Christianity and Buddhism
I first learned about Buddhism from history lessons at school, and found it and other religions quite interesting, and later from reading Rudyard Kipling’s Kim. I’ve commented on that in a blog post on the decline of Buddhism in America, where I also considered some of the missiological implications. But, as I point out in that blog post, most of my knowledge was second-hand, acquired through reading, reflection and theorising. I suspect that for people living outside countries where Buddhism is strong, most of their knowledge is acquired like that.
It seemed to me that there were several superficial resemblances between Christianity and Buddhism. Many of the moral teachings and some of the spiritual disciplines were similar, but as they approached each other more closely they suddenly sprang apart, like the north poles of two magnets brought together. For at its heart, Christianity is personal, while Buddhism is at it’s heart impersonal. At the heart of Christianity is an I and Thou relationship between God and a human person. while at the heart of Buddhism there is neither a personal God nor a personal self to relate to him.
But this was theoretical knowledge, gained from reading Buddhist scriptures and books about Buddhism, and occasional sitting in Buddhist temples.
But Deacon Giorgi Maximov has now written about the observations of St Nicholas of Japan, who writes from first-hand knowledge. Buddhism is a major religion in Japan, and when St Nicholas went there as a missionary in 1861 it had been the dominant religion for some centuries. He read Buddhist literature in Japanese, and spoke to many Buddhist people, including former Buddhist converts to Orthodoxy, who were able to tell him exactly what it was in Christianity that appealed to them, which they did not find in Buddhism.
There are also some interesting parallels between Buddhist and Christian mission, as well as the significant differences in beliefs.
Although he thoroughly studied it, St. Nicholas did not have an interest in Buddhism in and of itself and looked at it exclusively from the practical, missionary point of view. This view allowed him to notice what other scholars and polemicists paid no attention to in Buddhism. This included missionary methods of Buddhism. The saint notes the “flexibility of Buddhism and its ability to adapt to the customs of the country in which it appears.” As an illustration the author points to how, according to Buddhist belief, Buddha and the Bodhisattvas made an oath to “be born in various ignorant countries in order to bring them to salvation.” This allowed Buddhists to pronounce Amaterasu and other Japanese gods to be incarnations of Buddha and the Bodhisattvas, taken on by them in order to “prepare them to receive the true teachings of Buddhism… Thus, Buddhism called Japanese gods by their names, accepted them under these names and into their temples, and took root and flourished in Japan.
Something similar had happened in Christian mission as well — see, for example, Gregory the Great and the Pagan Shrines of Kent | George Demacopoulos – Academia.edu
Describing the teachings of Buddhism, St. Nicholas concludes a natural cause for each of its characteristic elements—historical, cultural, and psychological circumstances. For example, explaining the successful spread of Buddhism in its early stages, the saint writes, “Having arisen on Indian soil as an antidote to the Brahmin caste system and the oppression of the lower classes by the higher, Buddhism was in this respect a preaching of spiritual equality and love in the pagan world; on the other hand, because it is the preaching of a man who was the heir to the throne but became instead a beggar, it is the preaching against the vanity of this world, of non-acquisitiveness and poverty.
To these missiological similarities I can perhaps add another.
A Buddhist friend once told me that when the first Buddhist missionaries went from India to China their teaching consisted of only two kinds of statements:
- This is what we do
- This is what we do not do
Only when people showed an interest in knowing more, and and started asking deeper questions, did they go beyond that.
And it seems to me, when we look at Christian mission history, the most successful Christian missionaries seem to have followed the same pattern. But some have followed a different pattern, putting the negative statement first, and changing it from the first to the second person, so that instead of saying “this is what we do” it became “this is what you should not do”.
So some Protestant missionaries to China spread the message that the Chinese should not bind the feet of girls, and formed the Natural Foot Society to spread that idea. In this and similar ways, moralism was substituted for evangelism. There is a common perception among many secularised people that “the missionaries” came to destroy culture, motivated by cultural imperialism, yet many secularised westerners try to impose their culture on other people in the same way. In Christian mission this often had unintended consequences.
St Nicholas also deals with the differences in beliefs between Christianity and Buddhism. If one were discussing other religions, one might speak of theological differences, but the core of Buddhism is atheistic, so one cannot speak of “theology” in Buddhism, only of beliefs. Some varieties of Buddhism recognise various gods, but when you reach the heart of the matter, the gods are irrelevant.
Academics nowadays like to speak of “theology of religions”, but when you read what they say it is rarely any such thing. But St Nicholas of Japan gives a Christian theology of Buddhism, just as St John of Damascus gave a Christian theology of Islam, and unlike the western academic theologians in their ivory towers, they lived among people who practised the religions they wrote about.