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Life and guidance of the Holy Fathers
Below is a short excerpt from part two of an article concerning St. Nicholas of Japan on Buddhism.
The saint just as negatively reacted to the idea he heard of creating a hybrid of Christianity and Buddhism, pointing out the “absurdity of such an endeavor, and the impossibility under any circumstances of comparing the truth of God’s faith with human invention” (III, 363).
St. Nicholas approved of the words of his visitors who “had compared Christianity with Buddhism and found them to be polar opposites” (III, 804). The saint at times had to disprove the then popular opinion among Western and Russian intelligentsia that Christianity was constructed upon ideas borrowed from Buddhism. He describes his conversation with the wife of Admiral Schmidt. At her remark about the closeness of Buddhism’s moral teaching with that of Christianity, St. Nicholas replied, “ ‘There is indeed some resemblance to our religion in Buddhism’s moral teaching; and what pagan religion does not have it? The moral teaching of pagans is drawn from the conscience, which they have not lost.’ ‘But they say that Christ’s teachings were borrowed from Buddhism.’ ‘Well, this is what people say who know neither Buddhist nor Christian teachings well.’ ‘No—why shouldn’t Christ borrow something from Buddhism if He liked it? He (Christ) was an intelligent man.’ ‘Christ was God and He spoke His teaching as a Divine command; Buddha, as well as everything in the world and the whole world itself, is nothing before Him’, I interrupted her, in order to stop this outflow of refuse from the cesspool of a general’s mind… So, the upper class in Russia is ignorant … in things related to faith” (II, 296).
At the same time, the saint also related skeptically to ideas expressed in response apologetics about aspects in the life of Buddha supposedly being borrowed from the Gospels. Remarking on a lecture he heard by the Protestant Spencer, St. Nicholas writes that there were “no few paradoxes; for example, the supposition that Buddha’s ‘life’ was copied from the life of the Savior. He would do well to prove that” (IV, 167).
From conversations with converts, St. Nicholas formed the opinion that Buddhism does not answer the needs of the soul that has a living religious feeling. He cites the story of one family: “Yuki and his wife were both believing Buddhists. Not having found in Buddhism a ‘personal’ God, he lost his faith in it and was extremely glad to find God the Creator and His Providence in Christianity, about which he had learned by accident, having obtained a Bible. He began to pray to the Christian God, and his fervent prayer was even crowned by a miracle: his wife had been ill to the point that she was unable to stand up. He prayed fervently for her healing, and she at once rose up healthy, to everyone’s amazement” (IV, 208). It is the fact that Christianity gives a person not simply an “idea of God”, but a living connection with Him, that in St. Nicholas’s eyes distinguishes it in principle from Buddhism. This is explained by the saint’s comment that, “Buddhism in the religious sense is essentially empty, for what religion can there be without God?” (III, 443).
St. Nicholas spoke several times about Buddhist prayer: “Their prayer is fruitless, because they pray to something that does not exist” (V, 571); “Their prayer is useless and deserves pity, for a tree and a rock or some empty space, at which they direct their calls to the gods and buddhas, which do not exist, do not see or hear them, and cannot help” (II, 175).
Unfortunately, St. Nicholas (Kasatkin’s) study of Japanese Buddhism has remained completely unnoticed by Orthodox authors, although it could substantially supplement their knowledge of the many various trends in this religion. The first attention given to St. Nicholas’s views on Buddhism came as late as the twenty-first century: A. Larionov in a short article gave an overview of the saint’s commentary, almost entirely based upon his Diaries. He writes that the “comments on Buddhism are rare, and bear a purely practically character. The basic conclusion is: Buddhism had for a long time fulfilled its role as nanny, preparing the Japanese to receive the Truth… This was that “divination in the mirror”, which taught the Japanese love for each other and an understanding of the vanity of life. Now it must be set aside, because the fullness of grace has come.”
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