by Donald Neiswender
While visiting the Buddhist temple in Kamakura, I came to one gate beyond which an exquisite garden beckoned to me. It seemed to exude the peace for which one can grow starved while living in Tokyo. Unfortunately, on that day I could do no more than snap a slide while standing beneath the gate, for a sign forbade entrance.
While visiting the Buddhist temple in Kamakura, I came to one gate beyond which an exquisite garden beckoned to me. It seemed to exude the peace for which one can grow starved while living in Tokyo. Unfortunately, on that day I could do no more than snap a slide while standing beneath the gate, for a sign forbade entrance. This was because the monks were engaged in zazen, sitting in meditation. I have no doubt that the serenity of the garden was at least in some measure reflected in the inner repose of unseen monks, and yet-was there any peace with God to be found beyond that gate?
Zen Buddhism, in its rejection of a god-concept as such, would brand the very question as pointless. Zen does not seek for peace, but it is peace with the world of nature and peace with one’s self that is the goal. Zen, as the way to the realization of this peace, seems as dogmatic as orthodox Christianity. The Buddha himself, as far as he can be known from the Pali Tripitaka, seems to have been very sure of what happened to him under the Bodhi tree, and what the implications of his experience were for the rest of mankind. The Mahayana segment of Buddhism, in its modifications of the earlier schools, also seems very certain that it is a true development of the Buddha’s thought. Zen, a branch of the Mahayana, is likewise sure that it is the ultimate religious experience, transcending all that preceded it. Satori, Zen enlightenment, is held to be man’s only hope of finding a truly full and satisfying life, and there is no religious experience which can supercede Satori.
But then, just what are the soteriological claims of Zen and on what basis are they made? First of all, the basis is not to be found in any authoritative scriptures. The patriarch Bodhidharma, who according to tradition first brought Zen from India to China, summarized Zen a
A special tradition outside the scriptures;
No dependence upon words and letters;
Direct pointing to the soul of man;
Seeing into one’s own nature,
and the attainment of Buddhahood.
Although the first two lines of Bodhidharma’s formula could well be adopted by much of modern theology, they are in clear contrast to the orthodox, historical Christian position which rejoices in the faith-knowledge that it has pleased God to give men a Scripture which, though written by men, is miraculously the infallible Word of God. Unless this high view of the inspiration of the Bible is maintained, Zen-Christian encounter seems rather pointless. For unless the words written in the Bible are authoritative, why should the testimony be given greater credence than that of a Zen adept?
Zen soteriology is based on the belief that all "sentient beings" share in the Buddha-nature. Many Mahayana Buddhists would agree with this teaching if it were qualified to the point of saying that after death men may become one with the cosmic Buddha. Thus the standard Japanese dictionary, produced for use in the public schools, lists as the second meaning of hotoke, or butsu (Buddha) simply shinda hito"dead persons." But this is not Zen! Zen offers the realization of Buddha-hood here and now, by direct pointing to the soul of man. It is standard Mahayana doctrine to consider Samsara, the karma-induced cycle of reincarnation, as being paradoxically one with its opposite, Nirvana, the escape from the wheel of rebirth which comes to those who succeed in renouncing all desire. From the monistic universe which this view presupposes, Zen (in spite of its polemic against reason) has quite logically concluded that, "the ordinary man is Buddha." And again: "To take refuge by the mind in one’s own nature is to take refuge in the Buddha." The self-realization which comes from seeing into one’s own nature, under the name of Satori, is the goal of the Zen disciples’ strenuous life of meditation, study, monastic discipline, etc. There seems to be a real parallel to the universalism which plagues Christianity and saps the church’s mission outreach by saying that in the end all men will find God, if not through Christ, then some other way. Zen would feel some kinship to this way of speaking, since it teaches that all men are Buddha, although some do not yet realize the fact.
Of particular interest to the Christian is the bold -assertion by Zen that Satori is attained by one’s own strength (jiriki). The Jesuit scholar Dumoulin, speaking out of more than thirty years’ residence in Japan, says: "The doctrine of autosalvation centers on the identity of one’s own nature with the Buddha. It is Buddha who, in the mind of the enlightened- one, saves himself" (A History of Zen Buddhism, p. 93). "Autos alvation" is just the word to describe a "salvation" which, when analyzed, proves to be a form of self-understanding attained by selfreliance. Zen is one more variation of the age-old theme that man is quite self-sufficient also in spiritual matters and needs no Savior other than himself. Zen does indeed say many true things about the nature of man and about the process of introspection. It often says these things in a very moving manner. Zen sometimes looks like an island of serenity in a hectic world. But it also teaches that man cannot be saved by the power of Another (tariki). Indeed this latter emphasis is a keystone doctrine of Zen and it is all the reason a Christian needs to try to tell the follower of Zen that even the one man who had the divine nature could not save himself, and for that very reason he is able to save others.
ZEN CONFRONTED BY CHRIST
Attempts to confront Zen Buddhists with Jesus Christ will take place in two general areas, at least in Japan. First, there is the meeting with the vast majority of the population which, while showing no interest in Zen per se, nevertheless lives in a culture which is still imbued with Zen. In a land where few would choose to live by the strict code of the Samurai, and where perhaps relatively few are aware that Samurai morality and martial arts were heavily in debt to Zen, nevertheless Samurai remains -a perpetual ideal. Witness the undying popularity of Chushingura, the story (historical!) of the fortyseven faithful warriors. Also, in spite of the prosperity of Japan and weighty influence of Western thought and opinion, the criteria of true elegance still seems to be austerity and simplicity-the straight line and the subdued color. Such Zen influence may indeed be on the wane as the younger Japanese generation goes its way toward being the most irreligious group on earth. (cf. A. Nebreda, "The Japanese University Student Confronts Religion," Monumenta Nipponica, Vol. XX, Nos. 1-2, pp. 15-40.) Nevertheless, for the present at least, although the Christian witness may find itself speaking to people who have little or no conscious knowledge of Zen (perhaps not nearly as much as the missionary may possess), the average Japanese is still living Zen, more than he knows.
The second type of confrontation with Zen in Japan will come through contact with Zen devotees, whether monk or lay. The monks may range from youthful seekers to older men who have experienced Satori. The lay men and women will range from the nominal through the dedicated, much as is the case with Christianity. This confrontation differs from the above mentioned in that these persons may know much more about their faith than does the witnessing Christian. It is also a common thing that these people may have made a fairly thorough study of Christianity, and may understand the life of Christ, and the lives of outstanding figures of the West,- as lives of enlightened men who found Zen without knowing the name of Zen. Also the Western world hears of this type of men through the efforts of such men as D. T. Suzuki, Christmas Humphries, and Allan Watts, whose books are a good starting point for one who wishes to come to grips with Zen’s claims.
THE CHRISTIAN APPROACH
What shall be the attitude of the Christian who witnesses in the first mentioned situation–that of speaking to those who are unconsciously influenced by Zen? Even in this situation (and perhaps there are principles here which may apply to confrontation with other religions as well), it is worth the effort required to know the religion that is making its unconscious impression. It is good, if possible, even to acquire some expertise in the matter. But this must be done not to teach Zen, but to use it as a tool of evangelism.
First, knowledge of Zen can be used to understand the individual to whom Christ has sent the witness. It can lay bare the psychological roots of at least some of the "inscrutible" aspects of the person, for example reliance on the validity of instinct and intuition over logic.
Secondly, knowledge of Zen, in so far as it leads to knowledge of the culture, can demonstrate the Christian’s concern for and interest in the individual and his nation. What a phenomenon-a Westerner, perhaps an American, who has listened to and learned from the voice of Asia! Even among the nominally religious, some aspects of traditional religions may be prized as national treasures, as for example the famous rock and sand garden at the Zen temple of Ryoanji in Kyoto. A Christian who cannot understand the pride which the Japanese take in their temples and shrines as cultural riches may find difficulty in getting them to appreciate the Savior who inspired the cathedral architects 6f Ulm, Cologne, and Strasbourg.
Thirdly, knowledge of Zen can be a direct point of contact in conversation, which can lead to free and open witness. Even the irreligious may be willing to discuss so ubiquitous a Buddhist symbol as the lotus. To speak of this flower, rooted in muck, rising through murky depths until it blossoms whitely in the sun, can be a bridge to discussing the filth of sin and the purity of the Son. Specifically in relation to Zen, it is significant that the very sitting posture which the Zen monks assume in meditation is named after the flower-the full lotus.
Speaking with those who are openly devoted to Zen may be just as difficult as dealing with the irreligious, but at least there may be less clouding of the issues. Every effort must first be made to be sure that both the Christian and the Buddhist are aware of the other’s view. This search for a common semantic base from which to launch discussion may be more problematical with respect to Zen than it would be with some other religions, or even with some other forms of Buddhism. The reason for this is that distrust of words and logic as conveyors of truth is basic to Zen, while historic Christianity bases itself firmly on the written Word and feels justified, in its propagation, in making use of sanctified reason. Nevertheless, Zen does sometimes condescend to try to express itself in words (witness the vast literary production of D. T. Suzuki) and there is in such material a base for discussion. The follower of Zen may often feel that the Christian’s questions are hopelessly wide of the mark at which Zen aims. The Christian may feel that Zen’s paradoxical nature and abundant non sequiturs are a device of Satan to evade the claims of Christ. But as far as communicating the Gospel is concerned, where there is conversation there is hope.
If the Christian enters this conversation with the prior opinion that he has nothing to learn and everything to impart, probably the discussion will lead nowhere. An open, seeking discussion, however, may reveal areas both of agreement and disagreement. (A current example of this sort of discussion in the area of Buddhist-Christian understanding may be found in the paper by Masao Abe, a Buddhist philosopher, and the answers to it published in Japanese Religions, Vol. 3, Nos. 2 and 3; Vol. 4, No. 2.)
Then, with mutual presuppositions clearly in mind, and with the areas of agreement and disagreement clearly outlined, true conversation can take place. It will no doubt take the form of two dedicated persons testifying to their personal faith. The Christian, of course, will be aware that he is speaking in the power of the Third Person of the Holy Trinity, who through the Good News of Christ can work faith in any heart. Yet the earthly side of this Christian testimony, which could be perceived by any observer, would be that the Christian has a religion which is rooted in a historical person, verbally revealed. The basis of Zen, on the other hand, is purely subjective.
Yet the Christian would seek to show that his authority, the Bible which reveals Christ, does not ignore the existential needs of man, but instead reveals a way of abundant living. They reveal this clearly and explicitly. They are not, like Zen, in between, having been made a compound of physical stuff a finger pointing to the moon (and every man for himself as to what the moon means, what the finger means, why it is pointing, etc.) The Bible reveals a clearly defined historical Person who takes away the sins of the world, East and West. A degree of historical certainty attaches itself to our knowledge of the man Christ Jesus that is in no way approximated by our knowledge of the Buddha (as contained in the Jataka tales), Mahakashyapa (to whom Zen enlightenment is said to have come directly from the living Buddha), or even Bodhidharma.
OUTLINE AND CONTENT OF WITNESS
On the basis of this historical revelation, what might be the general outline and content of the Christian’s intended witness?, In the conviction that the Law of God must first work conviction of sin before the need of a Savior can be recognized, one ‘might begin by stressing that God has revealed that He has created all that exists. And although God is everywhere in His creation, yet He is not one with creation, but is "wholly other." (This is against Buddhist monism.) Man is somewhere in between, having been made a compound of physical stuff (Gen. 2:7) and the image of God (Gen. 1:26 ). But when the revelation given in Genesis 3 is added to that of Genesis I and 2, it becomes apparent that man, both in body and soul, is no longer in the blessed condition in which God created him. (There is no inner Buddha-nature, capable of self-salvation.) The original man, by desiring knowledge which he imagined God was wrongfully keeping from him, by seeking this evil enlightenment, by wanting to be not the image of God but God himself, set out on a road which led to a blighted knowledge, a darkened mind, and separation from God and Eden. By the very human nature which he inherits from Adam, modern man is still in his proper place, away from God. Adam would have laughed at the claim that Samsara is Nirvana, or that man is God, for Adam had experienced the pain of paradise lost.
Then, having spoken the Law, might it not be in place, as an evangelical transition to the Gospel, to concede that Zen can also teach the average western Christian something about a proper relation to this world? Perhaps it still needs to be said, in order to withstand the otherworldliness which can, by leading the church into irrelevance, undermine the church’s outreach to the worldly, that this earth is not only a vale of tears, not only a dark prison of the soul, not only a rugged preparation for a better world to come. For when earth is used and viewed by regenerated men as a gift of God’s grace, it can become a rather sweet foretaste of paradise restored.
The point is that Zen appreciation of the natural world which God (unknown to them) has given men should shame the Christian who has never thanked God for a bush, a mountain, or the song of an insect. Certainly Jesus was intensely aware of the world of nature. It is, in fact, His incarnation that warrants a devout Christian humanism such as burst forth from the Christian artists of the Renaissance.
But (and here one moves on to the Gospel) unlike Zen, Christianity does not offer the happy life now only. The happy life of the believer in Christ is already the eternal life which will be his world without end. In this Christian sense, perhaps Samsara is Nirvana! After His resurrection, Christ did not become lost in the infinity of a cosmic Buddha. Rather, He ascended bodily into Heaven, where He lives forever to make intercession for sinful man, from whence He shall come in glory, not to offer men absorption into the "All," but endless fellowship with the "wholly other," or else endless separation from all that is good.
And He offers it as a gift. Salvation is tariki, by the power of Another. It is not a reward for perseverence in meditation from the full lotus. It does not come in a blinding flash as a result of intuitive wrestling with mind-jarring koans. A man must indeed "see into his own nature," but he must see it not beyond description and condemned by a holy God. So corrupt and condemned is it that the only remedy was for the holy God to become man, and bear as a substitute the punishment that mankind deserves. Jesus is the only man who is God. But because of who He is and what He did and does, ungodly men as a glorious "Buddha-nature" but as it really is-corrupt becan now be "renewed in knowledge after the image of his creator" (Col. 3:10). The old nature can be put off, the mind can be renewed, and a new nature can be put on-one which is "created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness" (Eph. 4:22-24).
May God send many witnesses to those who are lost in Zen, to tell them the good news that there is
A special tradition contained in the Bible;
Full dependence on the Word of God;
Directly pointing to Jesus Christ;
Seeing into one’s own nature,
and the attainment of a new nature.
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