pure land buddhism and western christianity compared: a quest for common roots of their universality

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  • PURE LAND BUDDHISM AND WESTERN

    CHRISTIANITY COMPARED: A QUEST FOR

    COMMON ROOTS OF THEIR UNIVERSALITY*

    x. The Compassion Motif

    The Compassion Motif is particularly conspicuous in Pure Land Buddhism, along with the development of the worship of Bodhi- sattvas.

    The Bodhisattva was originally the Buddha before Enlighten- ment. But later anybody who aspired for Enlightenment and rendered help to suffering creatures was called a "bodhisattva". About the same period the worship of saints appeared in the West. Because the saints were so good, their prayers were supposed to have great weight with God. Bodhisattvas also, being so compassion- ate, were supposed to extend hands of help willingly. The practice of the bodhisattva requires vigor and endeavor. In Tibetan, the word Bodhisattva is translated as Heroic Being (Byan-chub sems- dpah). The Christians also canonize only those saints who have exhibited virtues in gradu heroico.

    The Buddhist art of the earliest period represented Buddha by an empty place or a symbol which was later on replaced by a divine figure of the Apollo type. In the art of Gandhara the nimbus is also given to gods and kings. It is said that Christian art adopted the symbol in the 4th century.

    Images of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas appeared and their worship was greatly encouraged. The Christian saints also, though no longer on earth, were supposed to be able to pray in heaven for those who honored their icons. Women and monks especially loved images. They compared the iconoclasts to the Roman soldiers who crucified

    * Editor's note. This article is part of a chapter in a forthcoming book by its distinguished author. It follows a methodological postulate presented in earlier chapters. Fortunately this postulate is here presented in the "Conclusion". The reader is therefore advised to read that first, to achieve a proper understanding of the postulate and of the profound purpose of this article.

  • 7 8 INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL FOR PHILOSOPHY OF RELIGION

    Christ. In Mah~y2ma Buddhism also the worship of images, in addition to the existing worship of stupas, was greatly encouraged. "All who caused jewel images to be made and dedicated, adorned with the thirty-two characteristic signs, reached enlightenment. Others who had images of Sugatas (Buddhas) made of the seven precious substances, of copper or brass, have all of them reached enlightenment. Those who ordered beautiful statues of Sugatas to be made of lead, iron, clay or plaster have. . , etc. Those who made images (of the Sugatas) of painted walls, with complete limbs and the hundred holy signs, whether they drew them themselves or had them drawn by others, have. . , etc. Those even, whether men or boys who during the lesson or in play, by way of amusement, made upon the walls (such) images with the nail or a piece of wood, have all of them reached enlightenment. ''1

    Legends and stories 2 extolling Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and devout believers came into existence, even as legends and stories about saints and martyrs were related in the medieval West.

    Magical elements crept in to universal religions. In Mah~y~na, Bodhisattvas were worshipped for their magical power, which brings forth fortune, wealth, the healing of diseases, the dispelling of disasters, etc. In the West also, for example, people in the Greek Empire of the East kissed the icons, put them down dry wells to bring the water back, and trusted them to do other feats of magic. But whereas Christian saints were originally historical persons, Buddhist bodhisattvas are not historical individuals, although they are said to be repeatedly born in this world to help suffering beings.

    We may also note that the cult of the goddess of mercy in Mah~y~ma lands has certain analogies with the cult of the Virgin in the West. It is especially represented in the worship of the Bodhisattva Avalokite~vara or Kwan-yin in Chinese or Kannon in Japanese, who looks like a mother. Avalokite~vara has probably been the most worshipped divine being in Asian countries. The Virgin Mary was the friend of the souls, and all alike, lord and lady, serf and maid, took refuge under the broad folds of the protecting Mary. The similarities with Mary are so very convincing that in the days when Catholics were persecuted for political reasons in feudal Japan,

    1 The Lotus Sutra (Saddharmapundarika-sutra), II, vv. 82-87. 2 A genre of Buddhist literature, avadana, a legend, originally meant a pure and virtuous act, aristeia. (Max Mtiller, Sacred Books of the East, vol. X p. 5o, n.).

  • BUDDHISM AND WESTERN CHRISTIANITY 79

    Japanese Catholics worshipped the images of Maria secretly under the pretension that they were the images of the Buddhist Kannon. They secretly called them "Maria-Kannon". Kannon shares some features with Catholic saints also. "If one happens to fall into the dreadful ocean, the abode of Nagas, marine monsters, and demons, he has but to think of Avalokitegvara, and he shall never sink down in the vast waters. ''~ In the West St. Christopher has been the patron of travelers. 4 But in spite of obvious similarities, there are remarkable differences. Avalokitegvara was by origin a male person, although his youtlook became female. Moreover, whereas Maria was a historical individual, Avalokitegvara was not supposed to be a historical individual, for his real personality was regarded as eternal.

    Around the same time as Avalokitegvara a tradition about the coming Buddha, Maitreya, also came to the fore. Maitreya (etymo- logically derived from mitra, meaning friend), personifies friend- liness in terms of etymology. It is said that his legend was to some extent stimulated by Persian eschatology. It met the spiritual needs of the new age.

    Even transcendental Wisdom came to be deified and worshipped as an object of worship, as Sophia in the West and as "the Holy Goddess Wisdom" (Bhagavati Prajfia-paramitrt) in India and other South-Asian countries, although the iconographies of Sophia and Prajfiaparamita seem to have evolved independently. The Holy Wisdom is, like the Virgin, the mother and yet "untouched" by defilement. 5

    The Lotus Sutra, chapter 24, Samantamukhaparivarta, v. 6. " In the bosom of one of those spacious coves which indent the eastern shore of the

    Hudson, at that broad expansion of the river denominated by the ancient Dutch navigators the Tappan Zee, and where they always prudently shortened sail, and implored the protection of St. Nicholas when they crossed, there lies a small market- town or rural port, which by some is called Greensburgh, but which is more generally and properly known by the name of Tarry Town." (W. Irving: The Sketch Book.) In America we find often taxi-drivers driving with an icon of St. Christopher. In Japan taxi-drivers drive with an amulet of Fudo (Acalanatha Vidyaraja) of the Naritasan Temple within their cars, even as American drivers do.

    In the Mediterranean world, we meet, at the same period, with Sophia, who is modelled on Ishthur, Iris, and Athene; she represents a fusion between the idea of wisdom and the idea of the Magna Mater, and is placed by the side of the supreme male being. Like Isthar and the Virgin Mary, the praj~aparamita was in essence both mother and virgin. She is the "Mother of all the Buddhas", i.e. she is not barren but fertile, fruitful of many good deeds, and her images lay great stress on her full breasts. Like a

  • 80 INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL FOR PHILOSOPHY OF RELIGION

    One striking expression of the Compassion-Love motif is the idea of Vicarious Atonement. The opinion is widely held that the concept of vicarious atonement is confined to Christianity alone. A Hindu swami has said that such a conception is foreign to the Hindu mind. "The life of Christ is spiritually inspiring. To us in India, however, the end is just t ragedy. . . The deaths of our own spiritual heroes, Sri R~ma and Sri Krish.na, were near tragic: but we did not build our religion on them. But this is what Christians have done with the death of Christ, and the consequence has been calamitous. In place of the life-giving message of Jesus came grim dogmas of atonement from sin. ''6

    But contrary to such opinion, we find the notion of vicarious atonement both in Hinduism and Buddhism, although the signi- ficance is different.

    In Hindu literature we find stories expressing this conception. For example, the Mftrka.ndeya-Pur~m. a relates the story of the pious king Vipagcit. He expresses his wish to the King of Death (Yama).

    "If through my presence, racking torture Of these poor ones is alleviated, Then will I stay here, my friend, Like a post, I will not move from this spot." 7

    The story ends, saying: The king of gods grants him this wish, and as he ascends to heaven, all the inmates of hells are released from their pain.

    The figure which represents the ideal most conspicuously in Hinduism seems to be that of Tondar-adi-podiy-avar. Tondar-adi- podiy-arvar was a Vais.nava saint, a historical person, who lived

    virgin, on the other hand, she remains "unaffected, untouched", and the scriptures emphasize her elusiveness more than anything else. The Sophia (Wisdom) of the gnostics and the Neo-Platonists plays a definite role at the creation of the world, while the Transcendental Wisdom of the Mahayana has no cosmic functions, and remains unburdened by the genesis of this universe. The iconographies of Sophia and Praj~a- paramita also seem to have evolved independently. There is a Byzantine miniature of the ioth century (Vat. Palat. gr. 381 fol. 2.) which is said to go back to an Alexandrian model. There, the right hand of Sophia makes the gesture of Teaching, while the left arm holds a book. This is not unlike some Indian statues of the Prajfiaparamita. (E. Conze: Buddhism,

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