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2 July 2019

Japanese Buddhists saved by faith?

Kota Shrine with Shinran statue

“We are Buddhists!” Mr. Suzuki informed us in a stern tone as if he wanted to make sure that we knew our boundaries as missionaries when we invited their daughter to our church-based English classes. I thought, Interesting, and why are you sending your daughter to our classes, if you have such strong religious convictions?

Over the course of several years, our friendship with the family grew and we enjoyed numerous interesting discussions about the Christian faith and aspects of Buddhism. I remember how surprised we were to hear that the Buddhist branch they belong to also teaches salvation by grace. Shinran, the twelfth-century founder of True Pure Land Buddhism (Jōdo Shinshū), stressed that salvation was not attainable through effort or through accumulation of merits, but only by faith in the grace of Amida Buddha.

When we heard about the teaching of True Pure Land, I thought, Well if this is true, then what we thought was unique to the Christian faith, is also central to this branch of Buddhism. It felt as if the wind was taking out of our “evangelistic sails.” All that the followers of Amida Buddha need to do is to invoke his name in faith: “Namu Amida Butsu” (I take refuge in Amida Buddha). The goal is to be reborn in the Pure Land, where there is no evil and people live long healthy lives. In other words, the followers of Shinran’s teaching share a hope that looks not too dissimilar from the Christian one. Although I am usually annoyed by the ignorance of the popular secular media when they suggest that all religions are the same, in this case, we were not quite sure how to make the Christian faith uniquely attractive to our friends.

Recently, I have come across an interesting testimony by a True Pure Land monk (Buddhist monks choose Christ, Dawn Press, 1989), who has become a Christian. He shares that when he started to investigate the origins of True Pure Land Buddhism, he noticed that Shinran almost completely reversed the original Buddhist doctrine and made it into an attractive philosophy. The former monk realized that the Christian promise of eternal life, by contrast, is not based on enticing teaching, but on the historical death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

However, we are not sure how to communicate this essential difference to our Japanese friends. From experience, logical reasoning will rarely lead to a change of heart and allegiance. Especially in Japanese Buddhism, which is often deeply ingrained into the psyche and is a way to stay connected to one’s family and ancestors.

The Suzuki family attended our church service several times. They heard the gospel of Jesus Christ. Only the Spirit can convince them of their need of Jesus. Once again we are reminded that prayer is essential to mission work.

Names changed for privacy

By OMF missionaries

Will you pray for Japan?

  • Pray that the Holy Spirit will convict the heart of Japanese people relying on Buddha to save them.
  • Pray for wisdom for missionaries as they seek to communicate the essential difference between Christianity and Buddhism.
  • Pray that Japanese will not be attracted by human-made philosophy, but instead find truth in the Bible.

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