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