A Christian Pilgrim Along the Buddhist Way

Francis X. Clooney, S.J.

In Review | Books Crucified Wisdom: Theological Reflection on Christ and the Bodhisattva, by S. Mark Heim. Fordham University Press, 2018, 344 pages, $32.


Painting of Jesus on the cross, meditating Buddha, and flower blossoms
Christ and Buddha by Paul Ranson, 1880.

The ordained American Baptist minister S. Mark Heim is a respected Christian theologian and author of important works in a range of theological disciplines. He has contributed long and well to the theology of religions, particularly with his trilogy, Is Christ the Only Way?: Christian Faith in a Pluralistic World (Judson, 1985), Salvations: Truth and Difference in Religion (Maryknoll, 1995), and The Depth of the Riches: A Trinitarian Theology of Religious Ends (Eerdmans, 2001). For decades, Heim has been one of the foremost Protestant voices in conversations about the meaning of the world’s many religions. He has more recently begun to write more directly in the field of comparative theology, a discipline which, neither theology of religions nor comparative religion, writes a form of faith seeking understanding that travels back and forth across religious borders. See, for instance, his recent “Comparative Theology at Twenty-Five: The End of the Beginning” (Modern Theology 35, no. 1 [2018]), a review that kindly begins with my own Theology after Vedanta: An Experiment in Comparative Theology (State University of New York Press, 1993). Now he has added his own Crucified Wisdom to this still growing genre of interreligious study that is both theological and comparative.

Interested in the Buddhist-Christian interface as the site for this comparative theology, Heim takes up for study the Bodhicaryāvatāra (A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life), an eighth-century Mahayana Buddhist text by the monk Śāntideva. The Bodhicaryāvatāra is famed for its clarity and subtlety in setting forth the path of the bodhisattva, the sage who reaches enlightenment and yet then seeks enlightenment for all beings. Heim is diligent in reading around the text. Not a Buddhist scholar by training, he succeeds in showing how a theologian without such training can, with a judicious use of sources accompanied by good advice from experts, find his or her way very well interreligiously. He places his work in the context of the growing field of Buddhist-Christian studies: John Keenan’s Gospel of Mark: A Mahāyāna Reading (Maryknoll, 1995) and The Wisdom of James: Parallels with Mahāyāna Buddhism (Newman, 2005), and his and Linda Keenan’s I Am / No Self: A Christian Commentary on the Heart Sūtra (Peeters, 2011); Leo Lefebure and Peter Feldmeier’s Path of Wisdom: A Christian Commentary on the Dhammapada (Peeters, 2011); Joseph O’Leary’s Buddhist Nonduality, Paschal Paradox: A Christian Commentary on The Teaching of Vimalakīrti (Vimalakīrtinirdeśa) (Peeters, 2018). Too late for appropriation in Heim’s book is yet another much anticipated book, Perry Schmidt-Leukel’s Buddha Mind—Christ Mind: A Christian Commentary on the Bodhicaryāvatāra (Peeters, forthcoming). All of this is kindred scholarship, since every sector of comparative theology has its own defining features, as different traditions learn differently from their near and far religious others. The Buddhist-Christian engagement has its own character and possibilities, and indeed its own lineage, reaching at least as far back as the work of early Jesuit missionary scholars in Japan and China, India and Tibet.

[Heim] aims at a deeper understanding of Christian faith, now imbued with enormous respect for and gratitude to Buddhism, which has become a kind of home away from home for him.

Such books usually take the form of commentaries on Buddhist texts; Heim’s work is distinguished by his choice to write a work of constructive Christian comparative theology. He knows, too, that his style of comparison is but one among several. He lists a number of several well-established forms of comparative theology: intensification (“a deepening of the existing meaning in one text by juxtaposition with another,” particularly when parallel trajectories have been detected); rediscovery (“in which study of another faith throws new light on undervalued strands in one’s own”); reinterpretation (“where key theological elements are reformulated in light of categories and insights from other religious sources,” as when Christian doctrines are re-read in accord with Buddhist rather than Hellenic categories); adoption or appropriation (“the direct borrowing of elements from one religious context for another”); and reaffirmation (“a clarification by difference, in which elements in one’s tradition that have been highlighted by contrast are grasped with renewed conviction”) (3). These approaches may of course overlap and are best taken together in profiling the overall direction of the maturing field of comparative theology as a branch of Christian theology (for it is still largely Christian, though it need not be). While Heim has learned from them all, he stakes out a different approach, “somewhat less flavored by direct interest in Buddhist-Christian relations than by the interest in integrating sources and perspectives from another religion into the normal practice of ‘faith seeking understanding’ . . . unapologetically intellectual” (4–5). He is attentive to Christian and Buddhist thinking as great traditions of learning that rely on words used thoughtfully and with precision and confidence, but without idolizing them or allowing them to float free of reflection on texts and practices and their meanings. By careful study, he aims at a deeper understanding of Christian faith, now imbued with enormous respect for and gratitude to Buddhism, which has become a kind of home away from home for him. Subtle theological clarification is at work through the whole of the book, and so we must read patiently and slowly to hear and learn from what Heim is telling us in his own deliberate manner. I return to this as a matter of practice, too, near the end of this review.

Heim devotes chapters two (“The Bodhi-sattva Path”) and three (“Extreme Wisdom, Groundless Compassion”) to a theologically sensitive summation of the progress in the Bodhicaryāvatāra’s exposition of doctrine and practice. Chapters four (“The Bodhi-sattva as Aspirant: Creatures and No-Self”) and five (“The Bodhisattva as Buddha: Immanence and Emptiness”) then walk us through a series of small insights and distinctions that show us where the traditions meet and where they differ. This solid theological learning does not aim at large breakthroughs in the theology of religions, or in promoting a pluralist view of religions. Such are not Heim’s concerns. One has the feeling that in his own careful and moderate fashion—and thus by a kind of comparative theology most likely to endure—he is most interested in innumerable small insights that add up slowly and cumulatively to a new understanding of who Christ is and what Christ means. Christian theologians who take the time to study carefully a text such as the Bodhicaryāvatāra can learn from Buddhism, and receive many gifts, even if they cannot embrace all of Buddhism (261). It is necessary to choose wisely, so that what is borrowed is not merely added to the Christian tradition but rather brings new clarity, making the Christian religion more clear even to its adherents (262).

In chapter six, “How Do Buddhas Help?: Bodhisattva as Benefactor and Christ as Savior,” Heim identifies key ways that bodhi-sattvas help the human community: the cultivation of virtues that accumulate merit, and by that merit aid the human community; the virtuous act of taking seriously (for a time) the notion that beings who are in trouble ought to be helped by other beings, exemplifying the way of beneficent action in conditioned spaces; and showing, with respect to bodies assumed, the best pathways that can be traversed to Buddhahood. According to Heim, none of these beneficent functions is identical with the salvific work of Christ; but after learning from the Bodhicaryāvatāra, we can see Christ’s salvific role more clearly, how he leads his disciples to that emptying of self that facilitates love of neighbor. Here, Heim takes advantage of the deep learning of his Saved from Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross (Eerdmans, 2006). He reflects on the suffering of Christ, valued as atonement, alongside the various kinds of suffering a bodhi-sattva might experience. By this time in the volume (and no doubt before it, too), attentive readers will surely not be expecting easy similarities, stark differences, or even diplo-matic complementarities (that encourage hyphenated Buddhist-Christian identities). The point comes later in the same chapter when Heim spells out the implications for our thinking about Christ, in whom “God’s love calls forth different types of creatures and, to an increasing extent in the sentient realm, calls forth individual characters and vocations” (238). Christ’s “Resurrection ensures that the subjects whose emergence is constitutive of salvation will be around to take part in it” (247).

Heim asks the pointed question why Christ suffers and bodhisattvas don’t, and, to answer it he leads his readers through a profound reflection on the meaning and value of suffering, inevitably facing up to the Christian (and not Buddhist) problem of theodicy. Bodhisattvas do not suffer, given their view of where reality and unreality happen in the human condition. Christ does not sin, because he relates to sinners in ways entirely helpful. Though divine, he becomes available to the human through incarnation and through participation in the historical and material world, in ways such as can be “replicated through the communion that perfects indwelling among persons and creatures.” But he does suffer: “a suffering Christ is intelligible . . . as part of the helping. Only the suffering God can save” (258). Heim concludes with observations that are again simple, moderate, and deep: one can become a bodhisattva, but one cannot become Christ; yet there are

specific and usually unrecognized ways in which we can be fully what Christ is. We can be what Christ is in identity with the creaturely no-self, for this is a dimension that is the same in all. We can be what Christ is in identity with the divine immanence awareness, for this is also a dimension the same in all. In these ways, Christ is what the Buddha is. (269)

In that way, too, the Christian can become Buddha-like. Such insights are quite significant and promise not only to extend and deepen the field of Buddhist-Christian comparative theology, but also to shake up Christology and other Christian disciplines. They disturb, but quietly; they do not jump off the page as testimonies about “what I’ve learned from Buddhism.” Rather, Heim’s insights require a slow reading of the entire book, composed with the modesty and understatement of a scholar who knows both traditions very well. In the end, readers will be more than satisfied with the enormous benefaction that is this book, as wise Christian learning from Buddhism and as an outstanding model for comparative theology, a field coming increasingly into its own.

An interesting key to this fascinating book lies in its title, Crucified Wisdom. Heim does not explain this in the book itself, but was recently kind enough to give me some insights, which I quote here with his permission. To refer to “crucified wisdom” is, Heim says,

Christian language for what I describe in the book as the bodhisattva miracle. In Buddhist terms that miracle is the participation of enlightened wisdom in the conditioned ignorance of suffering beings. For Christians, God deigns to share our suffering nature. For Buddhists, bodhisattvas compassionately “compromise” their nirvanic bliss by manifestation in the world of samsara. It is a “Christ-likeness” that is willing to appear in an uncomely or lower status. So “crucified wisdom” is a kind of Christian appreciation of this Buddhist attainment. Second, in a reverse perspective, it represents how Christ appears in Buddhist perspective. If wisdom (and of course the compassion implied by it) is at the heart of Buddhism, then “crucified wisdom” seems a kind of shorthand for the way in which the crucifixion and Christian teaching on the cross come up short, even to gentle and generous Buddhist interpreters. In the event of the cross, the authentic wisdom that can be found in Jesus is “crucified,” or agitated or disrupted, in the suffering of this violent event. So “crucified wisdom” is wisdom messed up. It represents taking seriously the truth of that perspective, the non-bodhisattva aspects of Christ.

Last, Heim notes, it expresses his own theological process: “I want to accept and learn from this deep Buddhist wisdom. Yet as it comes within a full expression of Christian faith, it has to be integrated with the cross. Which is what I am finally trying to do in a constructive sense. The Buddhist wisdom that lives on in Christian appropriation becomes ‘crucified.’ ”

Heim is both daring and diffident, virtues that might be thought an unusual combination that only scholars of a certain kind can manage. That Heim manages this balance very well is a clue of sorts to the kind of author he is. We can then ask a more direct question: what kind of personal practice does one have to take up in order to write a book like this? This question has been a live one for me over the years, as I have looked into the mirror of my own writing, which engages Hindu texts and practices from a Roman Catholic viewpoint. I find that I have increasingly embraced a version of the first kind of comparative theology noted above, “intensification.” But I see this as not only deepening “the existing meaning in one text by juxtaposition with another,” as Heim puts it, but also as an intensification—deconstructing, confounding, reconfiguring, redeeming—of the reader’s own identity, in her or his own home tradition as (institutionally or informally) conceived, and then as expanded across two traditions.

Two of my own recent works were a study of religious poetry in His Hiding Place Is Darkness: Toward a Theopoetics of Divine Absence (Stanford University Press, 2013) and a plea for the humble work of slow reading of catechesis, doctrine, and an invitation to participation, in Reading the Hindu and Christian Classics: Why and How Deep Learning Still Matters (University of Virginia Press, forthcoming). The first gestures toward depth, the second toward the slowing of time. In the two—read together, as I hope they will be—I have sought to show that the appropriation of disparate knowledges that one has come to love leaves one in the kind of unsettledness that precedes great opportunity, at the edge of several traditions, in danger of falling between them. I cultivate a certain low-key desperation, a bereftness that arrives because of and not despite expertise and disciplined study and extreme care for words.

But perhaps all of this has to do with the encounter of my Irish Catholicism and South Asian Hinduism, in a chemistry rather different from what is at work in Heim’s writing as it arises from his study. I want then to ask what it may have cost Heim personally to produce a masterwork that is, as he puts it, “so unapologetically intellectual” and everywhere so rich in spiritual insights. Here we must limit ourselves to clues in the book about his spiritual practice while writing. Certainly, he continued to live out his Christian faith in seminary settings, at Andover Newton Theological School and now within Yale Divinity School, and in Sunday worship. Yet too, in the preface he admits to sustained Buddhist practice. He refers to his vipassana practice, and more importantly to his guided practice in the Nyingma and Kargyu lineages of Tibetan Buddhism, including the visualization of deities as benefactor figures: seeing how the Buddha and the Christ are (differently) beneficent toward all those who will come to them. He thanks Buddhist and Christian friends with whom he shared such practice, as well as teachers like his friend and colleague Lama John Makransky of Boston College.

In the middle of chapter five, Heim reflects on a Christian manner of no-self prayer, where occasional conversations with God give way to individual and then communal surrender to the Spirit. This fosters an intimate silence that, noticed after meditation, can be recognized even as “a participation in the nonpersonal mind of God,” the relinquishing of “our limited, local perspective in favor of the indwelling of the divine energies whose quality is the same in all things” (196). This in turn can be for the Christian a retrieval of an “original unity with God and an original selflessness (‘original’ in the sense of prior to self-consciousness or action)” (198). Still later, Heim dedicates some lovely pages to “deity and benefactor meditation,” in which the meditator “is invited to picture actual persons who have acted as benefactors in her life experience,” “tuning one’s focus entirely to the well-wishing and encouragement experienced from such a person” (220). This is a cultivation of both the language of love and the language of bodhicitta (the awakening mind). He says that this meditation may be for the Christian something like learning to write with one’s nondominant hand—near, but strange; it challenges the Christian to let go of ordinary transactional language with God, so as to recognize that “God also acts in a dimension of nondiscriminating presence and bare awareness” (222). This seems to be a way to be “perfect as your heavenly father is perfect,” like the God who “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45). Heim too looks outward, since this meditative disposition, realized in the life of the Christian who has been deeply but quietly immersed in Buddhist practice, is “a bridge for sharing Jesus (as in simultaneously relating with Jesus alongside others, not only transmitting the Jesus story to them) with those large number of people—Hindus, Muslims (particularly Sufis), and Buddhists—who in fact take him as an object of respect and devotion” (226). One’s circle of love is no longer defined only by sin, redemption, and salvation. It becomes a practical cultivation of the words Heim quotes from the First Letter of John: “If we love one another, then God abides in us and his love is perfected in us” (231).

Depth in Buddhist practice suffuses the book with insight and wisdom that turn out to be at one with a deeper form of Christian contemplative prayer.

Depth in Buddhist practice suffuses the book with insight and wisdom that turn out to be at one with a deeper form of Christian contemplative prayer. Crucified Wisdom is alive spiritually and as the fruits of practice. But an impatient reader, thirsting for the practical, might miss this dimension of the book, for here too Heim is modest and prone to understatement, not letting an authorial ego interfere with a more serene arising of Christian insight through meditations on the Bodhicaryāvatāra. Nor does he marginalize the ego by donning the guise of academic neutrality. For such an author and such a book, a certain kind of attentive and alert reader is needed.

If we wonder where comparative theological study may lead us in a world that is spiritually and intellectually alive yet still prone to misunderstandings and banality, we can be grateful to happen upon the path forward here: “unapologetically intellectual,” as Heim says, but also gratefully constructive of what for Heim is simply a Christian pilgrimage along the Buddhist way.


Francis X. Clooney, S.J. is Parkman Professor of Divinity and Professor of Comparative Theology. He specializes in Indological scholarship and is a leading figure globally in the developing field of comparative theology. His numerous publications include The Future of Hindu-Christian Studies: A Theological Inquiry (Routledge, 2017), Learning Interreligiously: In the Text, in the World (Fortress, 2018), and Reading the Hindu and Christian Classics: Why and How Deep Learning Still Matters (University of Virginia Press, forthcoming 2019).

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