Gayle spoke with Dr. Leo D. Lefebure, professor of theology at Georgetown University.
Gayle Trotter: This is Gayle Trotter, and today I’m speaking with Dr. Leo D. Lefebure, a professor of theology at Georgetown University, and he also holds the Matteo Ricci chair. He has written several books about Buddhism and Christianity, including his most recent book, The Path of Wisdom: A Christian Commentary on the Dhammapada, which will be released in the U.S. next fall. Thank you so much for speaking with me today, Father Leo.
Dr. Leo D. Lefebure: You’re welcome. I’m delighted to be with you.
GT: What does Buddhism get right on the question of wisdom?
LL: Probably most fundamentally the connection between wisdom and compassion. For Buddhists, wisdom means seeing that we are all interconnected, that what affects others affects us as well, and so if we truly understand the order imbedded in the universe, we have compassion for the suffering of all beings.
GT: Why do you think Christianity has something to learn from the practice of Buddhism?
LL: In many ways, the worldviews of Christianity and Buddhism are very different, but in many ways, the virtues come very close together, like the central Buddhist virtues of wisdom and compassion, loving kindness for other beings, equanimity. I think Christians can learn from the distinctive ways in which Buddhists have cultivated the practice of virtues and have fostered this through meditation.
GT: And from what scripture do Christians draw on to understand wisdom better?
LL: The beginning of Christian reflections on wisdom is the Hebrew Bible’s wisdom tradition, and the wisdom teachers in ancient Israel were themselves involved in an interreligious, intercultural quest for wisdom. They assumed at least the wise in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia were aware of this wisdom imbedded in creation itself. Then Christians find Jesus as a teacher of wisdom, and then the New Testament interprets Jesus as the incarnation of wisdom and this then leads into the early church traditions of the desert fathers and others that look for wisdom and reflect on the wisdom tradition.
GT: How do we know that the early Israelites and Christians were looking at other faiths for information?
LL: One section of the book of Proverbs from Chapter 22-24 is an adaptation of an Egyptian wisdom text, the wisdom of Amenemope. Job, in the book of Job, is not himself an Israelite. Some of the proverbs at the very end of the book of Proverbs are from people who are not Israelites, and in the first book of Kings, Solomon has a famous meeting with the Queen of Sheba.
LL: And she comes to test the wisdom of Solomon and is impressed by him, so they clearly share a kind of common horizon.
GT: Did the Buddha proclaim himself a prophet, or god, or just a philosopher?
LL: None of those categories applies in the way western culture uses them. He does not consider himself a prophet. He does not consider himself God. He could be seen as a philosopher in the sense of someone who seeks wisdom. He was very aware of what we would consider philosophical debates in the ancient Indian culture of his day, and he did not want to take part in them because he did not think that the intellectual controversies were helpful for ending the problem of suffering. So he really sees himself as a seeker of wisdom, someone who seeks a path out of suffering, and claimed that he had found a path.
GT: We have a lot of interest in the western world in Buddhism. Do you think interest in Buddhism results from boredom with Christ?
LL: That depends on the person; for some it might be. I think there has been a recognition of wisdom in numerous Buddhist figures. Someone, for example, like the Dalai Lama, is often widely admired far beyond the range of just professional religious scholars. I think people kind of intuit a sense of wisdom, especially his equanimity after all the sufferings of the Tibetan people in recent decades. People sense that there is a wisdom for life in the Dalai Lama, even if they don’t accept all of the worldview of Tibetan Buddhism. So I think it’s more a positive attraction. Simply boredom with Christ would be kind of a negative launching pad, after all, that may be a factor for some. I would not say that’s dominant. I think it’s more the attractive power of Buddhist example.
GT: The book of Job asks where does wisdom come from. Are there differences in the sources of learning the truth?
LL: The most fundamental difference between Buddhism and Christianity is that Christianity orients the entire search for wisdom toward a God who creates the universe, who gives the very active existence. There is nothing in Buddhism that exactly corresponds to that belief in God as creator of the universe. I heard the Dalai Lama say once he could believe in God as infinite love, but he could not believe in God as creator. This is a very important, fundamental difference that shapes all of the words that we use in the dialogue between Buddhists and Christians. Having said that, there are similarities in that the Buddha is looking to an underlying pattern in life experience, and there is certainly a similarity between that and the ancient Israelites’ search for wisdom in everyday life which then continues through the New Testament into the early church.
GT: And why do you think the Dalai Lama could not accept God as the creator?
LL: Well, you’d have to ask him.
GT: [Laughs] I would love to!
LL: I think, for myself, it focuses the dialogue because we need to hear from Buddhists what it is in the notion of creation that they find objectionable,
LL: But it’s widespread among Buddhists that the universe simply is: beginningless, endless, without a transcendent, ultimate source in the sense that Christians believe in God.
GT: You spent much of your adult life pursuing interfaith dialogue. What motivates you in this quest?
LL: Tragically, many of the conflicts in the world today are shaped in one way or another by religion. Religiously motivated violence is one of the great curses of history, both distant past and present. So, for me, one of the most important projects is to shape a healthy community of the world’s religions, where we can respect each other’s differences, acknowledge where we have values that converge, acknowledge our divergences without them forcing us into endless conflict situations. This is my little way of trying to help shape a healthier world. Also, it’s just an interest in the variety of different religious perspectives, and personally I have met so many wonderful people from a variety of religious traditions and so that gives me motivation to continue.
GT: You’ve written about how “memories of violence and injury can shape narratives of identity, perpetuating suffering for the victim and often creating more suffering for the perpetrator in the following generations.” And you’ve also said the “key challenge that the Dhammapada presents to the Christian tradition and to the entire human community is what it means to dwell on the memory of past wrongs.” What do you think Buddhism can teach us about that?
LL: One of the key Buddhist precepts is to acknowledge. Acknowledge, acknowledge, acknowledge. So, on the one hand, it’s not repressing memory of past sufferings, but it’s also cultivating a freedom for living in the present without being bound by the past. At the very beginning of the Dhammapada there are a couple of mini-narratives of imagining a person who is completely bound up in the memory of so and so hurt me. As long as people shape their identity from this sense of being a victim in the past, it’s difficult to move forward, and we inflict suffering upon ourselves and possibly upon others. There I suggest there is a convergence with the wisdom of Jesus as well in teaching the virtue of forgiveness and the early desert fathers have similar sayings on this too. So I think Buddhists can give Christians a reminder of values in our own tradition and also a concrete witness through the examples through people like the Dalai Lama. Another would be Maha Ghosananda, the late patriarch of Cambodian Buddhism, who came out of tremendous violence in Cambodia/Kampuchea, but again embodied the Buddhist practice of compassion, even for one’s enemies.
GT: When do you go too far in learning from other worldviews and threaten your own worldview?
LL: I think it’s important to recognize the integrity of each tradition, and that includes the distinctive values and beliefs, which at times are really very different. So I think one can go too far in the sense that saying “Oh, well, we really are simply saying the same thing without any significant differences.” There could be an effort to construct a new worldview based upon this leveling out of all the differences among the religions, which I don’t find helpful myself. I think the dialogue is more fruitful when people are deeply rooted in their respective traditions and then will move into a conversation.
GT: Right, right. One of the verses of the Dhammapada is “One who recites much scripture, but being negligent, does not act accordingly, is like a cowherd, counting other’s cows, having no share in the fruits of monastic life.” Could this verse apply to Christians as well?
LL: Absolutely. Jesus has very stark warnings that simply saying the words is not accepting the kingdom of God. The danger is we can distance ourselves from the religious teachings embedded in our scriptures. To really ponder the wisdom of our respective scriptures is a process itself transforming and open to conversion. We are really open to be challenged by these texts so there is not simply information about the past, but also a challenge to how we live in the future.
GT: You’ve written about a concept called apatheia, which you say is a state of imperturbable calm. Can you explain a little bit about that, and do you have any suggestions on how we can achieve this imperturbable calm as Christians?
LL: This is one of the points where I suggest there is a certain convergence between aspects of the Buddhist tradition and the early Christian tradition. Apatheia is a Greek term that a number of the early church fathers used. It’s not at all to be confused with the modern English word apathy. It’s much more the freedom from the afflicted emotions that can distort our judgment, whether attraction or aversion. There is similarity, and early church fathers like Evagrius Ponticus and the Buddhist practice of meditation, where the practical advice is to be still. Christians can cite the line from the Psalms, “Be still and know that I am God.” Evagrius Ponticus gave this as advice to people who wanted to pray. He said “You don’t have to use words. Still your mind and be aware.” He noted that people will go through an emotional upheaval. Whatever we need to work on in our lives will present itself, and that can stir up emotions. But if we persevere and trust in God’s grace and the presence of the Holy Spirit, we can come to a state of apatheia, where it’s also in Greek called hesychia, a sense of peace which is difficult to attain in any other way. It’s looking beyond all the upheavals of attraction and aversion, and resting in the presence of God. I suggest there is not an identity, but a similarity to the Buddhist practice of inside mediation, where Buddhists simply acknowledge everything that comes up in their practice of meditation, not grasping at it, not putting it away, and Buddhists come to a state that they call samadhi, which is, again not the same but similar. It’s a state of concentration, of peacefulness, of calm, from which we can see clearly without the distortions that emotions can sometimes introduce.
GT: So the Buddhists achieve this state through emptying themselves of all desires and grasping at things as you just said. Christians, it seems, come to this state by emptying themselves of worldly concerns and then filling themselves back again with Christ and God.
LL: Yes, the image of emptiness is very important in both traditions, though again there are major differences in the worldview. Sunyata in Sanskrit is often translated as emptiness, or one of my Buddhist teachers, Masao Abe, preferred to translate it as emptying. It’s the process of letting go. It’s also the character of existence of empty of substance, that things are radically interdependent. There have been many discussions comparing this to the notion of kenosis, emptiness in Greek. Saint Paul uses this in his letter to the Philippians, quoting what’s probably a very early Christian hymn which describes Christ, even though he is in the form of God, not as grasping at equality with God, but emptying himself and because of this, God exalts him. Saint Paul prefaces that by saying “Let your mind be that of Christ,” and so this emptying of Christ is held out as a model for Christians of emptying our own identity so that Christ can fill us.
GT: Right, and I think that’s the key thing for Christians is to fill ourselves back up with the Spirit, right?
LL: It’s not so much that we fill ourselves up, but the Spirit fills us.
GT: Yes, even better, even better. Thank you so much Father Leo for speaking with me about this. I really enjoyed our conversation!
LL: Oh, you’re welcome, Gayle. It’s been a pleasure to speak with you.
First published in First Things in June 2011