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William JohnstonSeptember 30, 2016

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 Buddhism.

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 Christianity.

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 modem people are looking for meditation. Often they don't find it in their own religion.

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 leam 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 Christianity?

J: Of course. You get this kind of experience in the Christian contemplatives.

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 different?

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.

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William Rydberg
7 years 7 months ago
Perplexing dialogue here in that tablestakes for authentic interreligous dialogue is that Catholicism is a RESPONSE... I don't follow the assertion that theology is somehow plastic. A truer basis for authentic dialogue might begin with a ground rule. For instance, that dogmatics are not to be understood to be written in meta language. Just my opinion... Haven't seen the movie either. in Jesus The Lord

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