Buddhism: A Christian Exploration and Appraisal by philosophers Keith Yandell and Harold Netland, is an important contribution to Christian-Buddhist dialogue. Along with a concise but thorough overview of the history and beliefs of Buddhism, it provides an analysis and criticism of Buddhist doctrines from the perspective of Western analytic philosophy. Yet the authors’ tone is irenic, and their sensitivity to the cultural and ethnic aspects of Buddhism also contributes to the success of the book.
The authors spend the first three chapters tracing the historical development of Buddhism from India to China, Japan, and the West. The explanation of the doctrinal development/transformation from Theravada Buddhism to Mahayana Buddhism is insightful and helps the reader to not only understand the core teachings of the Buddha (The Four Noble Truths, impermanence, no-self, Nirvana, etc.), but also to grasp the adaptive nature of the religion. The authors demonstrate familiarity with a wide array of sources related to these topics. In charting the historical development of Buddhism, Yandell and Netland highlight the social and culture environments of the times that helped shaped Buddhism’s developments. This is particularly true in chapter 3 in regard to the Japanese effort to carry the dharma (Buddhist teaching) to the West. This chapter provides opportunities for readers to understand the Japanese mind, partly by explaining the close relationship between Japanese Buddhism and nationalism.
In chapters 4 and 5, the authors provide metaphysical analysis and criticism of the core doctrines of Buddhism. These two chapters (especially chapter 4) may prove challenging to readers who do not have a background in metaphysics. Nonetheless, the basic idea of each argument is clearly stated. What was most intriguing to me in these chapters is their analysis and criticism of impermanence, no-self, and dependent co-origination. Buddhism believes that “nothing . . . can exist independently. Any [existing] thing exists in mutual dependence on other things that . . . are essenceless” (121). In other words, there is no independent nature or essence. In addition, there is no enduring self, including souls and minds. For Buddhists, there is no concept of self, but simply “a collection of momentary states” (120). Naturally, such metaphysical claims raise questions for Christians who believe in enduring souls, minds, and selves.
In chapter six, the authors examine Buddhist teachings in the light of specifically Christian belief. Although there are some similarities between Christianity and Buddhism, “the basic differences between the two visions of reality and how we are to live” are un-reconcilable. For example, Christianity affirms theism, while Buddhism rejects it, and the Christian concepts of sin and final judgment are absent from Buddhist teaching. Further, for Buddhism, “the core religious disease is the occurrence of unsatisfactory states in collections” (180), while for Christianity it is our sin. The cure for the disease in Buddhism is enlightenment—detachment from anything in the world—but for Christianity, it is repentance. Thus, the authors conclude, “The Buddha or the Christ? The dharma or the gospel? These are not simply variations on a common theme, or different ways of expressing the same spiritual insight. The choice here is between two radically different perspectives on reality, on the nature of the human predicament, and the way to overcome it” (212).
Having been raised in a Buddhist culture, I found this book to be enlightening and challenging. I grew in my understanding of Buddhist beliefs, and also recognized interesting parallels between Buddhism and Christianity, which I believe reflect God’s common grace. Yandell and Netland’s skillful introduction to and analysis of Buddhism will not disappoint anyone who seeks a critical but fair Christian engagement with this influential religion.
– Reviewed by Naomi Noguchi Reese
* Kind thanks to Adrianna at InterVarsity Press for this review copy.