Agape And Compassion


Augustine Ichiro Okumura,O.C.D.


It is often said that Christianity is a "religion of love" while Buddhism is a "religion of wisdom" In Buddhism, there is the teaching of Amitabha's mercy, (Maitri) which liberates mankind completely so that in end even hell will be abolished. In Christianity, we find the great wisdom literature in the Old Testament; and in the New Testament, the thought that "to know", Christ is great wisdom. St. Paul furthermore declares the supreme advantage of knowing Christ in whom all knowledge and wisdom are concealed (Phil 3:8, Eph 1:17, Col 1:9; etc). 


The consideration of Christianity as a "religion of love" is usually based on the following two reasons: first, Christ said that the greatest commandment of law is love for God and neighbor (Mt 22:35-40; Mk 12:28-31; Lk 10: 25-37): and secondly, Christ tought us to expand the law of love in he Old Testament to include even out enemies  (Mt 5:43-48; Lk 6:27-36; of Rom 12:17-37).


Unconditional love for enemy, however, is not something peculiar only to Christianity. Buddhist mercy is certainly identical with it. Many Buddhist scholars even say that Buddhist mercy, which liberates all creatures from hell and finally wipes out hell itself, is superior to a love of God as found in Christiasity, that cannot deny the existence of hell.


It is a fact that there are a lot of admirable teachings on mercy in the ancient Sutras of Buddhism, Let me introduce only a few of the more typical ones. "Have mercy on your own enemies and treat all men with a merciful heart. This is the teaching of all the enlightened." In " The Teaching of singalaka," we find this: "It is a true friend that lays down his life for his friend," a reminder of Christ's saying: "A man can have no greater love that to lay down his lfe for his friend," in the Gospel according to St. John (Jn 15:13).


In special contrast with love (agape), the essence of Christianity, maitri 9Mercy) is considered to be an important idea. particularly in Mahayan Buddhism. To compare the two. One must be concerned not only eight an essential understanding of both religions, but also with the mystery of human love.


Let us now take up two themes which may be of help in the understanding of the fundamental characteristics of both Christianity and Buddhism at the same time.


1.       "A Wealthy Man and His Prodigal Son"


In the Lotus-Sutra (Saddharmapun-darika-sutra) is found the following famous story, a parable of "A Wealthy Man and His Prodigal Son." It is the story of a son who underwent the sufferings of poverty, though his father was a man of wealth.


Once a foolish son was deceived by a stupid person and left his father after many years he fell into low repute and wandered around for food and clothing. His father worried so much that he, too, began to wander around looking for his runway son, until finally growing weary of the search he setteled down in a big city. The rich father built a huge mansion, gathered a tremendous amount of money and lots of slaves, was specially loved by the king and respected by the town people. However, in spite of his luxury, he could not forget his son, with the result that his life was most unhappy.


One day the runaway son appeared in front of his father's manson, astonished and frightened by the wealth before him-the entrance with its colourful curtains; the floor covered with flower petals; and in the inner court surrounded by many priests, noblemen, and merchants, a rich man was seated on a gorgeous chair decorated with gold, silver, and other jewelry, trading millions of gold pieces. The son hadn't the slightest idea that the man wa his own father but wondered what kind of place he had come to. "This man must be a king or a minister. There couldn't possibly be sort of job for me to do here. It would be better for me to go to the slums. If I stay around here, I will surely be arrested and consigned to heavy labor. Or else some other kind of trouble would befall me." With these thoughts, he tumed to run away.


However, the father recognized his son at first glance and was overcome with joy. "What a strange thing! The very one who will inherit all my gold, treasures, and money has returned! I am now an aged man. How often have I thought about this son of mine, and now he has come back to me on his own."


Because of his great love for his son, the father, who had suffered for along time, immediately ordered someone to bring the son to him. However, the frigntened son cried aloud and hastened to flee. The father fully understood the situation, told his servants not to treat him cruelly, and without saying a word poured some cold water on the son who had fainted through fright. Because their social statuses were so completely different. The father refrained from revealing his identity. He ordered the servants not to bring the son by force, to allow him to do whatever he wished Again, the son was surprised by the words and attitude of the servants, but he left and went back to the slums. Then the rich father wondered if there weren't some good way to keep the son near him. He hired two pale-looking men, saying: "Find the man who was there the other day and bring him to work here for twice the ordinary salary. If he asks what kind of job it is, tell him that it is cleaning toilets."


The son felt at ease and moved into a hut near his rich father's mansion, doing the lowly work with no realization that it was his own father for whom he was working. The father sometimes removed his beautiful robes, put on dirty clothes, soiled his hands and feet, and carrying a basket, approached his son, all the while keeping his position a secret. He offered advice and counsel as "Don't idle away your time ...clean toilets...don't work for anyone else. Stay and work here. I will give you a special salary...tell me whatever you want. whether food, clothing, pay for water, firewood, or salt. I will don anything for you. I am old, but you are still young. You have served me so much by cleaning the toilets. Besides, you have never been dishonest, unfaithful, or arrogant. From now on, you will be just like my own son."


Because of such patient education on the part of his father, the son began to love this master as if the were truly his father, not at all suspecting the truth.


Twenty years passed. The father knew his death was near because of his senility, and so he called the son who had worked for so long a time as his servant.


"My servant, come here. I am seriously ill, and I am looking for a person to whom I can leave my vast fortune. I would like you to receive all of it. I have been the owner of all this wealth, but from now on I want you to take my place."


The son, however, who considered himself only a servant, was disinterested in the fortune after he had received it and did not use even one penny for himself. He thought of himself as a poor man, and continued living in the hut.


The father was this noble-minded and humble son, and finally when his death was very near at hand, he revealed their father-son relationship to the king, ministers, and townspeople for the first time. "Listen, everyone, Actually, this is my own son; I am his real father. For fifth years since he ran away I have searched for him. This is my son; I am his father. And so, I will leave all of my fortune to him."


The Sutra says that such is the mercy of Buddha. Just as this wealthy father dealt with his poor son, so Buddha uses every means to help people through his valuable teachings, to raise them up, to save them.


It goes without saying that the similarity of this story of "A Wealthy Man and His Prodigal Son" and the parable of the prodigal son in Luke has been noted by scholars for a long time.


In his book, A comparative Study of Buddhism and Christianity, Fumio Masutani, a former professor of Tokyo University's religion department, deals with these two stories and concludes as follows:


These two allegories have common material. In either case, an impudent prodical son living in want, is the hero of the story. Without reproaching his misconduct, the father received him with boundless love. The former is an allegory of God's measureless love, and the latter is that of Buddha's profound mercy. The remarkable resemblance in material and conception suggests something mo9re than a mere coincidence. Nevertheless, there is one important difference between the two, that is the difference in the treatment of the prodigal son.


Both fathers longed for their son's return. Nothing is greater that these fathers' joy when their sons came home. But they received their sons in a conspicuously contrasted manner. At the sight of his son, one father rushed ort to fall on his neck and kiss him. He immediately gave the best robe and food and entertained the son so much that his elder brother was made angry. It is different with the other. This father waited for this son to develop a better human nature step by step, giving him some humble and suitable work. The father treated his so according to the stage he had reached. Indeed, either case is an expresion of fatherly love, but with the former paternal feelings are dominant, with the latter reason is ruling.


This book is good on the whole because, as the author intended, it does compare Buddhism and Christianity from objective and scholarly view points, in a very scholarly way. Also, it avoids the prejudice due to ignorance of other religions so often found in religious books. However, the following conclusion of the comparison of these two parables does not hold too much weight: "...with the former, paternal feelings are dominant: with the latter, reason is ruling." On the surface, the author's judgment seems reasonable enough, namely, that the paternal love shown in joyfully accepting the prodigal the poor son till he is fit for a wealthy father before whom even a king bows, and all the while concealing one's identity, is rational love. In reality the meanings of these two paraples are much deeper.  


AS Masutani pointed out, the story of " A Wealthy Man and His Prodigal Son" in the Lotus-Sutra beautifully expresses the themes of salvation and maitri in Buddhism, and its quality is quite different from the prodigal son in Luke, in spite of the similarity in content. However, their difference is not one of "feeling" and "reason" as he indicates. In the parable of the prodigal so in Luke, agape, or Christian love is set forth. What should be noted here is the unconditional character of love, " as well as the "father-son relationship." The only important thing is that the prodigal son" came back to his father," although he was in such a poor state. The joy of "his son having been dead but now alive, and having been lost but now found" fills this father's whole being. The brother who was with the father and lived honestly would become a good heir (Lk 15:13). But what overjoyed the father was the sudden return of the son who was thought to be dead. This is the central idea of Christianity, and it finds echo in the parable of the shepherd who goes out in search of one lost sheep, leaving the other ninety-nine (Mt 18:12-14; Lk 15:4-7).


In the teaching of the Lotus-Surta, the father-son relationship is revealed only after the prodigal son has made progress as a human being and has grown fit to be the wealhy man's son. It is a typical parable found in Buddhism, which shows that human growth and self-formation are the real salvation of human beings.


Not accepting one as one is, poor and lowly, the maitri of Buddha makes the poor in body and spirit rich, the lowly to be lofty. This is salvation in Buddhism. The passage-"the foolish son having been deceived by a stupid person left home" -is explained by the fact that he was deceived by some false teaching other than Buddhism.


Salvation, then, in Buddhism is to lead people from such false teachings that disillusion them and raise them up to become real sons of Buddha. That is maitri The love taught by Christ, agape, does not aim primarily at such self-formation or human growth. The living relationship of father and son shown in "the son came back to the father" is the fundamental idea of the parable of the prodigal son, prior to the son's growth in becoming a fine man. As for a good heir, the brother who complained would fill the role. Such a brother is not the hero of the story; but the son who could not look up and face his father, who said that he was no longer fit to be called a son, and the unconditional love of the father towaqrd toe son are the points of the story. What is taught in the Gospel is not the maitri of Buddha, which calls forth human self-perfection, but the job of reestablishing the broken relationship of father and son, one's own perfection is taught in the case of the story of the Lotus-Sutra, because it focuses on each individual human perfection. But in Christ's parable of the prodigal son, a "theology of relationship," based on the personal relationship of father and son, is expressed. Besides, the relationship of father and son illustrated here would be understood as finally leading to the "mystery of relationship," to "Trinity."  


In comparison with this Christian "theology of relationship," salvation in Buddhism could be called a 'theology of substance." These two parables beautifully express the fundamental difference between Buddhism and Christianity as a difference in spiritualities. In Buddhism, it is a search for self-growth, an ascertainment of one's substantance, or original nature. In Christianity, salvation comes from an "I-Thou" relationship.


2.       The  Story of Purna


I would like to introduced here the "Story of Purna" from the Sarvastivadah of Theravada Buddhism. As a held in avoiding rudimentary errors when comparing Buddhism with Christianity, it is necessary to see how much Buddhist mercy insists on love for enemy.


Purna, a merchant, travelled to various places while conducting his business, and after a while, become very rich. But after listening to the teaching of Buddha, he gave up all his wealth to charity, entered the priesthood and decided to go to love in the district of Aparantaka, Then Buddha said to him, "Purna, the people of Aparantaka are violent and quick-tempered, cruel and abusive, irritable and arrogant. If they get angry with you, say spiteful things about you and abuse you, what will you think of them?" "Master, if the people of Aparantaka get angry with me, say spiteful things about me and abuse me, I shall think of them as "kind and gentle. For though they may get angry with me, say spiteful things about me, they will not box me with their hands or hurl stones at me."


"Puurna," said Buddha, "the people of the district are violent and quick-tempered If they box you with their hands and hurl stones at you, what, then, will you think of them?" "Master, even if they box me with their hands and hurl stones at me, I shall think of them as "kind and gentle." For they-will not wound me with a stick and a sword."


"But, Purna," continued Buddha. "The people of the district are violent and quick-tempered. If they wound you with a stick and a sword, what will you a think of them?" "Master, even if they wound me with a stick and a sword, I shall think of them as "Kind and gentle." For they are not likely to kill me."


Buddha went on: "Purna, the people of the district are violent and quick-tempered. If they kill you, what, then, will you think of them?" "Master, even if they kill me, I shall think of them as 'kind and gentle' For they deliver me from this foul body with but slight pain."


"Very well, Purna. You are gifted by nature with patience and gentleness, so suited for living in the Aparantaka district," Buddha said. "Go, then, Purna."


Anyone who believes that Christianity has a monoply on love for enemy and unconditional love for neighbor will be surprised to find out that Buddhism teaches boundless mercy int he same way. The Buddhist teaching on mercy is not a bit different from that the Christ's on love! "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, as your Father in Heaven causes his sun to rise on bad men as well as good, and his rain to fail on honest and dishonest men alike" (Mt 5:44-45). Rather, we could even say that Buddhist mercy, as cited in the above story of Purna, is described as something even more intense.


Although both Christiabnity and Buddhism teach love for all men and enemies alike, as illustrated in the story of Purna and in the above quote from Metthew, differences also exist, [as they do in two parables of the prodigal sons.] The story of Purna ends as follows: "Free yourself first from passion and delusion, and then lead others to freedom. Enlighten yourself and then lead others to enlightenment. Gain for yourself peace of mind, and then lead others to it. Attain for yourself a higher perfection, and then lead others to its attainment." Here we see the teaching of Buddha, that through self-attainment of perfection one can lead others top the same to love others as they are, regardless of their inherent goodness or badness, but to lead them to self-perfection in the Buddhist sense. We need only to recall the story of the prodigal son the Lotus-Sutra who is transformed into an excellent man through a long life of ascetism.


Since the Scriptures thus command: "You must, therefore, be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Mt 5:48), it seems that Christianity also requires the same sort of self-perfection. But, in fact, the command is founded on a "theology of relationship" which enables us to interpret it as: " If you are a son, be as such." What is important is that the Scriptures not only teach unconditional love for neighbor, which is identical with Buddhist mercy, but also reveal that "in this way you wil be sons of your Father in heaven. "The seemingly impossible command to "be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect" is laid before us, but it becomes possible of fulfillment only if we establish a father-son relationship with God.


As the father and his son have the same nature, and as there can be no father without a son, not a son without a gather, the perfection of the father is that of highest," which is utterly impossible, The core of the gospel lies not in self-perfection of self-formation, but in "being sons of out Father in heaven." "To all who did accept Christ, who believe inn his name, he gives the power to become children of God" (Jn 1:12).


Herein lies the essential differences between Buddhist mercy and Christian love for neighbor, though both bay be unconditional and absolute. Buddhism, one might say, is based on a "theology of substance," whereby all men will be led to an enlightened state. Christianity is based on a "theology of relationship," whereby all men will be made sons of God the Father.


3.Love for Neighbor" and "Love for One Another"


It is often said that the greatest commandment taught by Christ is that of love, namely, love for God and love for neighbor (Mt 22:35-40-; Mk 12:28-31; Lk 10:25-37). But are these really His new commandments? It is certain that Christ solemnly declares: "On these two commandment hang the whole Law. And the Prophets also" (Mt 22:40). He, however, calls them neither "new commandments " nor "my commandments." Rather, He simply points out that the Scribes should know these things (Lk 10:26-29). The commandments that the scribes should know are those of the Old Testament, that is, the old commandments. Therefore, "a new commandment" after describing the episode of Juses washing His disciples' feet. I give you a new commandment: love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also must love one another" (Jn 13:34-35;15:12-17).


The new commandment given by Christ is not the " love your neighbor as yourself: of the Old Testament (Lev 13:35). It is possible to find elements of the Old Testament "love for neighbor" carried over into the New Testament "love for one another," as well as certain elements that are discontinued. Christ's saying that He has comer not to abolish the Law or the Prophets but to fulfill them can apply here also (Mt 5:17).


The Old Testament commandment of love for neighbor must now be extended further, If anyone hits you on the right cheek, offer him the other as well; if a man takes you to court and would have your tunic, let him have your clock as well. Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" (Mt 5:39-44). This seems identical with Buddhist mercy (maitri). Moreover, the Gospel reveals the fact that to become a son of God the Father means to establish a "son's relationship" to the Father, Who possesses a universal love. In this respect, as I have already explained, the teaching of "love for neighbor" in the New Testament, which should be understood in the light of "theology of relationship," is different from Buddhist mercy, which has the character of "theology of substance." The vertical relation of a son's love for his father is now assured and strenthened by another vertical relation between Christ and us, which is indicated in the words. 'as I have loved you" (Jn 13:34). Forthermore, because of the mystery of incarnation, in that Jesus is true God and true man as well, the vertical relation between Christ and us develops into a horizontal relation of brotherly love in the commandment "love on another."


Thus we see the qualitative difference between Christ's "love for one another" and the Old Testament, 'love for neighbor." Christ's commandment is new not only in the sense that the community formed by Christ is new, but also in that the commandment itself is utterly new, compared with "love for neighbor," which precludes mutuality. Since St. paul uses the words without making a clear distinction between "love for neighbor" and for "one another" or "brotherly love" in his epistles (Rom 13:8-10; Gal 5:14), the differences are not immediately recongnizable as they are in the Gospels. Nevertheless, not a few passages do show clearly the mutuality of love an forgiveness (Rom 12:10, 15;1 Tim 4:9; 1 Eph 4:2; 3:2; Col 3:13; etc.).


To love one's neighbor, in a sense, means to be a saint oneself, or to be a person of love, like god or Buddha. Of course, it is very difficult; yet it is essential for loving one's neighbor. Speaking in Buddhist terms, it is to have mercy even one your merciless enemies. mutual love is more that that. It is to build up a relation of loving and being loved. Aristotle may be night when he says that the essence of love is not in being loved, but in loving. As far as the relationship between God and man is concerned, we are loved and forgiven first (1 Jn 4:10: Eph 4:32; Col 3:13), and by that fact we are able to love God. In other words, mutual love between God and man should come first. When Thomas Aqinas defines caritas as "a certain friendship with God," he means buy it " mutual love" as interpreted in the term "theology of relationship."


Christ has given us only one new commandment. It is mutual love that enables us to form horizontal relationships among ourselves. These are supported by the mutual love between Christ and us, between God and us. Furthermore, the mutual love between the Father and Son makes these relationships even more profound.


In conclusion, since we consider "love for neighbor" as unconditional love that embrances even one's enemy, we may think of it as the same as Buddhist "mercy." Men are enabled to be united in Christ by love for one another, the root of which love is the vertical love that the Holy Trinity has poured out over men through Christ. Speculation on all these ideas, we see more clearly the fact that we and Christ are one (Mt 25:40, 45), and that we can be united in Christ and be one body (1 Cor 12:12-13; Eph 4:4-6).


Such communitarian salvation rises neither from the Buddhist: mercy concept nor from " love for neighbor," both of which are based on "theology of substance." Personal enlightenment should come first in such a theology, and then come the efforts to lead others to enlightenment. In other words, it is mass salvation by adopting and assimilating the enlightened state achieved by another individual. The method of direct transmission of Buddhist spiritual from master to pupil points out the 'substantial" individuality of Buddhist spirituality.


To sum up, the essence and spirituality of Buddhism therefore, should be understood within the scope of "theology of substance"; while the characteristics of Christianism which are an expression of the essence of Christian salvation and its spirituality, should be seen in the scope of "theology of relationship."



Back to top