Encountering the Dharma in Christianity:
A Special Bodhi Day Presentation
By Frederick Brenion

December 6th was a remarkable day for our temple, as for the first time a Christian minister gave a Dharma talk on his perspective of the Buddhism that is in Christianity. Dr. Dickson Yagi, Professor Emeritus of Seinan Gakuen University, Fukuoka, Japan, and an ordained minister of the Southern Baptist Church, gave a lively, and open hearted presentation of his thoughts of what Buddhist and Christians may learn from each other.

The principle part of his talk was on “Buddhist Verses in the Bible: No-Self.” It may surprise people to know that there are such verses in the Bible, yet it is so. Or, if you like, there are verses, which when looked at through Buddhist eyes leap out at you, as “Of course, it makes sense that way!”

Christians, of course, look at Jesus of Nazareth in many ways; as prophet, king, Son of God, God incarnate, and many other auspicious titles. Buddha has many titles too if you read the sutras. But can Jesus be looked at as a Buddha? An Awakened One? There are certainly aspects to the Christ story that would easily lend itself to that. Dr. Yagi pointed out that in the letters of St. Paul you can see this clearly – and allow me to point that the writings of St. Paul are actually earlier than the written gospels. In Phillippians 2: 5-8, is a provocative verse: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself…to the point of death.” This “emptied himself”, called “kenosis” in Greek is equivalent to Sunyata, or emptiness, or to be emptied. This is a notion, which has puzzled Christians for centuries, but is very clear to any Buddhist. Jesus can be meaningful to us as an example of Sunyata, a life that is emptying of self. Indeed there is much dialog going on between Buddhist and Christian theologians on God best being understood as self-emptying.

Dr. Yagi pointed out another verse which would describe St. Paul himself as a Buddha: This verse is Galatians 2: 20: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who love, but it is Christ who lives in me…” Here St. Paul talks about being emptied himself, and filled with what he regards as Light and Life. Sound familiar? “Now Life is Living You” is Higashi Honganji's theme for the 750th anniversary of Shinran Shonin in 2011. Another common Jodo Shinshu theme is tariki, defined as “A Life of Other Power.” Again, we see that what animates St. Paul to become the first great Christian is something that makes sense through Buddhist eyes.

Dr. Yagi expressed much on the many great Buddhist scholars who are engaged in dialog with their Christian counterparts. Scholars such as the late Masao Abe and Koshiro Tamaki, from Tokyo University, who went up a mountain with just a Bible to wrestle with knowing what the Christian God is all about. Tamaki came down with the understanding that, “A larger Self, his True Self—Christ now lives through Paul. Paul had become No-Self; Paul had become a Buddha.”

Some of our readers may wonder how any of this is possible. We should keep in mind that ancient Palestine was at the cultural crossroads between Rome-Greece, Egypt, and the trade routes to India. We know from our own history that Buddhism had sent missionaries to Greece. That there was a Greco-Indian civilization in ancient Ghandara (now Afghanistan), where the first statues of Buddha were made. And in those statues, Buddha looked like a Greek. There is circumstantial evidence that there were Buddhistic groups in Alexandria, Egypt. And the earliest layer of the gospels, known as the “Q tradition,” has shows strong parallels to Buddhist thought.

Dr. Yagi concluded with an excellent story of two waves, which has some parallels with the way that Christians and Buddhists look at reality. Two waves are traveling across the ocean, enjoying themselves. But they are approaching the land, and are about to crest. One wave is upset that its end is almost here. What will become of it? But the other wave, knows that it is water, it is ocean, and that while its form may alter, it will always be water. This other wave is the Buddhistic wave that knows that its reality is more than its form. Form is emptiness and emptiness is form.

In a handout that Dr. Yagi gave, he pointed out that at many ecumenical events, his Christian friends had trouble with some of the Four Bodhisattva vows, particularly the last, which has usually been translated as “The Buddhist path is unsurpassable, I vow to become it.” But when translated, as “The awakened path is unsurpassable” it was better understood and our Christian friends could find themselves walking it.

Of course, the Bodhisattva Vows are paradoxical. “Living beings are numberless, I vow to save them.” How is this possible? There’s no end. But that’s the point. D.T. Suzuki provided three sentences that Dr. Yagi found helpful in understanding the Buddhist path for a Christian: 1) “Psychologically, to become conscious of the unconscious.” 2) “Ethically, to be detached while attached.” 3) “Metaphysically, to see the Infinite in the finite.” This last sentence speaks to the heart of Jodo Shinshu, where the “infinite” may be called Dharmakaya or Buddha nature. The infinite may be called universal wisdom or universal compassion or life force. Life force is infinitely mysterious, and infinitely miraculous. “Now Life Is Living You.” Amida as the Buddha of Immeasurable Life is the Life Force.

Afterwards in the general discussion there was good give and take between Dr. Yagi and our sangha. Though religious strife is often in the news today, it was refreshing to see a truly Christian and Buddhist exchange in mutual understanding. Thank you Dr. Yagi, for the opportunity to expand our understanding of both Christian and Buddhist traditions.

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