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Buddhist-Christian Studies 20 (2000) 257-259

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Jesus through Buddhist Eyes: 3rd Conference of European Network of Buddhist-Christian Studies, Archabbey St. Ottilien, Germany, February 26-March 1, 1999

John D'Arcy May
Irish School of Ecumenics, Dublin

This ambitious conference, attended by well over 100 participants including a number of practitioners of Buddhist meditation from southern Germany and Austria, has put the European Network of Buddhist-Christian Studies firmly on its feet. Intended mainly for academics working in the field and held entirely in English, the conference, on "Buddhist Perceptions of Jesus," traced various paths from the polemics which characterized relations between Buddhists and Christians well into the century now ending to the remarkable progress made by Buddhist-Christian dialogue in recent decades. The Archabbey of St. Ottilien has itself been the scene of intermonastic exchanges between the Benedictine monks and their Japanese Zen counterparts.

The architecture of the conference brought out clearly the distance that has been traveled. Iso Kern (Berne) examined the missionary methodology of the Jesuits in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century China. He showed how they preferred to rely on arguments from reason rather than affront the Chinese with the full implications of Christian revelation, treading a thin line between absorption into harmony with Chinese religion as "a special type of Buddhism" and controversy about the uniqueness of Jesus and his redemptive death on the cross. The Christian idea of a Creator who redeems a sinful world by the substitutionary sacrifice of his own Son was so repugnant to Confucian sensibility that the Jesuits chose a different route, though Professor Kern defended them against Pascal's accusation that they 'hid' the scandal of the cross. Heinz Murmel (Leipzig, in a paper read in his absence) sketched the sterile polemics which characterized early Buddhist-Christian encounters in Ceylon/Sri Lanka, while Frank Usarski (São Paulo) analyzed the equally bitter exchanges between early German converts to Buddhism and their Christian opponents. We were to find not only that these controversies are still remembered in Southeast Asia, but that the obstacles to understanding encountered by the Jesuits in China and Japan still cause problems in Buddhist-Christian relations today. [End Page 257]

Of fundamental importance to the development of the conference was a difficult paper by Shizuteru Ueda (Kyoto) on "Jesus in Contemporary Japanese Zen." Starting with his teacher Nishitani's presentation on "Nietzsche and Eckhart" to Heidegger's seminar in 1938, Professor Ueda set out to show how both European nihilism and Christian absolutism can be overcome by Nishitani's understanding of s´unyata: "The last ground of 'I am‚' is without ground and groundless." S´unyata is itself subject to s´unyata: nihilism can only be surmounted through nihilism itself. This dynamic relationship between Into-Nothingness and Out-of-Nothingness is Zen's point of access to Paul's characterization of Christian life-out-of death: "I live no more, Christ lives in me" (Gal. 2:20). Confronted by the question "Who said this?" as Nishitani confronted his Christian friend Muto, the Christian is challenged to ask whether he or she can actually say it, thereby bearing true witness. Ueda's problem is not with this witness, but with the Christian claim that Jesus is unique, for God is not only infinite Person but infinite Openness (basho).

Some of these themes were echoed by two speakers who based themselves on experience rather than philosophy: Karl Schmied, a lay associate of Thich Nhat Hanh, and Than Santikharo Bhikkhu, an American monk at Suan Mokkh and Buddhadasa's translator in the last eight years of his life. Without repudiating his Catholic roots, Schmied said that he had simply found more joy in Buddhism. If Jesus is Son of Man and Son of God non-dualistically, could not the relationship between Buddhism and Christianity be one of non-duality, despite obvious differences (rebirth/ historical uniqueness; no-self/person; emptiness/being). Cannot Jesus be seen as a universal Bodhisattva whose 'center,' is everywhere rather than as God's 'only' son?

Santikharo Bhikkhu, who still visits...