I AM/NO SELF: A CHRISTIAN COMMENTARY ON THE HEART SUTRA. By John P. Keenan and Linda K. Keenan. Leuven: Peeters; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011. Pp. xiv + 314.
This work appears in Catherine Cornille’s series ‘Christian Commentaries on Non-Christian Sacred Texts.’ Like other contributions in the series, it complicates its remit by comparing two texts, a Christian one and a non-Christian one. In the present case this involves giving a wide meaning to the term ‘commentary,’ for the bulk of the book is a commentary on the Fourth Gospel, re-read ‘from the heart of emptiness’ (pp. 85-298), and thus only indirectly, if at all, a commentary on the Heart Sūtra. My own promised contribution to Cornille’s series is to focus on a neighboring sūtra, The Teaching of Vimalakīrti, and should be more conventional and economical, though I hope to learn something from Keenan’s flexible and imaginative approach.
Keenan does begin by giving a brief standard commentary on the Heart Sūtra, without Christian notes. He cites the text in Chinese, since he follows Jan Nattier in thinking that is a Chinese apocryphon, back-translated into Sanskrit. Given the many Sanskrit commentaries on the sūtra, this seems highly implausible to me. Has any other Chinese apocryphon received such attention in the Indian world?
Keenan finds that the Johannine vision of incarnation and the Buddhist anthropology of emptiness resonate with one another (p. 65), or at least that the former can be construed in the light of the latter. He conducts a series of raids on the Gospel text, from various Buddhist angles, bringing out, to a degree unmatched in any standard commentary, the elusiveness of the Johannine Jesus, the obliqueness of his answers, the deliberately puzzling nature of the narratives. Some literary critics have commented along those lines, but Keenan’s long practice with Mahāyāna texts gives him a unique penetration and sureness of touch. A full theological commentary building on his insights could revolutionize Johannine studies.
His preacherly and constantly witty text – enhanced in its literary grace by the shaping hand of Linda Keenan – abounds in daring theological utterances. ‘We are to proclaim the God of no-God-at-all, the God in light inaccessible, whom no one has seen except the Son who reveals his light in the stench of his own broken body and spilled blood’ (p. 237). A firm grasp both of the theology of the Incarnation and of the Madhyamaka dialectic of emptiness lends security and weight to such utterances. Readers will often feel that this reading of John is robbing them of any foothold; but they will often be forced to admit that this effect is caused by the Evangelist himself. The deadening view of John as the bearer of a heavy and exclusivist high Christology is undercut as the ‘edgy, confrontational Jesus of the Gospels’ (p. 242) is revealed to be at work in this Gospel too. Indeed, there is a striking continuity in this respect between the Synoptic and the Johannine Jesus, though I do not know of any scholar who has focused on it.
Keenan’s central claims is that ‘John’s teaching is a high Christology not because it elevates Jesus to a higher register than that employed in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, but because it negates any identity register for anyone’ (p. 233). As he restates this theme in often very radical and unsettling ways, he may cause some readers to have a panic attack. Does this denial of identity not leave us with total vagueness about God, Christ, and eternal life? Can we follow Keenan in believing that it will draw us more deeply into a trustful following of Christ, opening up more and more to the gracious emptiness of the divine mystery? The last discourses in the Gospel highlight the theme of ‘abiding’ in Christ and in God, and are clearly designed to draw the contemplative reader ever deeper into this abiding. For Keenan, to abide in God is to abide in emptiness, forgoing any closure on fixed identities, substances or presences. Thus the Buddhist and Johannine tracks of contemplation mutually enhance one another, as indeed is to be expected if we accept both the Buddhist and the Christian texts as having supreme religious authority. But to bring this interplay into focus phenomenologically and think it through consistently is no easy task, especially as neither the Sūtra nor the Gospel offer themselves to be tamed by the controlling mind.
The Sūtra establishes the emptiness of the skandhas, but the application of this to God and to the Johannine Christ demands a sophisticated and tenacious inquiry. The more clearly Buddhist passages in Keenan’s commentary on John often open up this question only to leave it undeveloped. The autobiographical vignettes that dot the text failed to give the commentary the concrete groundedness intended, for they do not adequately reflect Keenan’s own lifelong contemplative engagement with the Gospel, not so speak of the Church’s bimillennial engagement. All too often they introduce perspectives that fall short of or bypass the specific Johannine phenomena. Another distraction is the rather caricatural polemic against crude conceptions of God and salvation, particularly on the theme, ‘God does not come magically to our rescue.’ I don’t think these are the foremost obstacles to understanding John.
Keenan focuses on the background of the Prologue in Genesis and Wisdom literature, with a stress on the dynamic character of the Word and the way the very idea of God is revolutionized by being conjoined with a historical, fleshly man. Demythologization of John’s Christology would be helped by a closer attention to the text. John 1:1 is misquoted twice—pros theon instead of pros ton theon—with the effect that the distinction between the Father as ho theos and the Logos as theos, subtly discussed by Origen in his great commentary, disappears from view. Many commentators have read back conventional understandings of Nicea and Chalcedon into the Prologue; Origen could provide an antidote to that. Buddhist note is struck when Keenan says that ‘John’s mystic vision serves not to elaborate upon God, but rather to expose our primal ignorance’ (p. 87). He could have differentiated between the incomprehension that the divine Word meets with in John 1:5, 10-11, which might well be compared with Buddhist primal ignorance, and the nescience of John 1:18a (‘No one has ever seen God’), which belongs more to the register of holy mystery. On 1:18b (‘the only-begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, has made him known’) Keenan comments: ‘John’s enfleshed Christ is exposed as a vacant, transparent empty presence of… the no-self of Jesus’ (p. 106). The ultimate identity of Jesus – in his exaltation – is a disappearing into the emptiness of the invisible God. The withdrawals of Jesus throughout the Gospel are a theme to be tracked closely for a Buddhist sounding of the Johannine language.
Commenting on John 3:8 (‘The wind blows where it wills’), Keenan writes: ‘The sky here is the locale of the Father – the unidentified and unlocated sphere that is no sphere whatsoever, from which Jesus comes to be earthed and incarnated in flesh, but a flesh that shares in that unbounded freedom of the Father source, beyond all sources and apart from all fathers’ (p. 126). Would one share the obtuseness of Nicodemus if one asked whether a more precise and illuminating application of Buddhist emptiness is possible or desirable here? In the dialogue with the Samaritan woman, and throughout the Gospel, John ‘has set up a disconnect between two levels of truth’ (p. 128). Here one could draw on the elaborate discussions of the twofold truth in Madhyamaka sources. Keenan merely comments that ‘both of these levels of truth are worded, and that there is no such thing as a privileged language’ (ib.). Even when Jesus makes ‘I Am’ statements that draw a response of confession and adoration from the interlocutor, Keenan takes them to mean that ‘in the eschatological immediacy there is no need for anyone to be anybody’ (p. 130).
‘I Am’ and ‘No Self’ are brought into close conjunction. Does this imply that Jesus is an ultimate revelation event that is always here and now and whose content is a universal insight into the empty nature of being? Keenan wants to uphold the inscrutable divine otherness of God and Christ, somewhat in the manner of Western apophatic theology. But he empties their identities so radically that it is not easy to see how this is to be done. John ‘does equate Jesus with God. How can that be an identity marker, though, when God has no boundaries or limits that might identify?’ (p. 132). I think that sentences such as ‘I and the Father are one’ (Jn 10:30) express a nonduality but not an equation between Jesus and God. It makes sense to say that Jesus incarnates God by his total emptiness of any identity, and in doing so revolutionizes our conceptions of God. ‘He is equal to the Father because he is not a separate self standing apart from the self that is God, because God is not a separate, self-standing individual over against or hidden within the world’ (pp. 133-4). But when Keenan says that John mounts ‘a devastating attack on any special or elevated status,’ so that ‘to follow Jesus to the Father is to abandon both Jesus and the Father’ (p. 135), I am unsure what status to give his discourse. Surely in John’s Gospel, or in any biblical text, it would be an understatement to say that God enjoys ‘special or elevated status.’ And the same is true of ‘Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent’ (Jn 17:3). In the Johannine horizon, the Father and the Son, and only they, are the objects of boundless adoration and trust. Even if we could discern that this is because they are free of the limits of fixed identity, it is still their Names, and theirs alone, that are invoked by all Christians.
It is true that John does not portray them primarily as individuals standing over against us, but rather as presences coming to dwell in us, and in whom we dwell (abide). To think this through, Vedantic categories may be more immediately useful than Buddhist ones. ‘The Trinitarian insistence that Jesus is not a stellar, godlike person but rather the very speaking of the Father – one in being with the Father – precludes any special status, for God is in the deepest sense a nobody beyond being anybody’s somebody’ (p. 147). Might something similar be said of the Vedantic Brahman, read with the help of Buddhist emptiness? ‘If Jesus has no identity that we can ascertain, then the Father likewise has no identity, and we would do best to empty God of being God… to see this God as no-God in the very concrete history of Jesus’ (p. 149). Here,perhaps, is the heart of Keenan’s vision: The otherness of God lies not in an apophatic beyond but in the concrete here and now of encounter with the dependently arisen Jesus. If we want to uphold the uniqueness of Jesus and his revelation of God, we can find it paradoxically in the unique way in which he forgoes divine status, making himself known in a thoroughly emptied, dependently arising way.
This encounter with a dependently arisen Jesus takes an unsettling form in Jn 6:51-8, where Jesus ‘simply asserts in the baldest fashion that those who eat his flesh and drink his blood shall abide in him and he in them’ (p. 141). Keenan thinks it is too easy to refer this passage to the Eucharist, or to treat it as metaphor. The words of Jesus ‘require the abandonment of any solid concept of our own precious selfhood’ (ib.). After dwelling at length on the disturbing impact of these words and how easy it would be just to walk away, and seek less disturbing texts, Keenan gives this interpretation: ‘The point of eating the flesh of Jesus is to ingest and realize the enfleshment of the Word – thus sharing the incarnated presence of God in our own bodies – in every part thereof. Without the teaching on incarnation, chapter 6 of John is gibberish’ (pp. 143-4). Incarnation is here not an ontological singularity restricted to Jesus, but the divine aspect of our own fleshly existence. Buddhism helps us to grasp that Jesus does not stand over against the world but is a cipher of its authentic empty existence: ‘By feeding on his body and blood we will become one with a person who himself has no inner core… Eat the body of Christ and give up the bodily-defined and border-guarded realms of self-life’ (p. 144).
Keenan faces the dependently arisen texture of history at its most painful when he writes of the treatment of ‘the Jews’ in John 7-8: ‘I do apologize and beg forgiveness for these injurious words in John, as well as for anti-Jewish expressions in the other gospels and in the letters of Paul’ (p. 177) . Our involvement with the history of Jesus and its textual traces means that we are stuck with these painful aspects as well. True, the Johannine Jews can be seen as representing ‘the former identity of the Christians for whom this gospel was written’ and who ‘have not yet gained insight into the no-self of all beings, even the no-self of being Christian. In this reading the Johannine Christians are thus in fact contending more with themselves than with the larger Jewish community’ (p. 176). But Keenan knows that this does not erase the unease John’s language generates and that history is never a pillow on which one can sleep easily. He makes this vulnerable critical consciousness a mark both of Incarnation and emptiness.
I would like to have seen Keenan engage more directly with another somewhat troubling aspect of the Gospel’s historical texture, namely the difficulty of taking literally such narrations as the raising of Lazarus in Jn 11 or the Galilee resurrection appearance in Jn 21. The narratives can be made expressive of Buddhist depths, but a realistic assessment of their genre and probable non-historicity would help us to engage more closely their dependently coarisen fabric. Keenan writes as if he takes the appearances in John 21 literally, in tension with his words in The Gospel of Mark (Orbis Books, 1995): ‘The resurrected Jesus can be seen only upon the awakening of conversion that he came to preach about, not in some supernaturally perceptible coming back to show his new glorified body’ (p. 394). It is hard to know when we should be content to let John’s language shake us, and when we should venture to ‘empty’ it further in order to let its spiritual power be released for today.
The Fourth Gospel is regarded as the Sorgenkind, the ‘difficult child’ of New Testament studies. Keenan brings the light and healing of Buddhist doctrine to bear on some of the difficulties, and offers many hints for a thorough Buddhist rereading of the gospel that might bring it into luminous perspective at last. He draws on exegetical literature much less fully than in his work on Mark, partly because he is no longer writing in an academic context, and partly because the commentators on John are very staid and stolid in comparison with the radical literary and theological suggestions that Mark has prompted ever since Frank Kermode’s seminal The Genesis of Secrecy. Keenan offers a host of suggestions that might enable some future Bultmann to be the Trojan horse who will penetrate the strong defenses of the exegetical guild and bring some Buddhist insights into the mainstream of Johannine studies.