Christians living in Japan may be inclined to see Japanese Buddhism as just a sleepy part of the cultural background, having no vital connection with their own beliefs and preoccupations. Such indifference is not the most imaginative or generous response to the major religious reality in this part of the world. I want to propose instead that just as the Church of Rome considers the Anglican Communion as "our sister church" (Paul VI), Chrstians in Japan should view Buddhism as "our sister religion."For a millennium and a half it is Buddhism that has served as the principal focus and framework for the Japanese soul in its quest for ultimate truth and its longing for salvation. The Christian Gospel also addresses that quest and that longing. But it is not addressed to a tabula rasa. To ignore the deep traces engraved on the Japanese mind by the Buddhist centuries would be an act of violence, as if people could hear the Gospel only by first having their minds washed clean of all the wisdom they have accumulated. A Christianity based on such an imposed blankness of mind would be a synthetic religion, an imported jargon for conditioned zombies, unable to bear fruit because of its shallow roots.
Just as Roman Catholics find a freshness in the theology and liturgy of Anglicanism, and vice versa, Christians can find new spaces for their spirit in the world of Buddhism, with consequent enrichment of their own tradition. Again and again, I meet Catholics who are suffering from an impoverished diet of religious ideas and practices, and who ring the changes on a set of neurotic preoccupations with pope, sex, confession, priests, and so on. Jean Guitton observed in one of his last interviews that the Gospel is something to be used. At times that it no longer speaks to us we should leave it aside and turn to other spiritual nourishment. This flexibility in the intelligent use of the means of religious enlightenment is particularly valuable in Japan, a country blessed with a rich array of spiritual traditions and practices. In mono-Catholic societies the quest for a variation of spiritual diet may lead to eccentric practices of a fundamentalist or New Age kind, but in Japan it can find an outlet in the embrace of such deeply established, mature traditions as Tendai, Zen or Pure Land Buddhism, or in the many religiously tinged “ways” of the domestic or athletic arts.
Some argue that Buddhism is a philosophy rather than a religion. Certainly the interaction between Buddhism and Western philosophy is of far more intellectual interest than the sporadic efforts at Buddhist-Christian theological exchange that have been made up to now. Buddhist-Christian thinking tends either to evaporate in mere edification or to become stuck in inconclusive debate about heavy dogmatic themes such as the nature of God or the status of Jesus Christ. The philosophical dialogue, in contrast, can treat disinterestedly of such themes as the self, causality, time and space, knowledge and language, logic and ethics, relative and absolute truth, without any worry about religious issues. Such dialogue has an implicitly religious character, not only because it is carried on as a quest for truth, but because all of Buddhist philosophical thinking aims at ultimate liberation and is pervaded by the savor of liberation.
This philosophical dialogue is not as developed in Japan as one might have expected, because the study of Western philosophy in Japan, just like the study of theology, is carried on at a distance from indigenous Japanese thought. The Kyoto School philosophers have set up a rickety bridge between Buddhism and Western philosophy, but a full-scale interchange between the two intellectual worlds has not yet been achieved. The dominant forms of Buddhism that Christians will encounter in Japan are not in any case particularly philosophical. Rather we face a well-organized ecclesiastical Buddhism, of which the various denominations have much in common with the different Christian churches. Some might see this churchiness of Japanese Buddhism as a sign that it has lost the spiritual and intellectual force of the Indian origins and thus need not be taken seriously as a partner for dialogue. Dialogue with Japanese Buddhism, they might feel, is a waste of time, since it has to begin by breathing life into old superstitions and debris of dogma, which the modern Japanese mind has left behind, despite lip service to Buddhist tradition as a cultural heritage. But Christians, and especially Catholics, who know the value of churchhood, despite its unprepossessing outer aspects, should not underestimate the depth of religious life represented by the centuries-long fidelity of the Buddhist congregations. The vast masses of the Buddhist faithful, in their pilgrimages, funeral services, rituals, social work, catechesis, are involved in an enterprise that is close in spirit to that of the Christian churches. If the two ecclesiastical worlds ignore one another rather than cultivating mutual interest and sympathy, if they pose as rivals rather than as co-operators, that is a victory of fear over fraternity, of sectarianism over the enlightened quest for truth.
A disparaging attitude to another tradition is liable to boomerang on one’s own. Centuries of Catholic tone-deafness to the insights of the Reformation, centuries of confidence that the non-Roman churches were destined to wither away, left Catholicism itself spiritually and intellectually impoverished. Cold mistrust of Buddhism will produce the same negative yield. As in Christian ecumenism, inter-religious encounter must begin with a wager, an act of faith, which expects to find in the other tradition buried resources at least as vital as those in one’s own tradition. If Buddhism today looks unimpressive, if its classical forms look anaemic and dusty while its modernized forms are tinged with spurious New Age mystagogy or inward-turning fundamentalism, something similar is true of a Christianity divided between a jaded clerical culture and new movements based on emotionalist mass psychology. The destiny of the two religions in contemporary culture is a shared one. It may be a case of “United we stand, divided we fall.”
The indifference of Christians to Buddhism in Japan suggests that they tacitly believe that the Buddhist denominations are hidebound traditionalist groups, lacking the dynamism of their Christian counterparts. As far as I can see, that is a distorted perception. The divisions of Buddhism may suggest a dusty parochian sectarianism, but at least they have roots in Japanese history, and are a kind of palimpsest of its different epochs. We have the Kegon-shu and the Ritsu-shu from the Nara period, Tendai and Shingon from the Heian period, Rinzai, Obaku, and Soto Zen, and the various branches of the Pure Land and Nichiren traditions from the Kamakura period, various reform movements within these denominations in the Tokugawa period, and the offshoots from them in the form of "new religions" in more recent times. In contrast to this panorama, the divisions of Christianity are imported from the West and have no connection with Japanese history or culture. If Buddhism, viewed from the outside, often appears archaic and even moribund, this is no less the case with Christianity, of which the most visible external symbols in Japan convey the impression of relics from a musty past. The archaism of the Buddhist world has at least the merit of chiming with old Japanese mentalities. In its external manifestations it blends into the Japanese landscape, or stands as an eloquent reproach to soulless modernity in the way that old Christian churches do in the European setting.
Neither within Japanese Christianity nor within Japanese Buddhism is ecumnical dialogue between the different denominations particularly dynamic, as far as I know. Intellectual openness and the spirit of discussion among both Christians and Buddhists seem to find their outlet principally in engagement with secular modernity and its ethical problems rather than in curiosity about one’s religious neighbors. Catholics and Protestants, Christians and Buddhists, come together in shared concern with the challenges of modern society, but not on the level of theological exchange. Interest in one another's traditions cannot be imposed by decree. It remains for individuals who do feel such an interest to follow it as far as they can. Their isolated efforts at bridge-building can have an imponderable influence. The mere existence, for example, of a scholarly history of Zen Buddhism by a Jesuit priest, Heinrich Dumoulin, opens deep channels of communication between the two religions.
Ideally, the individual who would enter into dialogue with Japanese Buddhism should study the tradition full-time, acquiring the highest scholarly qualifications, and in addition should live a Buddhist life among Buddhists, for instance in a monastery (though the academic and monastic paths are liable to clash). But even a part-time involvement can bear fruit. As one who comes from a background of philosophy and theology, I have found that every exposure to Buddhist thought has a refreshing and stimulating impact beyond what the usual Western sources can yield. The Indian sources draw me more powerfully, because of their foundational status, their penetrating analytical style, and their connections with the wider web of Indo-European culture and thought. But Japanese Buddhism has its own special claims, notably the fact that it is a living religion, whereas the world of the great Indian Buddhist thinkers lies in a remote past.
Dialogue with Japanese Buddhism is a slow, gradual process of osmosis. The tradition does not confront one with a challenging doctrine to be accepted or rejected. It has not the dramatic impact of, say, the encounters with Darwin, Marx, Nietzsche, or Freud, or with the original teachings of the Buddha, the Mahayana sutras, or the Madhyamaka and Yogacara philosophies of Emptiness and Mind-only. The flavor of Japanese Buddhism is subtle and elusive. It has less to do with theses than with a wisdom enacted in daily life, a sensibility as prone to esthetic as to religious expression. Art and literature are vehicles of Japanese Buddhist awareness just as much as formal religious texts are.
Whereas in India and in the first centuries in China, Buddhism was marked by the same kind of dialectical progress through successive more advanced positions, in Japan there is not pattern of progress of this kind. If there is progress it is in the direction of pragmatic efficacity, of bringing the religion closer to the lives and the needs of the people. Thus the great Buddhists of Japan – Saicho, Kukai, Honen, Shinran, Nichiren, Takuan, Hakuin, for example -- are also likely to be culture heroes remembered for their inventions or their compassion with the people. Dialogue with Japanese Buddhism cannot then be a detached intellectual exercise. It must involve embracing the people of Japan and the history of their struggles. Refusal of such dialogue, conversely, can be regarded as a rejection of the people of Japan.
Even at the level of high culture, the dialogue with Japanese Buddhism would only be a caricature if one pursued it in the detached style suitable for dealing with Indian philosophical Buddhists such as Nagarjuna, Asanga, or Dharmakirti. Discussion of the latter can focus on their arguments without recalling at every moment that they belong to a specific local culture. In dealing with Japanese Buddhist thought, however, one does need to see it in its total human and historical context. Even such an imposing thinker as Dogen cannot be isolated from the culture, poetry, landscape of thirteenth century Japan. Even the study of such a lofty theme as Originary Enlightenment (hongaku), which is probably the central doctrine of medieval Japanese Buddhism, cannot confine itself to a history of the dogma in its various developments as recorded in Tendai texts (those studied by Paul Swanson, Paul Groner, Jacqueline Stone, and Ruben Habito, or Paul Swanson). One must also tune in to the vibrations of the idea in Japanese literature, as studied by William LaFleur (The Karma of Words). More than that, one should connect the idea with the most intimate dispositions of the Japanese soul, seeking a mutual illumination between the Buddhist discourse and the broodings of ordinary Japanese people over the centuries. The claim that within each one of us resides the Buddha Nature, that we are here and now enjoying the vision of ultimate reality in the depth of our being (though our distracted superficial way of living keeps us from tuning into this at the conscious level), is an idea that can give a profoundly serene and trusting disposition to the mind that absorbs it. Though there is much pessimism and fatalism in Japanese culture, and though it is haunted by a melancholy sense of universal impermanence, at a deeper level than this there is a sense of harmony with being, a trust in the goodness of being, that is both expressed and reinforced by this reassuring doctrine of originary enlightenment. The idea that even the plants and the grasses have Buddha Nature pervades Japanese poetry, so that a few lines describing a natural phenomenon can become an epiphany of ultimacy. Such thoughts owe more to the Chinese than to the Indian background of Japanese Buddhism. In Japan they lose some of their speculative force, but in return they acquire a new esthetic immediacy. They constitute a bridge between Japanese culture and the Christian doctrine of grace. The confidence of the Psalmist in the goodness and loving-kindness of Yahweh finds a new resonance, a rich orchestration, when it is correlated with the Japanese sense of originary enlightenment. The Christian who would preach grace and the forgiveness of sins to the people of Japan cannot afford to bypass this praeparatio Evangelii that is pre-inscribed in the inner depths of Japanese culture.
In Japanese Buddhism the activity of meditation can be a method for attuning oneself to this graciousness of being. Meditation in Buddhism can be a very down-to-earth business, a matter of registering the emptiness and futility of the thoughts that constantly fill our minds, and constantly bringing our distracted minds back to a mindful attention to the present moment. But Dogen presents the encouraging thought that to sit in meditation is already to be enlightened. As we pursue this humble exercise we are connected with ultimate reality. As a Christian I can extrapolate the idea that to meditate is to find oneself where one has always been – in the presence of God. In Japan, meditative mindfulness goes far beyond the precincts of the monastery. It is intrinsic to arts such as calligraphy, archery, or the tea ceremony, and can even be seen in the attentiveness underlying common Japanese etiquette. Here is an experience to which the Japanese Christian should be open, just as St. Paul was open to a sense among the Greeks that “in Him we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17.28).
Japanese culture offers Christianity a new opportunity to anchor itself in the immanence of a distinctive experience of life and of the world. A tawdry and abstract imported jargon, which has lost the existential and cultural roots that it had in its original biblical sources, needs to be thoroughly transformed until it becomes as intimately persuasive to the Japanese ear as a haiku. The Christian words will have an impact in Japan only if they are experienced as invigorating here and now. While I spoke above of longing for salvation and a quest for truth, I think it can be said that both truth and salvation in Japan are sought not in some numinous beyond but as cashed in the small change of daily life. What carries weight in Japanese religion is not the truth of doctrinal tenets or even the promise of ultimate redemption. Rather, the purpose of religion is rather to provide an energy for living here and now. One feels this energy particularly in the Nichiren traditions. In other cultures the virus of fundamentalism thrives on the friction between inherited doctrinal systems and the challenges of modern secular rationality. In Japan the danger is rather that the cult of religious vitalism can become anti-intellectual or irrational. When the Buddhist mainstream is felt no longer to provide the needed energy, a guru will arise with some invigorating but intellectually irresponsible innovation, leading his followers into a fanatical enclave. Classical Buddhism like classical Christianity is a religion of great intellectual responsibility, and again an alliance between the two religions can help preserve this intellectual maturity over against movements that seek to thrive on the rejection of the rational.
The tendency to view doctrines merely as skillful means, to be valued by their efficacity in releasing spiritual energies, gives Japanese Buddhism an immanentist and relativistic cast. Religion has more to do with how one lives here and now than with transcendent entities or truths. Exposure to this way of thinking can bring a salutary sense of perspective to our Christian preoccupation with inalterable dogmas and principles and can challenge us to find more flexible and functional expressions of the Christian message. Conversely, the more marked intellectualism of Christianity, especially in Western Europe, can be a challenge to Japanese Buddhists to think beyond cherished practices and to pose afresh questions of religious truth, in more open dialogue with contemporary philosophies.
Japanese Buddhism has little interest in the ideas of original sin or ultimate salvation. What counts is the play of negative and positive energies here and now. Christianity centers on the ultimate answer to an ultimate question. Jesus Christ saves humankind from sin and its shadow death. Perhaps the Four Truths of original Buddhism could also be seen as a doctrine of salvation in this sense, a path from primeval suffering and ignorance to ultimate bliss and enlightenment. But Japanese Buddhism focuses more on present daily practices than on such a 'big picture' of ultimate origins and goals. There is a lesson for Christianity in this modesty of scope.
I am writing this in Argentina, and I notice that the local church is instilling an ethos of Christian realism in dealing with the unprecedented economic crisis and its attendant social ills. Meanwhile, the scholars Fernando Tola and Carmen Dragonetti teach Buddhist analysis in their Institute, centered on a small but remarkable library containing the Buddhist Canons, Pali, Tibetan, Chinese, and Japanese. This valiant couple continue to spend money they can ill spare on expensive European publications despite the steep devaluation of the Argentine peso. In their passion they know that a library has a life of its own, and creates a culture around itself as it attracts and creates students. (This should cause shame to those in Japanese institutes who have failed to develop their libraries even though ample funds were available.) Sadly, the Argentine Catholic Church pays little attention to this precious resource for analysis, just as the Church in Belgium paid no heed to the priceless scholarship of Etienne Lamotte even as its theologians pontificated on the limitations and errors of Buddhism.
Unflinching analysis of the situation, followed by the appropriate collective practical response, wherein each shares the burden of all, is how the Christian Gospel is lived in painful conditions such as Argentina is now experiencing. This modest present-centered practicality provides better testimony to the intangible ultimate referents of the Christian message than any explicit doctrinal stress on origins or ends could do. Christians who are serious about the task of liberating analysis will not neglect the resources of Buddhism. The pragmatic scope of Japanese Buddhism tends perhaps to be rather too modest, tending to confine itself to a personal or domestic present rather than tackling the problems of society in their full range. Of course a similar narrowing often afflicts Christianity, when consciousness of the social dimension of the Gospel is allowed to atrophy. Religion in such cases becomes a cocoon. The long dialogue between Christianity and Marxism provides a social scope that can be of value to Buddhism. Indeed, we should be unashamedly marketing the social teaching of the Christian churches to their Buddhist counterparts. Again it is a lack of true theological openness that has prevented us from doing so. One group that must be commended for its pooling of religious wisdom from Buddhist, Christian, and secular sources within a broad concern for social justice is Rissho Koseikai, probably the most respected of the New Religions, if indeed it should not rather be considered as simply a liberal branch of Tendai Buddhism. Its ethos may be gleaned from its widely distributed magazine Dharma World.
Instead of beating monotonously on our sectarian drum, it is time for us to open up to the full scope of human religious experience, exchanging the impoverished diet of sameness for the banquet of otherness that Providence has prepared for both Christians and Buddhists in Japan. The sauces of this banquet are not spicy, but of subtle flavor, taking time, and a trained palate, to be fully savored. Only an addiction to fast-food religion keeps us from enjoying this feast. Christians in Japan who are interested only in Christianity may be compared to guests who bring their own food to a party and scoff at the hostess’s exquisite cuisine. Dialogue between the Christian and the Buddhist churches in Japan is still only a gentle trickle. Yet the few seeds that are being sown are big with promise. In a world marked more than ever by religious war, these peaceful explorations trace the path to a future civilization of mutual respect and co-operation.
(from THE JAPAN MISSION JOURNAL Autumn 2002)