Thich Nhat Hanh

Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers

Review by Justin C. Maaia, 2002

Hanh, Thich Nhat. Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers. New York: Riverhead Books, 1999. 202 pp.

From the title of this work, one would think this book a comparative work in the “perennialist” tradition, i.e., the tradition of Aldous Huxley and Huston Smith.  However, after reading the musings of this experienced practitioner of Buddhism, one realizes that his is a peculiar position.  It cannot be easily labeled as either “perennialist” or “contextualist,” as the debate over mystical experience goes.

This book deals with religious experience in all of its forms, from the initial stages that can be represented by the act of “saying high to God” at church on Sunday to the more mystical forms of union with God or the Dharma.  One of Hanh’s main theses is that spiritual growth involves a progression from the former to the latter type of religious experience.  He outlines this growth in the language of both Christianity and Buddhism.  For example, as a child, a Christian may have a picture of God as an old, bearded, fatherly type figure.  As the child grows and develops a relationship with God, this picture may change to a more abstract concept.  But this concept, too, must be transcended in order for spiritual growth to ensue.  The same type of development occurs for the Buddhist in his/her relationship with the Buddha and the truth that the Buddha embodies.

Hanh approaches this subject from a practical standpoint, as opposed to a strictly philosophical one.  He draws on a lifetime of experience as a Buddhist, but also has a deep understanding of Christianity resulting from his encounters with that religion in Europe.  He also relates his first mystical experience, described in a way that is neutral with respect to particular religious traditions.  With his understanding of two traditions, Hanh translates the nuances of the spiritual journey between the languages of Christianity and Buddhism.  These sections of the book seem to frame Hanh as being a proponent of the perennial philosophy, the position that holds all religious experiences to have a common core.  This core is translated according to a person’s specific religious or philosophical orientation, resulting in the apparent differences of religious experiences across cultures.

This is not the main thrust of the book, however.  Hanh devotes sections of the book to the subject of “going back to roots.”  He realizes that foreign traditions are attractive to people because they are just that: foreign.  This is why so many young people find themselves exploring the religions that are farthest from their own.  Recognizing the usefulness of this process, Hanh then goes on to stress the importance of going back to one’s own tradition.  This tradition is the one that will best facilitate one’s progression on the spiritual path, as it is so deeply ingrained in one’s consciousness.

Despite this emphasis on “returning to roots,” Hanh does not rule out the possibility that the Buddhist “emptiness” and the Christian “God” are merely thresholds of conceptualization.  There is a keen awareness of the constant breaking down and rebuilding of one’s religious concepts.  If this process is carried out further, or if one can get “beyond concepts” as Hanh suggests, perhaps one will find the place where “Jesus and Buddha are brothers.”

These conclusions present many unsolved problems to the philosopher, linguist, theologian, and buddologist.  However, it opens many doorways and resolves many issues for both the Christian and Buddhist practitioner.  For many Buddhists and Christian contemplatives, it is the practice which is central.  Hanh’s book will doubtless provide as much encouragement to them as it will cause problems for others.