Mysticism: Buddhism and Christian

Reviewed by Lawrence S. Cunningham


Vol.123 No.4



Copyright by Commonweal Foundation

          Books on monasticism are a particular weakness of mine, so it was 
            with pleasure that I read this history of Camaldoli, translated from 
            the Italian. Camaldoli is a favorite tourist destination for, 
            mainly, Italian visitors who love coming to the pristine forests 
            (once maintained by the monks but now part of the state patrimony) 
            to visit the lower church complex with its beautiful monastic 
            pharmacy and to look higher to see the collection of monastic 
            hermitages where the Camaldolese monks, since the eleventh century, 
            have lived. The Camaldolese, in fact, follow the Rule of Saint 
            Benedict but have found enough flexibility in it to allow for both 
            the cenobitic and eremitical life. 
            Vigilucci, himself a Camaldolese monk for over fifty-five years, 
            provides the reader with an historical account of the order from its 
            origins in the reforming impulses of Saints Romuald and Peter Damian 
            through its somewhat tortured institutional history down to the 
            present. Although the Camaldolese have always been a relatively 
            small order they have contributed great luminaries to the church. 
            Among their more illustrious members: Guido of Arezzo, who devised 
            the musical notation (do/re/mi) we still use today; Gratian, whose 
            Decretum became the basis for canon law; the fifteenth-century 
            Renaissance painter, Lorenzo Monaco; the enormously gifted humanist 
            monk Ambrogio Traversari; and Nichlas Malerbi who, in the fifteenth 
            century, published the first full Italian translation of the Bible. 
            The author does not mention it but we might also note that the late 
            Bede Griffiths lived as a Camaldolese monk at his Christian ashram 
            in India. 
            Camaldoli, in short, is a tidy compendium about a religious order 
            that has an almost millennial history in the church. What other 
            religious order can brag of having three of its members named by 
            Dante in the Paradiso (Gratian, Peter Damian, and Romuald)? The 
            subtitle promises both history and spirituality. In truth, we get 
            more of the former and less of the latter. It would have been good 
            to have had more information about actual Camaldolese life today; 
            things as simple as their horarium or, more pertinently, something 
            about the ecumenical and interreligious dimensions of their witness 
            as Christian contemplatives. The book could also use a bibliography 
            (as well as an index!) for further readings. Most of the footnotes 
            cite sources not easily available for the average reader. 
            The worldwise success of a CD of Gregorian music sung by some 
            Benedictine monks from Spain is a phenomenon I find most puzzling: 
            was it a symptom of a new interest in spirituality or another sign 
            of the popularity of New Age religion? I must confess that I find 
            Gregorian music a burden to listen to although a pleasure to sing 
            when the liturgical opportunities afford themselves. Chant, after 
            all, is a musical vehicle best understood in use and not as an 
            aesthetic artifact to be experienced in a passive fashion. 
            Be that as it may, David Steindl-Rast has written a small book which 
            pays a passing tribute to Gregorian music in order to meditate more 
            fully on the liturgical offices sung, mainly, in a monastic setting. 
            He meditates on the traditional hours from vigils to compline, with 
            a concluding chapter on the equally traditional Great Silence which 
            ends the monastic day. It so happens that I read this slight book 
            while staying at a Cistercian monastery following those hours, so 
            the book had a special resonance and context for me. 
            Steindl-Rast uses the hours to make larger points. Nightly vigils 
            allow him to muse over the relationship of night to contemplation, 
            while the morning prayer of lauds is a time of hope as the sun makes 
            its first appearance. The "little" hour of sext at midday triggers a 
            meditation on food and also the temptation to succumb to the 
            "noonday devil" of ennui and boredom (the monastic accedia). 
            This is a book not to be read as a whole; it is better appreciated 
            by reading its chapters at the appropriate hours of the daily cycle. 
            There is a lot of compressed wisdom in these meditations which 
            should provide nourishment for those who pray the hours and might 
            encourage those who do not to at least begin with morning and 
            evening prayer. 
            One interesting source for some of these meditations consists of 
            citations of poems written by Rilke inspired by the monastic office. 
            That was a new discovery for me, so now I can add those poems to 
            those of Auden (Horae Canonicae) and Merton (Hagia Sophia) who, like 
            Eliot in the Quartets, found inspiration in the ancient round of the 
            sevenfold praise of God. 
            Paul Mommaers is well-known in the scholarly world as the leading 
            interpretor of the Flemish medieval mystic, Jan Van Ruusbroec 
            (1298-1381). After some lecture tours in the Far East, Mommaers had 
            the very good idea of comparing the mysticism of Ruusbroec with that 
            of Buddhist mysticism by employing the following method: he would 
            set out as clearly as he could Ruusbroec's vocabulary, thought 
            patterns, and theology in chapters which would alternate, in 
            dialogical fashion, with similar chapters written from the side of 
            Buddhist doctrine and language. Unable to get a Buddhist scholar to 
            undertake the task, he called on Jan Van Bragt, who has spent many 
            years in Japan as a professor at Nanzan University (in Nagoya) with 
            a distinguished publication record on Japanese Buddhism and other 
            studies in Far Eastern religion. 
            I am too inexpert in matters Buddhist to evaluate how accurately Van 
            Bragt makes the Buddhist case. What does seem to be crystal clear, 
            however, is that the (too) many popular attempts to harmonize 
            Buddhist and Christian mysticism will appear slickly facile to 
            anyone who engages this book with seriousness. Readers will soon 
            see, as they follow the dialogue, that the presuppositions of 
            Christian and Buddhist metaphysics are quite different. 
            Christianity's God, from which the whole notion of the doctrines of 
            creation and providence derive, seems antagonistic to the Buddhist 
            insistence on an Absolute as an ultimate nothingness or emptiness 
            into which all differentiated beings eventually dissolve. 
            Our authors face up to these challenges (and similar problems of 
            grace, the meaning of the "I," and the Incarnation) with what 
            appears to this non-expert in matters Buddhist to be fairness and a 
            concern for a correct explication of the matter. I was more 
            interested in Mommaers's exposition of Ruusbroec's mystical theology 
            (one could read those chapters alone and learn much), but it was 
            instructive to read the Buddhist chapters if only to learn how 
            arduous the work of comparative theology can be. 
            Mysticism: Buddhism and Christian is not a book to be read with one 
            eye on the television set. Time and patience are required. This is a 
            serious work of scholarship and commitment to interreligious 
            dialogue; those who work through it will find their efforts repaid 
            in full. It has made me serious about going back again to 
            Ruusbroec's writings (ably translated by James Wiseman in the 
            Paulist "Classics of Western Spirituality") helped by the able 
            exegesis and commentary of Mommaers's fine work here. 
            Beatrice Bruteau's book makes a nice contrast with the Mommaers /Van 
            Bragt volume because her work, based on secondary literature in 
            English and targeted to the more popular market in spirituality, 
            moves swiftly through the Christian encounter with the East, by 
            which Bruteau means not only Buddhism but Hinduism. 
            In a review this short I would not want to comment extensively on 
            the quick elision from Oriental practices to Christian ones which 
            Bruteau sketches, but my suspicion is that scholars in this area 
            would find some of these transitions problematic. I will content 
            myself in outlining what I do think one can "learn" from the East 
            using some of Bruteau's ideas. 
            The first lesson would be on the Eastern insistence on experience as 
            it comes from discipline. God is not an idea or concept to be 
            "thought of," but the center of reality which ought to be 
            experienced. This experience comes from what the Hindu tradition 
            calls yoga, a Sanskrit word which comes to us in English as yoke but 
            which in our religious vocabulary might be better called ascesis - 
            i.e. "training" - a term to be understood in a wide sense. The goal 
            of yoga is to understand the authentic self and in that 
            understandin~ to know the nature of ultimate reality. I have already 
            noted that the problem of the self is understood quite differently 
            in East and West and the difference cannot be simply glossed over. I 
            still think that some of the best writing on the nature of the self 
            is to be found in the opening chapters of Thomas Merton's New Seeds 
            of Contemplation. 
            Beatrice Bruteau wants to show that the East has much to teach us 
            and with that thesis I would have no quarrel. What I would point 
            out, however, is that the points of contact between these two 
            traditions are not as simple as a schematic book of this sort would 
            lead us to believe. It is for that reason that Mommaers and Van 
            Bragt is so valuable; it helps us keep in check the somewhat 
            unexamined optimism of comparative books like that of Beatrice