A personal investigation of the first recorded encounter between a Christian and a Zen adept.
The case that I am going to discuss is the first recorded* encounter between Christians and Zen Buddhists, a Jesuit saint and a roshi. It was written down in Latin by one of the first seven Jesuits, 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.
For me the conversations were so familiar, I could have been a fly on the wall. Sometimes 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’ve had with my own Zen teachers. The tones were so familiar I thought I was remembering them, not hearing them for the first time. I had to restrain myself from finishing sentences.
When Xavier, who was for some reason known as a master of debate, shifts the conversation with the Zen master towards polemical argument, I’m embarrassed—he’s so prickly. But I also realized how much I had missed when I first set out to become a Zen student. I heard echoes from my Jesuit training in my responses to my Zen teachers. 55 years ago when I entered the Society of Jesus, carefully formulated points of doctrine designed to stem the tide of the Reformation were still taught in the curriculum, and for better or worse tended to form a rather rigid collective zeitgeist, It also created an easy target to rebel against.
Xavier records 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).
Over an extended period in 1549 on Kyushu, the southernmost island of Japan, there 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. Xavier read Ninjitsu’s “I don’t know” as doctrinal blindness and the work of the Devil rather than keeping his mind open in an inquiry.
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.
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).
To place Xavier’s arrival in the context of the religious history of medieval Japan, only 49 years later in 1597, as the Tokugawa shoguns continued to consolidate their rule, 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 a savage 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 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. 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. 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 that are used along with meditation, or zazen, to focus and illuminate the mind.
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 temple 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. 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’ 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 or a Bodhidharma.
From my own Zen training I think I understand why the Ninjitsu took Xavier seriously. A strange man who came from the other side of the world stood before him, spoke a strange sounding language, wore clothing that seemed somewhat monkish, and most importantly asked a question that demanded an answer, not rote, 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. Even if I don’t know what Ninjitsu actually held about the existence of the soul, I do know that he considered the question important—Xavier asking it made it important.
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 koan stories or the gospel of Jesus, but belonging to a very different world than the 21st century.
Despite any difficulties with language, I think that Ninjitsu understood Xavier perfectly, and that might have even provided some answers given the extensive hells that are available in Buddhist cosmology. But perhaps 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 just to ascertain 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 could 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 detailed instructions on prayer. I have already used the application of the senses to recreate the meeting between Xavier and Ninjitsu; 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. 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: “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 didn’t “wiggle around a lot” which he thought indicated that I had done some work, 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.
The meaning of Eternal Life
At the very beginning of a koan is 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?”
From what I can map from the chronology in 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 tightly scripted formal conference negotiated in advance to trumpet straightening out the thread of old argument—where the parties separated, where they might converge, or where they agree to disagree.
There are clues that the conversation had elements of spontaneity and laughter. It might have been 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, “Don’t ask me, I’m not dead yet.” I like it because it makes me laugh, and 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 sexual dalliances.
Xavier will eventually condemn Zen as the work of the Devil. He was the product of the frayed religious culture that the Reformation left in its wake; he set a confrontational tone for the early Jesuits in Japan. 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 Japan.
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 to find your own answer to Xavier’s question, I recommend that you include the practice of zazen 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.
1549 or 1550 marked the end of the encounter. 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. The historical record shows that the groundwork for further conversation about religious beliefs between Zen Buddhists and Christians was not very firm. The gifts 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
Koans can enter our consciousness, and change our point of view. They can even change a society. The wheel of the dharma, as the Buddhist metaphor clearly tries to show us, never stops. I have no evidence that Xavier ever really taught Ninjitsu anything about the Christian way of life, but I will posit some anecdotal evidence that it just might have happened as I imagined.
Father Enomiya-LaSalle, S.J. is buried in Hiroshima. On August 6, 1945, he was walking 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 teacher, Yamada Koun Zenshin. He wrote about his long experience with the practice, and 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.
My friend and teacher, David Weinstein Roshi, was a student of Yamada Roshi during Father LaSalle’s last years, 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, “There is the man who taught me how to apply the koans in my life.”
After reading Xavier’s letters to Ignatius describing his encounter with 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.
I begin my acknowledgement of Jesuit and other Christian Zen Masters with Fr. LaSalle. His example and teaching influenced most of these men and women who became Zen teachers in their own right. I cannot even guess where their Zen practice will lead, but I hope that their work 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. Willigis Jäger, O.S.B., Roshi (dec. 2020); Bro. Tom Marshall, S.J. (dec. 2010); Fr. Bill Johnson, S.J. (dec. 2010); Fr. Pat Hawk, CSsR, Roshi (dec. 2012); Fr. Kakichi Kadowaki, S.J., Roshi (dec. 2017); Fr. Niklaus Brantschen, S.J., Roshi; Ruben Habito, (former Jesuit), Roshi; Bro. Kevin Hunt, OCSO, Trappist, Sensei; Rev. James Ismael Ford, UU Minister, Roshi; Fr. Robert Jinsen Kennedy, S.J., Roshi; Sr. Elaine MacInnes, Our Lady’s Missionaries, Roshi; Rev. David Parks-Ramage, UCC, Roshi; Fr. Ama Samy, S.J., Roshi.
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.”
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.
*I first read about Xavier's encounter in Bernard Faure's Chan Insights and Oversights. I asked my friend Bro. Tom Marshall to locate Xavier's Letters. He did, and another friend, Robert Blaire Kaiser, helped me get them out of the Jesuit Library at the Univeristy of San Francisco. The Jesuits are meticulous about recording their dates and places of their missionary work. I knew that part would be easy. I had not expected to find any evidence confirming the enounter from Japanese sources, However when Ninjitsu, abbot of the Zen Temple, Kinryu-zan Fukushoj, appeared in Zen records along with his dates, it was easy to match them up, and say with a great deal of certainlty that “Ninxit" was in fact Ninjitsu.
*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., compiled 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 a koan student par excellence, a wily fox, an ordained priest in two Zen lineages, a brother in the Society of Jesus and a true son of St. Francis Xavier. You held my hand, or laughed, as I worked my way through the account of Xavier’s travels in Japan. Bless you, dear Tom, as you explore worlds yet undiscovered.
I also thank 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.
Morgan Zo Callahan gave me the time and space to complete “Buddha, S.J.” as 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.