Wednesday, January 1, 2020
A personal investigation of the first recorded encounter between a Christian and a Zen adept.
There are conversations you overhear or read in books that are so familiar you feel as if you were a fly on the wall, listening to words you’ve heard before. The sentences ring with so much immediacy that you have to restrain yourself from finishing them. The tones are as so familiar you think that you are remembering them, not hearing them for the first time.
The conversations that I am going to write about are from the distant past—the case that I am going to discuss was written down in Latin by Francis Xavier more than 450 years ago, sent on an uncertain journey from Japan to Lisbon aboard a Portuguese caravel, then carried onto Rome, and delivered into the hands of Ignatius Loyola. They are the first recorded encounters between Christians and Zen Buddhists, a Jesuit saint and a roshi.
As I read from Xavier’s letters in Bernard Faure’s Chan Insights and Oversights, there were several moments when the hair on the back of my neck stood up—the words, the phrasing, even the jokes seemed to be right out of conversations that I have had with my own Zen teachers. Despite my post-hippie attempts to free myself from all past influences, when I read Xavier’s comments, I could hear echoes from my Jesuit training in my responses to my Zen teachers; carefully formulated points of doctrine intended to stem the tide of the Protestant Reformation were still the core of the Jesuit curriculum when I entered the Society of Jesus 40 years ago. Among the first seven Jesuits, Xavier was the master of debate, but when he shifts the conversation with the Zen master towards a polemical argument, I was almost embarrassed, realizing how much I had missed when I set out to become a Zen student.
Xavier writes to Ignatius about his conversations with “Ninxit,” Ninjitsu who was the abbot of the Zen Temple, Kinryu-zan Fukushoji. “I spoke many times with some of the most learned of these [Zen monks], especially one to whom all in these parts are greatly attached, both because of his learning, life and the dignity which he has, and because of his great age, since he is nearly eighty years old; and he is called Ninxit, which means ‘Heart of Truth’ in the language of Japan. He is like a bishop among them, and if he were conformed to his name, he would be blessed. In the many conversations which we had, I found him doubtful and unable to decide whether our soul is immortal or whether it dies together with the body; sometimes he agreed with me, and at other times he did not. I am afraid that the other scholars are of the same mind. This Ninxit is such a good friend of mine that it is amazing“ (Schurhammer 1982, p. 85).
There is more than enough in the letters to show that what happened over an extended period in 1549 on Kyushu, the southernmost island of Japan, was a real conversation between friends about what mattered in life. Xavier might have been seeking common ground with Ninjitsu, or, judging by his subsequent actions and recommendations for the missionary effort in Japan, he was looking for the weak points in Buddhist doctrine, the dharma, so he could prove Christianity’s superiority. He read the answer “I don’t know” as doctrinal blindness and the work of the Devil, but it could also indicate Ninjitsu keeping his mind open in an inquiry.
The historian of religion might see this confrontation simply as the opening salvo of religious infighting that accompanied the civil upheaval in feudal Japan that was to last well into the solidification of the Tokugawa shogunate. The Jesuits did become embroiled, taking sides between the warring daimyos, tying their missionary success to military victories of lords who converted to Christianity. Daimyo Omura Sumitada and Koteda Saemon used their new religion to undermine the power of the Buddhist establishment, even burning Buddhist temples, images, and statues. These incidents, unfortunately for the Jesuits, were long remembered and bitterly resented (Boxer, p. 47).
In a later letter, Xavier writes, “Among the nine sects, there is one which maintains that the souls of men are mortal like that of beasts…. The followers of this sect are evil. They were impatient when they heard that there is a hell” (Schurhammer 1982, p. 283). Apparently Xavier informed Ninjitsu that he or some of his monks were condemned to hell because they did not hold to the immortality of the soul. Later Xavier began to regard zazen as a way of repressing the remorse he believed Zen monks must have felt for immoral behavior. Xavier was particularly offended by the sexual license of some monks and same sex liaisons with the acolytes in the temple.
To place Xavier’s arrival in the context of the religious history of medieval Japan, it was only 49 years later in 1597, as the Tokugawa shoguns continued to consolidate their rule, that 26 Christians, including three Jesuits, two of them Japanese converts, and three young boys, were crucified in Nagasaki. That horrifying event marked the beginning of the savagery of the anti-Catholic campaign that continued until the expulsion of all foreigners in the 1630’s, and closed Japan to all but a few trading ships from China and the Netherlands until 1854.
As difficult as it is to recount these events, and as deeply as it touches the central operating myth of Christianity, a term I use with no intended disrespect, that death freely chosen opens the way to salvation, this reading of history is a search for causal events, not a quest for meaning. These few facts connected with some of the actual written reports from the first Jesuit missionaries have located them in the circumstances of 16th century Japan, and I felt that it was important to lay out the context as carefully as I could. Zen is always contained in a specific time and circumstance. But, there is another dimension to these moments that lies in the realm of zazen, or what Christians call meditation or contemplation.
Now, as much as possible, let’s take this unique encounter between Xavier and Ninjitsu out of time and space, and look at it through another lens, or really a pair of lenses, the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius and the tradition of the Zen koan, old stories of encounters between teacher and student, mostly of Chinese origin, that are used along with meditation, or zazen, to focus and illuminate the mind.
For a moment, allow me to use a meditation technique of Saint Ignatius, the Application of the Senses, to recreate this meeting. Allow yourself as much latitude as your imagination requires and enter into this world of long ago.
Imagine that you are a Zen monk with many years of meditation training, living in a fairly remote monastery high above a harbor where you usually see only fishing boats and perhaps, very occasionally, a Chinese junk. You have heard from your followers when they bring you food from the village that there is a dark haired foreigner making inquiries about local priests. Perhaps you have heard about these barbarians before—Spaniards and Portuguese have been sighted in recent years and have made contact with some people living along the coast. But up to this point, these strangers have been merchants or heavily armed soldiers. The only foreigners you have met hail from Korea and China. You have never met a European.
Perhaps as the abbot of a Zen Temple, you have also heard that this man who wears a simple black robe as unadorned as your own and his Japanese companion have been telling a story about the creation of the world, a great flood, a people who tried to follow a special law given by a god, and a man called Jesus who died and then was returned to life. We know from Xavier’s letters that he did craft an oral version of the life and death of Jesus, connected it with some of the stories from the Hebrew bible, had it translated into Japanese, and memorized it syllabically. Why did he come to stand in the middle of the town square and recite in nearly unintelligible Japanese what was, for most Japanese, a bizarre account of the creation and salvation of the world?
In your training you had worked with Jōshū's answer to a monk who asked him, “Why did Bodhidharma come from the West?”—his answer: “the cypress tree in the courtyard,” the Chinese answer, “庭前柏樹子,” attesting to the origin of the story in the early period of Zen, or Ch’an, (Mumonkan, case 37). Bodhidharma is the mythic remake of an actual monk, or perhaps a group of monks, who traveled to China from India in about the 4th century to plant Buddhism in Chinese culture. He is revered as the 1st Patriarch of Zen. And now, another bearded barbarian was standing at your Temple Gate with a question about life after death.
At this point in Ignatius’s meditation, when you have stepped into your imagination’s recreation of the event, Ignatius introduces another dimension into your meditation, the discernment. Simply allow whatever emotions are present to surface, and then examine them. Do they attract you? Do they produce joy and a sense of well-being? Or perhaps your gut tells you to stay clear. Examine the meeting between Xavier and the Roshi on an emotional level: what was it that drew them to become the best of friends? Perhaps it was simply intellectual interest. Some (Faure, 1982, p. 18) suggest a certain level of interior inquiry that established a common ground. It might also have been the mutual recognition of a person who meditates, a friend, in the deepest Buddhist sense of the word, a bodhisattva, a Bodhidharma.
I think I can understand from my own Zen training why the Roshi took Xavier seriously. The strange man who stood before him came from the other side of the world, spoke a strange sounding language, wore clothing that seemed somewhat monkish, and asked a question that demanded an answer, not a rote answer, not just a yes or a no, but an answer that revealed a clear grasp of its full dimension coming from his experience in meditation. Many western people today still regard belief in a human immortality as the litmus test for religious faith. From Xavier’s reports, I don’t think it possible to determine what Ninjitsu actually held about the existence of the soul, but I do know that he considered it important—Xavier asking it made it important.
At the very beginning of a Chinese or Japanese Zen koan, there is usually a terse report of an actual encounter, usually a question and an answer, between teacher and student. Xavier asked Ninjitsu, “Do you believe in the immortality of the soul?”
When I first read the fragments of their conversations that Xavier reported in his letters, I experienced a torrent of thoughts, memories, and explanations, everything incomplete and all lying somewhere in my past, just as what I could either reconstruct or imagine of their encounter also lay in the past, 449 years ago, not as old as the stories of the koan training or the gospel of Jesus, but belonging to a very different world than 21st century America.
Their conversation grabbed my imagination in a way that I could not explain to myself, and I found myself wrestling for many months with both the question and my own possible answers. I remembered my last visit with Avery Dulles, S.J., my spiritual director during my Jesuit theology days. He said to me: “I hear that Buddhists don’t believe in God.” Of course he knew the answer—most Buddhism is non-theistic; it does not entertain the question of divinity, neither affirming nor denying a supreme deity—he is a renowned theologian and high level consultant at the Vatican. He was, like Ninjitsu, “like a bishop among them,” and at the time more than 80 years old. But despite our friendship, I still felt as though he were trying to pry an answer out of me that would undermine what he understands of Buddhist beliefs. I didn’t have the skill to turn a rhetorical or speculative question into an opening for spiritual discovery, and I didn’t know how my friend would take my “turning word,” perhaps almost as blasphemy, not that much different than Xavier’s response to Ninjitsu?
Despite any difficulties with the translation, I think that Ninjitsu understood perfectly what Xavier meant, and that he might have provided some answers that might have satisfied him given the extensive hells that are available in Buddhist cosmology. But then it occurred to me that Ninjitsu might have been more interested in allowing this man who had arrived improbably at his temple to figure out an answer for himself. Any question in the right hands can serve as a koan, and if a question lies close to a man or woman’s heart, summing up the purpose they have given to their lives, it can cut to the quick like a sharp knife. Ninjitsu certainly knew that Xavier didn’t risk life and limb to sail into Asia to find out if Buddhists believed in heaven and hell.
We do not know if Xavier attempted to introduce Ninjitsu to the Spiritual Exercises, which might have been a good place to start, but we know for certain that Ninjitsu gave Xavier a critical piece of zazen instruction (Ninjitsu to Xavier, quoted in Faure, p. 17). “[W]hen asked what the monks sitting in zazen were doing, he ironically replied: ‘Some of them are counting up how much they received during the past months from their faithful; others are thinking about their recreations and amusements; in short, none of them are thinking about anything that has any meaning at all.’” (Schurhammer 1982, p. 74).*
Xavier had been trained in spiritual practice, you might even say “converted,” when he did the Spiritual Exercises with Ignatius with its rigorous, defined and orderly Four Weeks, the application of the senses, the invocations, colloquies and formal prayer. These are definitely things to do—so many that the mind has little time or space to move undirected. The closest one gets to listing recreations and amusements might be in the first week, which is a prolonged examination of conscience in the light of one’s purpose on earth. But it has no random or haphazard quality to it—it is directed. Ninjitsu’s comment about what filled the head while meditating had some irony that Xavier didn’t find amusing.
Ignatius also included in his Exercises instructions on methods of prayer. I have already used the application of the senses to recreate the meeting between Xavier and Ninjitsu; Ignatius also recommends invocations and colloquies, which, at least in my experience, are more akin to the prayer of formal ritual. The exercise that comes closest to the practice of zazen though is what Ignatius calls the third method of prayer or the prayer of quiet. The instructions are quite simple, that one chooses a prayer that is so familiar that it floats in the consciousness with no effort: “Our Father who art in Heaven,” and then allow one word to rest on each breath. With the guidance of our spiritual director, over time, perhaps that prayer becomes just a word on a breath until the bell rings to signify the end of meditation.
Here is the exact text from the Spiritual Exercises: Third Method of Prayer. The Third Method of Prayer is that with each breath in or out, one has to pray mentally, saying one word of the Our Father, or of another prayer which is being recited: so that only one word be said between one breath and another, and while the time from one breath to another lasts, let attention be given chiefly to the meaning of such word, or to the person to whom he recites it, or to his own baseness, or to the difference from such great height to his own so great lowness … Perhaps Ninjitsu had a similar experience when, as a young monk, he was given zazen instruction. I have every reason to believe that his instruction was not much different than the first time I sat in a Zen hall: simply count your breaths from 1 to 10, and when you lose track, simply redirect your mind back to 1 and begin again.
Although I had been practicing zazen on my own for years, when I officially joined a Zen temple, I asked for meditation instruction. I still recall that meeting vividly. One evening at dusk, after the six o’clock sitting, Zenshin Philip Whalen sat down next to me on the wooden bench overlooking the backyard behind the zendo on Hartford Street. He started by saying that I seemed to sit rather well which he thought indicated that I had done some work—I didn’t “wiggle around a lot”—and then he asked me about my meditation. I listed my experience, almost like a spiritual curriculum vitae, zazen, vipassana, Tibetan initiations and, of course, the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius. Philip listened quietly and then said that it would be best to put all that aside and to try to begin freshly, but as that in itself was impossible, just the intention to have “beginner’s mind” would probably be enough. It was all that most people could do. So I asked, “Well what should I do with my thoughts?” Phil said, “Anything you like. You can’t stop your mind. Don’t even try.”
Over and over in my early meditation interviews with Phil and Issan Dorsey Roshi, the instruction was clear: leave my mind alone. After perhaps a year or so, I was able to be present to my mind just running on, and I began to notice that the flips and loops of repeated inner conversations seemed linked in a way somewhat akin to the kind of insights that I had in psychotherapy. Again Phil cautioned me that zazen was not psychotherapy; that I shouldn’t be satisfied with that insight but continue to sit with an open mind, trying to be in beginner's mind as much as I could.
Learning the meaning of Eternal Life
From what I can map from the chronology of the letters, Ninjitsu and Xavier met many times over an extended period, at least three but perhaps as long as nine months. It was unlike today’s high-level ecumenical gathering, a tightly scripted formal conference negotiated in advance to trumpet straightening out the thread of an old argument—where the parties separated, where they might converge, or where they agree to disagree.
Despite Xavier’s dogmatic tone, there are clues that the conversation had elements of spontaneity and laughter. It was also a time to become friends, to learn to deal with the language differences that separated them, and to consider life from a religious or spiritual perspective. Ninjitsu could have answered Xavier’s question with the famous, often quoted response to the question about what happens after death, given by an old Zen Master; “Don’t ask me, I’m not dead yet.” It has everything that Westerners expect in a Zen answer, trusting the immediacy of experience, the attitude of not presuming to know the answer, and certainly not relying on any doctrine to settle the case. I like it because it makes me laugh, but I remember that Xavier showed very little tolerance for humor when the Roshi talked about what might be passing through his monks’ minds as they sat in meditation focused on collection plates and dalliances.
Xavier will eventually find reason enough to condemn the entire Zen sect as the work of the Devil. He was so much the product of his culture and the frayed religious culture that the Reformation left in its wake, he set a confrontational tone for the entire mission of the Jesuits in Japan. Even though a saint, he seemed to love the role of hurtling condemnations like an Old Testament Prophet. That is what spiritual life had come to in Europe and what he expected to find in Asia. I don’t know if Ninjitsu would have passed Xavier on his koan work—probably not, but Xavier did come to appreciate the depth and subtlety of the Zen mind, so much so that his recommendations for the Jesuit mission included, besides training in the Japanese language, as complete an understanding as possible of the religious traditions practiced in the kingdom.
For Ninjitsu, I would like to believe that Xavier’s question opened a window into his own soul, like a koan. Xavier writes: “I found him [Ninjitsu] doubtful and unable to decide whether our soul is immortal or whether it dies together with the body; sometimes he agreed with me, and at other times he did not” (Schurhammer 1982, 85). What Xavier takes to be wavering and indecision could also indicate Ninjitsu’s working with the koan. I can feel some kinship with an attitude that Ninjitsu’s answers might have betrayed. I have looked into the eyes of the teacher that I was working with a koan, and not known what to say, or how to respond, feeling one thing in one moment and something entirely different a split second later. If Xavier’s question did not open a new way of viewing the world for the Roshi, it did for me.
If you are inclined, you can find your own answer to Xavier’s question. I recommend that you include the practice of zazen when you choose some tools to help your search and study. Over time, you can expect that your meditation will reset the language you, and your community, use to describe religious experience. Each time you say “life” on a new breath it will bring that word into the present moment. Each present moment wipes away more traces of the inherited meaning we give to words, the misunderstandings, the exaggerations, the lies and adjustments that we humans make for our precious beliefs, the fairy tales that we were told and believed as children. I won’t say that your language will reset to reveal the Truth, but you will certainly be more in touch with your own experience.
Xavier left Japan early in 1551. He died just over a year later on Sancian, a small island off south China, while waiting for a boat to carry him into the celestial empire. “Nixnit” died in 1565. 1549 or 1550 marked the end of their encounter. It seems from the record that the groundwork for further conversation about religious beliefs between Zen Buddhists and Christians was not very firm. The virtues of friendship, however, cannot be underestimated.
The expression “eternal moment” is more than poetry, but something that can be really experienced in meditation. Lovers, and sometimes friends, can also share this experience. It might also be a lens to open up all of life in every dimension of time and space.
Jesuits enter the Zen hall
Father Enomiya-LaSalle, S.J. is buried in Hiroshima where he was walking on August 6, 1945, only eight miles from the epicenter of the atomic explosion that destroyed the city. He survived. He also was a Zen student for the remaining 45 years of his life, attaining fluency with the practice of zazen and a mastery of the koans that was fully recognized by his teachers. He wrote about his long work with the practice, but that is the subject of another article. LaSalle led many fellow Jesuits into the sphere of zazen, including Pedro Arrupe who was his superior in Japan, and Ignatius’s successor as the General of the Society during the time that I was a Jesuit. Arrupe carried his meditation cushion, or zafu, from Japan to the Jesuit Curia in Rome. LaSalle’s example and teaching influenced most of the men I mention below who became fully authorized Zen teachers in their own right.
The teaching never ends. The wheel of the dharma, as the Buddhist metaphor is clearly trying to tell us, never stops. I have no evidence that Xavier ever really taught Ninjitsu anything about the Christian way of life, but I have anecdotal evidence that it just might have happened as I imagined it. My friend and teacher, David Weinstein Roshi, was a student of Yamada Koun Roshi during the last years of Father LaSalle’s life, and often saw him coming and going at the zendo in Kamakura. He worked with his teacher almost until the day he died. David told me this story. One morning after zazen, after Yamada had finished seeing students who were working on a koan, he was standing next to Yamada as LaSalle was leaving. Yamada turned to David and said, “He is the man who taught me how to apply the koans in my life.”
There is a way that koans enter into our consciousness, and change our viewpoint. They can even change a society. After the letters that Xavier sent to Ignatius describing his encounter with the Zen Master Ninjitsu, to my mind, it seemed inevitable that some Jesuits would eventually enter a Zen hall, and, that with the discipline learned from their training under the Spiritual Exercises, some would complete their koan training and teach Zen. Here are the names of the Jesuits who have followed Xavier and Ninjitsu into that deep meditation. It may be incomplete. I have only used the title “Roshi” for the Jesuits who have publicly received “inka” which is both recognition of their intimate understanding of the Dharma and a sign of their authority, their seal, as a Zen teacher.
I begin my list with Fr. LaSalle who is the first in this lineage of Jesuit Zen masters. I cannot even guess where their Zen practice will lead; I hope that the work of these men will open and enrich the spiritual lives of many people.
Fr. Hugo Enomiya-LaSalle, S.J. (dec. 1990)
Fr. William Thomas Hand, S.J. (dec. 2005)
Fr. Niklaus Brantschen, S.J., Roshi
Ruben Habito, Roshi
Fr. Bill Johnson, S.J.
Fr. Kakichi Kadowaki, S.J.
Fr. Robert Jinsen Kennedy, S.J., Roshi
Bro. Tom Marshall, S.J.
Fr. Ama Samy, S.J., Roshi
In the traditional collections, a commentary on a koan usually ends with a poem, language that points beyond itself. Here are a few lines from Rumi translated by Coleman Barks that I have chosen to close the question of “the immortality of the soul.” The words only point to a possible answer, or a way for you to look for your own answer.
Who gets up early to discover the moment light begins?
Who finds us here circling, bewildered, like atoms?
Who comes to a spring thirsty
and sees the moon reflected in it?
Who, like Jacob, blind with grief and age,
smells the shirt of his son and can see again?
Who lets a bucket down
and brings up a flowing prophet?
Or like Moses goes for fire
and finds what burns inside the sunrise?
Jesus slips into a house to escape enemies,
and opens a door to the other world.
Solomon cuts open a fish, and there's a gold ring.
Omar storms in to kill the prophet
and leaves with blessings.
Chase a deer and end up everywhere!
An oyster opens his mouth to swallow one drop.
Now there's a pearl.
A vagrant wanders empty ruins
Suddenly he's wealthy.
But don't be satisfied with stories,
how things have gone with others.
Unfold your own myth,
without complicated explanation,
so everyone will understand the passage,
We have opened you.
*Fukushoji has been alternatively designated as a Soto Temple (Faure), a Rinzai Temple (Kagoshima records), a Sendai Temple (Xavier Memorial Association). Although this encounter was before the 17th century Rinzai revival of Hakuin Ekaku (1685–1768), the instruction has the distinct feel of shikantaza,“just sitting,” favored by the Soto school, founded by Dōgen Zenji, (1200-1253).
Francis Xavier: His Life, His Times, Vol. 4: Japan and China, 1549-1552, Georg Schurhammer, Jesuit Historical Institute, 1973.
Chan Insights and Oversights: An Epistemological Critique of the Chan Tradition, Bernard Faure, Princeton University Press, 1993.
Gateless Barrier: Zen Comments on the Mumonkan, Zenkai Shibayama, Shambhala, 2000.
A Vision Betrayed: The Jesuits in Japan and China, 1542-1742, Andrew C. Ross; Edinburgh University Press, 1994.
Papers on Portuguese, Dutch and Jesuit Influences in 16th and 17th Century Japan, Boxer, C.R., complied by Michael Moscato. Washington D.C.: University of America, Inc., 1979.
The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Ignatius Loyola and Father Elder Mullan, Cosimo Classics, 2007.
The Essential Rumi, Coleman Barks, translator, Harpercollins, 1995.
Bro. Tom Marshall, S.J. was one of my cherished teachers, a koan student par excellence, a wily fox, an ordained priest in a Rinzai Zen lineage, a brother in the Society of Jesus and a true son of St. Francis Xavier. Tom directed me to Schurhammer after we spoke about Faure’s book, Chan Insights and Oversights, and then held my hand, or laughed, as I worked my way through the account of Xavier’s travels in Japan. Any merit that I have generated through my work on this short essay is for you, dear Tom, as you enter worlds yet undiscovered.
I want to extend my gratitude to the late Bonnie Johnson and her husband Daniel Shurman who brought the Exercises back into my life after being dormant for more than 30 years.
I also want to thank Morgan Z0 Callahan for giving me the time and space to complete “Buddha, SJ.” It is a tribute to those Jesuits who have traveled both the paths pioneered by Ignatius and the Buddha. Morgan, I don’t know yet whether it is a mark of completion or beginning for us—perhaps both.
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