Building bridges to spiritual topics

Famous Japanese Buddhists

Famous names from Christian history like Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, and Wycliffe are widely known in the West, even among non-believers. For some, these names even evoke strong emotional responses.

In Japanese culture a different set of names can produce similar responses. For example, the names of famous Japanese Buddhists like Saichō, Kūkai, Hōnen, Shinran, and Nichiren are known to nearly all Japanese. Some Japanese faces light up with familiarity and pride when they hear these names. Because of such wide recognition, these names can be used as bridges to spiritual topics. Older people are often especially excited to meet a missionary who is familiar with a little Japanese Buddhist history.

Next time you are visiting with someone over fifty, pour some green tea and ask, “Is it true that Saichō was the first to bring tea to Japan?” A simple question like this may create an opportunity to share about how the tea ceremony resembles communion1 and how communion points to the cross of Christ. From there, you might explain that Jesus is God become man, the opposite of man becoming a Buddha.

Saichō is famous, but his younger rival Kūkai is even more widely known. As this article was being written, a Japanese language Google search for Kūkai returned 3.3 million pages. The same search on Youtube found almost 15,000 videos. As these numbers reflect, a lot of people are talking about Kūkai.

One day on the train I met some junior high girls burdened by overnight bags. “Where did you go for your school trip?” I asked. “Mount Kōya,” the girls giggled. “Did you see the Nestorian monument?” I asked. They had not. Their surprise grew as I explained how a copy of the Nestorian monument was placed on Mount Kōya to commemorate the probable influence of Nestorian Christianity on Kūkai while he was studying in China. They did not know much about Buddhism, but they knew about Kūkai—the Japanese monk who founded the Mount Kōya temple complex and who is said to have invented the kana characters2.

Do you have a ten yen coin? On it you can see a picture of the Phoenix Hall at Byōdō-in, a thousand year old temple near Kyoto. On the roof of the temple there are two phoenix statues. A picture of the same phoenix is found on the back of the 10,000 yen note. A question or comment about the coin or the bill can create an opportunity to tell the legend of the phoenix rising from its own ashes. This legend then makes a good bridge from which to talk about the resurrection of Jesus3.

Also, inside the Phoenix Hall there is a large statue of Amida Buddha (the Buddha worshipped by the Pure Land Sect). Mention of this leads naturally to the names of Hōnen and Shinran, two famous Amida Buddhist monks.

Shinran, in particular, has profoundly influenced the Japanese worldview. Shinran followed in the footsteps of Hōnen in preaching Amida to all people, including criminals and prostitutes. Both Hōnen and Shinran emphasized that people cannot save themselves and therefore must rely on the grace of Amida. But Shinran went even further by proclaiming that salvation is received by faith alone with no works at all. About twenty percent of Japanese identify with Shinran’s True Pure Land sect (Jōdo Shinshū), making it the largest Buddhist sect in Japan.

One day I asked a taxi driver about the long hours many drivers work. “Yes, but today I am going home early for my mother’s memorial service (hōji),” he said.

“Will you chant the name of Amida?” I asked.

“Yes, we are Jōdo Shinshu.”

“I think Shinran would say the hōji is for you4, not for your mother.” At least, I wish I had said that, but I didn’t think fast enough. That might have shifted the focus to him instead of his mother. I did invite him to church, but I missed an opportunity to go deeper and explain about the grace we receive as Christians.

Have you seen the posters for New Komeito, the Clean Government Party? The Value Creation Society (Soka Gakkai), a lay movement of Nichiren Buddhism, started this political party. New Komeito continues the tradition of political activism that Nichiren started. Another distinctive of Nichiren Buddhism is their rejection of statues. Instead of a statue of Buddha, they enshrine a ceremonial scroll, called the Gohonzon, in their Buddhist altars (butsudan).

Soka Gakkai is very active in evangelism in Japan and internationally. I have direct experience with this since I encountered them in 1978, two years after I joined the US Marine Corps. Their tight community and fervent activism was an exciting contrast to the sleepy Catholic church of my childhood, and I soon converted. A few months later, when my squadron deployed aboard the aircraft carrier, USS Midway, I arrived in Yokosuka, Japan as an American Buddhist. During my Buddhist years I experienced Japanese culture in a way that is not open to most missionaries.

My Buddhist period lasted only three years, but the Lord uses this background. One hot summer day last year, a man called the church and asked if he could stop by to talk. After I poured tea and we introduced ourselves, I gently asked why he had come. “I am thinking of trying Christianity,” he said, still looking into his tea. It turned out that we had something in common. We had both left Soka Gakkai. Once he realized that I knew something about Nichiren Buddhism, he talked freely about his feelings. He was baptized less than a year later.

The more conversant we are with Japanese Buddhist names and thought, the more opportunities we will find for spiritual conversations that the Holy Spirit may use to talk about Jesus. Thoughtful questions can help people to open up about their own beliefs and practices so that we can find good bridges to the gospel. At the least, learning some basics about Japanese Buddhism shows respect for Japanese culture and adds credibility to your witness.

Dan and Karen Ellrick came from the USA to Japan as missionaries in 1996. Dan has served as pastor of Osaka International Church.

This article was originally published in the Japan Harvest Winter 2014 print magazine under the title “Famous Japanese Buddhists.”


1. “Tea and Christianity,” accessed Sept. 27, 2013,

2. “Kana,” accessed Sept. 27, 2013,

3. See my Youtube video at

4. “Jōdo Shinshū no Hōyō no Imi,” (The Meaning of Buddhist Memorial Services in the True Pure Land School), accessed Sept. 27th, 2013,



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