Fr Thomas Plant, Tokyo-based Anglican priest and comparative theologian

Category: Buddhism

Christianity and True Pure Land Buddhism Kindle e-booklet: $2.99/£1.99

Buddha by Faith Alone?: True Pure Land Buddhism from a Christian perspective (Comparative Theology Essays Book 1) by [Plant, Thomas]

Why has True Pure Land Buddhism, the largest Buddhist sect in Japan, received so little attention in the West? And how might its founder Shinran Shonin’s teachings of salvation by ‘faith’ or ‘deep entrusting’ contribute to Christian disputes in a similar vein?
This small book outlines True Pure Land doctrine and draws on the theology of Dionysius the Areopagite to consider such questions and suggest how Christians might learn from and engage with Buddhism. Scholarly but readable, it will be of interest to general readers in Christianity and Buddhism, historians of the western reception of Buddhism, and anyone interested in comparative theology and inter-faith encounter.
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The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

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.

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

Dharma talk at Tsukiji

Haseo Daien of Tōzenji gave a talk which helpfully summarised the conceptual differences between Christian theology and Shinran’s thought as he sees them, with the aim of correcting potential misunderstandings by Westerners.
He did make it clear that his talk was a simplification of a complex topic, but argued that the fundamental difference lies in the dualism of Christianity against the non-dualism of Buddhism. He went on to contrast Christian faith as a matter of purely intellectual assent with the conversion of the heart implied in ‘shinjin,’ suggesting that ‘faith’ is an insufficient translation of Shinran’s term.

His reading of Christianity seemed to me to be very much a Protestant one, and I think many of his conclusions would hold if Christianity were defined by Calvin or Kierkegaard. It was not a theological position that I would recognise from my Patristic studies, however, or to which many Catholic theologians would subscribe. Any theology of the Incarnation seriously questions any notion of absolute duality between man and God, and the sacramental theology of the Catholic and Eastern churches, which stems from this insight, blurs the line of the natural and the supernatural further still. I would also question Haseo’s definition of Christian faith as a matter of mere intellectual assent, which again is true of some Protestant theology, but is not an accurate reflection of Christian thought as a whole. Last, I am always rather suspicious of labelling Christianity a ‘Western’ religion, given that its roots are Middle Eastern and it spread as far as China just as early as it reached Western Europe. These things taken together, I suppose that my critique would be that the intellectual differences are not quite as extreme or clear-cut as Haseo presented them, but of course, he was delivering a sermon rather than an academic paper, and was constrained by time.

Haseo sensei and the others at the Temple were very welcoming and have invited me back in November. I also hope to go and meet Haseo sensei again at Tōzenji.

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

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