Many Japanese Buddhists seem to find in the life
of Jesus a radiant model of all they have dreamed of, all they have
sought after, because he lived the love that freely gives its life for
A learned old Buddhist once told me about his relationship to Jesus.
As a young man, he had been sent to university. This period was
intended to prepare him to take over his father's responsibilities as
priest in the local temple, and he spent his days studying Buddhism and
pondering religious questions. One day he came across a Bible and began
to read it. Here he found something that both disturbed and attracted
him--new ideas, new perspectives. Above all, the encounter with the
Gospels shook him to the core of his being.
"After I had read all four Gospels attentively, I was obliged to say
to myself: If this is Christianity, then I am a Christian!" He let
these words hang in the air for a while, and then continued: "But then
I traveled to Europe, and I no longer understood anything. . . ."
In my encounter with Japanese religion, I have seen a lot of this
intuitive love for Jesus. He has shown people the path to what the
Japanese call honmono, that which is unfailingly genuine.
But this love awakens a hope that often proves illusory: when the
Japanese seek it in the church that is so proud to bear Jesus's name,
they often turn away in disappointment. When my friend traveled to
Europe, he could not make sense of what he saw there: where was the
Jesus he had met in the Bible? The painful paradox is that many of
Jesus's friends in Japan prefer to keep their distance from the
Christian church. At best, they can see there a faint shadow of what
they have met in the Gospels; at its worst, they see the church as a
betrayal of Jesus.
What is it that they have seen in the Gospels? First and foremost,
it is the sacrifice made by love. Christians often summarize the good
news in well-known phrases such as "God is love," but I have often
heard non-Christians point to Jesus's words about the love that lays
down its life: "Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies,
it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.
The one who loves his life, loses it, and the one who hates his life in
this world will keep it for eternal life" (John 12:24-25).
It is certainly not by sheer chance that precisely these words make
such a strong appeal. Behind the facade of our competitive society,
people dream and yearn for love and sacrifice--this feeling may be
self-contradictory and unclear, vulnerable and fumbling, but it exists.
Sometimes I have been privileged to meet people who showed me this
sensitivity to the sacrifice love makes. When they came into contact
with integrity and genuineness, they reacted spontaneously, like the
needle of a compass when it enters a magnetic field.
One evening I sat in the simple rooms of a completely new religious
movement and listened to the leader, a twenty-year-old woman. Outwardly
she looked no different from other young people in Japan, but she had
an inner radiance and extraordinary gifts. She could read people's
thoughts, she spoke in tongues, and she had the charisma of healing;
last but not least, she was a gifted speaker. I had then--and still
have--many objections to the doctrine of this movement and to some of
its activities, but I quickly understood that there was something more
here than the typical appeal of new religious movements to happiness
She spoke of love and sacrifice. She had no manuscript but spoke
simply from heart to heart. Around her sat sixty or seventy leaders of
the movement, young and old, most of them men. She knew that many of
them were attracted by the things that happened around her, and she
said: "If you have come here in order to experience strange
things--ecstasies, prophecies, miracles, and exorcisms of demons--you
can go back home again. It is not you that I need. The real miracle
takes place when love creates a person anew. I need people who will
give all they have, without expecting anything in return. True love
will always involve pain. The one who loves others unreservedly will
She drew the listeners into her own magnetic field, and their faces
opened up. She touched their deepest dreams: "Our love must not be like
the flowers we use to decorate our lives. Our love must be like
dandelions. They get trampled on and weeded out, but they do not
complain. They just go on blooming and putting forth new shoots. You
can cover them in asphalt, but they break open a path to the light. We
cannot love without being trampled on. Love leads to renunciation and
sacrifice. But we continue to bloom as if nothing has happened."
I had never heard a sermon like it. Her words were quiet and
penetrating, shot through with light, and the listeners sat spellbound.
They had been in contact with something they knew to be true.
I met another leader of the same movement, who had likewise been
drawn into the magnetic field of love. We spoke about Jesus's love and
sacrifice, and he affirmed: "It was impossible for anyone who loved so
completely as Jesus to become old. He had to die--but then, what a fantastic resurrection he had!" This man had never set foot inside a Christian church.
We went on to speak about the path of faith. I admitted how
difficult it was to follow Jesus and to love unreservedly. He looked at
me and asked quietly: "But is not that the reason we were born? Did we
not receive life in order to give it away?" I almost jumped out of my
seat, and looked at him suspiciously. Was he putting on a hypocritical
display of piety? Was he trying to impress me? But no, there was no
pretense involved. I sat face-to-face with Nathanael, "an Israelite in
whom there is no deceit" (cf. John 1:47). I felt that I myself was more
like Nicodemus, who asked Jesus about the new birth and received the
answer: "Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not know these
things?" (John 3:10).
The dream of love's sacrifice has many variations. It is chiseled in
stone and wood in sensitive lines on the faces of the popular saints
and gods and buddhas. It is handed on in legends and fairy tales.
One ancient legend tells of the bodhisattva Kannon (Chinese,
Kuan-yin), best known as the goddess of mercy, adored and loved by
millions in the East. One woman adored Kannon with such a deep devotion
that her husband became jealous. One day as she stood in prayer before
the statue of Kannon, he struck her with his sword and left her there
bleeding. After a while she came home as if nothing had happened. Her
husband ran in perplexity back to the scene of his crime, and there he
saw the statue of Kannon bleeding from a wound.
Why has Kannon appealed so strongly to people in the East? The two
characters for her name mean "the one who sees the cries of the world."
Her gentle features reveal an infinite compassion. Sometimes Kannon is
portrayed with eleven faces looking in all directions, or with a
thousand arms stretched out to touch the whole world's suffering. Does
not the people's devotion to Kannon show their abiding awareness of the
mystery of grace and mercy?
A few years ago I was present at the performance of a play in the
headquarters of one of the new religions. Five thousand of its
adherents were present, and we were fascinated by the simple message of
the drama. A princess, fleeing from her enemy, was given shelter by
poor peasants in a remote mountain village. It was winter, and they
waited in vain for spring--it seemed that it would never come. They
shared the food they had, but at last all their stocks were exhausted,
and they faced hunger and death. The village was under the curse of the
spirit of the lake, who prevented the ice and snow and cold from giving
way to spring.
Finally the princess made the great decision: without telling the
villagers what she planned to do, she sacrificed herself to the spirit
of the lake. All we heard was her voice offstage as she was lost to
sight in the frozen landscape. And suddenly, miraculously, the
landscape was transformed into green fields and meadows with flowers
and trees and birds.
The story was simple, but it evoked strong and deep feelings. And this was popular Buddhism at its best.
Many have the impression that Buddhism is a self-centered religion,
a higher form of cultivation of the self, which does not care whether
the world goes to ruin, provided only that the self can attain inner
peace and enlightenment. It is of course true that a religion that
seeks the innermost nature of the human person can immure its
adherents in an isolated obsession with the self, and Christians too
continually yield to the temptation to make the little world of their
ego the center of all things: my experiences, my relationship to God, my
eternal bliss. But a self-centered Christianity is a denial of the
Gospel; in the same way, a self-seeking Buddhism is a distortion of
One of Buddhism's primary concerns is to unmask the illusion of an
immutable core in the ego. All suffering is generated by a blinded
clinging to the false ego. The true human being is the one who has seen
through the false world we build up around ourselves. The world of the
ego is smashed to pieces, and one discovers oneself as part of a larger
We can make the point with another metaphor: the ego person is a
note that enjoys its own self in isolation from the music, but the true
human persons discover themselves and their meaning as single notes in
a great symphony that dies as an ego note and rises to new life in the
totality of the symphony. It possesses its life only thanks to others
and in connection with others.
This is why the highest ideal in Eastern Buddhism is not the ascetic
who has attained his goal and then enjoys an untroubled peace outside
the cycle of transmigrating souls. The ideal is the one who has
attained enlightenment but is willing to renounce the peace of his own
soul and chooses to return to the world, with its desires and its pain.
How can one enjoy bliss for oneself when the condemned of the earth are
blinded and wander around in suffering and darkness?
A bodhisattva is such a person, who gives up his or her own
salvation in order to help the helpless. In the world of mythology,
these are the saints who have achieved perfection after immensely
lengthy periods of asceticism and self-discipline but like Kannon then
choose to embrace the distress of the world with ears and eyes open.
They are worshiped throughout the East as divine helpers. But the same
is true in the world of reality, where some of the great masters leave
their distant monasteries and turn up on streets and in market squares,
sitting among the homeless and poor, playing with children, and sharing
their insights with those they meet. There are also nameless popular
"saints" who themselves are not aware that they are putting into
practice the bodhisattva ideal. They are nuggets of gold in the dirt of
the streets, lotuses in a muddy puddle.
Perhaps it is not so surprising, then, that so many intuitively
grasp the heart of the Gospel: God's love, which leads him to offer his
life. Many find Jesus's life a radiant model of all they have dreamed
of, all they have sought. He is the grain of wheat that bears fruit
because it fell into the earth and died. He lived the love that freely
gives its life for others. His work was fulfilled when he died on a
cross. The Christian church and everything connected with it--church
buildings and dogmas, ecclesiastical structures and rituals--is
experienced as an imported religion with a foreign, alien taste and
smell, but Jesus walks directly out of the pages of the Gospel, across
the boundaries of the church, and into the religious reality of the
One of the great Buddhist reformers in the modern period offers a
very dramatic expression of this intuitive love for Jesus. Enryo Inoue
began his reforming work in the 1880s, in a period when Japan was
almost drowning in a wave of Europeanization. The West was the model in
every field, from technology and the army and education to cooking,
fashions, and social conventions. Christianity was admired as the
spiritual basis of the superior West and was acclaimed as the future
religion of Japan; people streamed to the churches. It was at this
period that the word ribaibaru entered the Japanese language,
from the English religious term revival. But those who were conscious
of their Japanese identity were afraid that Japan would perish and lose
its own specific nature if it "sold itself" to the West.
Inoue threw himself into the struggle for the soul of Japan. He
proclaimed that Buddhism was the only spiritual force that could save
Japan from cultural and religious destruction. He turned his strongest
weapons on Christianity, in book after book and pamphlet after
pamphlet, claiming that Christianity not only was in conflict with
science and sound reason but it had allied itself with the great powers
in the West in order to undermine the traditions of the East.
Christianity was a wicked religion that must be extirpated if Japan and
the East were to survive.
And yet this fanatical anti-Christian rabble-rouser had a strange
fondness for Jesus. He fought with tooth and nail to destroy
Christianity, but at the same time he confessed that he not only
respected Jesus but loved him: "Oh, I feel myself one with Jesus! Oh,
Jesus is my brother. . . . Oh, Jesus is my faithful friend!"
The words in this brief declaration of love are extraordinarily
powerful. It is not a matter of course for a Japanese to admit that he
loves anything at all, and it is exceedingly surprising that a Buddhist
who wishes to eradicate Christianity should "love" Jesus!
Many Buddhists share Inoue's feelings. The aggressive campaign
against Christianity has virtually disappeared by now, but most
Buddhists have little appreciation of traditional Christianity and its
preaching; they find it incomprehensible that intellectually gifted
persons should base their lives on Christianity. These reservations
vanish in the case of Jesus, however: he challenges them and disturbs
them. He touches something they think they recognize in their own
visions. He draws on springs of water from which they themselves have
drunk. In Jesus they encounter a master who shows the path to a true
and genuine life. Jesus is detached from the Christian church, walks
out of the Gospels, and becomes one of their own masters. He becomes a
bodhisattva. "We Buddhists are ready to accept Christianity," wrote
Masaharu Anezaki, one of the pioneers of the science of religion in
Japan. "Indeed, our belief in [the] Buddha is belief in Christ. We see
Christ, because we see [the] Buddha!"
Anezaki called Christianity the religion of hope. Even Jesus's last
words on the cross--"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"--were
borne up by his absolute faith in God. Christ came to lead us away from
the desire that makes us cling to ourselves and to set us free to love
One of the most prominent Buddhist poets in the twentieth century,
Hyakuzo Kurata (1891-1943), was deeply inspired by Christ. His
well-known novel The Priest and His Disciples tells of Shinran
Shonin, the thirteenth-century Buddhist reformer who is sometimes
called Buddhism's Luther. Although there can be no doubt that the book
has a Buddhist message, it also shows clear traces of the author's love
of Christ. This love finds its clearest expression in the letters he
wrote in 1915, the year before he published the famous novel. His words
about love and sacrifice still retain something of the naked
vulnerability that made such a strong appeal when they were written:
"I have understood how senseless it is to speak of love, if one does
not know that love necessarily becomes a cross." Most people believe
that they can love without renouncing their own selves. But how can one
receive the Holy Spirit without sacrificing one's selfish wishes? "If I
do not sacrifice all my own wishes on God's altar, all my actions are
mere imperfect halves. This is what Christ's cross means. You cannot
love others unless you yourself first die."
Kurata's interpretation of love and the cross can be found in many
variations in modern Buddhist thinkers who see Jesus's life as the
realization of the Buddhist idea that true life arises where the ego
dies. They read the hymn in praise of Christ in the letter to the
Philippians (2:6-8) as a poetic description of the path God took when
he renounced his own self:
Though he was in the form of God,
he did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness . . .
He humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death--
even to death on a cross.
The Greek word kenoun, employed in this text, means literally to "empty out"; from this comes the word kenosis,
a radical expression for the self-lowering in which Jesus "emptied
himself" of his divine status. Modern Buddhists see Christ's "emptying
out" as the deepest expression of God's innermost being. This selfless
love is the emptying out of his divinity.
Accordingly, Jesus really does have some close friends among
Buddhists in Japan. Some think of themselves as travelers who are en
route to the Christian faith but can never become Christians. To
"become Christians" in the traditional understanding of this term would
imprison them in a system where Christ himself is held captive, that
is, the Christian church with its foreign forms of worship,
organization, and doctrine. They prefer to remain en route. They are
Christ's non-Christian friends, who seek him outside the church.
From the church's perspective, one is of course entitled to query
their interpretation of Christ. He is their friend and master, one who
has attained enlightenment, a bodhisattva, but they have no sympathy
with the church's teaching. The incarnation and Jesus's life, his death
and resurrection, are not regarded as salvific events but as unique
models of the sacrifice love requires. The path that Jesus took becomes
meaningful only when one follows him.
If one adheres to the church's doctrine, such a position is
doubtless inadequate. And yet we cannot doubt that Jesus's
non-Christian friends remind the church of something it has often
forgotten, namely the summons to follow Jesus. The hymn in
praise of Christ is not an isolated block without relation to the rest
of the letter to the Philippians: it is quoted precisely in order to
call the Christian community to have "the same mind" as Christ himself.
Let us add one further point. By making Jesus their friend and
master, Buddhists have taken him out of the church and the context that
made him an alien Western import. They have discovered that he also
belongs to the East--or rather, that his life and death break through
all borders and call to everyone who belongs to the truth.
Notto R. Thelle, D.Th., is a professor in the
Faculty of Theology, the University of Oslo, Norway. Having studied
Buddhism at Otani University in Kyoto, he acted as associate director
of the NCC (National Christian Council) Center for the Study of
Japanese Religions in Kyoto from 1974 to 1985. He was also a visiting
scholar at the center in 1999 and 2000.
This article was originally published in the October-December 2008 issue of Dharma World.
This essay is a translation from the author's 1991 book (in Norwegian)
whose title translates as "Who Can Stop the Wind? Travels in the
Borderland between East and West."
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