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One evening in 1995, at an evangelical Bible study in New Jersey for twenty-­somethings, I learned that an acquaintance of mine had just dropped out of medical school and was planning to drive to a Hare Krishna ashram in Northern California. We were both tired of the kind of evangelical Christianity that had spawned the group that brought us together, the group that taught us about Christ’s love and his impending return, the group that cared for us both deeply. She was leaving the next morning. I decided to go along.

On the other side of the country, we visited the pleasant garden compound that my friend was planning to join. I briefly contemplated joining myself. This was a Hare Krishna 2.0 kind of place, with less swaying and more business sense. The guru’s name was Siddhaswarupananda, though his parents would have known him as Chris ­Butler. ­Butler became a self-realized yogi by the age of ­twenty, which is certainly more than I could say for myself at that age. The list of those he has influenced is impressive, including the first Hindu member of Congress, Hawaii’s Tulsi Gabbard, who was sworn in with her hand on a copy of the Bhagavad Gita.

While at the ashram, I wrangled with those who were assigned to answer my questions about Hinduism. I was touched by the sincerity of the devotees, who were largely right—it seemed to me—in their assessment of Western cultural exhaustion. Their yoga poses impressed. One young man, a redheaded Norwegian in his early thirties, guided me through a book filled with images of Krishna while his eyes dewed with tears of love.

When my questions kept coming, I was ushered into a room with a small television playing videotapes of Butler’s lectures, which I dutifully watched. I was prepared to be convinced, but later that night, a good way into the videos, Butler flatly suggested that the early Church Father Origen believed in ­reincarnation. It was then that the spell the ashram was weaving was broken. True, the guru’s charisma could not be channeled through a VHS tape, but more to the point, I had learned enough about ­Origen in the mandatory theology class at the evangelical college I was attending (and where I now teach) to ­realize that Butler’s claim was false. I left the next morning, with no money to speak of, and hitchhiked my way back across the country to the Christianity I had left behind. 

Only a few years later, I was a youth minister at a Presbyterian church and preparing to take a group of high school students to Shanghai as part of a cultural exchange program. On a preparatory trip to orient the leaders, we visited the Grand Buddha at Ling Shan, a nearly three-hundred-foot-tall bronze statue located a few hours’ drive from the city. The site was swarmed with people who were making their way, on their knees, up the massive stairway toward the statue. I walked up the stairs and, at the top, realized that the Buddha’s big toe alone was nearly the size of my Ford Focus. I asked a companion, a Presbyterian minister from a different church, what he made of the scene. “They’re worshiping idols,” he flatly declared. Our Chinese leader was a Protestant pastor whose Buddhist father had beaten him for becoming a Christian. He was radiantly kind, passionately committed to Jesus, and did little to help us understand the statue.

When I brought my students back to the same site, they asked me about the massive Buddha. Despite considerable preparatory study, I couldn’t do much better, I’m afraid. Our journey was fruitful nonetheless. Back in Shanghai, a young Chinese student, hearing us singing praise songs one evening, requested that we baptize him. The baptism was performed by our Chinese host, who poured water over his head in the hotel bathroom as we all squeezed in to watch. Why the young man came to us, I still don’t quite understand. The churches in Shanghai were so packed that we had to arrive an hour early to get a seat. But his baptism meant a great deal to our group, to him, and, of course, to God.

Decades later, I found myself reading Taoist, Hindu, and Buddhist texts. As an art historian I had learned enough about Eastern art and architecture to discuss them with some degree of sensitivity. Now, however, I was reading for personal rather than professional interest. I was wading more deeply into the territory of the mystics: the Philokalia and the Victorines, Bernard and Francis, Eckhart, John of the Cross, and Luther. And I had been trying, as a result, to do less thinking and more silent praying, which I suppose helps explain my attraction to Eastern sources. Just as those who enjoy discursive theology find themselves drawn to non-Christian philosophers such as Nietzsche and Heidegger for refinement and calibration, so the discovery of Christian contemplation necessitated—for me at least—deeper familiarity with the East.

For readers of my time and place, Thomas ­Merton remains an important guide. I had heard varying opinions as to whether he remained faithful to Christianity in his Eastern experiments. I was surprised, therefore, to realize that Merton never lost his bearings. Merton died in 1968, and in his 1967 ­Mystics and Zen Masters he insists, “[Zen] is not by itself sufficient. We must also look to the transcendent and personal center upon which this love, liberated by illumination and freedom, can converge. That center is the Risen and Deathless Christ.”

When approaching Buddhism less as a rival theology than as a series of “acts emerging out of a certain quality of consciousness,” Merton finds much to learn. Zen is a way more than a doctrine, which is why Merton observed that comparing Zen and Christianity was like comparing tennis and ­mathematics.

Merton’s engagement with Hinduism was no less principled, especially because Hinduism is where his journey with Catholicism began. While a student at Columbia University in the 1930s, Merton met a Hindu monk named Mahanambrata Brahmachari, who advised Merton not to become Hindu, but to discover the wealth of the Judeo-Christian tradition instead. It was good counsel. Merton could engage Hinduism much more intelligently as a seasoned Trappist monk than as a young secular seeker. He showed great interest in many varieties of Hinduism, and while visiting Calcutta, tried (unsuccessfully) to meet with Brahmachari again. But Merton also cautioned against mixing certain aspects of yoga and Christianity. He insisted that humanity and God remain distinct, and even claimed that gurus are unnecessary when one has access to the ultimate guru: the Eucharist.

It is telling that some of Merton’s fans tend to avoid these clear affirmations of Christian truth when lionizing their hero. Other of ­Merton’s followers are more responsible. Most ­interesting among them is the Jesuit William Johnston (1925–2010), who gained the training and experiences in Zen monasteries that Merton was hoping to attain. If Merton cleared a footpath ­between Christianity and Buddhism, Johnston turned it into a manageable road. Living in Japan for most of his life, Johnston is most famous for his translation of Shūsaku Endō’s Silence, but he was quite an author in his own right as well. To read his books—Christian Zen, The Still Point, or “Arise, My Love...”is to inhabit the land that Merton only visited.

Merton observed that Christian mysticism shared with Eastern practices the quest for a “quality of consciousness.” Johnston identifies the common denominator between Zen and Christianity as the “inner conviction that all is well.” This is not a theological convergence: “Clearly no authentic Buddhist will say that all is well because God loves the world.” The overlap is phenomenological. The Buddhist “will claim an inner security based on the conviction that everything is alright—an inner security which stands in the midst of suffering, earthquake, flood, famine and war.”

Julian of Norwich, who was famously told “All shall be well” by the suffering Christ, evokes the same inner security. If Christians lack this providential conviction, Johnston suggests, the Zen Master sits waiting to remind them, or at least to challenge them, to learn how to sit calmly in the midst of life’s turmoil.

But Johnston, like Merton, also recognized the limits of Zen. “From Zen I can, and will continue to, learn many things,” he writes. “But I am convinced that it is not the same as the Christian contemplation to which I feel called.” The differences are fundamental. “It is one thing to say that sentiments and thoughts of God are inadequate: it is another thing to say [with Zen] that they are illusory.”

Johnston was fond of quoting the Dalai Lama’s observation that being Buddhist and Christian at the same time is like putting a yak’s head on a sheep’s body. His principled commitment to Christianity established the itinerary pursued in his remarkable book, The Wounded Stag (1998):

Having spent many years comparing Christian mysticism with its Buddhist counterpart, having searched for similarities . . . I felt that the time had come to investigate the unique dimension of the Christian experience and to look for its ­distinctive features. . . . I wanted to go beyond St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila, beyond ­Meister Eckhart and The Cloud of Unknowing, beyond Augustine and Gregory, to the very origins of that mystical prayer which assumes increasing ­significance in the lives of contemporary men and women.

What is striking to me about that passage is the similarity it has to a certain type of Protestant approach to the spiritual life; for some Protestants—evangelicals especially—also like to skip through the centuries in search of the pure land of the past. Perhaps this is why Johnston recognized that the Japanese convert to Protestantism Kanzō Uchimura had made Christian inroads into Japanese culture in ways that other Christians had not. “Buddha is the Moon; Christ is the Sun,” wrote Uchimura, “I love and admire Buddha; but I worship Christ.”

Still, it is often thought that evangelical ­Protestants have little to offer interreligious dialogue. Perhaps mission trips like the one to China that I participated in confirm this suspicion. But when Protestant faith returns to Pauline pulses of grace, a genuine evangelical contribution to interreligious dialogue emerges.

There have been Protestant Mertons. Tucker ­Callaway was a Southern Baptist missionary to Japan after World War II. Responding to the hatred of Japanese Americans in the 1940s, Callaway devoted himself to mastering Japanese because of Christ’s command to love your enemies. In Zen Way—Jesus Way (1976), Callaway gives a profound account of his experiences at major Zen monasteries in Japan, where he enjoyed frank and penetrating conversations with monks, including the great D. T. Suzuki whom Merton also knew. That said, the second half of Zen Way—Jesus Way hammers home Christian distinctiveness with more force than necessary. For the Protestant Callaway, the line between Zen and Christianity that Merton and Johnston took for granted has to be emphasized to a fault.

It would not be difficult to take Callaway’s Zen Way—Jesus Way in a different direction. There are touchpoints between Protestantism and the religions of the East. In the Tao Te Ching, for example, which so influenced Zen Buddhism, Lao-tzu famously offered what can be read as a proto-Trinitarian insight. “Tao gives birth to one. One gives birth to two. Two gives birth to three. Three gives birth to ten thousand things.” Lao-tzu has proto-Protestant moments wherein he expresses the paradox of effortlessness: “One does less and less until one does nothing at all, and when one does nothing at all there is nothing that is undone.” This has curious resonance with ­Martin Luther’s 1518 Heidelberg Disputation, in which the young Reformer insists, “The law says, ‘do this,’ and it is never done. Grace says, ‘believe in this,’ and every­thing is already done.”

Anticipations of Protestant theology can be found in the third-century Mahāyāna Buddhist philosopher Nāgārjuna, a contemporary of ­Origen: “Some exert themselves diligently, while others quickly enter non-retrogression by the easy practice based on faith.” In the earliest surviving printed book, The Diamond Sutra, a central text of Zen Buddhism, these convergences expand. The Buddha asks his disciple Subhūti, famed for his generosity, whether someone who donated enough treasure to fill the universe would accrue considerable merit. Several times Subhuti takes the bait, replying in the affirmative. In each of these cases, the Buddha responds with distant analogues to the Protestant principles of sola gratia and sola Scriptura:

If a disciple studies and adheres with implicit faith to even a stanza of this Scripture, the intrinsic merit of such a disciple would be relatively greater [than giving great treasure]. And why? Because . . . all owe their beginning to the Truth of this sacred Scripture—the Truth of Emptiness and ­Egolessness. . . . Enlightened disciples . . . never think of merit and its commensurate reward.

The Buddha sounds like a good Lutheran pastor as he drives home this message of grace over and over throughout the Diamond Sutra. Asked one last time whether merit is of any value, the proudly generous Subhuti finally gets the message, conceding, “No, Blessed One; a Buddha is not to be known by his works . . .” It’s wrong to imagine a theological convergence, but these passages show that the Reformation recovery of grace was not just peculiarly suited to sixteenth-century Europeans. Humanity’s ugly tendency to self-justification is universal.

Karl Barth recognized a dramatic meeting of Buddhism with Protestantism that takes us away from Zen Buddhism to the rival Pure Land School, sometimes referred to as Shin Buddhism. The parallels with Luther, and perhaps Calvin as well, are remarkable. Pure Land Buddhism, with its three main sutras, stretches back to the early centuries of the first millennium, was revived in the tenth century by the monk Genshin (942–1017), and was taken further by Hōnen (1133–1212), founder of the first independent Pure Land School.

Hōnen attempted to master the elaborate meditative techniques of medieval Japan, but never succeeded. He replaced his failed striving with a resolve to trust instead in the name of Amida Buddha with all his heart. (Amida, sometimes rendered Amitābha, means “infinite light” in Sanskrit.) Hōnen believed the Amida Buddha, who lived in a distant time and place, had vowed to save anyone who simply recited and trusted in his name. If Luther’s breakthrough came from “giving assent to the promises of God and concluding that they are true” (Commentary on Genesis), Hōnen’s came from a similar trustful assent: Shinjin, translated as “deep hearing,” “true entrusting,” or even “faith,” is sufficient.

As with Luther, the Pure Land School disrupted the religious establishment. Shinran (1173–1263) refined and developed Hōnen’s breakthrough, even to the point of giving up strict fasting regulations and leaving his monastic vows to get married. Shinran insisted that increasing awareness of sin results in ­increasing dependence on grace from beyond the ego. He could be as forceful in delivering this message as Luther: “With our evil natures hard to subdue, our minds are like asps and scorpions,” he wrote. “As the practice of virtue is mixed poison, we call it false, vain practice.” ­Shinran might as well be citing a favorite passage of the ­Reformers: Romans 3.

Shinran’s realism, like Paul’s, results in mercy. “Even the good person attains birth in Pure Land. How much more so the evil person!” Self-power (jiriki) cannot deliver salvation, but other-power (tariki) can. And it is available to every common ­householder, not just monks and nuns. As Hōnen puts it, “In the path of the Sages one perfects wisdom and achieves enlightenment; in the path of Pure Land one returns to the foolish self to be saved by Amida.”

According to Shinran, good works follow from trust in Amida Buddha. As Paul Chung explains in his extensive study of Luther and Buddhism, these works are effectual “only when done out of thankfulness and gratitude for having been liberated and enlightened by the power of Amida rather than for the purpose of attaining enlightenment.” Luther’s On Good Works makes the same point. The Christian “does all gladly and freely, not with a view to accumulating merit and good works, but because it is his great joy to please God and to serve him without thought of reward.”

As two contemporary advocates of Pure Land Buddhism put it in their book Great Faith, Great Wisdom, “Faith ultimately trumps practice.” How ironic, then, as I later learned, that the gigantic golden statue outside of Shanghai I was so unable to appreciate was not just any Buddha, but an Amida Buddha of the Pure Land.

Interestingly enough, Merton appealed to this particular school in his final book on Buddhism, Zen and the Birds of Appetite (1968). In a heated back and forth with Suzuki, Merton distanced himself from Zen, concluding that Pure Land Buddhism was a better contact point with Christianity because of its emphasis on the pure gift of grace. (Suzuki, the Zen expert whose first love was Pure Land Buddhism, may have been pleased.) Merton’s move should come as no surprise, for the Trappist monk had a considerable Lutheran streak. As ­Merton argued in New Seeds of Contemplation, “The root of Christian love is not the will to love, but the faith that one is loved.

The Bhagavad Gita also contains Christian resonances. The relationship between the Old and New Testaments is sometimes used to describe the relationship between the earlier and more severe Vedas and the later Bhagavad Gita. The moods of the Gita vary, but certain passages warn against quantification and reward. “You have a right to your actions,” Krishna says to Arjuna, “but never to your action’s fruits.” Krishna has mercy on all in the Gita, even the ­untouchables: 

Even the heartless criminal,
If he loves me with all his heart,
Will certainly grow into sainthood
As he moves toward me on this path. . . .
All those who love and trust me,
Even the lowest of the low—
Prostitutes, beggars, slaves—
Will attain the ultimate goal.

Reading these lines, I can see why the redheaded Norwegian I met so many years ago at the Hare Krishna ashram was moved to tears. Krishna’s famous pledge to Arjuna in the Gita’s eighteenth chapter strikes notes of trust and mercy: “Abandon all ­varieties of dharmas and simply surrender unto me alone. I shall liberate you from all sinful reactions; do not fear.” Even more strongly: “The fire of eternal wisdom burns into ashes all works.” Unsurprisingly, the Anglican poet T. S. Eliot selectively borrowed from the Gita in his Christian masterpiece, Four Quartets.

Hinduism’s tendency toward monism—the ­injudicious merging of God, the soul, and reality—is at odds with the Judeo-Christian tradition, and risks rendering meaningless Hinduism’s fleeting moments of grace. Yet certain Hindu philosophers have attempted to create a backdrop that can sustain these intermittent eruptions of mercy. A Hindu figure equivalent to Hōnen in Buddhism is Rāmānuja (1017–1137). Rāmānuja approaches something akin to theism: a metaphysical structure where God and reality are somewhat distinct. From this emerged Bhakti yoga—a complex method of devotion and a distant forefather of the yoga at the ashram I visited as a young man. From this form of yoga also emerged the concept of prapatti, which resembles the Christian concept of grace.

Saiva Siddhānta, a branch of South Indian philosophy, also keeps God and reality distinct, which enables the possibility of grace to emerge. Just as a cow would not refuse to lick the dirty wounds of her calf, so does God (Shiva in this case) not hesitate to dwell with sinners.

His form is grace, his attributes are grace,
His functions arise from grace, his limbs are grace;
And his grace is all for the souls and not for himself.

There are limits to the analogy. In his comparative study of grace in Christianity and Hinduism, Bishop Sabapathy Kulandran of the Church of South India cautioned that in the logic of Hinduism, karmic determinism cannot be overcome, only interrupted. “When the very possibility of grace [in Hinduism] may be disavowed so easily and casually,” he explains, “the question arises of how deep-rooted the doctrine can be.” But there are glimmers of salvific hope nonetheless. The sentence “Śiva destroys by experience the karma there in the body” (Siddhiār VIII.10) makes a claim remarkably similar to the biblical proclamation “[Christ] condemned sin in the flesh” (Rom. 8:3).

Catholics have undertaken daring interreligious experiments with Hinduism. One of C. S. Lewis’s students, Bede Griffiths (1906–1993), became a Benedictine monk and moved to India. Together with Jules Monchanin and their more radical colleague Henri Le Saux (who became Abhishiktananda), he participated in the Christian ashram movement that took up Eastern spiritual practices as a way to deepen Christian faith. They were indebted not only to great Catholic missionaries in India from past centuries, but also to Protestant workers who immediately preceded them. The very idea of a Christian ashram solidified during the 1912 National Missionary Society meeting thanks to Kanakarayan T. Paul (1876–1931), an Indian-born leader of the YMCA, and the Anglican Charles Freer Andrews (1871–1940), Gandhi’s close friend.

Andrews helped his English readers to see Hinduism in a more charitable light. “In South India,” he argued in 1912, “devotion to Shiva has been allied to a noble doctrine of grace which has redeemed it from its earlier crudity and horror.” Inspired by this new openness, the first Christian ashrams were established, including the Christukula ashram in 1921, and then the Christa Seva Sangh ashram led by Anglican priest Jack Winslow. Protestant-Christian ashrams were a major force in Gandhi’s movement of nationalism. Without them, later Catholic-­Christian ashrams would have been inconceivable. Had we known about these Protestant experiments, my ­med-school dropout friend and I who considered forsaking evangelicalism for an ashram would probably have made our cross-country trip anyway—but we might have thought twice.

Christ, the conqueror of death, cannot say with the unpredictable, and sometimes immoral, ­Krishna, “I am death, shatterer of worlds, annihilating all things.” In the Judeo-Christian tradition, God the Creator is a far cry from Shiva the Destroyer. Moreover, the physical life of Amida Buddha, who is said to have lived millions of years ago, and possibly (according to some descriptions) not even in this world, is vastly different from Jesus Christ, who “suffered under Pontius ­Pilate.” Unlike any other religion, Christianity offers a real incarnation (not an avatar), in which real sins (not illusions) are really taken care of (not transcended) on the hard wood of the Cross. But the definitiveness of this revelation enables us to recognize mysterious anticipations elsewhere. In the Gospel of John, Christ is “the light of all people” (John 1:4). Christ is the one in whom all things hold together (Col. 1:17). There is no corner of culture, even religious culture, where something of that light might not be found.

In retrospect, my passing engagement of Hinduism on a cross-country joy ride and my visit to the East leading a church group were closer to tourism than genuine spiritual engagement. These were missed opportunities. I’ve come to understand that the Protestant tradition can help us see something noble and fitting in Eastern religions. Observing the faiths of the world, Luther wrote, “Their rites are different, but their hearts and thoughts are the same. . . . That is, they say, ‘If I have acted in such and such a way, God will be well disposed toward me.’ The same feeling is found in the hearts of all men.” I think Luther is right on that score. The world religions and many traditional philosophies, those of the East as well as the West, reflect our natural desire to justify ourselves. Yet there is more. When it comes to finding Christian themes in other religions, C. S. Lewis famously posited, “We must not be nervous about ‘parallels’ and ‘pagan Christs’: they ought to be there—it would be a stumbling block if they weren’t.” Perhaps we can say the same for Luther’s assertion that we are saved by grace, not merit. It, too, ought to be there. 

Matthew J. Milliner is associate professor of art history at Wheaton College.

Photo by Synyan via Creative Commons. Image cropped.