The Latin phrase mutatis mutandis once was used quite often in English prose but now appears, or so it seems to me, primarily in the arcane language of academic writing. It refers to the process by which we can use an idea from one area of knowledge and apply it in another completely different area. The phrase mutatis mutandis refers to the necessary changes that have to be made for one to apply something that has meaning in one context and to apply it in another context. We do this when for example we apply an idea taken from poetry and apply it to quantum physics. And we do it whenever we take an idea from one religion and endeavor to find its parallels in another. When we do this with any field of knowledge, we often come up with surprising insights.
This interpretive process came to mind when I read the “Triple Gem,” a Buddhist text that functions in many Buddhist communities much like the Lord’s Prayer, or perhaps more closely like the Nicene Creed, in Christian worship and piety. School children in Thailand, for example, often recite the Triple Gem as they begin their classes for the day and continue to recite it at specified times throughout the day. The text of the Triple Gem, with my annotated notes explaining the terms used, is as follows.
“I take my refuge in the Buddha” — the awakened (or enlightened) one.
“I take my refuge in the Dharma” — what the Buddha taught his disciples.
“I take my refuge in the Sangha” — the community of those who live according to the teachings of the Buddha.
If we Christians are to learn something from another religious text, something that could be applied to our own religious experience and context, we can not just read the text and apply it directly as is. We will need to make the necessary changes that will allow us to learn something from a text that arose in a context and tradition that is not our own. We could, for example, make the Triple Gem a Christian text, mutatis mutandis, but it would in no way mean the same thing the original Buddhist text does. The Buddha and Jesus are not the same person and in spite of the occasional similarity of their teachings, the teaching of one is not the same as the teaching of the other. That is to say that although we can find certain similarities between their teachings, their teachings arise out of vastly different worldviews. If we were to combine them into one package, or claim that they are say the same thing, it would not be an accurate representation of either tradition. But if mutatis mutandis we read the Triple Gem for what it might say to a contemporary Christian, it might go something like this:
I take my refuge in Jesus.
I take my refuge in his teachings.
I take my refuge in the Church.
What immediately strikes me when I read this Christianized version of the Triple Gem is the central importance of the church, the community of those who live according to the teachings and example of Jesus. Where the community of the Sangha is of central importance to the Buddhist tradition, Christians sadly all too often see the Church as something that is optional in their own lives.
Buddhism has had great appeal in North America but the Buddhism people are turning to often is an individualized and North Americanized version that bears little resemblance to what the Buddha taught. Where the Buddha taught that the self has no real existence, some North Americans who call themselves Buddhists often practice it for reasons of self-fulfillment and self-improvement. Where the Buddha taught that all desire must be eliminated if the human person is to find ultimate joy and peace, these same persons accumulate vast wealth and personal property. We could, of course, say much the same thing about many Christians today because Jesus taught that true joy is to be found only when we give away all that we have. But what particularly concerns me is that in either case in many of the manifestations of contemporary Buddhism and Christianity the assumption is that these religions can be practiced all alone—apart from involvement in organized religion or apart from the community of fellow believers/practitioners. In both cases nothing could be farther from the truth. In neither tradition, if we take them seriously, can a genuine spirituality be based on individual and personal choice apart from a larger religious community.
In our North American context in which religion is understood to be a private, personal, and individual thing, we forget that being a Christian at the core necessarily involves us in the life of a community, the community of fellow Christians, which the Holy Scriptures call “the body of Christ.” The Christian faith, therefore, is not something we can engage in all by ourselves apart from the larger community of the church.
Buddhists say the very same thing about what it means to practice Buddhism faithfully. Last week I stopped in a bookstore and happened to pick up a book by the bestselling Buddhist author Thich Nhat Hanh entitled Living Buddha, Living Christ. As I scanned the book my eyes fell on the following words: “Any Sangha is better than a non-Sangha. Without a Sangha you will be lost” (68). “The church is the hope of Jesus, just as the Sangha is the hope of the Buddha. It is through the practice of the church and the Sangha that the teachings [of Jesus and the Buddha] come alive” (70).
Speaking as an academic philosopher/theologian and as a Christian I do not always agree with what Thich Nhat Hanh has to say. He is writing as a Buddhist and offers numerous suggestions to Christians based on Buddhist and not Christian assumptions. At times I have trouble with the somewhat tenuous way in which he makes it seems that both traditions are really saying the same thing. In other words, I think he needs to pay attention to what I said about mutatis mutandis earlier in this article. At the same time the reflections of Thich Nhat Hanh remind us that Christians and Buddhists have much that they can learn from each other and that each of our traditions can be enriched by interaction with the other. We do agree on one thing: one cannot be a Christian or Buddhist all by oneself; we can be faithful only when we vigorously involve ourselves in the life of the community of faith that the one we follow founded for us and for our salvation.