This Is An Emergency Post
There is a malignant story involving Buddhism and Hinduism spreading all over the Net. Moreover, it is a false libel of Pope Benedict XVI. It is intellectually dishonest and base rumor mongering, in the form of a supposed presentation of the Pope's views about Buddhism and Hinduism, expressed when he was Cardinal Ratzinger.
I first encountered it in a form quoted from an unbelievably vitriolic article by Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of the world's largest circulation "progressive" Jewish magazine, Tikkun, and rabbi of Beyt Tikkun Synagogue in San Francisco:
In 1997 Ratzinger called Buddhism an "autoerotic spirituality" that offers "transcendence without imposing concrete religious obligations." Hinduism, he said, offers "false hope," in that it guarantees "purification" based on a "morally cruel" concept of reincarnation resembling "a continuous circle of hell." At the time, Cardinal Ratzinger predicted that Buddhism would replace Marxism as the Catholic church's main enemy.
But it has wormed its way into many other places on the Net than this.
I found the original of Benedict's statement, in French. It was an interview in L'Express magazine of April 1997, reprinted in April 2005. It consisted of short answers to interview questions.
First, as responses to an interviewer, I don't think it should be regarded as Benedict's total and complete view on anything. I also would note that he was speaking in the context of why a Catholic might be attracted to Buddhism, or believe in reincarnation, which is significantly different than the answer might have been if he had been asked directly about Buddhism or Hinduism itself.
Further, I have some experience with Benedict XVI's writing as Cardinal Ratzinger, and, with that background, and some graduate French reading knowledge, I can assure you that the actual sense and meaning of the original piece is far less harsh and pugnacious than the rumors about it make out.
I append below both the French original and my translation:
Do you fear that Catholics might lose their souls while dialoging with other religions, like Buddhism?
Dialogue between religions is necessary in a world becoming more unified. But the danger is that of a superficial dialogue. This is because relativism, which today has taken hold in the world, leads to a moral and intellectual anarchism where people do not accept a single truth anymore. To assert truth is now regarded as a mark of intolerance. However a true dialogue does not exist in a vacuum. It has as its goal a common search for the truth. A Christian cannot give up his knowledge of revealed truth, that Jesus Christ is the only son of God. If they are attracted to Buddhism, this is because it offers a possibility of happiness by touching the infinite, without having concrete religious obligations. It is, to some extent, a spiritual self-absorption. Somebody predicted in 1950, that the challenge to the Church in the 20th century would not be Marxism, but Buddhism.
What would you say to a Catholic tempted to believe in reincarnation?
This has a particular meaning in the Hindu religion, it means a path leading to purification. Out of that context, reincarnation would be morally cruel, because endless lives would be an endless hell.
Here is the original French, if anyone wants to try their hand at improving my translation:
Craignez-vous que les catholiques ne perdent leur âme en dialoguant avec d'autres religions, comme le bouddhisme?
Le dialogue entre les religions est nécessaire dans un monde qui tend à s'unifier. Mais le danger est que s'instaure un dialogue superficiel. Car le relativisme qui s'est emparé aujourd'hui des esprits développe une sorte d'anarchisme moral et intellectuel qui conduit les hommes à ne plus accepter de vérité unique. Affirmer sa vérité passe désormais pour une marque d'intolérance. Or un vrai dialogue n'est pas un mouvement dans le vide. Il a un but: la recherche commune de la vérité. Un chrétien ne peut pas renoncer à sa connaissance de la vérité, révélée pour lui en Jésus-Christ, fils unique de Dieu. Si le bouddhisme séduit, c'est parce qu'il apparaît comme une possibilité de toucher à l'infini, à la félicité sans avoir d'obligations religieuses concrètes. Un autoérotisme spirituel, en quelque sorte. Quelqu'un avait justement prédit, dans les années 1950, que le défi de l'Eglise au XXe siècle serait non pas le marxisme, mais le bouddhisme.
Que dites-vous à un catholique tenté de croire à la réincarnation?
Celle-ci a un sens dans la religion hindoue, celui d'un chemin de purification. Hors de ce contexte, la réincarnation est moralement cruelle, car ces éternels retours à la vie terrestre ressemblent à un cycle infernal.
I think anyone knowledgeable about Buddhism will agree that Benedict's views on reincarnation, at least as I have translated them, are much closer to the First Buddhist Noble Truth--"life is suffering"--than one would expect.
Benedict is clearly ignorant of the very real and quite concrete religious commitments you make in Buddhism, particularly of the five Lay Practice Vows, the 227 Monastic Vows, and the Bodhisattva vow.
He also does not understand how difficult Buddhist meditation really is, despite the fact that it looks from the outside like you are merely sitting and doing nothing. Most non-Buddhists are equally ignorant of this. Benedict, further, does not appear to understand that Buddhism makes an overwhelmingly radical critique of the very notion of a "self" to become absorbed in.
But Benedict in the above passage is in no way hostile or insulting to either Buddhism or Hinduism. Rabbi Lerner falsely presents him so.
Most importantly, I have translated "autoérotisme" as "self-absorption" because, in context, that is clearly what Benedict means in good idiomatic English. It should not, in my view, be translated by the English word "autoeroticism". Nothing in the context supports such a translation. Beyond this, I think the remaining errors in Rabbi Lerner's treatment of it should be self-evident.
Finally, I would point out that Rabbi Lerner's description of Benedict's views constitute an extreme danger to the Dharma practice of any Buddhist who encounters it with no basis for rational criticism of that description.
Upon a little reflection, this should make sense to anyone. Part of the commitments in our Lay Practice vows consist of avoiding irrational and arbitrary anger, aversion, or criticism for non-Buddhist religions. And part of the commitments of the Bodhisattva Vow consist of avoiding anger and aversion toward any sentient being whatever. Rabbi Lerner's comments are a clear case of coat-trailing to any Buddhist to break those vows toward Catholicism and Benedict XVI.
This is primarily why I have built up a full head of steam to take this issue on.
But there is another reason, which is abstract intellectual integrity.
In this matter, and probably in most of the other citations of Benedict's supposed "opinions" by Rabbi Lerner and others, the Pope is being wronged, and wronged in a way which is despicable.
I know most of my readers aren't Buddhist, and I suspect that most of them are Christian, since I tend to hang around and comment on Conservative Christian blogs. They do, after all, have a high density of people who are genuinely involved in their faith and personally good, to the degree that human frailty permits such things. And I find it great fun to comment when most of the other people there disagree with you.
So I say to any reader, Buddhist, Christian, or whatever, but most particularly to any Catholic reader, if my translation of Benedict's responses will help you defend him, please feel free to copy and use it--give me credit as the translator, and, preferably, use the entire selection--but take it wherever it is needful to defend your Pope and your faith.