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by Pastor C. 

[Editor's Note: Pastor C. is a native of Taiwan who, after extensive academic studies, is now ministering to a church in the United States. In this rather comprehensive article, he accepts the theory that Pure Land Buddhism was influenced by Nestorian Christianity, but he also advocates that the relationship needs to be refreshed through new, informed Christian missions.]



1. The Origins of Pure Land Buddhism in India

The idea of a Pure Land (also often called a Buddha Land) is particularly associated with Mahayana Buddhism. Its concepts can be traced back all the way to the two outstanding masters who founded the two main Mahayana philosophical orientations, named Asvaghosha (possibly AD 80-150) and Nagarjuna (ca. AD 150-250). We read in the classic work, The Awakening of Faith, attributed to Asvagosha:

Similar beliefs on salvation by reliance on Amithaba are found in the main sutras of Pure Land: the Sukhavati Vyuha Sutra (in Chinese: O-mi-to Ching) and the Amitabha Yurdhyana Sutra (in Chinese: Kuan-wu-liang-shou Ching). The question arises whether earlier references to a “land of bliss” (Skt. Sukhavativyuha) should always be understood as the same location. In his thorough study, Fujita Kotatsu concluded that the only sound inference should be that such references are to a Buddha Land.2

2. The Rise of Pure Land Schools in China

Amitabha and Avalokitesvara

Over the centuries, as Buddhism found a home in China, it eventually developed its own, indigenous forms. This was a slow process. The religion found its way into China during the first century AD, but it was not until the sixth to eighth centuries that they found their own shape. Some of them were sponsored by the emperors, such as T’ien-t’ai, Fa-hsiang, and Hua-yen, while others, such as Pure Land and Ch’an developed as the sages and leaders adapted their teachings to popular beliefs and practices. 3

The Lung-men area of Taiwan provides a fascinating corroboration for the increase in Pure Land devotion. We can chronicle the production of the sculptures of various Buddhas and related figures  and thereby document a clear shift in the popularity of certain divinities. More traditional forms of Buddhism focused on Sakyamuni (Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha) and Maitreya, the Buddha of the next age. On the other hand, the main Buddha associated with Pure Land Buddhism was Amitabha (Jap. Amida), the Buddha of Infinite Light, who had become closely connected with the bodhisattva of Mercy, Avalokitesvara, identified in China with the goddess Kuan-yin. The number of carvings of Sakyamuni and Maitreya gave way to an increase in the production of sculptures of Amitabha and Avalokitesvara. Specifically, Chappell records that from AD 495 to 535 only 27 representations of Amitabha and Avalokitesvara were made (compared to 78 images of the more traditional figures), but 144 statues of Amitabha and Avalokitesvara from AD 650 to 704. 4

A significant person in the growth of Buddhism with a Chinese character was the Chinese monk, Hui-yuan (AD 333-416).5 At the time, Mahayana Buddhism was still considered a “foreign” religion, and when he embraced it, he imprinted it thoroughly with his national heritage. Prior to his conversion to Buddhism, he had been a zealous Taoist, particularly devoted to the writings of Chuang-tse (ca. 4th century BC). He infused the formerly alien religion with the mystical beliefs and practices that allowed it to find a new permanent home in China. He even managed to find a place in Buddhism for the Tao, the conception of “the Way” or the “principle of balance.” 6

Taoism at the time was still a rather abstract philosophy that did not fulfill the deepest religious longings of Hui-yuan and other leading Taoist thinkers. They found their goal in Amitabha, whom they considered to be the purest personification of Mahayana.7

Other significant innovators in the Pure Land school were Seng-Chao (375-414), Ching-ying Hui-yuan (523-592), T'ien-t'ai Chih-i (538-597), and Tao-Ch'o (562-645). Much of their work consisted of the analysis and classification of various ideas of Buddha Lands into different categories.8

A master of the growing strain of Pure Land Buddhism, Shan-tao (613-681) amplified his conception of Amitabha with concepts that are strongly reminiscent of Christianity: eternal life, a vicarious savior, and a move in the direction of emphasizing three aspects of the divine,9 which some people relate to the idea of the Trinity. The name Tathagata (Ju-lai in Chinese), previously reserved for Sakyamuni alone, was used of Amitabha himself as well as of the two great revealers of his power and grace, the aforementioned Kuan-yin and Mahasthamaprapta, the bodhisattva of Strength, known as Ta-shi-chih in Chinese. At the same time we find clearer statements than ever before that salvation takes place through faith in the three-fold Buddha.10 Finally, and somewhat paradoxically, Chinese Mahayana also developed a sure and steady inner strain tending towards a monotheism centered on Amitabha.11

Could there have been Christian influence on Shan-tao and his contemporaries? There appears to have been physical opportunity for such influence. The first Nestorian Christian missionary to come to Ch’agan, the capital of the T’ang dynasty, was a man named Alopen. Upon his arrival in 635, he encountered Shan-tao. Furthermore, Alopen’s Nestorian monastery was located only three blocks from the Kuang-ming Temple, the abode of Shan-tao.12

Another possible piece of evidence for interaction between Nestorian Christians and Mahayana Buddhists is that the Christians used Buddhist terminology as they translated scriptures and wrote essays. In his Jesus Messiah Sutra, Alopen directly used the term “Buddha” to refer to God.13 By doing so, it is very likely that the Nestorians defeated their own purpose by sacrificing their distinctiveness.

If there was no influence, we can only marvel at the striking parallelism between the Christianity and the doctrines of the Pure Land Buddhism. Although there still exists a fundamental difference in the basic assumptions of the two religions, it does seem possible, if not probable, that "Nestorian Christianity in China strengthened the theistic tendency in Buddhism."14

3. The Development of Pure Land Buddhism in Japan

In Japan, the import of the Pure Land movement was lead by three highly esteemed masters, Genshin (941-1017), Genku Honen (1133-1212), and Shinran (1173-1263).15 Traces of the influence of a Christian mission can be inferred, even by some Japanese Buddhist scholars.

Scholars typically make a difference between popular forms of Buddhism and esoteric Buddhism in Japan, the latter being the kind of Buddhism that focuses on magic and mysticism, which settled in Japan as Tendai (Ten-t’ai) and Shingon, among other forms. Esoteric Buddhism was strongly polytheistic and stressed the possibility of any person attaining of enlightenment, and, thus becoming a Buddha, though only by pursuing a difficult path.  As Pure Land Buddhism spread in Japan, it represented a striking change in outlook on the popular level. Rather than achieving Buddhahood, the goal for people became rebirth in a land of bliss. Also, the strong, exclusive focus on Amida (the Japanese form of "Amitabha") and his saving power created a virtual monotheism--insofar as it is permissible to speak of a Buddha as a “god."16

The first of the three men mentioned, Genshin, was a Tendai monk. There was no separate Pure Land School yet. However, Genshin wrote a book called Essentials of Salvation, in which he depicted a method of liberation motivated by a disgust of Hell and a desire for the Pure Land. He painted a picture of the suffering in Hell, and the bliss of the Pure Land, which has been filled by Amida with his light, life, and love.17 His vivid writing style made the concepts come to life, and he appealed to all people: lay persons as well as monks, and women as well as men. Not limiting himself to words in ink on paper, Genshin also taught the people with visual representations. He painted pictures and created sculptures, so that his doctrines would reach the people with immediate impact. Genshin explored all possible means of pioneering Pure Land Buddhism in Japan, and thus reached for new means of communication: dancing, music, painting, sculpture, and popular religious tracts—anything to show the immediacy of the Buddha-land to every person.18

Pure Land Buddhism did not become a separate sect or school in Japan until Honen. Honen made it unmistakably clear that the invocation to Amitabha was superior to all other religious practices.19 He believed that common people would not be able to achieve the disciplines required to attain Nirvana. He called that method toward enlightenment “The Path of Holiness,” and he thought that there should be an alternative for those who did not have the stamina for this Path. The other Path was that of the Pure Land, involving only the regular recitation of the name of Amida, and a life focused on him. In Honen's terms, the former way was the "Difficult Path," relying on "one's own power," whereas the other way offered an "Easy Path," relying on the "power of another." The Path of the Pure Land was therefore the greatest and most excellent of all pursuits.20

Despite the emphasis on the compassion of Amida, the more conservative monks among Honen's followers still maintained many of the traditional monastic rules, including the vows of celibacy and sobriety. Shinran, the third important man listed above, was a disciple of Honen, but he carried matters one step further in the direction of grace, and he became the founder of Jodo-shin-shu, the most important of all Pure Land Sects.21

Emphasizing the grace of Amida, he was convinced that, if salvation truly depended on nothing except his grace, it was needless, and perhaps even dangerous, to act as if one's conduct could have any bearing on ultimate redemption. He took a wife, thereby violating the vow of celibacy, which earned him a period in exile from Kyoto.22

While in exile, Shinran became increasingly convinced that it was incumbent on anyone representing Pure Land Buddhism to live as much as possible on the same level as common people. His mission was to those who were too ignorant and illiterate even to be able to tell the difference between good and bad. Shinran identified with these “bad people” rather than “good people” because they stood in the greatest need of Amida’s salvation. Shinran even said that wicked men, who threw themselves entirely on the mercy of the Buddha, might be more acceptable to Amida than good men, who might be tempted to think that their chances of salvation were improved by their own meritorious conduct.23

Shinran's utter reliance on the power of Amida also manifested itself by his attitude toward the recitation of the name of Buddha and by the fact that he discouraged the worship of any other Buddhas. The crucial criterion was whether one had inward faith in Amida, so the only requirement was to call on Amida once in gratitude, and even that act could be omitted under exceptional circumstances that could make a verbal expression of faith impossible.24

Despite the difference between his teaching and that of Honen, Shinran considered himself a disciple of Honen’s school, Jodo-shin, not an innovator with a new doctrine. However, his own disciples, recognizing the distinctions, organized themselves into a new sect, based on Shinran’s teachings. His own physical descendents took the lead in this matter, calling themselves, the True Pure Land School, or Jodo-shinshu. An outstanding leader in this process was named Rennyo (1415-1499); he displayed a great amount of talent both as administrator and as religious leader. The adherents of Jodo-shinshu went so far as to see this descendant of Shinran as the official representative of Amida on earth, and they gave all of their loyalty to him.25



Since Buddhism is divided into so many sects and schools, it is difficult to isolate the common teachings that unite Buddhists today. Therefore, if we try to summarize "Buddhist beliefs," we have to remember that there will always be differences among the various schools. But there are still some common Buddhist presuppositions, if not specific doctrines, that run through all of these schools, with few exceptions.

1. Buddhism is a Non-revealed Religion

Buddhism is solely constituted by a rational analysis of human nature and the human experience in history. Thus, it is both philosophical and psychological – “a deep perceptive laying-bare of human experience and the consequences thereof”26 . In contrast, a specific feature of Christianity is that it is a "revealed religion": that is, its basic insights into the historical human condition, the goal of salvation, as well as the path to it, are all given by a divine revelation. It is not of human origin.

Since Buddhism is not a revealed religion, the attitude toward the "sacred scriptures" in Buddhism is quite different from that of the Judeo-Christian tradition. The Buddhist sutras, especially in Mahayana,have always been susceptible to alteration, modification, and enlargement. As philosophical and soteriological problems arose in the unfolding of the traditions, new texts, claiming the authority of the word of the Buddha, were composed to address those problems and to validate certain doctrinal positions. This phenomenon clearly shows up in hermeneutics, the method of understanding and interpreting scriptures. In the Judeo-Christian tradition there are different strategies of hermeneutics, often requiring hard work with respect to particular texts. While the written words are sacrosanct, readers must decipher their meaning without altering them. In Buddhism, due to the dispensability and mutability of any school’s particular canon, it does not seem to be a topic that has been pursued in depth.27 If a particular text would not fit in with other beliefs, revising the text has always been an option.

2. Human Existence Is Suffering

According to the Buddha, life is suffering. Existence is pain, and the struggle to maintain individuality is painful. Always and everywhere through the long history of Buddhism, the fact of suffering has been stressed.28 There is suffering because, contrary to human expectations, all things are transient; human existence is not permanent. Buddhists of all schools have especially stressed the fear of death, which overcomes all men. It is an inescapable fact that all people must die. Life is delineated by its very antithesis, the reality of death. The transience of life is directly responsible for suffering. According to this view, craving causes suffering, since what we crave is either going to be gone or changed sooner or later. No pleasure is ever permanent.29

These cravings are caused by "ignorance," according to the Buddhist assumption. People are ignorant concerning the true nature of our existence and of the universe in which we live. And we may be freed from our ignorance by following the Right Path which was taught by the Buddha. Both Mahayana Buddhism and the Theravada Buddhism hold the opinion that people must work out their own salvation, and that a man or woman must tread the Path by their own efforts.30 The only significant variation from this teaching has been the dependence of the Pure Land school upon the help of the “Other-power” of Amitabha.

3. The Ideal State of Nirvana

According to Buddhism, the final goal is not a paradise or a heavenly world. The central theme of Buddhism is that, by following the Right Path, one can free oneself from the bondage of worldly existence and come to the realization of the Supreme Truth. The attainment of Enlightenment is identical with Nirvana.31 All Buddhists agree that Enlightenment is their goal, although Pure Land Buddhists deny the possibility of practicing the Right Path perfectly.

The word for the ideal state is "Nirvana." It has been translated as the "extinction" or "dying out." One way of interpreting this term is that the three cardinals sins—sensuality, ill will, and infatuation—are burned out in one’s heart. Such an interpretation stands in opposition to the common view of Nirvana as a cold and negative state. That view may be due to the fact that it has been described almost exclusively in negative terms. Nirvana is not mere emptiness or annihilation or nonexistence.32

Nirvana arrives with the extinction of selfish desire, resulting in painless peace. This aspect of happiness and peace in Nirvana was much more stressed in Mahayana Buddhism than in Theravada. But we must realize that this ideal state is not something concrete or something that someone can grasp. The only way to find it is by my making it a destination toward which we must proceed and then enter it. We cannot catch the ideal like a material object. As we elevate it as a goal, the direction towards it is charted by our efforts to attain it. Mahayana stresses, however, that the man who has attained deliverance should continue his actions in this world for the welfare of others.33

4. Silence About Gods In Buddhism

Many people believe that Buddhism is atheistic. But it might be more correctly to say that Buddhism is silent about God or the Absolute. The Buddha remained silent on questions about God (Brahman) and the origin of the world. In many ways the silence of the Buddha is an effective approach in communication. Firstly, the Buddha teaches us that silence is the only possible "talk" about God because He is “unnameable and unthinkable.”34 . Every name or concept we predicate about God could be considered a blasphemy - it makes Him less than God. Secondly, the silence of the Buddha is not an answer to the question; rather, by his silence he challenges the questioner to look at the question and by implication to look at himself.35 If the "Absolute" is questionable, it is no longer absolute.

On the other hand, in Buddhism, gods are the beings who are superior to men in mystic power and intuitive knowledge, but nothing more. In contrast to the limited extent of the authority of the gods, the Buddha has been regarded as leading both gods and men alike, and he has often been called "a Teacher of Gods and Men." Thus, in Buddhism, the Buddha (or Buddhas in Mahayana) stands at the very top rung of the ladder, high above humans and deities alike.36



The most significant result of a Christian’s encounter with Pure Land Buddhism as a whole may be that it reveals the possibility of a diametrically opposed vision of the human predicament that does not stand devoid of a response to the issues it raises. Buddhism, contrary to some misconceptions among Christians, does not offer itself only as a philosophy or system of thought, but as a way of total human liberation, or, in Christian terms, of salvation. It is therefore, like Christianity, a religion, embracing an anthropology, a cosmology, a soteriology and an eschatology. Buddhism, some have claimed, is "the highest expression of a comprehensive non-revealed religion."37

Let us examine some of the specific features of the dialectical alternative that Pure Land Buddhism posits vis-a-vis Christianity.

1. Kuan-yin and Savior

The beginnings of the devotion to Kuan-yin, the compassionate savior and bodhisattva, have not been definitely established. More recently Diana Paul has conducted a thorough study to investigate what is the Buddhist notion of savior, to describe the historical development of the cult of Kuan-yin, and to present doctrinal reasons for the inclusion of the savior Kuan-yin in Pure Land Buddhism practices.38

In the early Buddhism, Sakyamuni was regarded as the supreme teacher who had discovered an effective approach to realizing the truth but who could not cause the enlightenment of others. Enlightenment was defined as an internal process involving one's own effort. Pure Land Buddhism has been considered a "new religion" because of its salvific doctrine of supplication to Buddhas and bodhisattvas as the means of assuring enlightenment.39 One of the most spectacular and popular bodhisattvas is Avalokitesvara (Kuan-yin in Chinese), the bodhisattva who personifies the virtue of compassion.

All bodhisattvas were said to forsake their own justly deserved enlightenment by virtue of their compassion and intense identification with all sentient beings. These self-sacrificing acts were due to past virtuous habits in the bodhisattva's previous lifetimes.40 But of all the various Buddhas and saints in Mahayana Buddhism in China, Kuan-yin was nonsectarian and eventually became the most popular of all cult figures. Diana Paul asserts that from the first traces of religious practice at the end of the Western Chin dynasty (AD 313-17) through today, Kuan-yin has been revered as the supreme savior or savioress.41

The Buddhist literary tradition in India represents Avalokitesvara as a powerful figure who assists Amitabha, has countless magical powers, and is glorified in the devotional and Tantric texts.42 In China the magnitude of cult worship to Kuan-yin in Pure Land Buddhism was due, in part, to the introduction of the Lotus Sutra to the Chinese people. Kuan-yin worshipers amplified some of the Indian elements of calling on Avalokitesvara with their own innovations. For example, Kuan-yin was assimilated with White Tara, female consort to Avalokitesvara in Tibetan Buddhism. Chinese Buddhists superimposed Tara's qualities onto Kuan-yin. Therefore, the female forms of Kuan-yin became Avalokitesvara's most popular and predominant representation throughout China and Japan.43

Diana Paul also notes that some of the earliest Mahayana texts, which were to have a close relationship with Pure Land Buddhist doctrine, were transmitted by central-Asian Buddhists, whose translations guided devotionalism during the Chin period. And it is during the T'ang Dynasty (seventh through tenth century AD) that the cult practices among the general population began to emphasize devotion to Kuan-yin for present benefits in this world and as a future savior who could carry the believer to Amitabha's Pure Land.44 Both of these facts could be thought of as indicating the influence of Christianity on Pure Land Buddhism's doctrine of Kuan-yin devotion. If one wishes to pursue such a parallel, one could view Amithaba as God and Kuan-yin as resembling the Holy Spirit or Jesus Christ in Christianity.

Amitabha fulfilled the needs of devout followers for the next life by causing birth in the Pure Land, but he does not bestow benefits to them in the present. That critical role in the daily struggles of life has been fulfilled by Kuan-yin, who is, thus, in a sense, a savior for those in need. Therefore, Diana Paul concludes:

2. Pure Lands and the Kingdom of God

The quest for a "pure land" or a "paradise" is a theme found in many religions. In Buddhism, the idea of a Pure Land, or Buddha Land, is particularly associated with the Mahayana branch because it teaches the coexistence of so many diverse Buddhas. According to early Mahayana doctrines, each Buddha revealed one particular aspect of the totality of truth, which is also called the “true body of ultimate reality.” Since each Buddha Land was created in "response" to the needs of the beings who occupied it, there actually were many different Buddha Lands, which we can call "response lands."

Many famous masters of Chinese Pure Land Buddhism attempted to analyze and classify these various Buddha Lands.46 Ching-Ying Hui-Yuan (523-592) suggested that the Buddhist follower experienced three kinds of Pure Lands, in ascending order:

(1) Lands of Worldly Purity: These are lands where common beings live. They are basically of two kinds - the lands attained by those who practice good deeds, seeking rebirth in a better station within this worldly existence; and the lands attained by those who seek to transcend the world.47

(2) Lands Pure in Appearance: These are lands where various bodhisattvas live. They are also of two kinds:

a) the lands attained by sravakas and pratyekabuddhas (Buddhas who found enlightenment entirely on their own and those who found it through studying Buddhist thought apart from a teacher or a long series of incarnations, respectively). They rejected evil, but did so ultimately for their own benefit. 

b) the lands attained by various bodhisattvas because they had developed a high capacity for alleviating the sufferings of other beings.48

(3) Lands of True Purity: A being on the way to becoming a Buddha normally needs to go through various stages, called bhumis (foundations). These lands are places occupied by persons ranging from the lowest bhumi right through the true bodhisattvas and even Buddhas. Such a land is truly pure. Therefore, it is without any particular form color, location, or shape.49

On the other hand, Tao-ch'o (562-645), in his discussion of these categories, used the paradigm of two principal lands, the “True Land” and the “Response Land.” As a result, he proposed the this division:50 (1) True Land, and (2) Response Land, which includes the Reward Land and the Apparitional Land (the land of illusion).

It becomes clear in looking at these descriptions that the Pure Land cannot be considered to be equivalent to the "Kingdom of God" in Christian sense. The Pure Land is only a place which will "lead to" Nirvana - Enlightenment. In other words, it is a middle point rather than an end point; it is a school for further study and preparation rather than a paradise for the sake of enjoyment. Chappell concludes:

Thus, the words "Nirvana" and "Kingdom of God" are widely separated in meaning. “Nirvana presents us with a splendid vision of unity - the experience of a passionless overcoming of distinctions, whereas the Kingdom of God offers us a prospect of community under a supreme Lord.”52. Unity or community: this is one of the significant distinctions between Buddhism and Christianity.

Paul Tillich also contributed a way of distinguishing between the Kingdom of God and Nirvana. He indicated that the Kingdom of God is a social, political, and personalistic symbol. In contrast to it, Nirvana is an ontological symbol.53 Two different ontological principles lie behind the symbols, namely, "participation" and "identity." One participates as an individual being in the Kingdom of God. One is identical with everything that is in Nirvana. This distinction immediately leads to different ways in which a human being will relate to nature. 54

3. Loving-kindness, Compassion and Love

There are some rather sharp distinctions between the Christian concept of love and the Buddhist-preferred term, loving-kindness (metta), both in their doctrinal and practical aspects. Of course, Christianity is generally known as the “religion of love.” In Buddhism the language of love is not nearly as cherished. Buddhists prefer to use the word metta, usually translated as "loving kindness," to express the proper Buddhist virtue. Buddhists are unwilling to place love and loving-kindness on the same footing.55

To what extent metta has applicability varies with the relationship one has to various persons, whom Buddhists classify according to the following four orders: oneself, dear ones, neutral persons, and enemies. Initially, it is practically impossible to extend loving-kindness to an enemy. With regard to a neutral person, namely someone who carries no particular meaning in our lives, there is no cause to express any attitude either way; in other words, there would be no inspiration for loving-kindness. Beginning by extending loving-kindness towards a loved one might seem reasonable at first, but is actually precarious. Loving-kindness is not the same thing as personal affection, which only leads to unhealthy attachment. Furthermore, chances are that it will only be partial, and in the case of someone of the opposite sex, it may turn into lust instead. Therefore, one begins by extending loving-kindness to himself and from thence to others.56 One learns to do so from someone who models this virtue properly, whom one can then emulate, which means to reciprocate his attitude toward us. Thus the preferred order is: extension of loving-kindness to a good and respected person as though he were oneself (teacher, revered monk), then to a loved one, then to a neutral person, then to the hostile enemy as the climax.

The practice of Buddhist loving-kindness highlights for us the basic contrasts between the Buddhist view of the universe and self and the Christian ideal. According to Christian teaching, we should show a kind of love for other people that is spontaneous, intensely personal, and set into a social context, which is to say to that it manifests itself in a community. On the other hand, Buddhist loving-kindness begins with an analysis of where it is the most appropriate and beneficial to oneself and others. Thus it is systematic and calculated, indirect and impersonal in origin, and, by its very nature, individualistic.57

In the Buddhist pursuit of Nirvana, the adept  must put his primary attention on the higher goods of inner realization and self-perfection. The lower life of ordinary ethical virtues and mere human kindness are more appropriate for the lay persons who are not yet sufficiently advanced spiritually to transcend to a higher realm by practicing meditation and similar disciplines.58 Therefore, fellowship and community are not natural to many schools of Buddhism, not only in Theravada, but in Mahayana as well. The most holy persons are those who have withdrawn from basic relationships and have detached themselves from direct social involvement with others, particularly on the plane of physical life. The way to Nirvana is a solitary way. The one who seeks Nirvana associates with other monks out of necessity and convenience - instruction, discipline, living arrangements – but not because any such community is a desired outcome of the religion itself.59

Buddhists also use another word, karuna (compassion) in relation to others. It represents sympathy for the sufferings of others. Again, it is imperative that we take note of how this idea works in a Buddhist context. It specifically refers to the attitude of a person (particularly a bodhisattva) toward all other sentient beings who, like himself, are propelled by their karma through the perpetual cycle of births, deaths, and rebirths.60

It is an all-too-easy mistake to try to identify compassion with Christian agape-love. But the expressions of compassion in Buddhist religion is not agape. It differs in that it lacks the double characteristic of agape - the acceptance of the unacceptable, and, at the same time, the will to transform the individual as well as social structures.61 Compassion is a virtue according to which there are two persons in different roles: one does not suffer because of his own circumstances, and one suffers due to his own circumstance. Compassion comes into play when the first person “identifies” with the second one, thereby sharing his suffering indirectly. The compassionate person does not have to accept the other person for who he is, nor does he need to try to transform him or change his circumstances. Thus, compassion is purely an intellectual virtue.

When true Christianity shows up in a society, it brings with it a virtually unstoppable force that will transform the society.62 Most of the liberalizing trends in the West, such as abolitionist movements, the establishment of democracies, societal improvements, even the goals of communism or socialism, have borrowed many of their values from their immediate Christian environment. There is no analogy to this foundation in Buddhism. Transformation of present reality has not been its traditional goal, but the basic attitude has been one of salvation from reality. To the extent that certain forms of contemporary Buddhism, including Pure Land Buddhism and some New Religions in Japan, may show an increased interest in social change, a closer look reveals that their motivating force is still compassion, as described above, not anything that one can equate with the Christian concepts of agape love. Even if they say that they are looking for a transformation of society as a whole, such movements do not appear to exhibit a self-sacrificial attitude that would corroborate the reality of such aspirations.63

4. Faith and Salvation

Strictly speaking, Buddhism, except for the Pure Land School, denies the significance of grace or faith and contends that human beings are saved entirely by their own efforts, an idea that is sometimes referred to as “Self-Power.” Pure Land Buddhism, on the contrary, conceived of the notion of “Other-power” (used as a technical expression), and said that it was the power of Amitabha Buddha to transform one's existence through his grace. For Pure Land Buddhists, Other-power is the only way that makes it possible for all people to be able to attain Nirvana.64

Shinran in Japan was the first to go the whole length and declare that humankind may enter into the Pure Land by nothing more than faith and calling upon the name of Amitabha in gratitude. Similarly to Martin Luther, Shinran preached a message of sola fide. His emphasis was placed on the Other-power and its gracious activity. When one sees the Other-power in the personal form of Amitabha, a strong theistic connotation arises.65

Given such an association of concepts, one could say that there appears to be an important strand of Buddhism that is not too far removed from acknowledging a reality similar to the one that Christians affirm as God. However, there are differences. First of all, Amitabha is not understood as Creator in any traditional Christian sense. One also does not petition Amitabha to influence the course of history. Indeed, Amitabha is not thought of as hearing prayers. Secondly, in Christianity, faith includes the notion that an individual person’s mind performs the significant mental act of coming to belief and trust in Christ, whereas for Shinran, the only mind that really counts is that of Amitabha. It is helpful to keep in mind here that in Pure Land thought, the Pure Land was created by Amitabha, not through some mystical miraculous powers, but strictly through extraordinarily strong mental power—the capacity of the man who can bend spoons with his mind, raised exponentially by millions. Thus the existence of the Pure Land itself can be interpreted as an act of faith by Amitabha himself, and he shares his own faith with each being.

Furthermore, the notion of "sin" in Buddhism is quite different from the perspective of Christianity. For the Buddhist, sin is the result of "ignorance." Sin is neither personal nor impersonal; it is collective.66 (Spae 1987:124). Therefore, Pure Land Buddhists have given little attention to the concepts of expiation of sin or repentance. For them, repentance is merely the awareness and acceptance of one's unfortunate state before coming to rely on the Vow of Amitabha for salvation.



According to the analysis provided above, there are broad similarities between Pure Land Buddhism and Christianity. Indeed, this writer is sure that Pure Land Buddhism was the result of the first encounter between Christianity and Buddhism in the past. (Admittedly not all scholars not share this view.) Regardless of whether there have been encounters in the past, there is a need for a new encounter between them now. This new encounter should include three stages: contact, confrontation, and conversion.

1. Contact

The spiritual resemblances between Pure Land Buddhism and Christianity may become the bridge to cross the "unbridgeable gulf" between the two religions. Several Pure Land Buddhist's concepts, such as grace, faith, savior and salvation, can serve as the contact points for Christians to reach out Buddhists.

2. Confrontation

Having established the superficial similarities, the Christian and Buddhist need to discuss the differences in the meaning of some key terms, such as "Pure Land," "faith," and "savior." Such a discussion is not possible, unless the Christian confronts the basic presuppositions of Buddhism, such as their hermeneutics, the existence of God, and their concepts of self and suffering. For example, as Christians, nothing of what we usually think of as human nature or as the self is to be found in Pure Land Buddhism. With a better understanding of those Buddhist terms and concepts, we may communicate the Gospel of Christ to Buddhists more effectively.

3. Conversion

There is one historical item that both Christianity and Buddhism have had in common. Both religions have had a long history of inviting others to convert to them. Buddhism began with massive conversions to Buddha’s teachings throughout India, and it established a practice of “foreign missions” at least no later than the time of King Ashoka (roughly around 250 BC). Thus, even though in conversations with believers in other religions it can become a heated topic whether seeking conversions is legitimate, it should not be an issue between Buddhists and Christians. Please note that proselytizing or evangelizing, whether done by Buddhists or Christians, does not imply coercion. In fact, use of force for such purposes is condemned in both religions (though regretfully that standard has been violated by adherents of both sides at various points in history). Thus, in this discussion “conversion” refers to the free response of someone to the message of a religion without mental manipulation, physical force, or social pressure.

In this paper, we have discussed primarily Buddhist speculations in connection with the Pure Land, and we have established some contrasts and comparisons to Christian concepts. When we raise the topic of "conversion," another angle comes to the forefront beyond mere description, namely the reasons for accepting either one as true. A discussion of the length that this topic deserves will have to wait for another paper. So, the following final thoughts are primarily addressed to Christians reading this article.

When we talk about the truth of a large world view, such as a religion, two fundamental questions come up. They are: whether the events referred to in the teachings have any historical basis, and which set of beliefs gives a more accurate, consistent, and comprehensive account of the existential experience of human beings than the one with which we are comparing it. On the first point, we may focus on the historic person of Jesus Christ and his words and deeds, as well as on the historical reliability of the Bible. On the second one, Christianity addresses the universal experience of sinfulness, which goes far deeper than philosophical ignorance or certain wrong actions we may have committed. Although Pure Land Buddhism includes a doctrine of grace, this grace does not respond to the actual need for redemption from sin that human beings not only read about in the Bible, but experience for themselves as they recognize how far they fall short just of what their own consciences expect of them. Nor is there any evidence for the reality of Amitabha or Kuan-yin, let alone the works attributed to them.

Consequently, Christians may feel confident in asking Buddhists (as well as all other human beings) to convert to faith in Christ. Insofar as there is truth in Pure Land Buddhism, and to the extent that it contains concepts that in some way resemble biblical religion, we may look at these beliefs as content that prepares the Buddhists' minds for the reception of the Gospel message. They are not worthless, but they function in the role of “pre-evangelism,” so that there are already bridges in place for the communication of the plan of redemption. As Christians who seek to minister to Buddhists by sharing the gospel with them, it is incumbent on us to familiarize ourselves as much as is possible with what particular Buddhists believe, so that we can converse with them accurately and sensitively.


1Asvagosha, The Awakening of Faith, trans. by Teitaro Suzuki (Mineola, New York: Dover, 1900), pp. 145-46.     Back to text.

2 As reported by David W. Chappell, "Chinese Buddhist Interpretations of the Pure Lands," in Buddhist and Taoist Studies I, ed. by Michael Saso and David W. Chappell. (Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii, 1977,), p. 25     Back to text.

3 Ibid., p. 23     Back to text

4 Ibid., p. 24     Back to text.

5 Karl Ludvig Reichelt, Truth and Tradition in Chinese Buddhism: A Study of Chinese Mahayana Buddhism, Trans. by Kathrina Van Wagenen Bugge (New York: Paragon, 1968, orig. 1927), pp. 129-170.    Back to text.

6 Ibid., p. 130.     Back to text.

7 Ibid., p. 131.    Back to text.

8 Chappell, Chinese Buddhist Interpretations, pp. 26-42.    Back to text.

9 Reichelt, Truth and Tradition, pp. 131-32.   Back to text.

10 Ibid., p. 131.     Back to text.

11 Ibid., p. 132.    Back to text.

12 Ingram S. Seah, "Nestorian Christianity and Pure Land Buddhism in T'ang China," Taiwan Journal of Theology 6 (1984):79.    Back to text.

13 David Scott, "Christian Responses to Buddhism in Pre-Medieval Times," Numen 32,1 (1985):92.     Back to text.

14  Seah, Nestorian Christians, p. 84.    Back to text.

15 W.M. Theodore DeBary, ed., The Buddhist Tradition in India, China and Japan. (New York: The Modern Library,1969), pp. 314-44.  Back to text.

16 Ibid., p. 316.    Back to text.

17 Ibid., p. 320.    Back to text.

18 Ibid., p. 321.    Back to text.

19 Ibid., p. 327.    Back to text.

20 Ibid., p. 328.    Back to text.

21 Ibid., p. 331.    Back to text.

22 Ibid., p. 332.    Back to text.

23 Ibid.     Back to text.

24 Ibid., p. 333.    Back to text.

25 Ibid., p. 334.    Back to text

26 Mervyn Fernando, "The Buddhist Challenge to Christianity," in Buddhism and Christianity, ed. by Claude Geffre and M. Dhavamony. (New York: A Crossroad Book, 1979). p.89.    Back to text.

27 Donald S.Lopez, Jr. "Introduction," in Buddhist Hermeneutics, ed. by D.S. Lopez (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press,1988), p.2.     Back to text

28 Hajime Nakamura, "The Basic Teachings of Buddhism," in Buddhism in the Modern World, ed. by Heinrich Dumonlin and John C. Maraldo. (New York: Collier Books,1976), pp. 3-30.     Back to text.

29 Ibid., pp. 5-6.    Back to text.

30 Ibid., p. 8.    Back to text.

31 Ibid., p. 17.    Back to text.

32 Ibid., p. 19.    Back to text.

33 Ibid., p. 22.    Back to text.

34 Fernando, Buddhist Challenge, p. 93.    Back to text.

35 Ibid..    Back to text.

36 Nakamura, Basic Teachings, p. 26    Back to text.

37 Fernando, Buddhist Challenge, p. 89.    Back to text.

38 Diana Paul, "Kuan-yin: Savior and Savioress in Chinese Pure Land Buddhism," in The Book of the Goddess Past and Present, ed. by Carl Olson (New York: Crossroad, 1983), pp.161-175.    Back to text.

39 Ibid., p. 162.    Back to text.

40 Ibid.    Back to text.

41 Ibid., p. 163.    Back to text.

42 Ibid., p. 165.    Back to text.

43 Ibid., p. 174n.    Back to text.

44 Ibid., p. 166.    Back to text.

45 Ibid., p. 171.    Back to text.

46 Chappell, Chinese Buddhist Interpretations, pp. 23-54.    Back to text.

47 Ibid., p. 29.    Back to text.

48 Ibid., p. 30.    Back to text.

49 Ibid., p. 31.    Back to text.

50 Ibid., p. 41.    Back to text.

51 Ibid., p. 48.    Back to text.

52 Douglas Fox, Buddhism, Christianity and the Future of Man (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1972), p. 180.   Back to text.

53 Paul Tillich, Christianity and the Encounter of the World Religions (New York: Columbia University Press, 1963), p. 64.    Back to text.

54 Ibid., p. 68.    Back to text.

55 Winston L. King, Buddhism and Christianity: Some Bridges of Understanding (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1957), p. 72.    Back to text.

56 Ibid., p. 74.    Back to text.

57 Ibid., p. 91.    Back to text.

58 Ibid., p. 92.    Back to text.

59 Ibid., p. 95.    Back to text.

60 Ibid., p. 76.    Back to text.

61 Tillich, Christianity and the Encounter, pp. 71-72.    Back to text.

62 Ibid., pp. 72-73.    Back to text.

63 Ibid.    Back to text.

64 Ryusei Takeda, "Pure Land Buddhist View of Dukhba" Buddhist Christian Studies 5 (1985):15.    Back to text.

65 John B.Cobb, Jr., "The Buddhist-Christian Dialogue Since 1946: The Christian Side," in Religious Issues and Interreligious Dialogues, ed. by Charles W.H. Fu and Gerhard E. Spiegler. (New York: Greenwood Press,1989), p. 589.    Back to text.

66 Joseph J. Spae, 1987 "Sin and Salvation: Buddhist and Christian," Ching Feng, 30,3 (September, 1987), p.124.   Back to text.



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