Is Shin Buddhism the same as Christianity?

by Rev. Philipp Karl Eidmann

In the sixteenth century European Christian missionaries first came to China and Japan. In meeting the Buddhists of China and Japan, the missionaries saw many things that reminded them of Christianity. They saw similarities in the Buddhist and Christian services. They thought they also saw similarities in Christian and Buddhist books and doctrines.

The early Christian missionaries were disturbed by these apparent similarities. They decided that Satan had invented a counterfeit Christianity to lead people astray and to keep them from following the true Christian teachings. Later scholars discovered that in ancient days there had been Nestorian Christian churches in China. After this discovery, some Westerners came to believe that the similarities between Buddhism and Christianity were the result of the influence of Nestorian Christians.

Many Christians have thought they saw ancient Christian influence in the teachings of every sect of Buddhism. However, they have always held that this influence was strongest in the teachings of the Pure Realm schools of China and Japan.

There are a number of schools and sects which follow the Pure Realm doctrines. They differ in many minor respects, but they are all based upon the same scriptures and commentaries. About one-half of the Buddhists of China and Japan are followers of these schools.

In Western lands, too, there are many followers of Pure Realm Buddhism. One of these schools, the Hongwanji school of the Shin sect, is among the most active Buddhist missionary groups in modern times. The Hongwanji has carried the Pure Realm teachings to Siberia, Korea, Hong Kong, Malaya, the Philippines, the South Sea Islands, Hawaii, Canada, the United States, Mexico, Brazil, Peru and other countries.

The Hongwanji is the largest sect in Japan, where its followers number about one-seventh of all Buddhists. The Hongwanji is an autonomous branch of the Shin sect of Pure Realm Buddhism. The Shin sect, with its ten autonomous branches, counts for one third of all Japanese Buddhists.

Both Christianity and Shin Buddhism insist that mankind is absolutely depraved. This is pointed to as one of several important similarities.

Traditional Christianity believes man is filled with Original Sin as a result of Adam's transgression in Eden. Mankind is damned because of disobedience to God. This Original Sin which stains man's soul will send him to Hell unless God saves mankind.

However, Buddhists, including followers of Shin, do not believe man has an eternal soul; nor do they believe in eternal hell. Shin finds man's nature depraved by wrong actions and passions. This depravity, they believe, will force man to undergo an eternal round of rebirths unless he attains salvation. These wrong actions and passions, however, are not based upon any disobedience to any god or Buddha. They have their source in desire which is rooted in absolute ignorance of the nature of reality.

Shin and Christianity, then, are entirely different in their concept of man's depravity. Christianity bases man's depravity upon his disobedience to God's commands, and this results in damnation for man's soul. Shin explains man's depravity as the working of passions rooted in ignorance. This depraved condition of man only results in an eternal round of rebirth of his ever-changing personality.

Both Christianity and Shin find salvation from man's depraved condition through Faith. Not all Christians, of course, agree exactly on the nature of Faith. Kierkegaard, for example, has defined Faith as the absolute intensification of the Passions. Shin means by Faith a state of absolute egolessness, free of all passions.

Though Christians disagree on the exact nature of faith, they have traditionally been close together in their recognition of the awakening of faith. This is a religious experience of great importance, and its exact time can be known in terms of hours, days, weeks and years. The Christian who has been saved knows exactly when he experienced the awakening of faith. Shin Buddhism, on the other hand, insists that the believer cannot point to any instant in time as the exact moment of the awakening of faith.

From this basic difference, we are forced to the conclusion that Christian and Shin Faith are exactly opposite. Christian faith can be defined as a passion, the exact hour and place of which are known and recalled. For Shin Buddhism, faith is an instant of absolute egolessness, free of passion, the time and place of which cannot be known.

Sometimes people think they see a great similarity in the object of worship in Christianity and Shin. Christians worship an almighty, all merciful God who is the Creator of Heaven and earth. Shin declares the object of its religious refuge to be the Buddha of Endless Life and Light. This Buddha is all merciful and omniscient, but he is neither the Creator nor regulator of the world.

In Shin there is a classical problem of doctrine dealing with whether the object of refuge in Shin is a person or a law. Christianity has had similar theological discussions. Christians resolve the problem by a clear statement that they worship God as a person. Shin, with equal exactness, states that it takes refuge in Amida Buddha as the embodiment of the Law of Buddhahood manifested in his Name.

Here, too, we see a great difference between Shin and Christianity. Christianity worships a personal, creator God. Non-theistic Shin takes refuge in the Law of Buddhahood manifested in Amida Buddha's name.

Christianity and Shin are both said to be other-worldly. Christians see the goal of their religion in the attainment of Heaven. Shin Buddhists find the reward and benefit of their teachings in being reborn into the Pure Realm. It is sometimes suggested that these two are similar in concept. However, they are fundamentally different, and these differences can not be reconciled.

Traditionally the Christian Heaven is said to be a real place. Billy Graham, for example, has said it is about 16 miles square. It is, at any rate, a place similar, though in all respects superior, to this earth.

The Pure Realm, however, is equated in Shin doctrine with Nirvana. No student of Buddhism, Christian or Buddhist would ever hold that Nirvana, which is a completely undifferentiated state, is the same as the Christian Heaven. It is, therefore, not correct to say that the Pure Realm, which is itself Nirvana, is similar to the Heaven of orthodox Christianity.

A more apparent similarity, however, is seen in the concept of the clergy in Shin and in Christianity. Shinran, around whose teachings the Shin sect gradually grew up, is sometimes said to be the Luther of Japan. It is pointed out that Shinran left the monastery to marry and to preach Buddhism according to his understanding. Shin clergy today marry and eat meat and do many of the things which Buddha forbade to his monks. Is there not a similarity here between Luther and Shinran?

Shinran insisted that the Japanese monks of his day had lost their valid orders. With this conviction, he stopped being a monk. He Lamented in his poems that the Japanese monks and priests of that era were not better than shamans.

On the other hand, the Japanese layman of Shinran's time was no better than the monks. The laymen were ignorant and superstitious seekers of magic and selfish, worldly pleasures.

With such monks and such laymen as these Shinran did not wish to identify himself. He therefore insisted that he was "neither monk nor layman." However, Shinran did not claim to be a validly ordained bhikkhu (Monk) himself; nor did he teach that all ordinary people, living the lives of laymen, could consider themselves at the same time bhikkhus.

Protestants, with whom careless thinkers have compared Shinran's views, teach a Universal Priesthood of all believers. They insist that all believers in Jesus Christ are priests. Protestants believe that all people can have direct access to God without the intermediation of a special class of priests called of God.

The Shin clergy are "neither monks nor laymen," but lay-preachers who devote their entire lives to spreading Buddha's teaching. The Protestant clergy, on the other hand, might well be described as "both priests and laymen." Shin Buddhism and Protestant Christianity thus hold diametrically opposite views as to the nature of their clergy.

A further difference can be seen in the attitude of the two religions to their respective scriptures. Traditionally Christians have regarded the Bible as the very word of God, perfect in every way. Many Christians hold to the doctrine of the verbal inspiration of the Bible. This means that God actually inspired every single word in the minds of those who were writing the original texts of the Bible. All Christian doctrine must find its basis in the Bible.

The Shin attitude can be seen in Shinran's "Compendium on Teaching, Practice, Faith and Attainment." This is the basic presentation of the fundamental doctrines of the Shin sect. At the beginning of this "Compendium", Shinran says that the "Great Sutra of Eternal Life" is the only important scripture for his teaching.

Shinran then goes on to quote fifty-three other books to illustrate his teachings, virtually ignoring his main scripture. When he does quote this "Great Sutra", he accepts five different versions of it as equally authoritative; yet some of these do not even contain Shinran's most basic theme, the Eighteenth Vow of Amida.

Shin is never concerned with the letter of its scriptures. It considers the scriptures as a guide to the way to explain what has already been experienced religiously. Christianity, on the other hand, finds the plan of salvation in its Bible. It takes the scriptures as a guide to the means to attain religious experience.

Another important point of difference between Shin and Christianity has to do with cause and effect.

Christianity teaches that God, himself uncaused, is the cause of all things. Moreover, God continues to take an active interest in his creation and directs and manages it according to his own wisdom. Christians believe that God will hear and answer prayers.

But Shin Buddhism, being non-theistic, has no concern with prayers. All things operate in accord with a strict law of cause and effect, and not even Amida Buddha can violate this law to bring us salvation. Amida Buddha himself, in fact, arose in accord with this law of cause and effect.

Here again we find Christianity and Shin taking completely opposite positions. Christianity holds that the law of cause and effect operates according to the pleasure of God. Shin maintains that the law of cause and effect is an eternal, immutable law within the universe.

The last important difference between Shin and Christianity which we will discuss has to do with the concept of conversion.

Christians believe that all people in the world must accept Christ, and missionaries undergo all sorts of hardship to bring the gospel of Jesus to all mankind. Christians "have a story to tell to the nations." They go to teach and elevate people.

Shin missionaries, on the other hand, go out to seek people who have similar opinions to their own. They invite them to join them in their activities. Shin regards entrance into the Hongwanji as a union of attitudes. The basis of these religious attitudes lies in one's past experiences. No amount of arguing or teaching can bring these attitudes about without there having been the necessary conditioning experiences in one's past.

Shin does not believe that everyone will or must become a Shin follower. It is said that Sakya taught 84,000 different doctrinal systems so that there might be one suited to each possible kind of human personality. Shin, as one of these many doctrines, will find kindred spirits in every country of the world, but were any one country even -let alone the whole world- to follow Shin alone, it would be a sure sign that Shin is not a true doctrine.

With regard to conversion, then, Christianity and Shin are quite different. Christianity finds evidence of its truth in the fact that all people will accept it. Shin takes universal acceptance as a sign of not being a true doctrine.

Shin followers rejoice that the Christian is Christian and that the Moslem is Moslem. They are happy with the atheist or agnostic who glories in his freedom from superstition. Shin missionaries do not seek to convert those who are content with their own religion. Shin finds the joy of others sufficient happiness for its own life of gratitude.

The supposed similarities between Shin and Christianity melt away under careful scrutiny. Shin and Christianity each are completely different from the other. The idea that Shin teachings developed under ancient Christian influence can only be ascribed to lack of understanding of Shin's position.

Shin is a rational teaching, presenting the ancient truths of Sakyamuni Buddha's message in a uniquely modern garb. Its concepts deserve attention for their own sake. To confuse it with Christianity does a disservice to both Shinran and Christ, as well as to modern man.