St. Nicholas of Japan on Buddhism

Holy Equal-to-the-Apostles Archbishop Nicholas (Kasatkin; 1836-1912), an outstanding missionary to Japan where he labored for over fifty years, was the founder of the Japanese Orthodox Church. Of the tens of thousands of Japanese converted to Orthodoxy thanks to his labors, a significant portion were former Buddhists, and amongst his assistants were former Buddhist monks (Bhikkhu), for example, Paul Savabe. The saint studied Buddhism during the first eight years of his time in Japan, when, in his words, he “strove with all diligence to study Japanese history, religion, and the spirit of the Japanese people.”

St. Nicholas offered an integral study of Buddhism in his work, “Japan from the point of view of Christian mission,” published in 1869. This was the first description of Japanese Buddhism accessible to the Russian language reader. It was clear from this work that the author studied Buddhism quite seriously, but for understandable reasons, limited his sources to those in the Japanese language.

If Archbishop Nilus, who acquainted himself with Buddhism using sources in the Buryat language, saw in it nothing more than just one more of the many forms of paganism, St. Nicholas gives this teaching a much higher evaluation. He determines Buddhism as “the best of the pagan religions—a herculean pillar of human effort compiled for itself a religion, guided by those obscure remains of God-revealed truths that had been preserved by the races after the Babylonian dispersion.

Although he thoroughly studied it, St. Nicholas did not have an interest in Buddhism in and of itself and looked at it exclusively from the practical, missionary point of view. This view allowed him to notice what other scholars and polemicists paid no attention to in Buddhism. This included missionary methods of Buddhism. The saint notes the “flexibility of Buddhism and its ability to adapt to the customs of the country in which it appears.” As an illustration the author points to how, according to Buddhist belief, Buddha and the Bodhisattvas made an oath to “be born in various ignorant countries in order to bring them to salvation.” This allowed Buddhists to pronounce Amaterasu and other Japanese gods to be incarnations of Buddha and the Bodhisattvas, taken on by them in order to “prepare them to receive the true teachings of Buddhism… Thus, Buddhism called Japanese gods by their names, accepted them under these names and into their temples, and took root and flourished in Japan.

Describing the teachings of Buddhism, St. Nicholas concludes a natural cause for each of its characteristic elements—historical, cultural, and psychological circumstances. For example, explaining the successful spread of Buddhism in its early stages, the saint writes, “Having arisen on Indian soil as an antidote to the Brahmin caste system and the oppression of the lower classes by the higher, Buddhism was in this respect a preaching of spiritual equality and love in the pagan world; on the other hand, because it is the preaching of a man who was the heir to the throne but became instead a beggar, it is the preaching against the vanity of this world, of non-acquisitiveness and poverty.

Pointing to the absence in Buddhism of a teaching of God the Creator, the saint explains this by the fact that in the Indian milieu of the time there was no precedent for obtaining the knowledge of this truth; and, “having arisen on the soil of Brahmin pantheism, Buddhism turned out to be powerless to renounce it.” In speaking of why Buddha himself cannot be equated with God, he writes, “True, Buddha appears with traits that are characteristic of God, but along with others like him there are an infinite multitude of buddhas, and each one has reached this blessed state through his own merits; each person, in turn, is faced with a great number of degrees of incarnation into a buddha. This ladder leading from man to the heights leads to a state of Buddha; but why not also extend it downward? Thus… the entire animal world is also equated with Buddha; moreover, the ladder goes even further downward: there are various of degrees of hell invented, which are inhabited by living beings, and they are also in contact with Buddha… Thus, the image of heavenly, earthly, and nether worlds is a huge laboratory in which the countless races of existence swarm, are born, re-born, and in the final analysis become buddhas. St. Nicholas explains the teaching of transmigration of souls as “a misunderstanding of nature and its relationship to man, and an unconscious compassion for lower beings.” The practice of meditation aimed at altering consciousness the saint explains as the eastern man’s yearning for peace and inactivity: “Thoughts can also cause distress or trouble a person—therefore it is better if they as if stop and freeze in their flow; if, in a word, a person immerses himself in insensibility, unconsciousness, then he immerses himself in nothingness, but in fact an integral human existence has immersed itself. Such an unconscious peaceful state is called contemplation; to it is ascribed lofty qualities of directly leading everything and the power to control everything, inasmuch as in this state a person, having renounced himself, merges into unity with everything and can become the possessor of that with which he has merged. This state is promoted as the aim of everyone and everything; the buddhas are therefore buddhas because they have attained the possibility to at all times immerse themselves in this state, and that is considered their most exalted blessedness.”

The saint also writes that “Buddhism created for its followers rules of morality, which amaze at times by their purity and austerity, at times by their monstrosity; it created also monstrous and most unbelievable legends and wonders.”

The hierarch describes the more important schools of Japanese Buddhism. The first of them he determines as the school of Zen, which, “as a sect that came from China, it likes to boast of its correctness and purity.” He defines Zen teachings as “the preaching of self-mortification for the sake of attaining the capability of contemplation,” and he emphasizes that “here a person takes it upon himself—only through Buddha’s example and not through his co-operation—to attain the highest blessedness”, and he must exercise himself in meditation and observe “the most austere prescriptions concerning food and outward behavior.”

St. Nicholas truthfully observed Zen’s characteristic inclination toward yogic practices; however, he did not reflect upon such a characteristic particularity of the teaching on the transmittal of a state of “awakening” directly from the teacher to the disciple, “using neither oral nor written instruction.”

In his criticism of Zen, St. Nicholas notes that the methodology it supposes cannot be fully carried out and is not applicable to ordinary people. It was known to him that only in a few Buddhist monasteries during the course of a few days out of the year is the zazen practice carried out to it full extent, and the monks often simply fall asleep during the process of meditation.

The second school of Japanese Buddhism that St. Nicholas notes is montosu. He defines it as completely opposite to Zen. It “casts off all Buddhist asceticism and takes hold only of the idea of Buddha’s love for the world. There is no trace of self-mortification here: the bonza marry and eat meat… all human ascetic labors are considered insignificant… A person may be a terrible evil-doer, but if he says only once, ‘I bow down before Buddha Amida’, he is saved. The teaching of the loving Buddha, of his readiness to save a person at the first call, of the inadequacy of a person’s own powers to be saved involuntarily amazes one. When you hear such preaching in a temple you can forget where you are and think you are hearing a Christian sermon. You think, perhaps this teaching is borrowed from Christianity? But with this lofty teaching on the love of Buddha for the world, Buddha himself does not change in the least—he remains the same mythically scandalous and improbable personality.” Criticizing this school, St. Nicholas writes that it has brought Japan much more harm than other sects.” “It never occurred to anyone how terrible such a phrase from the lips of a bonza could be: “No matter how much you sin, just say, ‘namu Amida Butzu’ and all is forgiven.” In the sixteenth century, the bonza of montosiu motivated entire armies… and produced terrible battles, terrible pillaging and razing.”

The third school of Japanese Buddhism is hokkesiu, which St. Nicholas defines as “tribute of praise and amazement to one man of prayer,” by which is meant the “Lotus sutra”. He writes that its main idea is that “all people will become buddhas; and this teaching is so important that one only needs to call on the name of the man of prayer in whom it is instructed, and he is saved.”

The named motives truly characteristic to the “Lotus sutra”, for example those written in the eighteenth chapter, are that if someone heads for the monastery wishing to hear it, “and will at least momentarily listen, then after that he will be reborn among the gods.”As for its concept of “total salvation”, at the end of the sixth chapter of the sutra it says that “everyone will become a Buddha;” however, judging by the context, they are talking about those who follow the teaching laid out in the “Lotus sutra”, which Buddha uses to draw to his teaching (and, correspondingly, to salvation) those people who were not otherwise interested in it.

In his critique of hokkesiu, the saint writes that, “the prayer book is filled with descriptions of absurd miracles like the following: While Buddha was giving this teaching, two other buddhas flew in from heaven… they sat next to each other, and the living Buddha preached. When he had finished, the disciples were naturally astounded… To confirm the truth, three Buddhas stretched out their tongues, which turned out to be so long that they pierced through ten thousand spheres of the world; they sat before the disciples in that position for ten thousand years; then they pulled their tongues back into their mouths and grunted altogether at once, from which all the worlds shook… How could listeners have any doubt after hearing this, or not worship the book with a teaching testified to by such miracles?”

That episode is in the twenty-first chapter of the “Lotus sutras”and is retold by St. Nicholas almost word for word. After him, Kozhevnikov cited this story as an example of another strange miracle in the Buddhist texts. In another place, St. Nicholas writes that, “in Buddhism, we are at times amazed at the thick prayer books filled with nothing other than praise for the titles of these very prayer books”. It is true—most of the verses of the “Lotus Sutras” contain praise directed at the book itself.

St. Nicholas explained the very formation of various sects in Japanese Buddhism by the fact that Buddhism is not entirely suited to the Japanese spirit, and therefore the Japanese strove to create versions of it that would fit them better. Describing the interrelationship of the various schools of Japanese Buddhism, St. Nicholas writes that “each of these sects relies upon a foundation that is unshakable for the Buddhist: each has it own symbolic books in the canon of sacred Buddhist literature. This literature is so vast and multiform that it contains books directly contradicting each other. This more than anything else reveals that the origin of Buddhist literature comes from many different authors, often opponents of each other; however, each author strove to lend weight to his own work, and therefore took pains to ascribe it to Buddha… Thus, based upon one and the same teaching of Buddha the most contradictory sects come about, and no one dares criticize any sect for this, because each can point to its own irrefutable argument in the sacred book.”

Besides the appellation to the texts, the founders and followers of various schools, as the holy hierarch states, actively cite various visions and miracles, about which he notes: “It is impossible to recount all the contrived miracles, dreams, songs, and gods. All the sects step all over each other to show off their miracles, one more strange than the next, one more fantastical than the other. Their brashness reaches such extremes that they point to miracles, where anyone can see with his own eyes that there is no miracle… The bonza have become so used to fantasies and deceptions that they spread them around even where there is no need for them. I read one “life” of the Buddha in which the author piously claims that Buddha’s mother’s dowry contained, by the way, seven full cartloads of “Dutch rarities”, and when she conceived the Buddha another of the king’s wives desired out of jealousy to kill the child in her, and so turned to one of the Christians, who, as everyone knows, are all sorcerers, for help in casting a spell against her rival.

Here ends the brief review of Japanese Buddhism in the article, “Japan from the point of view of Christian mission.” In another article, “Japan and Russia,” St. Nicholas writes that “Buddhism is the deepest of all pagan religions,” and the Japanese “have Buddhism, with its teaching of equality and brotherhood for all people, to thank for their rejection of slavery and absence of it in their country.”


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