Buddhologist/Christian theologian John Keenan, and participated in a variety of projects, meetings, and practices that overlap the Buddhist-Christian boundary.

The three of us feel very fortunate that our karma (past history) has led us into contact with Buddhism, and with one another, and we are immensely grateful to the many mentors, friends, and teachers in the Buddhist worlds of the United States and Japan who have gifted us with their wisdom and friendship.

Our encounters with such Buddhists and with members of many other religious traditions have convinced us that openness to the teachings and practices of the various traditions enables one to cultivate respect and esteem for persons and groups one might otherwise dismiss as alien. We are convinced that open-hearted, respectful interfaith encounter can contribute to solving some of the major challenges that confront our world. And, as the writers in this volume demonstrate so well, we and our traditions have great riches to gain by opening ourselves to the “other.” And one part of that gain is renewed appreciation for the riches of our own traditions of origin.

In the words of Orthodox Rabbi Irving Greenberg:

The Dalai Lama taught us a lot about Buddhism, even more about menschlichkeit [humanness], and most of all about Judaism. As all true dialogue accomplishes, the encounter with the Dalai Lama opened to us the other faith’s integrity. Equally valuable, the encounter reminded us of neglected aspects of ourselves, of elements in Judaism that are overlooked until they are reflected back to us in the mirror of the Other.

In a parallel vein, Oxford professor of divinity Maurice Wiles remarks upon the advantages to Christian theology of learning from other religious traditions:

What happened in… the history of Christianity’s earlier relation with another religious tradition, the philosophico-religious Platonism of the early centuries of the Christian era…was the emergence of Platonic forms of Christian theology, in which the insights of a religious Platonism played a coordinating role in ordering the insights of Christian history and Christian symbolism. We might look forward in a similar way to the emergence of Islamic or Buddhistic forms of Christian theology. These would take insights emerging from the dialogue with the other religions and use them in a similar way to provide a new ordering of Christian resources. They would stand as particular forms of Christian theology alongside others, but would also have implications for those other theologies, sometimes calling for the bringing to the fore of relatively submerged elements within them and at other times calling for the correction of old beliefs now seen to be no longer worthy of assent.

Clearly, there is a wealth of new understanding to be gleaned from deep and serious encounter with other faiths.

We are saddened, then, when we hear some religious leaders not only dispense with the need for interfaith dialogue but actually admonish that any interaction with other religions is dangerous, even harmful to the practice of one’s own faith. Without openness and interchange between the traditions, we are each and every one impoverished—our understanding limited by the filters of our particular monocultural faith and insulated from outside influences—while we cling to the nostalgic surety of the familiar.

The accounts in this volume move in an interfaith context to practice an ancient art—religious thinking and reflection on faith.They witness to the depth and beauty of the path of the Awakened Buddha and show how that path can awaken in us a love for and recommitment to the faith of our own ancestors in this present world.

Buddhism has not, as some fearful and worried souls have warned, led these individuals to some New Age jumble or shallow mix of half-baked ideas. Rather, it has deepened their commitment to old and loved traditions. It has enabled them to draw upon paths that are ancient and profound, paths that are able to transform deluded consciousness and lead it quietly and gracefully to abide by the still waters of insight and understanding.

Harold Kasimow, Grinnell, Iowa
John P. Keenan and Linda K. Keenan, Steep Falls, Maine
Spring 2003

 

How to cite this document:
© Harold Kasimow, John P. Keenan, and Linda Klepinger Keenan, Beside Still Waters (Wisdom Publications, 2003)

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