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Kakichi Kadowaki: The inculturation of Christianity in Japan

Tomás García-Huidobro, SJ - La Civiltà Cattolica - Thu, Nov 21st 2019

The inculturation of Christianity in Japan has not been an easy process. Its history is full of encounters and contrasts, conflicts and compromises. Among the reasons for this difficult history is the complexity and uniqueness of Japanese culture. If Shintoism is Japan’s traditional religion and the one with the most adherents, Buddhism has taken root and developed in several schools that have permeated arts, architecture, literature and culture in general. One of its branches is Zen Buddhism, divided into three schools: Rinzai, S?t? and Obaku.

This is the context the first Christian missionaries found when they arrived in Japan. Their presence provoked a twofold reaction. On the one hand, it aroused admiration due primarily to European technical progress, especially in the art of war. On the other hand, Japanese people flaunted their contempt for a culture they considered barbaric and not high enough. These two reactions explain the attitude the Japanese kept toward the West even into the 20th century.

The Jesuit priest Kakichi Kadowaki (1926-2017) demonstrated the finest traditions of the Society of Jesus in its effort to inculturate the Gospel in the complexity of Japanese culture. He was a man of exquisite sensibility, highly intelligent, and aware of the deep contradictions between Japan and Western culture. He was born in Japan in 1926. Although his family was poor his parents did their best to give a good education to their son. And this pushed Kadowaki to particularly value excellence in education.

His first contact with the Zen tradition occurred when he was attending public secondary school in Shizuoka, famous for its training methods. Many of his teachers were Zen practitioners, and some of them had a deep influence on him, guiding his life. Among them, Fr. Kadowaki remembered especially his teachers Ozaki and Mishi.

Teachers used to bring their students to Zen temples where they spent several days dedicated to educational sessions. These experiences deeply affected the young Kadowaki and were decisive for the formation of his personality. However, things began to change thanks to his older brother, whom he considered charming, smart and possessed of a great spirit of initiative and foresight.



This explains how the conversion to Catholicism of his older brother had a strong impact on the young Kakichi, who began to ask questions about Christianity though without thinking of abandoning the Zen tradition. However, a dramatic event led him to a crisis point: the death of his brother during World War II due to an infection contracted in his military base on one of the Pacific islands. This crisis of the young Kakichi was provoked by the way his brother died, entrusting himself totally to the Christian God.

That example of deep and genuine faith touched his heart and urged him to consider becoming a Christian. His conversion emulated the experience of this brother he deeply admired. Kakichi became Christian at the end of secondary school while preparing to enroll in college. Even if he was not aware of it, the experience of Zen practice at school and the conversion to Catholicism through the example of his brother had already impressed upon him the unbridgeable yearning that would characterize his life: bringing together Christianity and Zen practice.

After three years of college, Kadowaki entered the Society of Jesus in 1950. His master of novices was Fr. Pedro Arrupe, who would become the Superior General of the Jesuits from 1965 to 1981, renewing the Society of Jesus in line with modern times and particularly embodying the spirit of the Second Vatican Council. Kadowaki always admired the austerity, discipline and profound spirituality of Fr. Arrupe, who as a doctor treated victims of the Hiroshima atomic bomb. It was a heroism in front of which the young novice could not remain indifferent. He was proud that this religious man was his master during the novitiate.

Paradoxically, as he proceeded in studies in the Society of Jesus, Kakichi was increasingly moving away from that Japanese soul he had very much appreciated. This was not easy for him. He expressed it in these words: “I was worried about the lack of balance between my intellectual knowledge and my religious experience.”[1]

Aware of this, he repeatedly asked his superiors for permission to practice Zen, but it was not granted at that time. Nevertheless, in the years of formation in Kyoto he used to listen to the stories of Fr. Lassalle on his experience of zazen[2] practice.

The Jesuit priest Hugo Enomiya-Lassalle was a pioneer of the study and practice of Zen. He studied and practiced Zen under several important masters, obtaining significant awards from them. He was convinced that the practice of zazen one day would prove to be very important for Christian spirituality. In fact, he used to say that it made his Christian prayer much deeper and alive. To hear such a statement only increased in Kakichi the desire to practice Zen as a way to unite with God. It was at that moment that he vowed to himself that, if he found a way to do so, he would be wholeheartedly dedicated to Zen practice.

Kadowaki took the first step in this direction at the beginning of his studies of theology when he sought to attend the Heirin temple in Nobidome and to ask the master Keizan Shirozuke to instruct him in Zen. But his superior denied him permission. Therefore, he had to settle for an education on the practice of zazen, which he began to practice every day in his room for an hour. Years later he would recognize: “In Christian meditation reason and imagination are often used, and this seemed odd when I began to use the Zen method. When I prayed, I was used to put myself before God with an attitude of reverence. Therefore, sitting with my legs bent seemed a bit irreverent. However, when I made progress in Zen practice, I found that it fit very well to the Christian prayer.”[3]

Kadowaki was ordained a priest in Tokyo in 1960. Between 1962 and 1964 he wrote his doctoral thesis in philosophy at the Pontifical Gregorian University on cognitio secundum connatu-ralitatem in St. Thomas Aquinas. His collaboration with two professors, Joseph de Finance and Bernard Lonergan, was very rewarding. After completing his doctorate he spent almost a year studying psychology at Fordham University in the United States. In 1965 he was appointed professor of philosophical anthropology at Sophia University in Tokyo. In 1966 his article titled “Ways of Knowing: a Buddhist-Thomistic Dialogue” was published in the International Philosophical Quarterly and had a great influence on interfaith dialogue between Christianity and Buddhism. However, from the beginning he was struck by the fact that for his students it was difficult to understand his lessons. At that time, he could not explain this fact. After all, his long intellectual training at several universities allowed him to become a good teacher. We will see that he would later understand the problem.

Finally, after the Second Vatican Council, his superiors allowed him to start practicing Zen. His Zen training began in 1969 with Fr. Hugo Enomiya-Lassalle, who had just opened in Akigawa – the western part of the metropolitan Tokyo’s area – a meditation room called “the cave of the divine darkness.” For Fr. Kadowaki this was an intense practical and intellectual education. Hours of exercises provoked in him a change in his way of thinking about theology and spirituality. It was as if he had reconciled with his Japanese roots.

Only then, when Zen practice began to affect his way of thinking, did Kadowaki understand why for his students it was so difficult to follow his lectures. He realized that there was a great distance between his Western way of teaching philosophy and the way of thinking of his Japanese students. Therefore, he found himself facing the atavistic problem: is it possible to inculturate Christianity, with all its rational theological categories, in the Japanese soul?

This experience led him to further explore Zen. Kadowaki continued his training, practicing zazen and experiencing the different meanings of the various k?an under the supervision of the prestigious roshi (master) Omori Sogen, who was president of Hanazono, Kyoto’s famous Rinzai school. He was eventually recognized as Zen master from his roshi, according to Rinzai tradition.

In this biographical reconstruction it should also be mentioned that in 1982 Fr. Kadowaki was instructor of the third year of probation of the Jesuits in Japan.[4] He taught philosophy at Sophia University until 1996. For him it was very important to share his experience on Zen and Christianity with his Jesuit brothers. He did so through annual retreats, until he got sick in 2016. He died on July 27, 2017. Kadowaki was truly Japanese; he loved and admired the rich culture of his country. He never repudiated it. In this sense he acknowledged that Zen is inseparable from it.

His synthesis between Zen and Christianity was not only the result of an intellectual effort. First of all, it was a practice that brought the reality of Scripture into a new dimension, the Japanese one, which adds to the understanding of Christianity. He was dedicated to creating a hermeneutic perspective according to which the approach to the Bible is based on a meditative-physical reading inspired by his practice of zazen. As we shall see, this was his original contribution to dialogue between Christianity and Japanese-style Zen. It is the biblical insight that underlies the Christian Zen practiced by master Kadowaki.

The first steps to understanding Kadowaki’s practice

To understand the way Kadowaki read the Bible we must begin with this verse from the Book of Genesis: “The Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being” (Gen 2:7). Man is only dust of the ground, which becomes a living creature thanks to the breath of life breathed into him by God. In other words, man is essentially mortal. Therefore, God can tell man after his sin: “For you were made from dust, and to dust you will return” (Gen 3:19).

The idea of human mortality and the fragility of life, like a breath, is present throughout the Bible.[5] For Kadowaki, all these passages express a concrete human experience: our existence is precarious and depends on God alone. Existence is a dynamic and uncertain breath that reminds us we are mortal, that life and death are in God’s hands. We cannot separate these two aspects, life and death, because they are united as parts of the same creative activity of God. All life and death belong to God and are part of the divine work of creation.

In this way of thinking Kadowaki follows one of the greatest Japanese philosophers of 20th century, a man he greatly admired: Kitaro Nishida (1870-1945), the forerunner of what has been called “the philosophical school of Kyoto,”[6] who devoted much of his philosophy to interreligious dialogue between Christianity and Buddhism. In fact, most of the reflections and the Zen experience of Fr. Kadowaki are a manifestation of the thought of this illustrious Japanese philosopher, who has deeply influenced his roshi Omori Sogen.

The most famous concept in Nishida’s philosophy is the logic of basho (??, usually translated as “place”): a non-dualistic, concrete logic, aimed at overcoming the inadequacy of the subject-object distinction – which is essential to Aristotle’s logic of the subject and Kant’s logic of the predicate – through the affirmation of what he calls the “absolutely contradictory self-identity,” a dynamic tension of opposites that, unlike the dialectical logic of Hegel, does not resolve to a synthesis. Rather, it defines its own subject by maintaining the tension between affirmation and negation as opposite poles or perspectives. Nishida wrote: “The authentic religious experience is realized consciously, first of all when the very existence of the self becomes problematic and being itself becomes a question.”[7]

The question is raised by the fact that although God is the only absolute, we are alive right now. How is it possible to understand this inconsistency? According to Nishida, first we have to deal with the contradiction, and then we realize that the real Absolute must be an identity of absolute contradiction. Then, the paradox lies in the fact that when we speak of God and his creatures, we are saying that God, being an Absolute, contains a contradiction in himself. God is an absolute being who has his own self-denial, which is the true identity of the relative. The Absolute does not destroy the relative. On the contrary, he possesses himself and sees himself in his absolute negation.

Nishida acknowledged an analogy between the self-contradictory God and the kenotic movement described by St. Paul in Philippians 2:5-8. This kenotic movement descends from divinity upon the cross, and from there into the darkest areas of the human heart. It means that God is present even in the heart of the most evil person.

Although one should be careful when making analogies between the thought of Nishida and Christianity, it is possible to see many other analogies of this kenotic movement of God in the Bible[8] and in the Christian spiritual tradition.

The thought of Nishida is difficult to understand as it requires many years of study and dedication. Kadowaki was proud to have understood an important part of this philosophical system. Ideas like the one that God acts through his absolute self-denial, and creation explained as a succession of death and life, were important insights for his understanding of Zen.

Master Kadowaki’s practice of zazen

For Fr. Kadowaki, biblical experiences should be lived physically. The practice of Zen requires that we become aware of the fact that we have a body and consider the unity of body and mind.

Posture is crucial to achieve this union during the practice of zazen. The correct posture is the Half Lotus Pose, true entry to Zen practice, and then to what Kadowaki called “the Bible experience according to a physical reading.” Sitting in Half Lotus Pose, we cut the root of awareness and we don’t follow the path of intellectual understanding. This is to welcome the body, regulating breathing and harmonizing the heart.[9]

Learning through the body is essential to Zen. In his book Zen and the Bible, Fr. Kadowaki quotes the great Zen master Dogen: “It is good to reflect calmly. This life is short, but if we also learn two or three sentences of Buddha and the Patriarchs, they really manifest Buddha and the Patriarchs … Therefore, if we study those words and sentences with our whole body and mind, the body-mind of Buddha and of the Patriarchs get hold of us.”[10]

Fr. Kadowaki invites us to breathe deeply and slowly to and from the bottom of our abdomen (hara), so that our minds will calm. The expulsion of all breath from the bottom of the hara causes a whole new breath. By getting your breath to the tandem (the lower part of the abdomen) – and as one improves in it – a deep breathing emerges from the bottom of the hara. It is as if something emerges as a new life from the foundation. Then a new breath (life) is inhaled throughout the body and heart and pervades them completely.

Therefore, the focus of our attention is the tandem. From there we inhale and exhale, noticing the contraction and expansion of the tandem. If we continue to breathe in this way (by expelling all air and inhaling from the bottom of the hara) the tension releases, and a deep and quiet breath comes out of the tandem. So, the whole body is not only invigorated by vital energy but is filled with “life,” and all the faculties of the body and heart are enlivened.[11] In the words of Kadowaki: “From this we can understand that zazen is an unrivalled method to release the tremendous strength inherently possessed by all men.”[12] The entire body therefore takes on new energy and is full of life.

It is time to go back to the second chapter of the Book of Genesis: “Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being” (Gen 2:7). The fact that man (adam) and Earth (adama) have a common etymological root is not accidental. This implies a close connection between man and earth. God created man from the dust and decided he had to go back to earth. “Dust” is a word that symbolically expresses the poor value of human existence. It is our being aware of being nothing.

Experiencing in the hara the reality that “I am dust and to dust I will return,” the person totally exhales toward earth the breath of life. Wanting to become one with God’s creative activity, the human being totally exhales his breath. This is the way of the body to accept God’s will, which creates from the dust of the ground. One should not reflect on the fact that a human being is like the dust of the ground, but simply acknowledge this fact with the body.

For Kadowaki, we inhale the breath of life according to the Scripture: God “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being” (Gen 2:7). This breath of life is an invisible force, invisible to the eye as vital energy and spirit. This inspiration is like an experience of true devotion to God, in whom we recognize life as his fundamental gift. The breath of life is the spiritual power that instills the inhalation and gives life to things. It is God who gives us life in our whole body (beginning with the tandem). The two dimensions – being ground’s dust and being alive thanks to the spirit of life – are two sides of the same coin, and part of God’s creative activity. It is life and death, expression of the self-denial of the Absolute, who gives himself time to time in his creative and gratuitous action.                                                                                                  * * *
Fr. Kadowaki opens his book Zen and the Bible with these words: “Apparently, it sounds strange, but I am not aware of doing anything out of the ordinary. I acted simply based on a deep impulse, which then became a sort of duty. Therefore, when people ask me that question, I don’t know how to answer. I’m hesitating not because I lack a reason, but because there are many and I don’t know which single one would strike closest to the truth.”[13]

However, this impression that Kadowaki had of his experience did not correspond to reality. Not surprisingly, many great Zen masters of Japan often went to see him to ask him for advice. Kadowaki was a demanding master who took very seriously the practice of zazen. He represented one of the most original and profound ways of inculturation of the Japanese Zen tradition and Christianity.

[1].J. K. Kadowaki, Zen and the Bible, New York, Orbis Books, 2002, 36.

[2].Zazen is a meditative discipline that changes meaning and method depending on the school, but it can be generally regarded as a means to deepen the nature of existence. In the Japanese Rinzai school, zazen is usually associated with the study of k?an. The k?an is a paradoxical anecdote, or a question that does not find solution. It is used in Zen Buddhism to demonstrate the inadequacy of logical reasoning, and therefore leads to the practice of enlightenment. On the experience of Fr. Lassalle, see also W. Waldenfels, “The Practice of Zen and Christian Meditation,” in Civ. Catt. English October 2017.

[3].J. K. Kadowaki, Zen and the Bible, op. cit., 7.

[4].The “third year of probation,” also known as tertianship, is the final stage of the Jesuit formation before professing final vows.

[5].For example, Isaiah says, “All people are like grass, and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the Lord blows on them. Surely the people are grass” (Isaiah 40:6-7). And the Psalmist says: “When you hide your face, they are terrified; when you take away their breath, they die and return to the dust. When you send your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the ground” (Psalm 104: 29-30). Among many other examples, Job’s passage is remarkable: “The Spirit of God has made me; the breath of the Almighty gives me life. Answer me then, if you can; stand up and argue your case before me. I am the same as you in God’s sight; I too am a piece of clay” (Job 33: 4-6).

[6].Kitaro Nishida, Pensar desde la nada. Ensayos de filosofía oriental, Salamanca, Sígueme, 2015. His works have been published in Italian: L’io e il tu, Padua, Unipress, 1996; Uno studio sul bene, Turin, Boringhieri, 2007; La logica del luogo e la visione religiosa del mondo, Palermo, L’Epos, 2005; Luogo, Milan – Udine, Mimesi, 2012.

[7].Ibid., Pensar desde la nada…, op. cit., 42.

[8].For example, we can speak of God’s preference for the least ones. From the beginning God rejects Cain’s eldest son’s rights in favor of younger Abel. The same happens with Ishmael, in favor of younger Isaac, and Esau in favor of younger Jacob. Actually, the very origin of Israel is that they are chosen despite being the last. Among the many examples of the New Testament, in John’s Gospel we see that Jesus washes the disciples’ feet, including those of Judas, as an expression of his love until the end (see John 13:1-20).

[9].Cf. J. K. Kadowaki, Hermenéutica Pneumática de la Biblia (personal notes by Fr. Kadowaki, 2010), 34.

[10].Ibid., Zen and the Bible, op. cit., 113. To underline the importance of this physical interpretation of religious insights, Kadowaki also quotes the Buddhist teacher Nichiren, who wrote: “When others read the Lotus Sutra they prefer the words, but do not read with the mind. And if they read with the mind, they do not read with the body. Reading with your body and mind is higher” (ibid., 117).

[11].Cf. J. K. Kadowaki, Hermenéutica..., op. cit., 35.

[12].Ibid., Zen and the Bible, op. cit., 16.

[13].Ibid., 3.

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