Saturday, 30 October 2010

Dharma talk at Tsukiji

Haseo Daien of Tōzenji gave a talk which helpfully summarised the conceptual differences between Christian theology and Shinran's thought as he sees them, with the aim of correcting potential misunderstandings by Westerners.
He did make it clear that his talk was a simplification of a complex topic, but argued that the fundamental difference lies in the dualism of Christianity against the non-dualism of Buddhism. He went on to contrast Christian faith as a matter of purely intellectual assent with the conversion of the heart implied in 'shinjin,' suggesting that 'faith' is an insufficient translation of Shinran's term.

His reading of Christianity seemed to me to be very much a Protestant one, and I think many of his conclusions would hold if Christianity were defined by Calvin or Kierkegaard. It was not a theological position that I would recognise from my Patristic studies, however, or to which many Catholic theologians would subscribe. Any theology of the Incarnation seriously questions any notion of absolute duality between man and God, and the sacramental theology of the Catholic and Eastern churches, which stems from this insight, blurs the line of the natural and the supernatural further still. I would also question Haseo's definition of Christian faith as a matter of mere intellectual assent, which again is true of some Protestant theology, but is not an accurate reflection of Christian thought as a whole. Last, I am always rather suspicious of labelling Christianity a 'Western' religion, given that its roots are Middle Eastern and it spread as far as China just as early as it reached Western Europe. These things taken together, I suppose that my critique would be that the intellectual differences are not quite as extreme or clear-cut as Haseo presented them, but of course, he was delivering a sermon rather than an academic paper, and was constrained by time.

Haseo sensei and the others at the Temple were very welcoming and have invited me back in November. I also hope to go and meet Haseo sensei again at Tōzenji.


  1. “but argued that the fundamental difference lies in the dualism of Christianity against the non-dualism of Buddhism”

    I get an impression that it is quite the opposite (for all my relative ignorance of Buddhism). It seems to me that Buddhism is an inherently dualistic religion: the world is an illusion in which we are all held captive.

    Would be great to read more about Haseo’s Protestant vision of Christianity.

    “it spread as far as China just as early as it reached Western Europe”

    Absolutely true, but we are on the whole so ignorant of this historical fact.

  2. Hi, Dasha,

    A key Buddhist critique of Christianity is our supposed absolute dualism between God and creation, in comparison with the ultimate identity between samsara (the cycle of death and rebirth in which we are trapped) and nirvana (the state of liberation from this cycle). And likewise, Christian scholars have criticised Buddhism for its supposed monism, in which there is ultimately no distinction between sentient beings and Buddha.

    But this is not the whole story. The kind of Christianity with which Japanese Buddhists have had most encounter since the War is the Protestantism of their American conquerors. In this, they are right to find an absolute dualism between the perfect, transcendent God and utterly degenerate, fallen humanity. Likewise, Christian scholars, through the work of D.T. Suzuki, have tended to concentrate on Zen Buddhism, which can justifiably be read as a kind of monism.

    But as we know, the Protestant dichotomy of creation and creator is by no means so stark in Catholic Christianity, and even less so in Orthodoxy, influenced as it is more by Dionysius, Maximus and Palamas than by Augustine. Apotheosis blurs and complicates the distinction, allowing humanity a far greater share in the image of God. So too, there are many kinds of Buddhism. Shin Buddhism, the largest sect in Japan, certainly has a more dualistic emphasis than, say, Zen does, balancing the identity of Buddha and sentient being with the utter distinction between them.

    Buddhism and Christianity are not 'the same' as each other, of course: but nor are they even internally homogenous. It is not helpful or charitable to tell Buddhists that deep down, they actually believe the same things as we do, when quite simply, they do not. But it is equally unhelpful for Buddhists to caricature Christianity or vice versa. Rather, we have to take particular schools of thought of Buddhism and of Christianity in comparison with each other. This way, on the one hand, we can hope with St Paul at the Areopagus to find those areas where what the Buddhist 'worships as unknown,' we proclaim revealed in Jesus Christ. On the other, as the Church Fathers found in Plato and Aristotle, we may find those parts of Buddhist thought which further illumine our understanding of Christ.

    Hope this helps to allay your concerns!