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What Buddhism learned from Christianity

The Eastern religion appears to have borrowed some of its beliefs from followers of Christ

A statue of Shinran Shonin, the founder of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, at the Shitennō-ji temple in Osaka, Japan ©iStock.com/coward_lion

What Buddhism learned from Christianity

Thirteen years ago, when traveling in India, Cambodia, and Japan, and teaching a course on world religions at The University of Texas at Austin, I became interested in the early history of Buddhism and the way it competed for adherents with other religions. I was thinking of writing a book on this, but it’s clear to me now that I’ll never get to it. Here’s some research about the way Christianity probably influenced parts of Buddhism that I’m now putting in the public domain in the hope that someone else will take it and run with it.

Early Buddhism was for monks only: That’s what most of the participants decided at the First Buddhist Council, held perhaps in 483 B.C. (datings vary), soon after the death of the Buddha. Early Buddhists were to detach themselves from sensual and impure desires and thoughts, and replace those with a meditative state of concentration and joy—but that was just the beginning. The larger goal: non-attachment, defined as losing every emotion, becoming indifferent to everything, and moving beyond any sense of satisfaction, pain, or serenity.

Monks who mastered “non-attachment” could attain nirvana, a state of losing individual personality and moving into the cosmic whole. This approach appealed to some intellectuals, but many people did not want non-attachment if it meant a farewell to love. Buddhist belief in reincarnation also limited non-attachment’s appeal. Even those who made spiritual progress were supposed to realize that how far they could go toward nirvana would depend on what had transpired in previous lives.

In practice, even Buddhist monks often found they made little progress toward eliminating desire. Ordinary people could make even less. Besides, even a person who grasped Buddhist truth would still need seven rebirths—and then what? Many did not want to lose all personality. This faith had limited appeal.

Buddhism 2,000 years ago was losing adherents, but around A.D. 100, some Buddhists stemmed that downslide with a theological innovation: the doctrine of “bodhisattva.”

Bodhisattvas were enlightened beings who could have attained nirvana but purposefully chose to put it off in order to help others reach nirvana far more quickly than they otherwise would. In early Buddhism, grace played no part and “merit” was all, but bodhisattvas had so much accumulated merit that they could give great amounts to others and thus let them move up.

Revised Buddhism told how bodhisattvas take vows such as this one:

“I take upon myself … the deeds of all beings, even of those in the hells, in other worlds, in the realms of punishment … I take their suffering upon me … I bear it, I do not draw back from it, I do not tremble at it … I have no fear of it … I do not lose heart … I take upon myself all the sorrows of all beings. I resolve to bear every torment in every purgatory of the universe. For it is better that I alone suffer than the multitude of living beings. I give myself in exchange. I redeem the universe from the forest of purgatory, from the womb of flesh, from the realm of death.”

Do those ideas seem familiar? A.L. Basham, in The Wonder That Was India, noted that “The idea of the Suffering Savior might have existed in some form in the Middle East before Christianity, but features like this are not attested in Buddhism until after the beginning of the Christian era. The Suffering Bodhisattva so closely resembles the Christian conception of the God who gives his life as a ransom for many that we cannot dismiss the possibility that the doctrine was borrowed by Buddhism from Christianity.”

Buddhists may have learned about Christianity from Doubting Thomas, the apostle said to have come to India in A.D. 52. Pending further research, perhaps the most that can be said definitively is what historian Romila Thapar puts forth in A History of India:

“Aspects of Mahayana Buddhism appear to have had their origin outside India. Among these is the idea of … ‘the suffering savior’—the bodhisattva who redeems humanity through his own suffering: evidently the new beliefs current in Palestine were known to the Buddhists by this time.”

Christians will readily see that the new understanding had some obvious flaws, one being that a bodhisattva was only an imagined savior, not a real person like Jesus who lived at a specific time. Furthermore, bodhisattvas such as the one who would become the most popular later on, Dharmakara (who took on the name Amida), helped others not so much by dying for them but by practicing Buddhist virtues for eons and in the process accumulating enough merit to fill the universe. Amida then altruistically made this surplus of merit available to anyone who would think of him 10 times.

This handing off of accumulated merit was similar to what became Catholic doctrine: Saints have so much merit that they can give some to ordinary people and thus save them many years in purgatory. Some early Buddhists thought this was nonsense, and pressure from bodhisattva enthusiasts led to a split in Buddhism. The Fourth Buddhist Council, held in Kashmir early in the second century A.D., recognized that most Buddhists had turned away from the early doctrine. The council labeled the new majority Mahayana (“greater vehicle”) Buddhists and labeled more than 20 sects that remained faithful to early Buddhism as Hinayana (“lesser vehicle”).

One version of Mahayana—Pure Land Buddhism—pushed the back of the envelope almost to the end of Buddhism itself. The earliest and most important Pure Land sutra, the Larger Sukhavati-vyuha, tells of Dharmakara deciding to establish a Land of Bliss in the West, make 48 vows concerning it, and stay clear of enlightenment until he fulfilled them, including vows 12 and 13. Dharmakara would achieve merit that could fill the universe.

Some of the vows sound like Christian goals in relation to Christ. Vow 17 was that the name Dharmakara would take on Amitabha (“limitless light”) or Amitayus (“limitless life”) Buddha, would be proclaimed in all lands, and his offer would be universally known. No. 18 was that those believing in him would be reborn into a Land of Bliss filled with sweet-smelling trees. A second sutra, the Smaller Sukhavati-vyuha, further described the Land of Bliss, which would later be called the Pure Land, and stated firmly that rebirth into that land is not a reward for good works in this life.

This sutra stated that if anyone hears the name of Amitabha/Amitayus Buddha and keeps it in mind for one to seven nights before death, that person would be reborn into the Pure Land. This school of Buddhism made an impact particularly in Japan, where passive hearing turned into active oral recitation, with Pure Landers chanting Namu Amida Butsu, which literally means Adoration to Amida Buddha, or “I take refuge in Amida Buddha.” (“Amida” combined the two names of the boddhisattva, and the Japanese referred to the entire phrase as the “Nembutsu.”)

Did a real Dharmakara exist? No, today’s Pure Land priests say, but it’s the thought that counts. People who call on Amida Buddha can tap into the cosmic force and be reincarnated in the Pure Land. The thought that their spiritual advancement depended on their own strength depressed some Buddhists. Perhaps influenced directly or indirectly by Christianity, they hoped to use the strength of another. As cultural historian G.B. Sansom noted, “The doctrine of salvation by faith and a belief in the paradise of Amida were so simple and so attractive that all sects felt obliged to incorporate them in their creeds.”

This was particularly so in Japan. Although the Pure Land was to be only a way station on the way to nirvana, Jodo Buddhists—“Jodo” in Japanese means “pure land”— found that living in the Pure Land was a happy enough outcome for many. They more and more fixed on that good news rather than the supposed eventuality of personal extinction.

At first, Jodo Buddhists said believers needed constant recitation of the Nembutsu to put its mystical powers to work. Later, some said a one-a-day spiritual vitamin would work. Then Eshin Sozu (942–1017), also known as Genshin, said if a dying man said the Nembutsu only once with complete sincerity, he would receive entry to the Pure Land. This emphasis on faith appealed immensely to the poor who had to scramble for food and could not be constantly reciting mantras.

The next development came when Shinran Shonin (1173–1263) moved from a monastery to a village. He had not found enlightenment or peace during his monk’s training—and, like Martin Luther 300 years later—the harder he tried the more frustrated he became. Shinran also anticipated Luther in leaving celibacy and getting married. Marriage and fatherhood changed Shinran’s view of human attachment so that he saw no need to be detached from everything. He even wrote that the human ability to be attached was a sign of the mercy of Amida Buddha.

Shinran began calling himself Gutoku, which literally means “foolish, bald-headed old man.” Like Protestants later on, Shinran recognized his total inability to free himself from bad behavior through his own power, and thought that many religious practices—even recitation of the Nembutsu—could make people prideful, like Pharisees. Shinran took his emphasis on faith in Amida Buddha all the way. What’s important, he said, is not meditation or particular actions, or recital of the Nembutsu even once, but faith alone.

Shinran went on to state that we do not even develop faith on our own power: Amida Buddha makes a free gift of faith to some, so that our salvation is the result of tariki, other-power, rather than jiriki, self-power. Shinran summed up his view of our natures in a poem:

With mind of asps and scorpions vile How can I hope to practice good? Without His Grace, and gifts from Him, Life will end but in repentless mood.

Luther and John Calvin would later say the same about the efficacy of faith in Christ.

Shinran also noted the difference between high-minded Buddhist theology and low practice, criticizing monks who “look for ‘lucky days,’ worship other gods on earth and in heaven, indulge in fortune-telling, and practice charms.” He wrote, “Two things are essential to faith. The first is to be convinced of our own sinfulness; from the bondage of evil deeds we possess no means of emancipating ourselves. The second is, therefore, to throw our helpless souls wholly upon the divine power of Amida.”

Shinran’s disciples became known as Jodo Shinshu (“True Teaching about the True Land”) believers. They upset the Buddhist establishment by not only minimizing the importance of meditation but also opposing it, arguing that the practice gave the mind more opportunity for evil thoughts. A later Jodo Shinshu priest, Naito Kanji, argued, “When engaged in meditation, all kinds of bad thoughts arise and do not stop for a minute. Consequently our breasts are more disturbed than when we do our work in the world, and it is appropriate to compare it to tying a mountain monkey to a post.”

Jodo Shinshu understanding is still potent in Japan. Missionaries can go wrong if they try to meld Shinran and Calvin: Buddhism and Christianity remain two vastly different beliefs. But we need more research on what Buddhists took from Christianity, distorting it in the process. Religions do not grow up in vacuums, and some leaders gain an edge in their own battles by making old beliefs sound like the new thing.

We also need to learn more about movement the other way: What from Eastern religions found its way into pseudo-gospels such as the Gospel of Thomas? Did monasticism and doctrines concerning purgatory, indulgences, and the efficacy of saintly merit come to Christianity from the East? Take my suppositions and run with them, please.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is the former editor in chief of WORLD, having retired in January 2022, and former dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism.



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