A Protestant Looks at Zen
Zen WayJesus Way, by Tucker N. Callaway (Rutland, Vermont and Tokyo, Japan: Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1976).
Review by Ken Blacklock
A number of excellent works comparing Christian thought with Buddhist thought have been published over the last fifty years. Some of the stellar examples of this field include Thomas Mertons Zen and the Birds of Appetite (New York: New Directions, 1968) and Daisetz Teitaro Suzukis Mysticism: Christian and Buddhist (New York: Harper, 1957). On the surface, Tucker Callaways Zen WayJesus Way appears to be another sincere attempt to foster inter-faith dialogue. Callaway was a Protestant missionary who taught world religions and the philosophy of religion at a university in Japan for twenty years. Calloways analysis of Zen concepts is clear and concise, but he has nothing meaningful to say as a result of his comparative study. Moreover, Calloways approach to the inter-faith comparison he attempts is fundamental flawed. As a result, Zen WayJesus Way ends by shutting the door to possible dialogue.
Zen WayJesus Way is organized into three sections. The first is a detailed explanation of the principal tenants of Zen Buddhism as they are understood by practicing laypersons and monks in Japan. The second section describes a number of "personal experiences" the author had while visiting Japanese temples and discussing Buddhism with various monks and teachers. This section culminates in an interview with D.T. Suzuki. The last section contains a description of the basic tenants of Christianity as understood by the author along with a direct comparison of these tenants with the Zen beliefs presented in the first section. The book is ostensibly addressed to Christians who are seeking a better understanding of Zen Buddhism and Buddhists who are seeking a better understanding of Christianity.
Callaways text proceeds admirably through the presentation of basic Zen tenants. He explains key terms and phrases from the principal sutras in a careful and balanced manner that gives the impression that author fully immersed himself in the Zen experience. This part of the book is such an excellent introduction to Zen thought that it heightens the disappointment in Callaways unforgivably shallow comparisons of "Zen Way" and "Jesus Way" in the last part of the book.
Callaways record of personal experiences in the second part of the book contains a number of interesting observations about Japan along with descriptions of temples rarely found elsewhere in the literature on Japanese Buddhism. The interview with Suzuki is one of the highlights of the book. Suzuki further clarifies many of the ideas presented earlier in the book and opens a number of doors to possible dialogue for the Jesus Way portion of the book. Suzuki shows himself to be a true religious amphibian equally at home discussing biblical ideas as he is with Buddhist literature and thought.
The third section could be used as a case study in how not to start a fruitful inter-faith dialogue. It becomes increasingly clear that although Callaway jumped into the water of Zen, he was unwilling to live there long enough to gain new insights into Christian theology. Callaway gives an extremely simplified description of Christianity as he sees it and then leaps into a point by point comparison of the differences between Zen Way and Jesus Way. While advocating "tolerance," Callaways text is an overt attempt at showing the superiority of Jesus Way. This is the attitude and approach of the Christian missionary at its worst and emblematic of the heart of one who has convinced himself that he has found the way to absolute truth and is thus unable to consider other perspectives. Zen refers to its own scriptures as a finger pointing at the moon and warns followers not the mistake the finger for the moon. Calloway is adept at discussing the finger from both the Zen and Christian perspectives, but has lost sight of the moon.
At the beginning of the third section Calloway gives his reasons for delving into Japanese Buddhism and describes his approach. He says that early on in his study of Japanese culture and language he became aware of the strong influence of Buddhism on both. "The language of Japan is largely Buddhist in essence," (p.153) he observes. He elaborates on what this meant for his missionary activities, "Again and again I discovered that the Japanese expression I was using had its English meaning to me, but for my Japanese companions was cloaked with emotional and cognitive implications which had me perplexed. I thought I was speaking Christian Japanese; they were hearing Buddhist Japanese." (p.154) Calloway goes on to explain that "mere reading would not be enough to gain the sort of understanding I wanted. My interest was not in terms and concepts as such, but in their experiential content." (p.154) "For Jesus sake, I was determined to enter into the very essence of the Buddhist experience." (p.155) Thus, Calloway explains, he spent more time in Buddhist temples than in Christian churches during his twenty years in Japan.
In a footnote to the Suzuki interview Calloway describes his approach to interviewing Buddhists. Of interest here is the statement, "I scrupulously avoided making what might appear to be dogmatic assertions about either Buddhism or Christianity. At no time did I attempt to argue a point." (p.133fn) Towards the end of the book Calloway says, "A meaningful comparison requires that we examine the religions as expounded by their long trained and deeply committed adherents and as set forth in the writings sacred to these religions." (p.229)
Before entering into the direct comparisons between Zen Way and Jesus Way in Section III, Calloway explains that he wishes to "show what each side has to say about the fundamental issues of human life." (p.156) Moreover, one "must do away with the sort of tepid sentimentality which feels it is unfriendly to believe that different religions are truly different." (p.156) Throughout the section, he is critical of "those who say all religions are essentially the same." (p.231)
Calloways methodology is not entirely flawed. Therein lies the initial attraction of the book.
His attempt to understand what "long trained and deeply committed adherents" of Buddhism believe is admirable. The depth and clarity of the description of Buddhist belief presented in the first two sections of the book document Calloways success at achieving this goal. Certainly, if one is to present a meaningful religious comparison, one should enter deeply into the viewpoints of practicing believers on both sides.
His avoidance of making "dogmatic assertions" during interviews with Buddhists is also admirable. This is certainly an appropriate starting place for all such inter-faith discussions.
Even Calloways dislike of statements such as "all religions are essentially the same" is valid. This kind of a statement is clearly meaningless. It says nothing in particular and thus is a useless starting point in any attempt to understand the perspectives of different religions.
So what are the flaws in Calloways methodology?
First and foremost, Calloway completely fails to take a critical look at his own beliefs. By not examining even one of his beliefs critically, Calloway betrays his true feelings. The underlying message becomes that of the missionary who is certain of his view of truth and not open to considering other perspectives in any meaningful depth. In contrast to this, Suzuki shows himself to be a true master capable of rising beyond the restrictions of his own faith. Towards the end of the Suzuki interview Calloway says that Christians "must try to improve things. We wish to change things." And Suzuki replies, "Yes, thats the good side of Christianity. Buddhists accept everything as it is, perhaps. That is bad." (pp.147-8) Suzuki goes on to say that "Buddhism has a great deal to learn from Christianity." (p.148) The implication is that Suzuki is still seeks to expand his understanding of the fundamental issues of human life, and has entered into a dialogue with Christianity in the hopes of gaining new insights into his own faith. Suzuki opens the door to further discussion. At the end of the book, Calloway brings up this very statement, questions whether "Suzuki seriously meant what he said," then suggests that if so "he, at least for that moment, was off the Zen Way and perilously close the entrance of the Jesus Way." (p.239) The possibility does not even occur to Calloway that Suzuki might have been firmly committed to the Zen Way, but in search of new perspectives. Calloway is not a seeker after truth, but rather a missionary who believes he has all the answers.
Throughout his comparison of Zen Way with Jesus Way, Calloway puts what seem to be non-equivalent perspectives side by side. For example, Calloway consistently presents the Zen perspective from the standpoint of Satori (enlightenment) and compares this with the Christian perspective from the standpoint of an typical believer.
Moreover, Calloway compares a simplified description of Zen Way with a simplified description of Jesus Way. While simplifying complex religious concepts may be helpful for someone who is trying to understand the perspective of any one religion, such simplified descriptions can be a misleading point of comparison with another religion. In the final chapter, Calloway presents the following equations "for the sake of brevity and clarity" (p.230):
1. Presuppositions of the Zen Way:
Only-Mind = I myself = You = the Creator = x = y = z = Everything = Nothing (p.230)
2. Presuppositions of the Jesus Way:
(a) (character of the Creator = the ground of all valid moral laws = character of Jesus = essence of ultimate reality = character of Gods Holy Spirit = character of God = Good = Agape as revealed in Jesus = character of man as intended by the Creator = character of man who has been completely re-created through giving himself to the Lordship of Jesus) ¹ (character of man who has chosen to reject the will of his creator = sin = Agapelessness = what man shall more and more become who will not repent and be reconciled to his Creator)
(b) Creator ¹ creation; I ¹ Thou; deeds of Agape ¹ deeds of Eros and Philos unsubservient to Agape; righteousness ¹ sin; subject ¹ object; the way of trust in Jesus ¹ the way of doubt in Jesus; Zen Way ¹ Jesus Way (pp.230-231)
Do these formulations tell us anything meaningful about either religion? They certainly reinforce Calloways premise that Zen Way and Jesus Way have nothing in common, but this is mostly due to the concepts Calloway has chosen and his simplification of complex ideas. The only common denominator is the Creator, a distinctly Christian concept. In order to make a meaningful comparison one needs to put roughly equivalent terms and concepts side by side. What concept, for example, plays a similar role in Zen Way to the Christian concept of the Creator? Calloways formula goes on to equate "the character of the Creator" with "the ground of all valid moral laws." "Valid moral laws" contrasts nicely, in Calloways thinking, with the implied immorality of Zen. Certainly Calloways assertion earlier in the book of the "amoral character of Buddha-Reality" as seen "from the standpoint of Satori" is accurate. But, where did this Jesus Way concept of "valid moral laws" come from? "Valid" from whos point of view? Suzuki, in the interview at the end of Section II, explains that the Zen approach is to consider what God had in mind before he said "Let there be light!" But, "Western people start with things after light separated itself from darkness." (p.134) Buddhists follow ethical precepts not too different from those of Christians. Why is it that the all important concept of Agape appears on the Jesus Way side of the formula, but the similarly important Buddhist concept of Compassion is conspicuously absent on the Zen Way side?
Calloways most egregious betrayal of his lack of openness is his suggestion that the Zen experience of enlightenment can be easily induced by staring at a window! "I have learned how to induce the psychological experience which I believe is the essence of Enlightenment." (p.220) Calloway describes his method so that the reader can recreate the experience of Enlightenment and even makes the claim that, although he has done "a considerable amount of Za-zen" [sitting in meditation] (p.223), this "mirror pretence" is "the easiest way I have found to induce the experience in myself." (p.223) Perhaps Calloway has found a quick way to Enlightenment, but if so it leaves unanswered the question as to why so many Buddhists have spent so much time sitting in meditation over the past two thousand years.
The reader waits in vain for Calloway to go beyond his simplified equations and take his comparisons up and out of the shadows of limited perspective into a higher ground where they could begin to illuminate each other. His presentation of Japanese Zen is one of the best around. His explanation of Christianity is also not far from that of the majority of believers. What is missing is the next step, which is vital to the beginning of dialogue. Callaway fails to consider further levels of meaning behind the basic concepts of each belief that could lead to little "ah-hahs!" that would add depth to the surface details.
True-Truth and Popular-Truth
In Section II, Calloway brings up two Buddhist concepts that both have potential for guiding an inter-faith dialogue beyond mutual understanding into deeper insights. The first is Hoben (Sankrit, Upaya), which he translates as "Method of Convenience." "It is somewhat similar to the concept of Myth made popular by the Christian theologian Rudolf Bultmann. These Myths or Hoben are useful teaching devices to give graspable substance to realities which are ultimately beyond the capacity of speech to express." (p.119) Calloway uses Hoben to explain the use, particularly in popular Japanese Buddhism, of "personalistic and materialistic forms as metaphors to describe what is essentially indescribable and ineffable" (p.119) Specifically, Calloway uses this to explain the worship of Amida Buddha in the True Pure Land Sect (Jodo-Shin-Shu). This is typical of Calloways approach. He nimbly moves beyond these "personalistic and materialistic forms" in his description of Zen Way, but hovers precariously near them in his description of Jesus Way.
The second concept is that of Shin-tai (True-Truth) and zoku-tai (Popular-Truth). Calloway explains that Mahayana Buddhism "can be discussed on two levels. Buddhists themselves easily slip from one to the other and back again a dozen times during a single conversation." (p.127) And further, "When discussing Buddhist thought and practice, even the most deeply Enlightened Buddhists will freely make use of Hoben, myth, and the vocabulary of Popular-Truth." (p.128)
What is Tolerance?
Central to Calloways comparison is his claim that Zen Way and Jesus Way both advocate "tolerance" and denounce "intolerance," but mean different things by these terms. Calloway emphasizes the relativity of "truth" from the perspective of a "monistic" religion, i.e. Zen Buddhism. "For Zen, tolerance means believing everything is Only-Mind and, therefore, is good just as it is." (p.157) "No religion or philosophy or system of thought or doctrinal structure is either true or false. I have repeatedly emphasized that the hallmark of Enlightenment is the realization that every value judgment is meaningless." (p.157-158) Calloway contrasts this perspective with the viewpoint of a Christian who believes in absolute truth and thus believes that some religions, i.e. Christianity, are truer than others. "What I as a Christian mean by tolerance is demonstrated by more than half a lifetime spent in showing the respect I genuinely feel for Buddhists whose basic beliefs are to me completely false." (p.159)
While Calloways definition of "tolerance" is questionable, his claim to know truth is a sin at the altar of philosophy. If he is so certain of his own beliefs so as to feel that the beliefs of these Buddhists are false, why has he spent so much time learning about Japanese Buddhism? The only answer to this question is, he aims to convert them. Calloways "tolerance" is subservient to dogma, which is intolerant by definition. Meaningful dialogue is only possible when dogmatic thinking is set aside.
Calloways reasoning lithely moves from "Zen cannot even believe that Zens own doctrine is more true than the doctrine of other religions," (p.158) to "the only possible conclusion to believing that the insights of Zen are true is to believe that truth cannot be known." (p.158) Even assuming the first statement is true, does the second statement necessarily follow? Zen does not claim that "truth cannot be known." Rather, a more accurate statement would be that Zen sees truth as difficult to grasp and recognizes that there are many possible perspectives. For Zen, apparently contrasting and even contradictory statements can lead to insight into the nature of reality. When Calloway makes statements such as "the tolerance of Zen, and of all monistic or nondualistic religions, is the acceptance of the absolute qualitative identity of all things, including all religions, " (p.158) it is as if he jumped to the conclusion of a novel, read the last page, and then criticized the story based on the ending. For Zen, the path is everything. Thomas Cleary, in the introduction to his translation of Denkoroku (Transmission of Light, San Francisco: North Point Press, 1990) explains, "Satori is not the end of Zen; it is more properly the true beginning. Those who stop here are traditionally said to have gained a little and considered it enough." (pp.ix)
Why compare two religions? Calloway clearly aims to demonstrate the superiority of Jesus Way. His final statement on the subject is, "For the Jesus-man, the Zen Way and the Jesus Way are absolutely and irreconcilably Two." (p.241) Contrast this with Thomas Mertons use of Zen, which was largely aimed at bringing a new perspective into Christianity. Historically, Christian theology has always adopted ideas from different cultures and even different religions, just as Buddhism adopted native Chinese and Japanese ideas as it moved east from India. Zen grew out of this very process and now attracts inquiring minds throughout the world. Calloway discusses the famous Zen story of the Chinese monk, Tai-shia (Japanese: Tanka) who burns a wooden image of the Buddha to warm himself in winter. When the temple administrator complains, Tai-shia begins poking around in the ashes. The administrator yells out in exasperation, "What are you doing?" To which Tai-shia replies, "Looking for the bones." The administrator says, "There will be no bones," so Tai-shia says, "Well then, please hand me another Buddha-Image." Calloways comments on this story focus on the "amoral character of Buddha-Reality" (p.114). There is yet another interpretation, however. The wooden Buddha-Images are but one perspective of Buddha-Reality as worshiped by the local monks. Tai-shia doesnt mind burning them because he understands that they are only a perspective and not Buddha-Reality itself. Tai-shia allows us to consider for a moment that they are wooden images and thus useful for starting a fire with which to warm ourselves. The danger of Calloways mission is that he tries to convert us into believing that his Buddha-Images have bones, unlike the others. Suzuki says, "If you try consciously to form a good character, you can never do that. Spontaneous creativity must be like a crow when he cries, Kah! Kah! In this sense Eckhart is very great. A little flea when he is inspired is greater than angels, he says." (p.145) Tai-shias burning of the Buddha-Image was certainly an example of this kind of "spontaneous creativity" that leads to good character and ultimately enlightenment. This "spontaneous creativity" is at the heart of real tolerance and diametrically opposed to dogmatism.
Oita City, Japan
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