Endo and Johnston talk of Buddhism and Christianity.
(novelist Shusaku Endo, Jesuit theologian William Johnston) (Interview)

William Johnston

Vol.171 No.16 (Nov 19, 1994)
COPYRIGHT America Press Inc. 1994

            The following conversation took place in Tokyo between William 
            Johnston, S.J., who has written extensively on Zen and Christian 
            contemplation, and the japanese Catholic novelist Shusaku Endo, 
            recipient of AMERICA's Campion Award in 1990. The text was 
            translated from Japanese by Father Johnston and appears by 
            permission of its Japanese publisher, Bungeishunjusha. 
            ENDO: Are you still interested in Buddhism, Father? 
            Johnson: Yes, of course. I don't think I'll ever lose my interest in 
            E: What aspect of Buddhism interests you most? 
            J: The meeting of Buddhism and Christianity. The dialogue. Aren't 
            you interested in that? 
            E: I certainly am. In Europe and America scholarly studies of 
            Japanese Buddhism keep appearing.... 
            J: Dialogue is the great discovery of the 20th century. Dialogue 
            between nations, dialogue between capital and labor, dialogue 
            between husband and wife--and dialogue between Buddhism and 
            E: Little by little the dialogue is getting under way. A while ago 
            in Sophia University I heard Buddhist monks chanting the sutras 
            during Mass instead of Gregorian chant. If that had happened 20 or 
            30 years ago, there would have been an awful rumpus. But tell me, 
            when did you first get interested in Buddhism? Was it before the 
            Second Vatican Council? 
            J: Yes. The pioneer was Father Lassalle [Enomiya Lassalle, S.J.]. He 
            influenced me a lot. 
            E: He built the Zen center outside Tokyo. But apart from Lassalle 
            there wasn't much interest before the council. What makes people 
            interested in Buddhism today? 
            J: Meditation is highly developed in Buddhism and modern people are 
            looking for meditation. Often they don't find it in their own 
            E: But when Lassalle began, it must have seemed heretical for 
            Christians to practice Buddhist forms of meditation. 
            J: Not heretical, but progressive. 
            E: But what did the other missionaries think? I suppose they were 
            indifferent. Or did they not think it was dangerous? 
            J: Some considered it dangerous. But aren't modern people attracted 
            by danger? Don't they like risk? 
            E: [Laughing] There was a stage in the Japanese church when we 
            thought we had to avoid all risks. But you seem to have done away 
            with that idea. Was it because of the Second Vatican Council? 
            J: Of course. But you yourself are known for your interest in 
            inculturation. There can be no inculturation of Christianity in 
            Japan without dialogue with Buddhism. 
            E: Yes, but my efforts at inculturation got me into trouble with my 
            fellow Catholics. [Laughing] You seem to have escaped. I wonder why 
            .... Anyhow, I'm joking.... Thanks to people like you, we can talk 
            freely about dialogue with Buddhism. In fact Japanese Catholics are 
            now very happy with the idea. I have no doubt that dialogue is a 
            very fine thing. But it has its limits. After all, when we 
            Christians talk to Buddhists and learn from them, we must know where 
            to draw the line. I would like to hear something about that. 
            J: Yes.... 
            E: There are vast differences between Buddhism and Christianity. 
            Buddhism talks about abandoning the self. It talks about getting rid 
            of all attachments and it even claims that love is a form of 
            attachment. We can never say that. Moreover, the Buddhist approach 
            to evil is quite different from ours. Then there is the question of 
            reincarnation versus resurrection. Again, Buddhists claim that the 
            Buddha is working dynamically at the core of our being, and we say 
            that the Holy Spirit is working at the core of our being. Are we 
            saying the same thing or are we saying different things? There are 
            endless questions. 
            J: Yet I believe that you yourself have the basic answer. When I was 
            in the United States a few years ago I heard a Catholic priest say 
            that the interesting thing about Endo is that he is fascinated with 
            the person of Christ. He is always talking about Christ, struggling 
            with Christ, trying to understand Christ, experiencing the presence 
            of Christ. Now it seems to me that the main thing for a Christian in 
            dialogue with Buddhism is a deep commitment to Christ and the 
            Gospel. If this is present, other problems will solve themselves. 
            Besides, when we come to dialogue, we must distinguish between 
            Christianity as a living faith and Christianity as theology. The 
            living faith is expressed in the prayer and worship of the people 
            who say, "Our Father, who art in heaven" or recite the Jesus prayer. 
            This does not change. Theology, on the other hand, is reflection on 
            religion at a given time and in a given culture. It changes from 
            culture to culture and from age to age, as we have seen so 
            dramatically in the 20th century. Our task at present is to create 
            an Asian theology. 
            E: I agree with that completely. Theology has been based on Western 
            thought patterns for too long. We Japanese were taught that it was 
            dangerous to depart from them. That was good medicine, but like all 
            good medicine it had unpleasant side effects. But, as you say, if 
            our commitment to Christ is firm other problems will be solved. But 
            in the West, particularly in California, people are fascinated by 
            oriental thought. They are interested in Zen, in esoteric Buddhism 
            and in the Buddhist description of the Great Source of Life. When I 
            read their books I see little commitment to Christ. They are 
            creating sects that have little in common with Buddhism or 
            Christianity or Islam...something that transcends the traditional 
            religions. But I suppose the main influence is from Buddhism. Aren't 
            people in Europe and America drawn to these sects because they are 
            tired of traditional Christian thinking? Haven't they had enough of 
            Aristotelian ethics and Aristotelian logic? And so they are 
            attracted to Buddhism. 
            But let me return to the theological difficulties. I spoke about the 
            vast differences between Buddhism and Christianity, and I would like 
            to hear more about that. 
            J: At this point in history I don't think I can answer all those 
            questions. I don't think anyone can. It will take time. Dialogue is 
            a process and we are at the beginning. Looking back in history we 
            now see that Christianity has been in dialogue since its inception. 
            Jesus was a Jew. He spoke like a Jew, thought like a Jew and acted 
            like a Jew. Christianity was at first seen as a Jewish sect. The 
            person who brought it into the Greek world and initiated the first 
            great dialogue was St. Paul. Then in the 13th century, when 
            Aristotle was introduced into Europe, Aquinas initiated a dialogue 
            that resulted in a Thomism that dominated Catholic theology until 
            the Second Vatican Council. Now, even as we speak, Christianity is 
            in the process of extracting itself from one culture and becoming 
            incarnate in another. The new culture is deeply influenced by Asian 
            religions and the work of dialogue is only the beginning. 
            E: It seems to me that Buddhism and Christianity have in common the 
            belief that what Buddhists call the Great Source of Life and what we 
            call the Holy Spirit dwells within us and surrounds us. Yet there 
            are differences in the two religions and these differences must be 
            made clear; otherwise something fundamental might be lost. 
            J: We must rely on the Holy Spirit. Any Christian who would enter 
            deeply into dialogue must have true Christian 
            experience--contemplative or mystical experience. Otherwise he or 
            she will have nothing to offer. Besides, Buddhism is a very 
            fascinating religion. Roughly, there are two kinds of dialogue. One 
            is the interior dialogue of a person who lives in a new culture, who 
            reads the newspapers, talks to the people, breathes the air. The 
            other dialogue is exterior, where people meet, share ideas, say what 
            they believe and what they practice. They don't force anything on 
            one another but adopt a "take it or leave it" attitude. For example, 
            Christians are now learning the role of the body in meditation. They 
            are learning to sit in the lotus, to regulate the breathing, to 
            enter into unitive silence, to get a glimpse of oriental wisdom. To 
            what extent we can imbibe Buddhist philosophy is not yet clear. 
            E: I think you have practiced some Zen. You know that when one sits 
            in silence for some time the unconscious begins to surface and one 
            can come into considerable turmoil. Eventually one is liberated 
            ("Body and soul have fallen away" they say) and one reaches 
            enlightenment. Now tell me, is there anything like that in 
            J: Of course. You get this kind of experience in the Christian 
            E: But is the experience of the Christian mystics like St. Teresa 
            and St. John of the Cross the same as the Zen experience or is it 
            J: This is a much debated point. I can only give you my opinion. I 
            believe that mystical experience is conditioned by one's faith. If 
            one believes that God is love and that the Word was made flesh, this 
            will enter into the experience. It certainly enters into the 
            experience of St. John of the Cross, who speaks of the Incarnation 
            at the summit of the mystical life and whose mystical experience is 
            finally Trinitarian. In short, even though profound mystical 
            experience is silent, imageless and ineffable, it has content. The 
            experiences of St. John of the Cross and Zen master Dogen are not 
            the same. To anyone who reads their writings this is obvious. 
            Precisely because they are different, dialogue is meaningful. 
            E: I believe that in dialogue with Buddhism we can learn a lot about 
            psychology. From the fifth century Buddhism has been preoccupied 
            with the self, whereas Christianity has spoken principally about the 
            relationship between God and human beings and has put all the 
            emphasis on a God who is outside. In the knowledge of the self, 
            Buddhism has made much more progress. Take, for instance, 
            psychoanalysis. Buddhism has been practicing it since the fifth 
            century. Whether one can precisely call it psychoanalysis I am not 
            sure. Anyhow, Buddhism has seen layers of consciousness in the human 
            psyche, and in the area of psychology it is far in advance of 
            Christianity. When it comes to Zen, however, I have no experience. I 
            am just a theoretician talking out of my head. 
            J: Neither do I practice Zen. Perhaps it could be said that I 
            practice a Christian contemplation with some influence from Zen. 
            Throughout Japan now there are people--mainly priests and 
            sisters--who sit silently in Zen style before the Blessed Sacrament, 
            regulating their breathing and stilling their mind. They are not 
            practicing Zen, but perhaps it could be said that they are 
            practicing a Zen-influenced Christian contemplation. Of course there 
            are others, though not many, who have practiced pure Zen under the 
            direction of a Buddhist master. 
            E. But you have written books about Zen. 
            J. I would prefer to say that I have written books about Christian 
            contemplation, with the Zen-Christian dialogue in the background. 
            E: Tell me, what kind of letters do you get from your readers? 
            J: I sometimes get letters asking questions about Zen and 
            Christianity. People in the West often ask where they can find a 
            Christian Zen master or they ask me to recommend a place in which 
            they can practice Christian Zen. It is difficult to give answers. I 
            sometimes say that we are pioneers in this whole area. We are still 
            groping and trying to find our way. 
            E: Always I come back to the same question. The Great Source of 
            Life--what are we to call it? Do we call it the Christ or the 
            Buddha? That is the central question. 
            J: If I am a Christian, it is because of Jesus Christ. I already 
            spoke about the centrality of the commitment to Christ. Let me tell 
            you something that illustrates the point. When I translated your 
            novel Silence--you remember it was a controversial book because you 
            seemed to sympathize with the Portuguese priest who apostatized by 
            stepping on the crucifix. Well, after I translated that book I got a 
            letter from a contemplative nun in the United States. She said that 
            for her Silence was a novel about prayer. Prayer, she said, is a 
            struggle with Christ. Magdalene struggled with Christ and then 
            surrendered. Likewise, Peter denied Christ and then surrendered. 
            Then there was Thomas and, of course, St. Paul. They all had their 
            struggles before they made their commitment. Similarly the hero of 
            Silence struggled with Christ. He never lost his faith but made a 
            deep commitment. 
            E: Yes, you told me about that sister's letter many years ago, and I 
            never forgot it. In fact, what she wrote about prayer being struggle 
            influenced a novel I wrote subsequently, called The Life of a Woman 
            (Onna no Issho). In this novel a girl is in love with a Nagasaki 
            Christian boy who has a great love for the Virgin Mary. The girl 
            becomes very jealous of Mary and says to her: "I hate you! I hate 
            you! You have stolen my lover." In the end she dies peacefully 
            before a statue of Mary. But her prayer was one of struggle. She 
            could never have said, "I hate you" if she had no faith. Hatred can 
            always change to love. When one can say to God, "I hate you," it is 
            like saying, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" With these 
            words authentic prayer begins. So I was impressed by that sister's 
            comments. If ever you meet her, tell her that Endo is terribly 
            pleased with what she wrote and sends his gratitude.