Thursday, 17 March 2011

Thoughts on the Tsunami

I hope you will forgive me for a few words on wordlessness.

There is a strange kind of Christianity that always has a fixed smile on its face; the kind that thinks that people get what they deserve, that if you pray hard enough, everything will always be OK. I think the recent events in Japan should make us very sceptical of this kind of religion. It does not tie in with the deaths of thousands of innocent people. And it does not tie in with the words of Jesus himself, who taught that it rains on the just and the unjust alike. Even the book of the Bible that deals most explicitly with the problem of terrible things happening to good people, the Book of Job, is ultimately inconclusive. A Christianity that gives easy answers to painful questions does nobody any favours. Indeed, faith if anything should only make us question more deeply.

Nor does the idea that people get what they deserve tie in with the God who, we believe, knew suffering and torture on the Cross. One who knows a thousand loves knows a thousand sufferings; and we believe in a God who suffered precisely because He loves. When those we love suffer, we suffer too.

I cannot presume to speak for my Buddhist readers, and I hope that I do not speak out of turn. Please forgive me if anything I say is ignorant or simplistic; I speak with deepest respect. But during my studies, I have learnt much from the work of Shinran Shōnin, founder of the Jōdo Shinshū, Japan's largest Buddhist school. In his view, the one who realises enlightenment, the end of suffering, returns in the Buddha's great compassion to this world of suffering to guide others along the way. Indeed, Shinran believes that ultimate enlightenment can only be realised when all sentient beings have realised it. One person's suffering will finally end only when all suffering has ended. This strikes me as great compassion indeed.

Such compassion was the theme of the Emperor of Japan, when he said on television yesterday: “I hope from the bottom of my heart that the people will, hand in hand, treat each other with compassion and overcome these difficult times." 'Compassion' is simply the Latin word for the Greek 'sympathy;' and sympathy literally means 'suffering together.' Questions about why this has happened - angry questions, theological questions - have their place. But right now, the answer to the question, 'where is your God now?' will not be answered by engaging in verbal acrobatics to get Him off the hook. It will be answered only by showing compassion; by suffering with those who suffer, mourning with those who mourn, weeping with those who weep: because the Gospel of Christ, like the wisdom of the Buddha, is too deep to express with such blunt tools as words.


  1. “the kind that thinks that people get what they deserve, that if you pray hard enough, everything will always be OK”

    Agree – this is a very shallow understanding of Christianity

    “A Christianity that gives easy answers to painful questions does nobody any favour”


    “Gospel of Christ, like the wisdom of the Buddha”

    Could you please explain how you equate Buddhism with Christianity here?

    “the Buddha's great compassion to this world of suffering to guide others along the way”

    I’m quite perplexed: did Buddha ever suffer like Christ?

    This is a very good piece but I am a little bit puzzled by your attempt to equate the message of Christianity and the message of Buddhism. Would be great if you explain your position a little bit more.

  2. Hi again, Dasha,

    Thanks for posting - good to see someone reads this stuff!

    I've commented on your post on the Dharma talk at Tsukiji, and hope that this answers any concerns that I might be equating Christianity and Buddhism. They are quite different in many respects, less so in others. As for this passage, the point that I'm making is that both the Gospel of Christ and the wisdom of the Buddha are deeper than human reason can fathom, but not that they are the same thing.

    The historic Buddha Sakyamuni, according to much Mahayana Buddhist thought, is only one example (almost incarnation) of the universal Buddha. But his message, which stands in fairly sharp contrast to Christianity, is that suffering is something we should try to escape rather than embrace or transfigure. Nonetheless, it is a message of compassion.

    As for the Buddha's suffering, I suppose a Shin Buddhist might answer that all suffering is the Buddha's suffering, and that the Buddha's suffering will end only when ours does. In this there are potential parallels with Christian doctrines of the Cross.

    However, although there is much in Buddhism with which I have great sympathy - particularly its firm resistance against any kind of idolatry and over-definition of the transcendent - I remain a Christian because of the actual, real example of Christ, God Incarnate, suffering for our sake on the Cross and rising from the dead to lead us to new life. It is this historic grounding in His person which gives the grounds for our faith: and this is what, with the greatest love and respect, I cannot find in Buddhism.



  3. Hello, Tom!

    thank you for answering these questions so promptly:) I would have written sooner but housekeeping carried me away:)

    Following from what you have written in the two posts, I would like to ask: is the Buddha God? Unfortunately, the only knowledge of Buddhism I have acquired so far is a digested introduction-lecture given by a Russian theologian A.Kuraev in which he says that there is no God in Buddhism. According to this interpretation (which, I presume, describes Zen Buddhism only)
    Buddhism is "an atheistic religion".

    I should say though that Kuraev also expatiates at length on many profound things he finds in this religion, especially ascetism which is quite similar to the Father's ascetism.

    From what I heard from his lectures I drew the same conclusion for myself: there is no God in Buddhism (or no deity whose nature can be in any sense approximated to the nature of God as He is revealed in Christianity), but at the same time Buddhism can be greatly admired for the instruction in profound ascetism it offers.

  4. Oh, there are some other things i hope to post tomorrow.

  5. Hi again, Dasha,

    If you ask a Buddhist whether Buddha is God, he or she would almost certainly say 'no.' Yet Cardinal Henri de Lubac could not dismiss Shinran and Hōnen, patriarchs of the Pure Land tradition in Japan, as simply atheists.

    I think the first question for us Christians has to be: is God God? This may seem silly, and the answer more obvious than it really is. There are many interpretations of God, even within Christianity. If by God we necessarily mean an intentional creator from nothing, then it would be very hard to argue that there is God in Buddhism: although I would argue that one does find a kind of salvific intentionality in the Pure Land's Amida Buddha when he vows that he will not attain nirvana until all beings are saved, and provides the salvific framework to effect this salvation, so it is not quite so clear-cut as we may suppose.

    Yet other aspects of certain Christian readings of the Godhead do, however, have something in common with certain Buddhist readings of Buddha: for example, as the source of goodness and compassion, as wisdom, as transcending being yet being the origin of or suffusing it.

    So, the only general answer I can give to your question is that some Buddhist understandings of Buddha overlap with some Christian understandings of God. They are not utterly conceptually distinct, nor are they the same 'thing.' Indeed, neither God nor Buddha is a thing at all! Nonetheless, I do not think that we can say absolutely from a Christian perspective that Buddhism per se is atheistic, because we can see aspects of the Christian God in the Buddha (and vice-versa).

    Again, the main thing is to avoid generalisation and look at specific instances of Christian and Buddhist doctrine: one cannot compare God with Buddha, but only one understanding of God with one understanding of Buddha at a time. Otherwise, we end up making sweeping statements about each others' faiths which tend to have very little application to any concrete instance of that faith.