Points of convergence between Buddhism and Christianity: The case of Shinran
in: RAYS (MIT Journal of Theology, Myanmar Institute of Theology) 2, 2002, S. 49-57
From the Christian point of view, Buddhism is often seen as the great rival of Christianity among world religions. Many of its concepts are fundamentally different and appear to challenge the basic presuppositions of Christianity, or could even be considered genuine alternatives to these. Accordingly, Christian theologians frequently use the term "challenge" when referring to Buddhism. On a certain level of abstraction, one can easily create a long list of opposing elements in both religions, but as others have shown, one could also find many common elements, depending on our definitions and presuppositions. The more we rely on abstract words and concepts, the more are we in danger of moving away from the actual experience of faith, especially if we try to understand a particular religious experience through the medium of a language and culture different from the original context. (This, of course, also applies to the present attempt to understand elements of Japanese religion.)
In this paper, I will try to show how broad the range of actual religious experiences in Buddhism can be by referring to Shinran (1173-1263), a Japanese Buddhist whose thought is astonishingly close to that of Christianity. The Buddhist school that claims Shinran as its founder, Shin Buddhism or Shinshū, is the largest Buddhist school in Japan. Even after more than seven hundred years following his death, Shinran is still a very popular religious thinker to many Japanese.1 When the first Catholic missionaries came to Japan they noted with suspicion the closeness of Shinran's thought to the then "heretical" interpretation of Christian faith found in Luther. On the other hand, a modern theologian in the Lutheran tradition, Karl Barth, rejects Shinran's faith as un-Christian because it is not faith in Jesus Christ, although otherwise it is almost identical with Christian faith.2 (The above may also
serve as an example of the range of interpretations of faith that can be found in Christianity.)
Shinran's experience of faith
From the age of eight, Shinran lived as a monk on Mt. Hiei in Kyoto, the most important Buddhist centre in Japan at that time. He left Mt. Hiei twenty years later, disappointed because all the various Buddhist practices he tried there could not show him the way to salvation. He then became a disciple of Hōnen who taught that in the Age of Decline (Mappō) nobody could achieve enlightenment by his own efforts (jiriki) and thus all had to rely completely on the Other Power (tariki) of Amida (Amitabha) Buddha. He therefore rejected all religious practices except the calling of the name of Amida (the Nembutsu) as the only way to salvation. The basis for this is the belief, already developed in China, that Amida has vowed to save all beings.
In 1207, when some of the established Buddhist schools became envious of the increasing number of Hōnen's adherents, he and several of his disciples were exiled. Shinran was stripped of his status as a monk and had to live in the remote province of Echigo (now Niigata prefecture), where he shared the extremely severe life of common people, many of whom were even regarded as subhuman creatures (hinin). It seems that it was there, under the most difficult circumstances, that Shinran realized how completely he could trust Amida and that he had finally found a firm basis for his life of faith. (0ne is reminded here of similar experiences of the prophets or of Israel in the desert.) At this point, Shinran went one decisive step beyond his teacher Hōnen. He realized that even the calling of the name of Amida (the Nembutsu) could be an attempt to achieve salvation through one's own efforts. But human beings are utterly incapable of freeing themselves from evil, passions and blindness in this way. If, however, they abandon all their
own efforts, the trust and faith given by Amida arises in them naturally (jinen ni) and assures them of their salvation. Since this is the working of Amida's vow and not their own effort, it can be trusted absolutely.
Shinran's conviction that he had found a firm basis for his faith plus his gratefulness to Amida seem to be the motives for his decision not to return to Kyoto after his exile but to spend another twenty years far away from the capital among common people in order to preach to them and enable them to share his experience of faith.
By faith alone
As can be seen from the above, the first and most striking point of convergence between Shinran and Christianity is Shinran's emphasis on salvation by deep trust or faith alone, very similar to Luther's sola fide (by faith alone). In both cases, this faith begins with the awareness of the utterly hopeless situation in which human beings exist and from which they cannot be saved by their own efforts but only through grace or, as Shinran says, the Other Power. But the description of this situation differs depending on their religious background.
For Luther, based on Paul's testimony, especially in Romans 5, it is a state of utter sinfulness from which no one can escape, although everyone is personally responsible for it. Accordingly, salvation means justification and forgiveness of sins. Shinran describes the human predicament in traditional Buddhist terms as a state of evil, passions and blindness. He does not emphasize man's responsibility and points to the karmic sources of this situation.3 Salvation to him is not forgiveness of sins; on the contrary, salvation must be understood in terms of enlightenment or as the ultimate thusness of Buddhahood. But what is more important to Shinran is the idea of the Pure Land into which those who have deep faith in Amida's vow are reborn and from where they are certain to attain Buddhahood. In this sense, rebirth in the Pure Land is almost identical with salvation, and in popular thought, the blissful state there is described in glowing tones just like popular descriptions of heaven in Christianity.
Shinran's emphasis on faith in Amida is founded on thoughts in the tradition of Amida Buddhism that we can find much earlier already in China. In his main work, the Kyōgyōshinshō, Shinran quotes a famous passage from Zendō (Shan‑tao, 613‑681), where faith is closely related to the realization of one's karmic evil:
The Deep Mind is the mind of Deep Faith. It has, again, two aspects. The first is that which believes deeply and determinedly that we are really sinful, ordinary beings, fettered to Birth‑and‑Death, continuously drowning and transmigrating since innumerable kalpas ago, and have no means of emancipation. The second is that which believes deeply and determinedly that the Forty‑eight Vows of Amida Buddha embrace the sentient beings, enabling those who trust His Vow‑ Power without doubt and apprehension to attain Birth assuredly.4
As supporting evidence for his radically deepened concept of faith, Shinran also refers to Donran (T'an-luan, 488-554 [476-542]), who had already emphasized salvation through faith and Other Power as a possibility for every person, even the most abject.
The consequences of Shinran's insistence on faith alone resemble those in Christianity to an astonishing degree, as I will try to show now.
Not by one's own merit and calculation
In Christianity, emphasis on salvation by faith alone, and rejection of any personal merit as a basis of salvation, are like two sides of a coin. Jesus severely criticizes the Pharisees who claim to be justified through meticulous observation of the law and who boast of their merits as seen in the story of the Pharisee in the temple (Lk. 18:10-14). Similarly, Shinran says: "Know that it is impossible to be born in the true, fulfilled Pure Land by simply observing precepts, or by self‑willed conviction, or by self‑cultivated good."5
Through the story of the labourers in the vineyard (Mt. 20:1-16), Jesus shows the difference between human calculation of merit and God's grace. Shinran uses the term hakarai (contrivance, calculation) to denounce all human efforts to calculate one's merits and contrive of ways to achieve salvation through one's own forces. The word refers to a basic inner attitude of man that has to be given up in order to make the working of the Other Power possible. In his letters, therefore, Shinran constantly admonishes his followers to "avoid calculating in any way."6
Not the righteous, but sinners
One of the most remarkable facts in the New Testament is Jesus' solidarity with and concern for all those at the fringe of society: the poor, the weak, the sick, and even the moral failures. Especially his involvement with the "sinners" was scandalous in the eyes of many Jews of his time. His word "I came not to call the righteous, but sinners." (Mk. 2:17 par.) must have been quite provocative in this context. There is an interesting parallel to this among the sayings passed down from Shinran. A famous passage in the Tannishō starts with the seemingly paradoxical and even more provocative statement: "Even a good person is born in the Pure Land, how much more so is an evil person!" He then continues:
However, people in the world usually say, "Even an evil person is born in the Pure Land, how much more so is a good person." At first sight this view seems to be reasonable, but it is contrary to the purport of the Original Vow, of the Other‑Power. The reason is that, as those who practice good by their self‑power lack the
mind to rely wholly on the Other‑Power, they are not in accordance with the Original Vow of Amida.7
Shinran emphasizes, like Jesus in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in the temple, that it is the basic attitude of a person that matters (the "heart", as Jesus says). Unlike the "good" person, the "evil" person knows how desperate the human situation is and therefore gives up all reliance on self-power, fully trusting the saving power of Amida. Shinran's extreme formulations show the importance he attaches to faith in the Other Power, to the realization that enlightenment is impossible to attain through one's own efforts. In comparison, the difference between a good and an evil person is of no significance, and one can even say: "Since the purpose of His [i.e., Amida's] Vow is to have evil persons attain Buddhahood, the evil person who trusts the Other‑Power is especially the one who has the right cause for Birth in the Pure Land."8
In Christianity, the confession of sin, conversion and the firm intention to overcome sin and start a new life in faith are essential for salvation. Shinran, on the contrary, even regards this as a hindrance to Enlightenment: "To desire to extinguish our sins is the mind of self‑power."9
In spite of these differences one can find in both traditions - occasionally in Christianity and as a serious problem among Shinran's followers - the idea that the certainty of salvation of even the most evil person is a license for doing evil or, in Christianity, even regarding sin as a positive element (felix culpa) in God's salvific providence. This speculation is clearly rejected by Shinran as it is by Christianity. The certainty of being accepted by Amida in spite of one's evil passions does not mean "that a person should do evil just as he desires. This is absolutely wrong."10 This strong rejection is contained in one of Shinran's letters directed against the tendency towards licensed evil on the part of some of his followers, a movement which caused him much trouble in his old age. Although Shinran knows that people can never free
themselves from ignorance and evil, he is convinced that, once they firmly believe in Amida's vow and give up all calculation and contrivance (hakarai), they will naturally undergo a change of heart and show signs of rejecting the evil of this world and in themselves.11
Nothing can separate us from the love of God
In Christianity, the certainty of salvation experienced in faith is most clearly expressed in Paul's famous passage in Romans 8:37f: "For I am persuaded that neither death nor life [...] shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord." Still, as Paul knows, and as it is reiterated throughout the New Testament, this certainty of faith contains the dimension of hope for a final fulfilment in the future. As many theologians have pointed out, the tension between present certainty and hope for future fulfilment must be maintained as two necessary aspects of faith. Luther has expressed this in his seemingly paradoxical formula simul iustus et peccator (being justified and a sinner at the same time).
A similar structure can be found in Shinran. On the one hand, he emphasizes: "When we believe that we are to be born in the Pure Land being saved by Amida's inconceivable Vow, [...], we share in the benefit of "being embraced and not forsaken."12 Once faith is firmly established, birth in the Pure Land is certain. Shinran describes this process as a "turning of the mind" (or "heart") in a way quite similar to the Christian view of conversion:
[....] the turning of the mind occurs only once. The turning of the mind takes place when one who has hitherto been ignorant of the true teaching of the Other-Power of the Original Vow now realizes, by being endowed with Amida's Wisdom, that Birth
cannot be attained with his mind which he has cherished so far, and, thus, he converts this old mind and trusts the Original Vow.13
On the other hand, Shinran strongly rejects the idea "that we have already attained Enlightenment even with our bodies full of evil passions. This is a most unreasonable view."14
Here I stand
Luther, in his famous book of the same title, emphasizes "the freedom of a Christian." His "Here I stand" has become a symbol for the personal freedom, strength and independence that is possible through faith in Jesus Christ. In Shinran, we can observe a similar phenomenon. In spite of his humbleness and deep awareness of his own weakness - he even calls himself gutoku (bald-headed fool) - the faith given by Amida gives him strength and independence. In faith, Shinran knew that he was unconditionally accepted by Amida as the individual being he was in spite of imperfections. He can even say: "When I carefully consider the Vow [...], I find that it was solely for me, Shinran, alone!"15 From the point of view of his absolute trust and faith in Amida, all ethical, social or political values and institutions are relativized. This is the basis for Shinran's remarkable spirit of criticism. Occasionally, this criticism even encompasses religious and political institutions, as in a well-known passage at the end of the Kyōgyōshinshō where he strongly blames the emperor and his vassals "who opposed the Law and justice."16
In this context, one may also note the fact that in Luther's time and some time after Shinran, large scale peasant wars occurred in Germany as well as in Japan, which were both related to the new faith that these two religious leaders had propagated.
The lilies of the field
But Shinran, like Jesus or Luther, was no revolutionary. He emphasizes the "natural" (jinen ni) working of the power of Amida's vow with which human beings should not interfere through calculation and contrivance. This resembles the attitude of faith that Jesus proclaims, an attitude of absolute trust that leaves everything to God, as perhaps best expressed in the parable of the "lilies of the field." (Mt. 6:25-34 par.) It seems to me that Shinran's concepts of jinen and non‑contrivance might even help us to understand more deeply this and other passages in the Bible that are well‑known but have often been neglected or at least not fully accepted in theology and Western thought. Another example would be Jesus' words when children were brought to him: "Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not; for of such is the kingdom of God." (Mk. 10: 14 par.; cf. Mt. 18:2-6) The latter has an interesting parallel in Shinran: "I recall hearing the late Master Hōnen say, 'The person of the Jōdo tradition attains birth in the Buddha Land by becoming his foolish self.' Moreover, I remember him smile and say, as he watched humble people of no intellectual pretensions coming to visit him, 'Without doubt their birth is settled.'"17
Testimony of faith
One final remark: Many Christians may regret the fact that Jesus has left no writings of his own. Against this it has been pointed out that the books of the New Testament are particularly valuable to us as testimonies of the living faith by which the first Christians responded to Jesus' words and deeds. Shinran has left many writings of his own, but more popular than these is the Tannishō, a collection of sayings attributed to Shinran and written down by one of his disciples. This seems to indicate that it is primarily through the testimony of faith that the original message becomes relevant to us today.
1 .See Gerhard Schepers, "Shinran's Thought in Present-Day Japan:" The Impact of Traditional Thought on Present-Day Japan, Josef Kreiner (ed.), München: iudicium, 1996, pp. 87-95.
2 .Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, Edinburgh: Clark, 1956, vol. I,2, pp. 340-344.
3 .For a more detailed discussion see Gerhard Schepers, "Shinran's View of the Human Predicament and the Christian Concept of Sin," Japanese Religions, vol. 15, No. 2, 1988, pp. 5-13.
4 .The Kyō GyōShin Shō. The Teaching, Practice, Faith and Enlightenment. Kyoto: Ryukoku University, 2nd ed., 1983 (Ryukoku Translation Series, vol. V), p. 91.
5 .Notes on 'Essentials of Faith Alone'. A Translation of Shinran's Yuishinshō-mon'i, Kyoto: Hongwanji International Center, 1979 (Shin Buddhism Translation Series), pp. 38f.
6 .Letters of Shinran. A Translation of Mattōshō, Kyoto: Hongwanji International Center, 1978 (Shin Buddhism Translation Series), p. 39.
7 .The Tanni Shō. Notes Lamenting Differences, trans. and annot. by R. Fujiwara, Kyoto: Ryukoku Univ., 1962, p. 22.
8 .Ibid., p. 23.
9 .Ibid., p. 60.
10 Letters of Shinran (cf. note 6), p. 51.
11 .Ibid., pp. 52f, 61; cf. 58, 60‑62.
12 The Tanni Shō (cf. note 7), p. 15.
13 .Ibid., p. 66.
14 .Ibid., p. 61.
15 The Tanni Shō (cf. note 7), p. 79.
16 .The Kyô Gyô Shin Shō (cf. Note 4), p. 206.
17 Letters of Shinran (cf. note 6), p. 31.